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2023 MLB Season Preview: Chicago White Sox

After a disappointing 2022, the South Siders look to bounce back under new management.

Baseball: World Baseball Classic-USA vs Colombia Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a collection of top-end talent that would make plenty of teams envious, the Chicago White Sox have been on a more or less downwards trajectory for almost two seasons now. A disappointing second half of 2021 led to a quick playoff exit at the hands of the Astros, and was followed by an underwhelming offseason that gave way to a belly flop of a 2022 campaign that saw them finish an even 81-81 despite entering the season as clear favorites in the AL Central.

Now, despite another lukewarm offseason, the Sox have shed the husk formerly known as Tony La Russa, and hope that new manager Pedro Grifol can help lift the funk that seemingly clung to the locker room all of last season. Sox batters were stuck with career-worst power numbers nearly across the board last season, and hope that a fresh start with fresh management can lead to a set of performances that resembles parts of 2020 and 2021 more than 2022.

Chicago White Sox
2022 record: 81-81 (2nd, AL Central)
2023 FanGraphs projection: 80-82 (3rd, AL Central)

Unfortunately for Chicago, FanGraphs doesn’t really see it happening, and ZiPS is as pessimistic as a projection system can get, slating them to once again pull up shy of 75 wins just two years after their winningest season since their 2005 championship. The reasoning is simple: the top 25 percent of the team’s roster is as talented as any in the American League, but their depth is abysmal, and not a single one of their core position players has managed to make it through the last two seasons without missing extended time.

In short, the White Sox could win 95 games if the starting lineup and rotation stay healthy and perform near their previous peaks. However, history says the odds of that happening are about as low as they come, and the bench and upper-minor league players waiting as injury replacements are more of a rebuilding team’s caliber than a contender’s. The variance on this team is really high, but hitting the high end of that variance is a lot harder than hitting the low end, and no projection system is going to look kindly on that.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at San Diego Padres Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

On the pitching side, rotation-leader Dylan Cease is likely to take at least a slight step back from his Cy Young runner-up performance this past year; A 2.20 ERA is hard enough for anybody to repeat, much less a pitcher routinely at the top of the league’s walk charts. Cease is still a very good pitcher, no doubt, but the high volume of walks means the runs will probably come in spurts when he goes through stretches of poor batted ball luck. Behind him, Lucas Giolito (4.90 ERA) and Lance Lynn (3.99 ERA) are looking to bounce back from rougher-than-usual campaigns of their own, as the former struggled after contracting Covid and dealing with a subsequent velocity drop, while the latter missed two months with a knee injury and didn’t begin to find his groove until the second half. Both can become free agents at the season’s end, though Lynn’s contract includes an $18 million team option for 2024.

Behind them, Michael Kopech looked like he was ready to take a star turn in 2022, moving to the rotation and allowing just 11 earned runs through his first 10 starts and taking a 3.35 ERA into the All-Star break. In what will soon sound like a familiar tale though, injuries sapped his durability and availability in the second half, where he threw just 36.1 innings at a 3.96 ERA clip. Now, the White Sox are praying to whatever higher powers they subscribe to that his durability takes a substantial jump with another year under his belt, because the situation behind him is not pretty: not a single other starter in the organization projects to more than one Win Above Replacement over a full season.

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Angels at Chicago White Sox Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

One of the league’s most expensive bullpens enters 2023 as a question mark as the baseball world supports Liam Hendriks through his fight with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Kendall Graveman and Reynaldo López form a high-octane back-end duo, if one without a long history of success, and Joe Kelly, Aaron Bummer, and Jake Diekman all return after pitching below their talent level in 2022. Fireballing lefty Garrett Crochet is a candidate to return from Tommy John surgery at some point midseason.

The variance is even higher in their lineup. Luis Robert Jr., Yoán Moncada, and Eloy Jiménez have all experienced significant ups and downs, and the outlook on the first two is considerably damper than it was a year ago. Robert is a little bit of plate discipline away from being a bona fide five-tool superstar, but he might be equally close to following a Javier Báez-esque career trajectory. That’s great, but not the game-changer the White Sox need him to be. Yasmani Grandal had the worst season of his career in 2022 and looks to be much healthier and more spry this spring, but at 34, a return to form can’t exactly be banked on.

Perhaps most importantly, they now have to do without franchise icon José Abreu, departed to Houston. Andrew Benintendi’s five-year, $75 million free agent deal might be the largest in team history, but next to Abreu’s departure, the team’s lineup grades as a net loss, even if Benintendi’s gap-to-gap approach is likely to play up at Guaranteed Rate Field.

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at St. Louis Cardinals Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond the health of the established stars, the stability of Chicago’s lineup is really resting on the contributions of a trio of relatively new faces. Elvis Andrus returns to man second base on a one-year deal after joining them for the stretch run last August and proceeding to hit more home runs (nine) in 43 games than he had in 15 of his other 17 professional seasons. 2019 third-overall pick Andrew Vaughn steps into Abreu’s shoes to try and become the latest part of a nearly 35-year legacy of All-Star first basemen; His 2022 wRC+ of 113 is expected to be more of a floor than a norm, now that he’s not being asked (quite unfairly) to cosplay as an outfielder.

Finally, 24-year-old right fielder Oscar Colás looks like a good bet to make the Opening Day roster on the heels of an .895 OPS across three levels in the minors last year. Signed out of Cuba via the Nippon Professional Baseball for $2.7 million in 2021, Colás has a solid lefty power stroke that will probably generate too much stiffness and swing-and-miss to be a star, but still ought punish enough mistakes to be a viable corner outfielder, in combination with his average or better glove, arm, and mobility.

If all (or at least most) of those players that just got blurbed hit their 75th percentile outcome, the White Sox will be in fantastic shape. The names currently getting reps in spring training, though? The ones that will be first in line if anything goes a little bit sideways? The combination of Gavin Sheets and Jake Burger ought to provide plenty of three-true-outcomes pop if platooned appropriately, but Leury García, Romy González, Hanser Alberto? Billy Hamilton, Victor Reyes, Jake Marisnick? It’s hard for a team to call themselves a contender if more than one of those guys finds his way into the lineup with much regularity. The White Sox are hoping it doesn’t come to that, but it goes to a long way towards explaining the gap between this team’s high-end talent and mediocre projection.

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