Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Chicago White Sox 2007 Outlook

2006 results: 90-72, 3rd place, AL Central

Pythagorean record: 88-74

Key free agents: Dustin Hermanson, David Riske

Plan for 2007: Upgrade shortstop, left field, and center field, plan for some regression from the middle of the lineup, and hope the pitching bounces back

The White Sox are the most misunderstood team in baseball. The public looks at the Sox and sees a team that won the 2005 World Series on the backs of their pitching staff and defense, put together one of the best everyday lineups in baseball for 2006, yet missed the playoffs after their pitchers and defense “underachieved”. Indeed, the South Siders had a talented squad in 2006, and will be strong again in 2007, but it is important to understand who the 2005-06 Sox really are.

The Sox entered 2005 projected as a .500 team by virtually everyone. Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan envisioned a 72-90 season. The Sox, of course, came out of the gate swinging, opened up a huge lead, and held off a late charge from the Indians to lead the division wire-to-wire. Despite owning home-field advantage throughout, they entered the playoffs as underdogs before winning 11 of 12 to capture their first title in 88 years. At the end of October, there was no doubt as to who the best team in baseball was.

Or was there? According to the 2006 Bill James Handbook and Baseball Prospectus, the 2005 Sox weren’t even the best team in their division; Cleveland was. Additionally, the Sox’s performance was driven largely by the overachievement of their pitching staff and defense, which foreshadowed a likely regression. Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Jose Contreras, Dustin Hermanson, Neal Cotts, and Cliff Politte each posted a career-low ERA that defied expectations. Predictably, all six had worse results in 2006.

After adding Jim Thome and Javier Vazquez, the Sox entered 2006 as the favorite to repeat on ESPN and in public polls, but not in the analytical community. Nate Silver’s PECOTA projections spit out an 82-80 projected record for the Sox in 2006, leaving them in fourth place in the AL Central. Silver also portended that the Sox would have a “decidedly below-average offense, and a decidedly above-average group of starting pitchers,” which apparently was lost in translation to the actual results.

At the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog, three sets of projections from ZiPS, PECOTA, and Diamond Mind were used to simulate the season 1000 times each. The result was an average record of 82-80, and only 676 playoff appearances in 3000 simulated seasons. All three systems expected the Sox to finish in third place.

Chicago beat those projections easily, but not without some overachievement from their lineup. Paul Konerko had his best season at the plate, while Joe Crede and Jermaine Dye obliterated their projections with career years. Jim Thome rebounded from injuries to play in 143 games and have one of his best seasons at age 35. These performances easily made up for the pitching staff’s return to mortality, but it wasn’t enough to get them to the playoffs.

What does 2007 hold? Both the lineup and the pitchers should regress to the mean, leaving them slightly above average in both offense and defense. The real problem is that while the good hitters on the Sox are very good, their bad hitters are absolutely awful. Scott Podsednik, Brian Anderson and Juan Uribe were unacceptably terrible in 2006, and replacing them with league-average hitters at their positions would single-handedly have propelled the Sox to the playoffs.

Hopefully, GM Kenny Williams won’t stand for it. Last offseason, he showed he is willing to make bold moves to keep the team in contention, and he needs to do the same this year. Williams has reportedly inquired about Alex Rodriguez. Even if he can’t return to shortstop, A-Rod would be an excellent fit with the Sox, who courted him six years ago before he signed his mega-deal with the Rangers.

Just one good shortstop, Julio Lugo, is a free agent. Though he has outperformed Uribe, Uribe is three years younger, and his OBP should be around .300 in 2007 rather than the .257 of 2006, so signing Lugo would be a poor allocation of resources.

With a few good-hitting outfielders on the market, the Sox should trade or non-tender Scott Podsednik and go shopping. J.D. Drew can play a league-average center field, and with his .393 career on-base percentage, would be a great fit to bat second, ahead of the core of Dye, Thome, and Konerko. There are also several bargain-priced options: David Dellucci has posted an .887 OPS the past two years, Jose Guillen should come fairly cheap after an injury-plagued year, and a healthy Cliff Floyd could be underpriced as well.

Though the market is short on center fielders, Aaron Rowand is rumored to be on Williams’ wish list, but he might be too expensive for the marginal upgrade he represents over Brian Anderson.

There are also internal options. The Sox have been trying out hot third base prospect Josh Fields in left, and hope he can play there in 2007. Quadruple-A player Ross Gload has performed well in limited playing time, and could step in as the everyday left fielder. Over the course of a season, Gload would be worth a couple of wins less than Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Lee, but he would also come $14 million cheaper.

Williams is allegedly shopping a starting pitcher, most likely Mark Buehrle or Freddy Garcia. If he can get a solid everyday player for either, it would be a coup. My suggestion: Anderson and Garcia to Philadelphia for Pat Burrell, Rowand, and cash. This probably isn’t even being discussed, but it fills two-thirds of the Sox’s lineup holes at little immediate cost to the Sox.

As for the rest of the pitching staff, the Sox can’t do much but hope they have better results next year. Except for Buehrle, their peripheral stats weren’t markedly different between 2005 and 2006, so their 2007 results should fall somewhere between those boundaries. In the future, however, Williams should allocate more of his budget to hitters, rather than spending $50 million on his rotation.

I recently read an opinionated piece that suggested Williams’ first step should be to understand that he is starting this offseason with 85-90 win talent, not a 100-win team that underachieved in 2006. If he realizes this and acts accordingly, he can make the necessary moves to take the Sox back to the playoffs.

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