During the 2012 season, the White Sox spent 126 days in first place. On May 7th, they were five games back in the AL Central, but by July 17th, they'd made up that ground and then some, leading the league by 3.5 games. They held that lead into September, but as fatigue set in, the bats slowed, the pitching faltered, and manager Robin Ventura over-managed in an attempt to keep his team afloat. With just nine games to go, the Sox lost their lead to the Tigers and never regained it; the Sox finished three games back and missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, ending the season in heartbreaking fashion.
Most hoped it was just exhaustion down the stretch that did the White Sox in. It wasn't. The Sox spent the first nine days of the 2013 season tied for first place, but they never led. They lost early and often, and their last day of the season with a .500 or better record was May 26th; in late July, they suffered a 10-game losing streak, erasing any hope that there would be a resurgent push for the postseason. September couldn't come soon enough; they finished the season 36 games under .500 and came in last for the first time since 1976. Their 99 losses was the worst performance by the team since 1970. It seemed ironic that the Sox wore throwback uniforms in honor of the 1983 Winning Ugly team, since the notion of replicating their performance was just wishful thinking. If this year's team had a slogan, it'd be something along the lines of Losing Ugly, Inexplicable Regression, or Dear Lord, is it over yet?
Even though the Sox missed the playoffs in 2012, there was still some contentment in the team's 85-77 record. They weren't expected to do much of that season, so the fact that they finished second and spent the bulk of the season in first place was an added treat. Of course it was bittersweet since they didn't even reach the playoffs, but everyone knew they were outperforming expectations, even if nobody wanted to talk about it. A combination of confidence in the roster's abilities and a payroll that was now north of $115 million kept the White Sox quiet during the offseason. They added Jeff Keppinger and Matt Lindstrom and subtracted A.J. Pierzynski and Kevin Youkilis. Prior to this season's start, not many people were picking the Sox to run away with the division, but at the same time, no one had them pegged for a 99-loss team, either.
In hindsight it's easy to say that the Sox didn't do enough to catch the Tigers, but at the same time they entered this season with largely the same roster that nearly won the division the year before; while they could have expected a bit of regression, no amount of planning or forecasting could have predicted they'd be that bad. Players who reached their upsides last year didn't just regress, they completely bottomed out and put up some of the worst numbers in the majors when compared with their peers. When things got rough they tested some prospects in hopes that they could fill bigger roles, but they weren't ready. Then there were the injuries. While a team's record is a reflection of the sum of their parts, if forced to parse out blame for why the Sox lost 99 games, it'd be something like 70 percent offense, 15 percent defense, 10 percent relievers, and five percent starters.
The team's inability to generate runs, especially in close games, was its biggest downfall. The Sox scored 150 fewer runs this season and allowed 47 more runs than they did in the year prior, and according to Defensive Runs Saved, poor defense cost them 55 runs this season. The pitching was the only bright spot; they allowed 4.46 runs per game, but their ERA+ (108), tied them for fourth in the AL with the World Series champion Red Sox. Just goes to show the difference that a better offense and defense could have made for the Sox of the pale variety.
Key Stat: wRC+ (83)
The White Sox were a hacking heap of inpatient impatient messes -- that is, they were clinically unselective at the plate; some of their hitters, I'm convinced, were swinging with their eyes closed. The struggling offense was a combination of many things. They couldn't get on base, they couldn't take a walk, they swung at everything, and they hit just 148 home runs, 63 less than the season before. Since they were awful across the board, the most illustrative statistic for their ineptitude is also the most comprehensive, and that's Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+).
If you're not familiar with wRC+, it's essentially a metric that attempts to quantify a player's total offensive value by measuring it in the form of runs and then compares it with league average, which is defined as 100. Any number above 100 is fantastic; the farther south from 100 a number goes, the worse it is. For comparison, the two best offenses in the majors this season were the Red Sox and the Tigers who had a wRC+ of 115 and 113 respectively. On the opposite end of the spectrum were the Sox: their wRC+ of 83 was the worst in the AL . Yes, the White Sox were even worse than the Astros, who lost 111 games this season.
In 2012, several players reached their offensive upsides, but this year's lineup was full of underperformers, some of whom were worse than could have ever been anticipated. There were good reasons, relating to finances, age, and injury, for letting A.J. Pierzynski and Kevin Youkilis go as free agents, but using Tyler Flowers and Jeff Keppinger in their stead didn't pan out. Flowers was asked to step into the full-time catching role, but his offensive output was incredibly weak; Flowers' wRC+ was just 59 and when compared to Pierzynski's 119 of the year prior, it was a huge let down. Due to Flowers' struggles, the Sox called up rookie Josh Phegley, but despite a few home runs early, his wRC+ (34) was the worst of any player in the majors who saw at least 210 plate appearances this season. Keppinger, who was touted as the singles hitter and on-base machine that the Sox needed, had a career-low .283 OBP and ranked in the bottom 15 of hitters in the majors in wRC+.
The biggest absence in the Sox' lineup was Paul Konerko, who had hoped to finish out his contract with a strong performance, but instead showed a decline in power as he struggled with injuries. Konerko was limited to 126 games this season, his fewest since 2008, and hit just 12 home runs, a far departure from the 26 of the prior. But even a strong season from Paulie wouldn't have been enough to help this team, especially since Alejandro De Aza, Dayan Viciedo, and Gordon Beckham still couldn't figure out how to put it all together...again.
Breakouts: Jose Quintana and Avisail Garcia
Without John Danks and Gavin Floyd in the rotation due to injuries, 24-year-old Jose Quintana was challenged to fill a big role in the rotation in his sophomore season, and he did not disappoint. Quintana's ERA dropped from 3.75 to 3.45; he made 32 starts and pitched 193 innings and would have hit the 200-inning mark were it not for the fact that the Sox used the six-man rotation in September. Quintana set an AL record for no-decisions this season, which says more about the run environment he played in than his ability, and showed maturity and composure on the mound even though he wasn't winning.
Quintana deemphasized his cutter in favor of a changeup and had a slight uptick in velocity on all of his pitches, which is helpful for a pitcher whose average fastball sits at just 92.1 miles per hour. He struck out more batters this year (19.9) than last (14.3), and got his walk rate under control. Quintana could continue to be a positive in the rotation next season, but given the thin free-agent market for lefties, the Sox could get a decent return for the young pitcher who had such a great season.
When the Sox dealt Jake Peavy to the Red Sox, they received outfielder Avisail Garcia back from the Tigers, part of a three-team trade that sent Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias to Detroit. In 168 plate appearances with the Sox, Garcia hit .304/.327/.447 with five home runs. While that's certainly a small sample size, Garcia was an adequate replacement for Alex Rios, who was traded to the Rangers prior to the deadline, and at a fraction of the cost.
It's hard to know how impactful Garcia will be long term, but the 22-year-old will give them some flexibility in the outfield since he's inexpensive and won't be arbitration-eligible until 2016. If he keeps hitting well, he could be the future in right field for a team that is in desperate need of promising youth movement.
Breakdown: Gordon Beckham and Tyler Flowers
There was a lot of pressure put on Tyler Flowers this season and he did not live up to expectations. In 2011, Flowers assumed the backup catching role in support of A.J. Pierzynski. The plan was for Flowers to take a bigger share of duties behind the dish as the 2012 season progressed in anticipation of Pierzynski's departure as a free agent, but the race was tight and Pierzynski was hot (.278/.326/.501 with 27 home runs) so the Sox had no choice but to keep his bat in the lineup. Despite his limited playing time in the majors, Flowers got the vote of confidence, but he just wasn't ready to play every day (and may never be). Flowers has hit .200/.279/.372 in his major-league career with poor defense to match. He was also shut down in September for shoulder surgery, and now that he's eligible for arbitration, the Sox will have to decide if he has earned another chance or if they should non-tender him and seek other options. Regardless, it seems they are going to have to find someone who can at least split time with him behind the plate until they figure out if Flowers or Phegley can hit consistently at the major-league level.
For years, there has been a lot of wishing and hoping that Gordon Beckham would develop into a focal point of the Sox lineup, but despite an excellent showing in his rookie year (2009), he's been a major disappointment. Beckham missed 47 games due to a fractured hamate bone in his right wrist that required surgery; he hit .216/.297/.319 in 239 plate appearances in the second half. Beckham's glove and his pedigree as a first-round draft pick have shielded him from harsh criticism, but the Sox will also have to decide if they plan to keep him as he's arbitration eligible and projected to receive roughly $3.5 million next season.
Prescription: Holistic medicine
If there's one silver lining to the White Sox falling apart, it's that the organization has already acknowledged it's a real problem and that they are taking steps to get better rather than ignorantly waiting for improvement to happen organically. Of course, acknowledging there is a problem doesn't mean the improvement will come easily, but they have already begun to implement small steps to get the lineup back into shape. The Sox made deadline trades to clear some payroll, and general manager Rick Hahn outlined a multi-year plan that involves a comprehensive approach of developing talent, the draft, international signings, and free agents.
The Sox believe that their competitive advantage (and the reason they won't be down for long) is their pitching. While there's a case for trading ace Chris Sale for a handful of position prospects, the organization seems reluctant to do so, hoping that they will be back in the race well before his contract expires in 2018. The Sox have done well in developing pitchers in recent seasons, leaving some to wonder if pitching coach Don Cooper is actually some sort of "pitcher whisperer" that can not only groom talent, but also keep them healthy. If they can keep the rotation as strong as it was this season in the years going forward, it will certainly help the team's chances.
But a dozen good arms won't be enough, especially since the Sox' immediate progress will be hindered by their barren ranks of prospects. The Sox' farm system, ranks in the bottom five in the majors; it's going to take years to undo the damage of Kenny Williams' penchant for leveraging prospects for big-league talent, something that Hahn has openly admitted (but in nicer words). Working to establish a long-term vision for the major league squad that involves prospects is great, but obviously it's not something that will be realized immediately. In the interim, it will push the Sox towards the free agent market to fill gaps since they don't have players ready for promotions.
The Sox are looking for players that who can not only help the team now, but can also fit into the team's long-term vision. They've already signed Cuban defector Jose Abreu, who fits that mold, to play first base. The six-year, $68 million deal is risky considering that he's never seen a moment of major-league playing time, but if his bat is as lethal as some think it could be, he could be the power-hitting fixture for years to come.
Realistically though, one Cuban slugger an offense does not make, and if he's the only big free agent that the Sox sign this year, they will still have more gaps to fill. Konerko and Floyd are both free agents who may or may not return, and they have four arbitration-eligible players (Dayan Viciedo, Flowers, Beckham, and Alejandro De Aza) that they will need to extend contracts to or non-tender in the coming weeks. While the Sox might take the easy route by keeping the roster intact rather than seeking other options, they could be paying roughly $12 million to players who haven't performed well in their tenure. There's a good chance that they will be fielding replace-level players or worse at catcher, second base, and third base, which could limit their offensive output again next season.
Still, barring any major catastrophes, this season was close enough to rock bottom that the organization had their wake up call and they will be at least attempting to avoid disaster again. Perhaps some of that initiative last offseason could have saved them from the embarrassment of a 99-loss season, but the hope is that they will make enough moves to improve. The Sox won't win 95 games next season, or maybe even in the season after that, but at least they have a game plan for restoring the health of their organization.