2022 MLB season preview: Chicago White Sox

By Adam Burke  (VSiN.com) 

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There are only 188 days in a Major League Baseball season – the White Sox spent 152 of them in first place last season. From May 7 through Oct. 3, Chicago led the AL Central and had a double-digit lead for all but two days from Aug. 7 on. The division is a bit better in 2022, as the Tigers and Twins have made some free-agent moves and smart internal decisions. Otherwise, it looks like another cakewalk to a division crown for the Pale Hose.

When thinking about futures bets, you have to consider the path to the playoffs. The White Sox are a pretty good futures investment, simply because they’re a heavy favorite to win the division and could potentially earn a bye and avoid the AL Wild-Card Series, where a couple of really good teams will be eliminated. Is Chicago as good as Houston or the AL East contenders? Maybe, maybe not. But the White Sox have the path of least resistance to get to the postseason and possibly get a bye. It is priced into their odds, but with a win total line 11 wins higher than any other AL Central team, you can see why.

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Offense

The White Sox were a top-five offense by wOBA last season, trailing only the Blue Jays, Astros, Red Sox and Giants. Improvements in the K% and BB% department played a big role, as the White Sox went from a K% of 25.6% in 2019 to 25.2% in the shortened season, and a 22.8% mark in 2021. Just about all of the major contributors struck out less and walked more, a byproduct of a down year for pitching in the division.

Yoan Moncada shaved almost 6% off of his K%, but didn’t sacrifice his plate discipline in any way with a career-high 13.6% BB%. He did hit for less power, but played solid defense and paced the team with 4.5 fWAR. The White Sox had four players that amassed 3+ fWAR, with Tim Anderson at 4.3, Yasmani Grandal at 3.7 and Luis Robert at 3.2. Even Jose Abreu, hurt by the positional adjustment at first base, had 2.9.

Anderson and Robert don’t walk much, but they are aggressive hitters that put bat to ball and both had big gains in their contact quality metrics. Robert was limited to 296 plate appearances over 68 games, but had 36 extra-base hits and a huge spike in line-drive percentage. The 24-year-old is actually a decent look for MVP at around 30-1. He batted .350/.389/.622 with a .424 wOBA when he came back from his torn hip flexor. With a more open stance, Robert pummeled fastballs and pulled the ball at a much higher rate, which is a prerequisite for hitting for power.

Grandal walks a ton and popped 23 homers in just 375 plate appearances, so his offensive ceiling looks very high for the upcoming season. He’s been a solid hitter throughout his career, but he’s also consistently been one of the game’s best receivers behind the plate. The White Sox were missing a good pitch framer and a guy with patience in the batter’s box, and found both in Grandal, who missed almost eight weeks in July and August. With Grandal starting, the White Sox were 54-36; without him, they were 39-33.

Chicago also gets to add Eloy Jimenez back into the mix more, as he was limited to 55 games with numbers well below his 2019 and 2020 outputs. It is amazing when you look at how many players missed time last season, and see how well the White Sox performed. Two of their top five players in plate appearances, Andrew Vaughn and Leury Garcia, were two of the few below-average offensive players. This isn’t quite a 1-through-9 lineup like what Toronto or Boston could have, but it is far and away the best lineup in the AL Central.

Pitching

The White Sox jumped out to a 54-35 start in the first half, but only went 39-34 in the second half. One key member of the staff who missed a good chunk of that second half was Carlos Rodon. Chicago won’t have his services at all, as the Giants took the leap of faith on Rodon’s left arm. Rodon had a 2.31 ERA in 89.2 innings before the All-Star break and spent ample time as the Cy Young Award favorite, but he only pitched 43 innings in the second half (and only 28 in August and September).

To me, Rodon’s departure isn’t that big of a deal. He had 4.9 fWAR, but had 2.5 fWAR over the previous four seasons combined and made more than 20 starts for the first time since 2016. His contributions were thoroughly impressive, but also extremely surprising. He was unlikely to repeat his performance in 2022 and it would have been something of a miracle for him to stay healthy after throwing 132.2 innings; he pitched only 42.1 over the previous two seasons with 11 appearances.

A bigger story than Rodon’s departure is Dylan Cease’s big leap to being a front-of-the-rotation arm. Cease posted a 3.91 ERA with a 3.41 FIP in 165.2 innings of work in 2021. Cease cut his HR/FB% down to 11.3% and saw a massive boost in K% to 31.9%. A lot of hard work between Cease and Ethan Katz, one of the best young pitching coaches in baseball, led to one of the biggest breakouts of 2021. Cease induced swings and misses at an elite rate, got hitters to expand the zone more, threw more first-pitch strikes and tapped into an arsenal that could lead to stardom.

Cease’s fastball velocity is in the 92nd percentile and his fastball spin rate is in the 97th percentile. His curveball, which he used 6% more last season, ranks in the 86th percentile. Fastballs with high spin rate appear to “rise”, as they don’t have as much downward movement as a traditional fastball, which makes them harder to hit. Curveballs will move more sharply and later with high spin rates. In other words, Cease’s breakout was no fluke. If he and Katz can figure out how to locate the fastball better and decrease some of the hard contact against – or simply throw it less often – Cease may improve further.

Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito are solid, reliable horses in this rotation. Lynn was limited to 28 starts and 157 innings coming off of a very heavy 2020 workload for a shortened season. He posted a career-best 2.69 ERA and a 3.32 FIP with strong peripherals. Giolito posted a 2.65 ERA with a .263 wOBA against in the second half after allowing 18 home runs with a 4.15 ERA and a .307 wOBA against in the first half, so he fixed whatever was ailing him. This is an outstanding Big Three in the White Sox rotation, but things get a little dicey after that. 

(author's note: Lynn will be out until late May or early June after suffering a knee injury that required surgery. He has been moved to 30/1 to win the Cy Young.)

Dallas Keuchel was awful last season (5.28 ERA, 5.23 FIP). He had no luck with his ground ball-heavy approach and also allowed a career-high in homers with 25. He’ll never rack up strikeouts, but his extreme ground ball style has served him well throughout his career. One of the characteristics of pitchers that struggled last season was a big decrease in spin rate when the league took foreign substances away. I don’t see that with Keuchel, but his command and control metrics were way down and he allowed a .397 wOBA in the second half over 64.2 innings. For frame of reference, that means everybody hit like a cross between Fernando Tatis Jr. (.403) and Shohei Ohtani (.393) in the second half against Keuchel.

I wouldn’t expect Keuchel to be that bad again. He hadn’t posted an ERA north of 4.00 since 2016, so it was a huge outlier performance. For White Sox fans and backers, they’ll have to hope that’s the case because rotation depth is an issue. Michael Kopech looks slated for the last rotation spot, but we could see Jonathan Stiever or Jimmy Lambert out there. Kopech has the most upside, though Stiever has had some nice minor league numbers.

The White Sox rotation really only runs six or seven deep at best. Chicago will likely be looking for some depth as the season goes along. I also wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they use openers or piggybacks with guys like Reynaldo Lopez or Vince Velasquez, who both have plenty of starting experience.

One saving grace is that Chicago’s bullpen is outstanding. The White Sox led all pitching staffs in fWAR and the bullpen was a big part of that push, finishing second to the Rays. WAR is a counting stat, though, and the Rays had 703 relief innings compared to 548 for the White Sox, so you could argue that Chicago did indeed have the best bullpen in baseball.

They certainly could have had the best reliever in Liam Hendriks, who posted a 2.54 ERA with a 2.34 FIP. Hendriks struck out 113 and walked a grand total of seven batters in 71 innings; that 39.7% K%-BB% trails only Andrew Miller in 2016 and Josh Hader in 2019 for the best ever. The White Sox will also have solid arms in Aaron Bummer and Kendall Graveman. This bullpen is truly a weapon.

(author's note: Previous versions of this article included RP Garrett Crochet, who has to have Tommy John surgery. Craig Kimbrel was also traded to the Dodgers for AJ Pollock)

Player to watch

P Michael Kopech: However the White Sox decide to use Kopech, he will be a weapon. The 26-year-old missed all of 2019 and 2020 due to injury, and only pitched 14.1 innings in 2018. He made 44 appearances last season, including four starts, and struck out 103 and walked 24 in 69.1 innings. Kopech was delayed by COVID to start spring training, so he may not appear in games until late April, as he’s a prized arm worth protecting, but his emergence as a viable starter would elevate my projection of the team.

Season Outlook

The White Sox project to be the only team with a winning record in the AL Central. This is easily the best lineup and far and away the best bullpen in the division. Both the season win total odds and the futures prices reflect that, but Chicago at the best price you can find to win the division looks like a strong play. The White Sox still won 93 games in 2021 while getting less than half a season from Grandal, Robert and Jimenez.

Katz is already one of the best pitching coaches in the league and he’ll be able to keep working with a very talented staff. The lineup is loaded with power bats that also cut down on the strikeouts. The AL Central goes through the White Sox and with 72 games against division rivals projected to finish .500 or better, a path to a top-two seed is easy to see.

Win Total Lean: Over 91.5

White Sox to Win AL Central: -195

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