2015 White Sox: From sleeper favorite to colossal disappointment – what went wrong?

RickHahn

By Casey Boguslaw

In 2013, the Chicago White Sox lost 99 games, their lowest total in 43 years. Even though 2013 marked the first year with Rick Hahn as general manager of the team, we are still in the Kenny Williams era of the Chicago White Sox. Williams, now the Executive Vice President, was made general manager after the 2000 season. The team has ended below .500 only three times between then and the 99-loss season with a low-water mark of 72-90. The team never has officially bottomed out under Williams and of course, hit the ultimate goal of winning the whole thing in 2005. Nearing 100 losses will make any team debate cleaning house and starting over, but similar to the rest of the Kenny Williams era the White Sox went at it with mostly the same squad in 2014. The record improved, but mostly due to newcomers Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton. With the ending of the tenures of Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn, it seemed as if the team had an easy excuse to start the rebuild behind Abreu (28 years old), Eaton (26) and an almost-guaranteed ace pitcher in Chris Sale (26). With those three and a farm system that had raised from the basement of most experts rankings, 2015 was presumably going to be a rebuilding process with very few signs of promise.

Not on Rick Hahn’s (or more than likely, Kenny Williams’s) watch. Despite entering the offseason with the only sure things being first base, centerfield, shortstop (Alexei Ramirez coming off his silver slugger award year), staff ace and maybe a number two in Jose Quintana, the front office went for it in free agency. The aggressiveness was lauded by media and fans. One after another, the transactions took place and after the dust settled the team clearly looked like more of a contender than a pretender. Some writers even touted the White Sox as being as exciting as their crosstown counterparts. Unfortunately, the newcomers were a big part of the blame for this disappointing season. Let’s recap each transaction in order of when they took place and then look at what kind of season each newcomer had and derive where the disappointment came from.

11/3/14 – Selected JB Shuck off waivers – not exactly the telltale sign that the team was going for it, but Shuck was brought in to be a fourth or fifth outfielder, which was a big need. Left field was wide open after the 2014 experiment of the Alejandro De Aza/Dayan Viciedo platoon failed. Right field was in question with youngster Avisail Garcia returning from an injury that cost him almost all of 2014. Shuck garnered Rookie of the Year votes in 2013 but after a 2014 season that only saw him getting 114 plate appearances, the now-28 year old still had something left to prove. Shuck was mostly held to pinch-hitting at-bats this season but was the first off the bench in those situations. An injury derailed a hot streak but for the most part he was steady this season.

11/18/14 – Signed Zach Duke as a free agent – The weakest point of the 2014 White Sox was the bullpen that was filled with constant injuries and/or constant disappointment. The FO clearly agreed as they immediately made the bullpen their focus. Duke was coming off a great 2014 with the Brewers with a 2.45 ERA, 2.14 FIP and an 11.4 K/9 rate. It was a career year that may have been able to foreshadow a possible fluke. The base numbers on Duke weren’t horrible for 2015 – 3.63 ERA, 9.9 K/9 but the 4.67 FIP shows the truer picture. Duke allowed nine homeruns (as of September 24th) on the season which was easily a career high since becoming a relief pitcher.

11/25/14 – Signed Adam LaRoche as a free agent – The Adam Dunn era can be summed up as a failure, so why not sign another aging, career-NL, Washington National first baseman named Adam and make him your DH? It’s hard not to find the comparisons very easy between the signings as LaRoche came over here and had as similar of a first season as Dunn did in White Sox pinstripes. The signing of LaRoche hinted at a possibility of a first base/DH platoon with Jose Abreu as LaRoche came with a much higher defensive pedigree. In truth, the defense had been waning after winning the gold glove in 2012 with seven defensive runs saved (which was tiny in comparison to 16 defensive runs saved in 2011). In 2013 and 14, LaRoche only saved one run combined with 11 errors in ‘13 and 7 in ‘14. LaRoche was worth negative three runs saved in 2015 and never became the defensive platoon for Abreu. The White Sox will hope LaRoche will bounce-back from a -0.6 bWAR season in his second year the way Dunn did with the White Sox (went from a -2.6 bWAR to 2.0 bWAR).

12/9/14 – Traded Chris Bassitt, Josh Phegley and Marcus Semien to the Athletics for Jeff Samardzija and Michael Ynoa  – This was the moment where everyone knew the White Sox wanted to contend in 2015. With a #1 and a possible #2 in place, this move made the rotation one of the best in the AL. The White Sox PR department immediately bought in to the hometown kid becoming the co-ace to Chris Sale. It didn’t go as planned. Samardzija’s journey was arduous this season as he went from surely sold after the White Sox started poorly, to kept at the trade deadline, to being wished that he would have been moved. The best thing Samardzija did was never missed a start, but his 5.04 ERA, 13 losses, and a K/9 ratio moving down to the sevens was not what the player the White Sox planned to make an investment in. His -0.1 bWAR pales in comparison to the 4.0 bWAR that the three players he was traded for comprised. The White Sox will give him a qualifying offer after the season, which may be about $16,000,000 for one year. No player with an agent has ever accepted one, but if he does, the Sox would be out the money and the compensatory draft pick that would come along with him leaving.

12/10/14 Signed David Robertson as a free agent – Now the White Sox were showing off. They wanted to make sure that the bullpen wasn’t the thing to hold them down this year as they signed the best available closer that they could insert right into the ninth inning role. Robertson’s season was enigmatic. He did not receive the amount of save opportunities that most closers get and still led the league in blown saves. When he was on, his stuff was untouchable. The White Sox will need him to be more on than not in the future as this was a much larger investment than Samardzija. Robertson is signed to be a White Sox through 2018.

12/16/14 Signed Melky Cabrera as a free agent – Just when you thought they were done, they made one final splash. With the gaping hole still remaining in left field, the White Sox got the perfect match for one of their biggest needs. The number two spot in the lineup seemed like it was begging for someone like Cabrera (I disagreed that Jose Abreu should be the number two hitter in this lineup, but more on that in the Ventura section). This move made more sense than probably any of the ones before it. Alas, Cabrera had his worst non-injured season since 2010. Granted, his second half has been much better than his first (.643 OPS vs .821), but his horrid first few months was a big reason the team got off to such a slow start.

1/8/15 and 1/28/15 Signed Emilio Bonifacio and then Gordon Beckham as free agents – Both were signed as insurance policies but somehow both were still disappointments.

All of those signings and all of the hype but somehow almost all of them were disappointing in their own way (except maybe Shuck?). Players have to be held responsible for their own results, but was their anything else, or anyone, that can take some of the blame?

ROBIN VENTURA

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox

Ventura wasn’t exactly handed the ‘27 Yankees or even the ‘14 Royals this season and who knows exactly how different someone else could have done. I still believe that Ventura should be the one to take the fall for a disappointing season. The season can be described optimistically as streaky. They did not come out the gates running, however. The White Sox started April with an 8-11 record stretching to a 12-17 start. With the amount of excitement behind the team and the new expectations, I expected more from the team. I may be completely off, but I believe a large part of a manager’s responsibility is to have their team prepared for the beginning of the season. This increases exponentially with a team that has so many new faces. It’s a manager’s job to create an environment where his personnel can succeed. With so many of his players getting off to a poor start, it did not seem like the team was ready to go in April.

April/May batting/pitching numbers of key players;

Adam Eaton – .192/.241/.256, 1 SB, 1 CS, 5 BB, 14 K (April)

Melky Cabrera – .276/.317/.303, 0 HR (April); .220/.258/.260, 1 HR (May); horrible splits as a LHB

Adam LaRoche – .191/.286/.353, 8 BB, 29 K (April)

Alexei Ramirez – .209/.247/.313, 0 HR (April); .237/.246/.325, 2 HR (May); .186/.216/.206, 0 HR (June)

Jeff Samardzija – 4.78 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 1-2 record (April)

John Danks – 5.64 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 1-2 record (April)

Despite the early season struggles, Ventura kept his lineup fairly the same until early June. He did this despite Cabrera and LaRoche struggling mightily against lefties. Many bloggers clamored for Jose Abreu to become the everyday number two hitter. As I mentioned above, I am not a big fan of the “best hitter hits second” belief and for my reasons, you can find them here.  If your argument is that if the Angels hit Mike Trout second, then the White Sox should hit Abreu there, I got news for you – the Angels began the season with Trout second but moved away from it for the majority of the season. After some dog day struggles, they moved him back to second, but just recently they have moved him back into the more traditional third spot for your best hitter. The Abreu #2 experiment did not last long as the White Sox brought up utility infielder Tyler Saladino and Ventura immediately cemented him in his second spot. I wasn’t against this as much as others, as Saladino actually succeeded for a while on what Ventura was expecting from a number two hitter – advancing runners and not striking out. The league caught up with Saladino and since, Ventura has more-or-less chosen at random who is hitting number two. There is no rhyme or reason on who he chooses as it still is sometimes Abreu or Saladino but it also has been Cabrera and even Alexei Ramirez. Cabrera has shown his most success batting third this season (generally when Abreu is hitting second), but I still believe his correct spot is number two as he can has shown to be a great contact hitter.

Another area that can be pinpointed on the manager is bullpen management. The White Sox under pitching coach Don Cooper has long been a trusting staff to their pitchers. However, there comes a time where the advanced stats need to be recognized. Many times this season, Ventura “trusted” his starter one too many times through the lineup and it became costly, none more memorable than leaving Jeff Samardzija in to face the Tigers heart of the order for a fourth time in a late June game when we got this reaction from Samardzija.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTHsmPue0Ls]

Ventura remains attached to the idea of platoon pitchers even if the statistics do not backup the platoon, almost to a fault. He does at least recognize that the closer doesn’t always have to be reserved for a save opportunity but that’s one of the few areas of flexibility he has shown.

Truth is – hitting and pitching are hard – we all should know that. You know what’s reasonably less hard? Running the bases and fielding the baseball, but the White Sox would lead you to believe differently. Hawk Harrelson will have you believe that defense is the key to any good team and the White Sox haven’t had that in a very long time. They currently have 95 errors, good enough for 24th in the majors and 12th in the AL. That’s about the same as last year, when they finished with 107 errors, 26th and 12th. 2013? 121/29/13. That’s not a coincidence, it’s a trend. Fielding should be viewed as something that’s more discipline-based than hitting or pitching. The team hasn’t played fundamental baseball well in many years and that has to be credited majorly to the coaching staff. It’s deeper than just error rate as well. There were numerous situations this season where throws were not backed up (often by pitchers, oddly enough) and that’s covered heavily in spring training. I admittedly watch more White Sox baseball than any other team, but I do not see that happen when I am watching other teams. Micah Johnson, the Opening Day rookie second baseman may have been the worst fielder I’ve ever seen in my baseball viewing life, well over twenty years. The White Sox had the 25th largest difference between ERA and FIP in the league, essentially meaning that their pitchers were severely hindered by the fielders behind them. It’s easy to make the leap that if a pitcher doesn’t trust the defense behind them, they will put extra pressure on themselves to throw the perfect pitch. With pitching being this team’s strength, it seems counter-intuitive to not protect the asset.

According to baseball-reference.com, the White Sox lead the league with 70 runners thrown out on the base paths. Baserunning is another area in a baseball game that should never be an area that you are losing games because of. Sure, there are levels of aggression that a team can show, but a high percentage of that number has been un-disciplined running which is something that should be coached. These numbers don’t even cover the 62% stolen base success percentage, ranking 27th in the major leagues. With an offense with limitations such as the White Sox that creates enough outs at the plate, an unnecessary out on the base paths becomes more debilitating.

Fielding and baserunning seem like they can be areas where a team can easily focus on and improve in an offseason but this has been going on for several seasons. One of my biggest issues is that there never seem to be any accountability shown from the coaching staff. It would be nice to see a benching once in a while after a mindless mistake. Ventura’s biggest thing he has going for him is the team does seem to like him. I had a chance to meet a few of the beat reporters for the team this summer and they let me know that we do not see the full extent of what Ventura does for the team because it happens behind closed doors. What I see out in the open isn’t good enough and it hasn’t been for several years.

Where do they go from here?

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox

The White Sox entered last offseason with holes everywhere except first base, shortstop, centerfield, and 2/5 of the starting rotation. They enter this offseason with almost all the same holes except left field, possibly second base and maybe another rotation spot filled with Carlos Rodon succeeding in his rookie year. They also could have their closer for the next three years. Shortstop can become an issue if Ramirez has the slow start he had this year and that is also assuming the White Sox pick up his $10 million option. Let’s go around the diamond at the other spots.

Catcher – Tyler Flowers remains a very strong defensive option even if his hitting has never reached its potential. He remains Chris Sale’s personal catcher, which should give him as much staying power as anything else he does. He has also shown to be very effective with the other two mainstays in this rotation, Quintana and Rodon. Geovany Soto will be a free agent but could be brought back as the offense/defense platoon makes some sense. Ventura rarely broke the glass to use Soto in pinch hitting situations as Flowers made the 27th out far too often this season. Prediction: Flowers and Soto or a similar FA

First base – Jose Abreu

Second base – The Opening Day starter was Micah Johnson who kicked the ball all around the infield (perhaps killing Alexei Ramirez along the way) until they decided to send him to AAA. Enter Carlos Sanchez, who began as the anti-Johnson, great defense with little at the plate. That changed in the second half as Sanchez hit .271/.313/.422. With those numbers, Carlos Sanchez can be a very serviceable second baseman. If Johnson continues to work on his defense, this could become an area of strength. Prediction: Sanchez/Johnson platoon

Shortstop – As discussed, Alexei Ramirez has a $10M option which I predict will be picked up. Tyler Saladino has shown enough that he should at least be considered a backup. Tim Anderson remains the team’s best prospect and may expect a call-up later in 2016 but Alexei may still have enough in the tank for another year – as long as they limit his time on the field next to Micah Johnson. Prediction: Ramirez/Saladino as backup

Third base – This is the key spot to next season. For a team managed by an ex-all star third baseman, it’s ironic that this position has been a black hole since Joe Crede’s back started acting up. The season began with Conor Gillaspie who rode a surprising 2014 to a starting role this year. Neither he nor backup Gordon Beckham (who we have hopefully seen the last of) was the answer. Saladino shored up the hot corner for a short period of time and then the Mike Olt experiment has taken up the last few weeks. In my opinion, a lot of a team’s power should come from the hot corner. Yes, it is an added bonus if the player can field, but the Tigers made the World Series with Miguel Cabrera butchering it at third. There is not much available in free agency so Hahn and company may need to get creative. It’s very possible that the team trades some of their plethora of starting pitching to find the answer. Prediction: Not currently on the team (I really hope not)

Left field – Melky Cabrera

Center field – Adam Eaton

Right field – How do you solve a problem like Avisail? All fans want this guy to succeed because they’ve seen peak Avi and wish they could always have it. The guy looks like a star and when you are nicknamed Miggy Jr, you are at least inclined to see how things play out. He will have only his 1,000th at bat sometime this weekend but a lot of people believe they have seen enough. He is not the best outfielder either despite his homerun-saving prowess.

The corner outfield positions should also be an area for power and Garcia’s .677 OPS isn’t exactly cutting it. There are plenty of very highly-desired outfielders (Gordon? Cespedes?? Heyward???) on the market and if Jerry Reinsdorf opens his wallet (again) then Garcia will certainly then be moved. Prediction: Garcia, I think inertia, loyalty, or whatever wins out.

Bullpen – Despite a maybe-less-than expected year, this was still a strength to the team. Matt Albers was a big surprise, Nate Jones returned, and Frankie Montas showed some ability after being called up late. With Duke and Robertson hopefully showing their highs more often than their lows next year (and maybe a different manager making the decisions) this will continue to be a strength.

Starting rotation – Is this area good enough where a trade is the smartest move to make? Sale and Quintana remain perhaps the most valuable duo in the league. Carlos Rodon has become the latest top draft pick success story with perhaps Carson Fulmer following in his footsteps next year. With another probable top ten pick next year, who is to say that they may score yet another top pitcher?  The White Sox will also have one more year of John Danks and somewhat-promising Erik Johnson to complete the rotation. With such big holes at third and right (and catcher? Or shortstop?) it may be wise to make a move. Prediction: At least one of the five presumable starters will be traded for a third baseman

Kenny Williams brought up a notion of a “three-year plan” in late June and that they were not abandoning it due to the failure of the first few months. His words were put into action when the team decided not to sell at the trade deadline despite hovering below .500. Whether that plan has changed after a full season is yet to be seen. Williams may not be around to see the end of that plan as he has been rumored to “abandon ship” himself to one of the other general manager openings around the league. The plan did not get off to the best start and personally, I do not like the direction it is pointed. If the plan includes Robin Ventura, I am even further from it. A change of culture may be the best move for this team to make right now but as we’ve seen in the Kenny Williams era – this franchise does not bottom out, they strip down a bit and add right back up and keep going for it. It can be hypothesized that will remain the goal in Year Two of “The Plan”.

Casey Boguslaw is a featured writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on Twitter @CaseyBoguslaw, or join in the conversation @CTBPod, in the comment section below or on our Facebook page.

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