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Inbox Zero: When will the White Sox challenge for the division?

Note: This piece first appeared in Derek Wetmore’s Twins newsletter and has been republished here.

Hello all,

Had a few more questions sent my way last week and a few new subscribers join the group. Welcome! And keep them coming. [Sign up here if you’d like to receive my Twins newsletter.]

I’ve traded notes with a few of you and have some more newsletters planned for future weeks. Here’s the topic at hand this week. We’re going to spend some time thinking about that fun A.L. Central team that felt pretty set on position players, made an aggressive bid to sign Zack Wheeler and instead added a star position player to address a question mark in the field.

You guessed it. The White Sox.

Gregg writes:

Given what they have been building, when do you see the White Sox passing the Twins to be the leading contender in the AL Central? This year? 2021? 2022? Not in the foreseeable future?

Good, interesting question, Gregg – thanks for writing! I’m actually going to morph the question a little bit and point out something that I’ve been thinking this spring. The White Sox are a little bit locked into who they are. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. I just like to point out that a solid chunk of their position players are currently locked in for the immediate future.

We think we know how good some of those guys are and will be. They have a track record. Others, we’re not quite sure yet if they’ll hold their level. And still others are getting all-star and Hall of Fame projections thrown on them before they’ve played a day in the big leagues.

So, as Gregg, writes: When will they be a threat? If we took this as a typical season in 2020, I don’t know how many folks would bet on Chicago to overtake the Twins. You’d probably still get odds if you said they’ll finish ahead of Cleveland. So, knowing that, let’s ask the question: Are the White Sox a threat to the Twins right now?

It’s not an exact line to draw. They’ll probably expect some steps forward in the future for pitchers like Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez, to say nothing of the guy they optioned to Triple-A already this year, Michael Kopech. And I think it’s fair for the Sox and their fans to dream on guys like Nick Madrigal and Luis Robert, despite their youth and inexperience.

Just consider how committed they are to this group of position players. If these guys aren’t it, it’s hard to work your way out of this situation in Chicago’s south side. On the flip side, if these guys are it, then you’re looking at a really nice nucleus now and into the future.

The White Sox are committed to Luis Robert on a long-term deal through 2025.

The White Sox are committed to Eloy Jiménez and Yoan Moncada through 2024.

The White Sox are committed to Yasmani Grandal through 2023.

And the White Sox are committed to José Abreu, Tim Anderson and Dallas Keuchel through 2022.

Escalating value deals like the ones they signed with Moncada, Anderson, Jiménez and Robert mean that they’re unlikely to have more financial wiggle room than they have right this moment, and that underscores the risk of their bet. The reward, as we’ve said, is nice if it all works to plan.

Note: Those escalating deals do give them flexibility to add this year (in the winter and again if there’s some sort of mid-season trade deadline). For luxury tax purposes (an imaginary salary cap, if you will) the White Sox are measured as a team with a $178 million payroll, according to FanGraphs. That’s still $30 million under the tax threshold, so some moves can be made. That’s about $20 million more than the Twins for these purposes, but then again it’s a Chicago media market we’re talking about here.

Chicago’s rotation wouldn’t scare me right now. But you could easily see several arms over-shooting conservative performance projections, and Lucas Giolito already looks like a star. Add to that Dallas Keuchel and whatever you get from the trio of Cease, Lopez and Kopech, and toss in Gio Gonzalez for as a veteran hedge on your youngsters bet, and you can see the starting staff working out nicely.

Which brings me to my point, and the answer to Gregg’s original question.

In a typical season, I wouldn’t have expected Chicago to challenge the Twins in 2020. Minnesota has a bunch of sure things and a really talented team on paper. In shorter seasons, weird things can and do happen. For the White Sox to pull off something surprising, then, this year or next, I would say it comes down to 3 bets that the club has made:

1. One, that the kids are good.

I’m talking Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal. I saw one projections system, ZiPS, which smiled on these two and the White Sox fan base. The statistical comparison player for Robert was the great Adam Jones. And Madrigal got Hall of Famer Nellie Fox, a 15-time MLB all-star.

2. Two, the young pitchers improve with health and experience.

Giolito is an ace. Kopech is not in Triple-A for any real length of time. Lopez and Cease offer full and productive campaigns. Now that’s a rotation you could dream on.

3. And three, the vets are there to bolster the roster and improve the best- and worst-case scenarios.

Dallas Keuchel, Yasmani Grandal, José Abreu, and Edwin Encarnacion.

For the record, I believe that right now Grandal is more than just a steady-presence vet. I think he’s a star and I even advocated for the Twins to dip their toes in those waters during free agency. Now, I think he’s Chicago’s best position player.

Pos. Player Signed through AAV
CF Luis Robert 2025 $8.3M
3B Yoan Moncada 2024 $14M
LF Eloy Jiménez 2024 $7M
C Yasmani Grandal 2023 $18.25
SP Lucas Giolito 2023 (arbitration)
SP Dallas Keuchel 2022 $18M
1B José Abreu 2022 $16.6M
SS Tim Anderson 2022 $4.1M

Source: FanGraphs.com

So will they win the A.L. Central in 2020 in a 162-game season? I’d say no. But shorter seasons can be weird. And it’s clear to me that they’ve made their bets and they have some talent to dream on. Thanks for the question, Gregg.

If you would like to have your question featured in a future Inbox Zero, subscribe to the list and respond to any newsletter that you’d like. Responses go to my work email as a reply. I read them all.



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