Elegy for ’18 – Chicago White Sox

Re-signed by the White Sox to eat innings, Miguel Gonzalez pitched only 12 of them in 2018.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Perhaps the biggest surprise for the White Sox in 2018 was just how long they clung to their mathematical chances of reaching the postseason, surviving weeks longer than either the Royals or Orioles. But as goes the way of all flesh, the Pale Hose became pale dust — along with five other teams in the last week, meaning Dan is going to be busy over the next five days.

The Setup

Unlike with the Orioles, who still had at least a plausible argument coming into the season about playoff volatility, and the Royals, who pretended to have one, nobody was ever under the illusion that the White Sox would play October baseball.

Which is perfectly fine, of course, given that the team only threw in the towel late in 2016. Unfortunately, that was well after acquiring James Shields from the Padres (though this trade has turned out way worse than could be expected on average).

Chicago wasn’t among those clubs, like the Braves and Phillies, poised to return from the depths of their rebuild and compete for a place in the postseason. They’re still very early in that period of sorting out which of their prospects and low-risk pickups will help them in that capacity.

The White Sox entered the 2018 campaign clearly intent on avoiding expensive moves — costly in terms of dollars or prospects — that were unlikely to help make the team better in the future. Giving Miguel Gonzalez a one-year, $4.75 million deal isn’t crazy for a team that’s just trying to cover 162 starts a year. The team believed Welington Castillo was enough of a bargain at two years and $15 million that, even if the team failed to compete in the second year of the deal, they could always flip him for something useful.

Outside of a clever little trade of Jake Peter, a low-ceiling now-or-never utility-type for trade bait in Luis Avilan and Joakim Soria, it was a quiet offseason.

The Projection

ZiPS projected the White Sox to go 68-94, tying with the Tigers and a game behind the Royals. Who says I’m not optimistic about the Royals?

The computer did project a 1-in-455 chance that the White Sox would make the playoffs. That’s not because the roster was actually all that strong, but simply because the future is uncertain and the team did have some players who could conceivably catch fire. It didn’t happen, as was the likely result, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. Baseball and Calvinism don’t mix.

The Results

From the standpoint of wins, things didn’t really go all that poorly for the team. They’re a bad team, but not so bad that, halfway through the season, you watch them glassy-eyed, wishing there was a button you could hit for Godzilla Attack like in Sim City.

On the bad side is that the sorting-out process of the team’s best prospects is, in some ways, no further along than it was a year ago.

Lucas Giolito is no longer the pitcher of 2016 who could comfortably dial it up to 98 mph but frequently missed his locations. Despite throwing harder in the second half (93.9 mph) than the first (92.7), Giolito’s velocity is down overall. That’s quite possibly the residue of design, however, as Giolito’s recorded much better results recently, striking out 9.4 batters per nine since the All-Star break. He’s promising but still inconsistent, which is an assessment similar to that one with which he entered the season.

Michael Kopech had a promising year, but didn’t get promoted until very late in the season — not entirely the team’s fault — and looked dominant at times in his four major-league starts, showing some real gutsiness immediately and throwing strikes (while walking only two of 68 batters). But a UCL tear ends his 2018 and almost certainly his 2019.

With regard to Yoan Moncada, I’m not sure we know much more about than we did a year ago. He’s still an interesting young second baseman who can crush the ball, and though he possess a less scientific approach at the plate than an 1880s medicine show, he has shown a little growth in that department. Moncada’s at least a league-average player, but the tantalizing upside seems no closer now and probably farther away than it appeared in April.

Carson Fulmer looks essentially done as a prospect, Luis Robert’s season was ruined by thumb injuries, and Jake Burger tore his Achilles tendon before the season even got underway.

That’s not to say the White Sox haven’t had some promising results. Eloy Jimenez is looking like a monster, and Dylan Cease made great strides, but I’m not sure the team is as far along in terms of prospect development as they’d like to be at this point. I’m not even of the mind that it’s the organization’s fault, but the results are what the results are.

The dream of James Shields pitching just well enough to draw trade interest failed to materialize. The right-hander pitched adequately, but the market for mediocre veteran pitchers was almost non-existent (see Tyson Ross getting claimed for free).

One good, if small, thing about the White Sox’ season is that they’re still looking at all their in-house options for spots. Players like Matt Davidson, Nicky Delmonico, Daniel Palka, and Jose Rondon are unlikely to be key members of a White Sox playoff team in the future, but it’s worth seeing what they can do rather than just giving some 35-year-old another season of service time.

I’m also tickled that, at some point this season, the White Sox had to make a decision to add either Hamilton (Ian) or Burr (Ryan) to the bullpen.

What Comes Next?

I doubt we’ll see much activity from the White Sox in free agency, the organization like to stay the course instead — a strategy with with which I generally agree. Maybe they’ll attempt to sign a pitcher to do in 2019 what James Shields did this year — namely, eat some innings non-horribly — but there probably won’t be any big-dollar action.

Carlos Rodon gets another shot at a full season in 2019, and there’s at least the potential for optimism from Giolito and even Dylan Covey. Add in Reynaldo Lopez and the aforementioned pitching prospects (except Kopech, of course), and maybe 2019 is the year the future rotation starts coming together.

In the end, I don’t think 2019 will be the transition year that marks the White Sox’ shift into proper rebuilding mode — and I suspect that, if they thought differently, they’d have been more aggressive promoting Eloy Jimenez to the majors.

I don’t believe the White Sox were ever really interested in moving Jose Abreu to a contender. Given the market for first basemen, I’m not sure that they really missed out on the quality of prospects I thought they could fetch at the time. With Abreu now 31 and in the midst of a down season, I think it may be a moot point anyway, given the completely dead market around the league for decent-but-not-great first basemen. I think Abreu’s better than Justin Bour, but not “let’s get some real prospects” better. At this point, I think a short-term extension for another year or two is the likeliest result.

The team also appears to have missed the boat on any Avisail Garcia trade. Avi remains that guy that could have some kind of ridiculous .300/.300/.575 season, but outside of that crazy 40 plate appearance stretch, soon after his return from injury, during which he hit six homers and slugged 1.000, he’s been pretty much pre-2017 Avi.

I’m optimistic about Chicago’s future, but there is a great deal of work ahead and I don’t think 2019 will be the year we see the dividends.

Way-Too-Early 2019 Projection: Eloy Jimenez

ZiPS Projections, Eloy Jimenez
2019 .288 .334 .515 548 79 158 29 4 29 95 37 118 0 130 -6 2.3
2020 .295 .345 .541 532 80 157 30 4 31 98 39 110 0 140 -7 2.9
2021 .294 .348 .549 537 84 158 30 4 33 103 43 116 0 143 -7 3.2
2022 .292 .348 .548 535 84 156 30 4 33 103 45 119 0 142 -7 3.1
2023 .293 .352 .556 532 85 156 30 4 34 104 47 120 0 146 -8 3.3
2024 .290 .350 .560 527 84 153 29 4 35 104 47 121 0 146 -8 3.2
2025 .287 .349 .551 512 82 147 28 4 33 100 47 119 0 143 -8 2.9

You could say with a great deal of accuracy that ZiPS is absolutely sold on Eloy Jimenez’s bat. It’s unfortunate to fans of baseball that we don’t get to see Jimenez in Chicago this fall, but baseball’s service-time system is structured to incentivize this behavior. I’m not even sure how you fix these types of manipulations — let’s call them what they are, Jimenez would be up no matter what his glove is if it didn’t cost the team to chance to game a seventh season — because there will always be some kind of bright line. But I firmly believe that the issue needs to be an MLBPA/MLB collective-bargaining fix rather than simply hoping teams do things that may not be in their best financial interests. Yes, service-time games for the sole purpose of service-time games are against the rules, but proving that a certain move was made for playing reasons only is an uphill climb.

Jimenez’s defensive value, if any, is still unknown, but he projects to be that classic middle-of-the-order thumper for the White Sox for most of the next decade. From his performances and hit profile, ZiPS thinks he’ll maintain fairly high batting averages in the majors, with a comp list full of players of that type: Miguel Cabrera(!), Del Ennis, Danny Tartabull, Tony Conigliaro, Ellis Valentine, and Greg Luzinski. Any offensive prospect who can be compared to a young Miguel Cabrera without peals of laughter probably has a good outlook!

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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5 years ago

Thanks Dan. I agree generally with your assessment—the unknowns coming into the season are still unknowns coming out of it. That’s frustrating, but it means that there’s still hope with guys like Moncada and Giolito. My feelings about this season are “slight disappointment”, notwithstanding recency bias around my Kopech-related despair.

One player you didn’t mention is Tim Anderson. I’m very happy with the strides he’s made this season, especially defensively. He’s also walking more, striking out less, and stealing more bases. I’m excited to watch him and Moncada up the middle in the years to come.