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Another insipid offseason leaves White Sox in the same predicament

by Nik Gaur

Entering the offseason, the White Sox fanbase collectively had mixed expectations for the 2023 team. Most of the team’s focus was understandably on the managerial search, but it was also clear that a lack of payroll flexibility would be a major impediment in addressing the roster’s several needs.

General manager Rick Hahn admitted in December that trades might be a more fruitful route for the organization, even “roster-shaking” trades. While the offseason is technically not over, any trades made at this point are very unlikely to be “roster-shaking” and are more probable to result in adding another second baseman to the competition for the starting job. To date, Hahn has only made a couple of minor trades for relievers, which might have been received a little better if relievers weren’t essentially the only type of player the team has acquired since July of 2021.

To be fair, the White Sox did address some needs. The Andrew Benintendi signing, while maybe not as exciting as one would expect for the team’s largest-ever free agent expenditure, was still positive. The White Sox also tried to address their open starting pitching slot by signing Mike Clevinger, who is now under investigation for domestic and child abuse. As a result, the starting rotation may be in the same place as it was when the offseason began, with Davis Martin as the de facto fifth starter.

It’s the same old story

The White Sox are in the same position they were in last year, the year before that, and most of their “competitive” years. The roster is talented, but compared to other talented teams, the White Sox are uniquely reliant on players staying healthy. For example, if one of Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, or Lance Lynn were to miss even just a few starts, then all of a sudden, 40% of the White Sox rotation would consist of Davis Martin and A.J. Alexy. Martin was impressive as a swingman in 2022, but a similar “sixth starter” type of role might be a better fit for him, especially for a team that is trying to contend.

On the position player side of things, the dilemma still exists. The White Sox projected bench of Seby Zavala, Leury Garcia, Jake Marisnick, and Gavin Sheets is not an overly impressive group. Of course, no team other than maybe the Dodgers or Mets regularly has a bench full of starting-level players, but contending teams also tend to have a player or two on the bench who could start for an extended period of time without being a black hole offensively.

Other than Sheets, who should ideally be limited to a first base/designated hitter/pinch hitter role, the entire White Sox bench is full of hitters with a track record of being well below average at the plate. In other words, one more established player on the bench — or even to compete with Oscar Colas for the starting right field spot — would have made the team’s depth a lot more respectable, especially in the event of injuries.

Unfortunately, the White Sox core position players have largely been injury-prone. The team can change training staffs and shuffle through philosophies regarding how hard players run in games, but the best predictor of future games missed due to injuries in baseball is typically past injury history. When healthy, the White Sox lineup is plenty talented, but it is foolish to assume that the lineup will be healthy for extended periods of time. Depth is already plenty important, but it is especially important when the regular starters are more likely to miss games.

The highest variance team in baseball?

The White Sox are arguably the highest-variance team in baseball. On paper, even considering the down years for most of the players in 2022, the team should be capable of winning over 90 games. The problem, of course, is that games are not played on paper, and it would be unreasonable to assume that the team’s core players will all play more than 120 games given their histories.

At a certain point, the justification for optimism cannot be “just wait until we’re healthy,” especially since the team’s durability was arguably more of an issue in 2021 (when they won 93 games) than in 2022. As has been repeated ad nauseam, the 2022 team’s primary problem was that the offense, even when healthy, hit more singles than any team in the last six years, but with very little power, speed, or plate discipline.

Additionally, it is difficult to take the team’s 81-win total from 2022 and use that as a positive (in that even in such a forgettable year, the team was still average). Much of that was due to surprising (and likely unsustainable) performances from veterans such as Johnny Cueto and Elvis Andrus, who are no longer with the team. If not for their heroics, the 2022 White Sox were likely closer to a low-70s win team.

However, the high variance nature of the 2023 team makes any path feasible. It is easy to envision the team winning around 81 games again, but it is also easy to see them winning the division and perhaps even a playoff series. The issue is that in order for the more positive outcomes to develop, everything needs to go right — core players need to both stay healthy at an unprecedented (for them) rate, and they need to be much more productive when healthy in terms of hitting for power and playing more sound defense.

In general, one or two injuries should not completely sink a team unless the injured players are at a Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, or Aaron Judge level of value. However, the White Sox are once again in a position where one long-term injury to the starting rotation, or two medium-term injuries to the starting lineup, would all but necessitate the rest of the team to play flawless baseball in order for the season to be salvageable.

This would not even be an unusual amount of injuries in baseball. Every team deals with injuries, and it is quite normal for a starting pitcher to miss a month or two, or for two starting position players to miss a few weeks at the same time. However, to White Sox fans, these normal events feel catastrophic because the team is so poorly equipped to adapt.

Crazier things have happened, but the more one evaluates the 2023 White Sox — even with all of their upside — the more it becomes clear that too many things need to go right for the team to truly contend for a championship, as has repeatedly been stated as the goal. While it may have been doomed from the start, the fact that this offseason did nothing to change that fact means that it was ultimately a failure.

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Featured Photo: © Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

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And what if Davis Martin was a 14-game wonder, then what?
What then, if Lucas Giolito continues to hover around 5 ERA?
Perish the thought Cease ceases.
Assuming Koepeck dominates and Lynn continues career-wise, is there a Bobby Jenks to step in for Liam?

Lots of questions and lots of “catch lightning in a bottle.”

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