It hasn’t been easy for the Chicago White Sox these past few years. A cocktail of failed free agent signings, reliance on aging talent, and prospects that fizzled out quickly have the South Siders in a nine-year playoff drought and playing second fiddle (again) to the crosstown rival Chicago Cubs. 2018 could be another rough year, but there is a glimmer of hope.
That hope lies in Chicago’s strong youth. The team has young players with sky-high potential not only on its active roster but also in its minor league system. A slew of trades by GM Rick Hahn the past few years has Bleacher Report ranking the White Sox’s farm system at No. 2 in MLB and if those prospects pan out, the AL Central landscape could change entirely.
The question is, however, will 2018 be the year this core comes together? After finishing 67-95 and fourth in the division last year, management hopes so.
1 Greatest Addition: Welington Castillo
The White Sox have a catching prospect named Zack Collins who ranks No. 7 among their prospects, but he's still just 23 years old and still needs about a year of seasoning after batting just .224 across High-A and Double-A last year, though he slugged 19 home runs. That said, Hahn adding Castillo on a two-year, $15m contract was a smart move.
Castillo was limited to 96 games in 2017 because of injuries but still hit a respectable .282 with a career-high 20 home runs. He also posted a respectable wOBA of .344. So long as he can stay healthy, Castillo should add pop to a White Sox lineup that ranked 25th in team home runs last year.
2 Greatest Loss: Anthony Swarzak
Swarzak may have been traded from Chicago to the Milwaukee Brewers last July, but he is still a significant loss for the White Sox. The team's bullpen was very much touch and go in 2017, ranking 18th in MLB with a 4.28 ERA, and Swarzak was a stable arm out of the bullpen.
In 41 games, he posted a 2.23 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. On the season, between Chicago and Milwaukee, he left nearly 83% of runners on base. His strikeouts per nine innings was a fantastic 10.59.
Swarzak's success earned him a two-year, $14m contract from the New York Mets, so here's hoping guys like Nate Jones and new acquisitions Luis Avilan and Joakim Soria can make the bullpen stronger in his absence.
3 Greatest Asset: Avisail Garcia
Garcia is one of the more underrated players in the game and his performance last year shows it. He played in a career-high 136 games and posted an impressive line of .330/.380/.506 with 18 home runs and 80 RBI, earning his first ever All-Star selection at age 26.
Garcia also cut his strikeout rate (K%) from 25.4 to 19.8, though his walk-rate (BB%) dropped from 7.5 to 5.9, and he will need to increase that to continue his upward trajectory. He could also work to improve his defense in right field after posting a defensive runs saved (Rdrs) of just one, and his UZR was just 1.7, though he registered an impressive 13 outfield assists.
Garcia is even more of an asset with a low salary of $6.7m in 2018, and he still has a year of arbitration left. That said, if he continues to play well this year, don't be shocked to see him land a contract extension.
4 Greatest Liability: The pitching staff
Chicago's pitching in 2017 was, in a word, awful. The White Sox ranked 25th in MLB with a staff ERA of 4.78, with all but three pitchers who made a start last season posting an ERA south of 4.00. Much of this can be attributed to hitter-friendly Guaranteed Rate Field, as the White Sox tied for second in MLB with 242 home runs allowed, but that doesn't take away from the hard truth: pitching needs to be better in 2018.
The good news for the ChiSox is that youngsters Lucas Giolito (3-3, 2.38 ERA in 2017) and Reynaldo Lopez (3-3, 4.72) should have a greater role in the starting rotation this year, and another youngster in Carson Fulmer should receive the opportunity to show manager Rick Renteria what he can do.
Despite that, it's clear that Chicago's pitching staff isn't quite up to standard compared to other team's staffs, and that could be a problem this year if no major improvements are made, be they by trades or other means.
5 X-Factor: Carlos Rodon
In fact, how well Chicago's pitching performs down the stretch highly depends on Rodon, who is not expected back until June as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery. The White Sox drafted the lefty with the third overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, and he debuted the following year to go 9-6 with a 3.75 ERA in 23 starts.
The problem with Rodon is that for someone who was clearly drafted to be a future staff ace, he has not pitched like one at all. His walks per nine innings (BB/9) for his short career is on the higher side at 3.8, and Rodon has also had issues staying healthy. Aside from the shoulder bursitis that plagued him last year and ultimately required surgery, he also dealt with a wrist issue in 2016.
This means 2018 could be a make-or-break year for Rodon. The White Sox's pitching rotation is already a weakness and upon his return in the early summer, he will be in a position to inject life into the staff. If he can rid himself of his walk woes and pitch like a strong southpaw ace, then he can turn around his career and Chicago's future for the better.
6 Final thoughts
Chicago is not going to even sniff the playoffs in 2018, but fans should not fret. A young core made up of Garcia, shortstop Tim Anderson, second baseman Yoan Moncada, and others are set to continue growing as a unit this year, and the team's minor league system is deep enough that the White Sox could make noise in the AL Central soon.
It really all comes down to two things: continued development and pitching. One cannot survive without the other, so here's hoping the White Sox find the right formula and end their playoff drought in the near future.
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