Meanwhile, lurking and lying low as always and getting little respect, are the Chicago White Sox. The other day, I listed the White Sox as one of the three best bets on the "under" of their projected win total (80.5 wins). This seems to happen nearly every year: We underestimate the White Sox and yet they're almost always in contention, last year pushing the Tigers late into September.
Dave Cameron of FanGraphs had a terrific post on the White Sox phenomenon earlier this week. Two secret assets are trainer Herm Schneider and pitching coach Don Cooper:
The overall health of the White Sox during the last decade has been pretty staggering. Look specifically at the blue pitcher injury bars. From 2002 to 2011, the White Sox pitchers lost fewer than 2,000 days to the DL, while most teams were over 3,000, a lot of teams were over 4,000, and the Rangers were up over 6,000. The White Sox had a remarkable run of pitcher health, and as new GM Rick Hahn told a group of FG readers and authors in Phoenix a few years ago, the organization views Cooper and the training staff as one of the main reasons the team has been competitive during this stretch.
It's not just the pitchers staying healthy. Last year, four position players played 150-plus games, two more played 140-plus and catcher A.J. Pierzynski played 135. In 2011, three played 150-plus, two others played 140-plus and Pierzynski played 129. In 2010, four players played 147-plus games.
So the White Sox often overachieve their projection because of their health. When you're not forced to use your No. 6 or No. 7 starter much or dig deep into your bench for playing time, it obviously helps matters. The White Sox need good health because until hitting on Chris Sale, their farm system hasn't been too plentiful of late (in part because they're never drafting in the top 10, in part because they didn't spend on the draft until recently, paying the least amount of bonus money from 2007-11); the team doesn't go after big free agents, although they will occasionally sign a second-tier guy like Adam Dunn.
With all that in mind, here are five reasons the White Sox may surprise us once again:
Yes, Peavy has a long injury history, but he made 32 starts last year. Yes, Danks has to come back from shoulder surgery. Yes, people worry that Sale's skinny build and slingshot delivery will lead to arm injuries. In Herm we trust. (Here's a profile on Schneider from last July.)
Sale pitched like an ace in his first year in the rotation, going 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA, with 192 strikeouts in 192 innings. With a few more starts than the 29 he made last year, he should top 200 innings. Peavy and Danks slot in behind him, and veteran Gavin Floyd and second-year lefty Jose Quintana project as a solid 4-5. Remember, too, that U.S. Cellular Field is a good hitter's park, particularly for home runs, so we tend to underestimate the quality of Chicago's staff.
2. Paul Konerko isn't washed up.
He hit just .263/.333/.437 in the second half, so many see the end of the soon-to-be 37-year-old first baseman. But remember he got hit twice in the head, and suffered a concussion in early August. Assuming that affected his hitting, he should once again be a productive middle-of-the-order bat.
3. Gordon Beckham isn't terrible and may even have a good year.
After hitting .270/.347/.460 as a rookie in 2009, Beckham has a been big disappointment since, hitting just .238. One thing the White Sox have done through the years is show a lot of patience. For example, a lot of teams would have looked at what a guy like Pierzynski doesn't do (not a great arm, low OBPs) and let him walk at some point.
Beckham is kind of like that. He's not that great, but look at his 2012 batting line compared to the average for AL second basemen:
The point isn't that Beckham is good, but that you can live with him. Don't dump him if you don't have someone better. I'm not counting on him improving, but he is still just 26.
4. The bullpen is pretty good.
The pen had a 3.75 ERA last year, eighth in the league, but a pretty good ERA for The Cell. Addison Reed did a fair job as a rookie closer last year and should be better, but Cooper and the White Sox are always able to find unheralded relievers, or guys discarded by other teams: Bobby Jenks, Dustin Hermanson, Matt Thornton and so on. Last year, rookie Nate Jones, never a big prospect, went 8-0 with a 2.39 ERA. This year's project is Matt Lindstrom, a veteran signed as a free agent.
5. It's the AL Central!
Sure, the Tigers look good again, but the Twins are going to be awful, we've been waiting a decade for the Royals to crash .500 and the Indians' rotation can't stack up with a healthy Sale/Peavy/Danks.
So there you go. We look at the White Sox and too often focus on the weaknesses of players such as Beckham or Alexei Ramirez or Dunn or Alex Rios and forget that sometimes the sum of the parts add up. I'm predicting the White Sox will finish under .500 and I suspect I'll be wrong.