One thing is for certain: the Chicago White Sox are sick of losing. The ChiSox have baseball's fourth-longest postseason drought -- they have not played October baseball since 2008 -- and their 743 wins were third fewest in the 2010s. Only the Marlins (707) and Padres (739) won fewer games from 2010-19.
In an effort to return to the postseason, the White Sox have been among MLB's most active teams this winter, . The deal can max out at four years and $74 million via a vesting option. Keuchel gets rewarded after settling for what amounts to a half-year contract in June.
Keuchel joins fellow lefty and free-agent signing Gio Gonzalez (one year, $5 million) in a new-look rotation that is expected to welcome top pitching prospect Michael Kopech back from Tommy John surgery early in the season. Carlos Rodon is expected back from his Tommy John surgery sometime in the second half. Here is Chicago's projected starting rotation:
Cease got hit around a bit in his MLB debut this past season (5.79 ERA and 15 homers allowed in 73 innings) but he went into 2019 as a top prospect, with Baseball America saying he has "the ceiling of a mid-rotation starter or a dominant closer" going into spring training. Penciling a young pitcher like that in as your No. 5 starter is pretty neat.
Keuchel and Chicago's other pitchers will throw to new catcher Yasmani Grandal, who inked a four-year deal worth $73 million last month. As much as he'll help offensively -- Grandal swatted 28 home runs with a .380 on-base percentage in 2019 -- Grandal is an enormous upgrade behind the plate, especially when it comes to pitch-framing. Some 2019 numbers:
- White Sox catchers: minus-18.4 framing runs (29th in MLB)
- Yasmani Grandal: 17.0 framing runs (2nd among all catchers)
In James McCann and Welington Castillo, the White Sox had one of the worst pitch-framing tandems in baseball. Now Chicago has one of the game's top framers -- Grandal has ranked among the elite framers for years now, so this is not a one year fluke -- and all those extra strikes on the edges will only help the pitching staff. It's hard to overstate how big an upgrade Grandal is at catcher.
Chicago also added Nomar Mazara in a trade with the Rangers that cost them nothing off the MLB roster. Mazara is a frustrating player because he has yet to take his game to another level -- his OPS+ by season from 2016-19: 93, 90, 96, 96 -- but he is only 24 and a former top prospect, so it's a good roll of the dice. Besides, look what he's replacing in right field:
- Batting average: .220 (29th in MLB)
- On-base percentage: .277 (29th)
- Slugging percentage: .288 (30th)
- Home runs: 6 (30th)
- WAR: minus-1.3 (29th)
Yes, White Sox right fielders (Ryan Cordell, mostly) hit six home runs this past season, in the year of the rocket ball. Mazara can remain the same frustrating 95-ish OPS+ hitter and 1 WAR player going forward and he'd still be a significant upgrade in right field for Chicago. The bar was set that low in 2019.
The White Sox are expected to call up Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal, , early next year, after they've spent enough time in the minors to delay their free agency. Robert hit .328/.376/.624 with 32 homers and 36 steals in 122 minor league games in 2019, and reached Triple-A. Baseball America says he has "the tools and skills to become a true face of the franchise."
Madrigal is a unicorn. The No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft hit .311/.377/.414 with 44 walks and only 16 -- 16! -- strikeouts in 120 minor league games in 2019. His 2.2 percent swing-and-miss rate was far and away the lowest in the minors. Madrigal and Robert both reached (and excelled at) Triple-A late in 2019 and they are poised to take over second base and center field, respectively, in 2020.
The offseason additions plus Kopech's return, Madrigal's and Robert's expected arrivals, and another year of experience for the team's young players (Giolito, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada) have the White Sox on track to be one of baseball's most improved teams in 2020. Here, using FanGraphs projections, are the teams that had added the most this winter:
The Angels effectively replaced multiple sub-replacement level players (Zack Cozart, Matt Harvey, etc.) with a superstar in Anthony Rendon and two competent hurlers in Dylan Bundy and Julio Teheran. Detroit's improvement comes from replacing sub-replacement players, and also the expected arrivals of top pitching prospects Casey Mize and Matt Manning.
Do you know which team has lost the most this offseason? The reigning AL Central champion Twins at minus-14.3 WAR. The Indians are also in the red at minus-1.7 WAR. There is still a lot of offseason remaining for Minnesota and Cleveland to improve, but the AL Central is MLB's weakest division, and the White Sox are putting themselves in position to contend.
As improved as they are, there are obvious spots on the roster GM Rich Hahn can upgrade, including DH. This past season White Sox designated hitters authored a .205/.285/.356 and my goodness, what an easy spot to upgrade. Throw $7 million or so at Edwin Encarnacion and here is Chicago's lineup a month into the new season:
- 3B Yoan Moncada
- SS Tim Anderson
- 1B Jose Abreu
- C Yasmani Grandal
- DH Edwin Encarnacion
- LF Eloy Jimenez
- RF Nomar Mazara
- CF Luis Robert
- 2B Nick Madrigal
A one-year contract for a DH -- if not Encarnacion, then Hunter Pence or Eric Thames would work just as well -- improves the 2020 lineup and gives the White Sox a better chance to return to the postseason, and it also leaves a clear path for first base prospect Andrew Vaughn, the No. 3 pick in 2019, in 2021 and beyond. I have to believe a DH is on Chicago's offseason shipping list.
The bullpen is another area the White Sox can improve before spring training. Aaron Bummer is a fine high-leverage option, but, ideally, Alex Colome and Kelvin Herrera would not be a contending team's second and third options in the late innings, at least not going into the season. This is Chicago's relief crew at the moment:
- Closer: RHP Alex Colome
- Setup: LHP Aaron Bummer
- Middle: RHP Jimmy Cordero, LHP Jace Fry, RHP Tayron Guerrero, RHP Kelvin Herrera, RHP Evan Marshall
- Long: RHP Carson Fulmer
The last three World Series winners showed you can overcome a bad bullpen in October by using your starting pitchers in relief, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here. The White Sox have to get to the postseason first and that bullpen has boom or bust potential. Could be great, could sink the season despite all the upgrades elsewhere on the roster.
A one-year roll of the dice on Dellin Betances would be a swell idea. Short of that, righties Steve Cishek and David Phelps stand out as potential lower-cost free agents who could help the bullpen. Cot's Baseball Contracts has Chicago's projected 2020 payroll at $102 million after the Keuchel signing, below their $115 million end of season payroll in 2019. There's still room to add.
The White Sox were never serious players for Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, and after missing out on Zack Wheeler, they got the next best thing in Keuchel. Gonzalez is a sensible back-of-the-rotation addition, and Grandal and Mazara represent significant upgrades at their positions. All that equals a much improved White Sox team heading into 2020.
While I would still call the Twins the division favorites and wouldn't count out the Indians, the AL Central title is up for grabs in a way that it hasn't been for several years. The White Sox are improved and they have more help coming in Kopech, Madrigal, and Robert. Dipping into free agency for a bat and bullpen arms would put the club in the best position to end its postseason drought.