White Sox Spring Position Battles

Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field - credit City of Chicago_Chris McGuire

Shortstop

Candidates – Tyler Saladino, Tim Anderson

White Sox manager Robin Ventura has already said during the offseason that Tyler Saladino would be the team’s starting shortstop if the season started “today”, but I hope that statement is at least somewhat contingent on Spring Training evaluations. Saladino is a nice-looking defensive shortstop, but that is his hard limit. He doesn’t have the potential to be anything more than a .250/10/40 guy even in his best years.

Anderson, on the other hand, is the organization’s #1 rated prospect. Last year at AA-Birmingham, Anderson hit .312 and stole 49 bases. He has succeeded at every level thus far in his minor league progression, and the Sox don’t want to rush him to the Majors before he is ready. One knock on Anderson’s game is that he might not have the ability to be a good defensive shortstop, and he might eventually need to shift to the outfield.

Predicted Winner – Tyler Saladino

Ultimately, Saladino has a considerable edge to win the shortstop job. While a great spring from Anderson and a poor spring from Saladino should make Ventura reconsider handing the job to Saladino, allowing Anderson to develop for another half-season or so is probably the correct decision. Saladino has the perfect profile to be a half-year or full-year stopgap for Anderson. Saladino’s value as a reliable defensive shortstop will be a nice filler for his lack of production at the plate. Let Anderson continue to develop, and don’t call him up until he is ready.

4th Starter

Candidates – Mat Latos, Erik Johnson, Jacob Turner

The Sox made it clear when they signed Mat Latos last week that he will not be immediately awarded a spot in the team’s starting rotation. That being said, the Sox don’t want to pay someone $3 million to pitch for one year in the minor leagues. Having won 14 games on three separate occasions, Latos has an impressive resumé for the back-end of the rotation job opening that the Sox are presenting.

The Sox are also high on Erik Johnson, who is two years younger than Latos and is coming off a much more promising 2015 campaign. Johnson was named Most Outstanding Pitcher in the International League last year, and also made the most of his September call-up to the big leagues.

The dark horse of the trio figures to be Jacob Turner, who the Sox took a flyer on this off-season in hopes that pitching coach Don Cooper can resurrect his career. Turner was the 9th overall pick in the 2009 draft, so the talent is there. If he puts it all together this spring and challenges Latos and Johnson, the Sox will be presented with a good problem to have.

Predicted Winner – Mat Latos

I think the Sox end up being influenced by Latos’ track record. Realistically, with your 4th of 5th starter, you’re looking for someone who can get outs consistently throughout a whole season. Latos is the only member of this trio who has proved that he can do it throughout a 162 game grind.

Bullpen Pitcher

Candidates – Tommy Kahnle, Daniel Webb

Tommy Kahnle, a hard-throwing righty, spent the last two seasons in the Rockies bullpen. In 2014 and 2015, he posted ERAs of 4.19 and 4.86, respectively. Nothing too exciting yet, right? Ok, so let’s look at his home and away splits (which must be done with any Rockies player). In Kahnle’s brief two-year career, opponents have hit .240 against him at Coors Field but only .202 in their home ballparks. The “mile-high” air also appears to have an effect on Kahnle’s ERA, as his ERA was a full two runs better on the road than it was for him at Coors Field (5.51 at home, 3.46 on the road). The Sox evidently saw something in Kahnle this past winter that looks promising enough for them to give him a chance on the South Side.

Interestingly enough, Daniel Webb has nearly the same profile as the guy he is competing with for the last spot in the bullpen. Webb also happens to be a 26-year old righty with a career ERA in the mid-4s who throws in the mid 90s and would rather pitch on the road if he had the choice. If you have watched White Sox baseball for the last 3 years, I probably don’t need to remind you that Webb’s career has been quite a roller-coaster ride. On some nights, he looks unhittable. On some nights, he can’t even get an out.

Predicted Winner – Tommy Kahnle

I think the simple fact that Kahnle is a new face makes him the front runner for the job. Webb has regressed in his three years at the Major League level with the Sox. I think the Sox give Kahnle a chance to see if Cooper can work some magic with him.

Infield Bench

Candidates – Carlos Sanchez, Steve Lombardozzi, Leury Garcia

Carlos Sanchez was a defensive wizard last season for the Sox. For as good as Gordon Beckham was defensively at 2nd base for a half-decade, the Sox didn’t miss a beat when they replaced him with Sanchez. Ultimately, Beckham gave way to Sanchez because his bat never came around. The same will be true with Sanchez giving way to newly-acquired Brett Lawrie this year and 2nd base. Keeping Sanchez as a late inning defensive replacement for Lawrie would be a plausible option.

If it wasn’t for the fact that Lombardozzi is named Lombardozzi, I probably would have forgotten who he was after 2013. He was a regular in the Nationals lineup in 2012 and 2013, and he played all over the diamond (99 games at 2B, 64 games in LF, 17 games at 3B). His versatility certainly makes him valuable a valuable asset to most rosters. Buyer beware – he won’t get many extra base hits, he won’t steal many bases, and he only has 85 big league plate appearances over the past two seasons.

As time continues to pass without Leury Garcia showing any signs of progress, all I can think is “This is all the Sox got for Alex Rios?” At his best, Garcia seems to be a late inning defensive replacement and/or pinch runner. Not only is his offensive ceiling already quite low, the roof appears to be collapsing. He is, however, an above-average base stealer, and by far the best of these three candidates.

Predicted Winner – Carlos Sanchez

The Sox never seemed bothered by the fact that Sanchez couldn’t hit last year. Despite having one of baseball’s worst offenses, they still opted for Sanchez’s defense over Micah Johnson’s offense. Granted, the team addressed their offensive needs at 2nd base this winter by trading for Brett Lawrie, but they liked Sanchez’s defense so much last year that you almost can’t envision them keeping him completely off the roster in 2016.

Outfield Bench

Candidates – J.B. Shuck, Jerry Sands, Courtney Hawkins, Adam Engel

In 2015, J.B. Shuck did just about everything the Sox could have asked out of him. He had himself a great Spring Training and won the 4th outfielder spot, and then he proved to be a serviceable late inning defensive replacement/pinch hitter throughout the course of the season. Shuck registered the same amount of walks as he did strikeouts on the year (16). That is an impressive ratio for any player, let alone a player like Shuck who’s speed is greater utilized when the ball is in play and when he is on the bases.

Jerry Sands was once a pretty good player in the minor leagues. In 2010 time spent between the A and AA levels, he hit 35 home runs, drove in 93 runs, and hit .301. He followed up that campaign with a .278/29/88 year in AAA in 2011 and a .296/29/107 year in AAA in 2012. Sadly, his farm system success still hasn’t translated to the Majors. He spent the 2015 season with the Indians, so I guess you can argue that he might be somewhat familiar with AL Central pitching. That’s about all he has working in his favor towards breaking camp with the Sox big league roster.

Courtney Hawkins was once a very prized prospect in the White Sox organization. Many figured that he might have reached the Majors by now after the Sox selected him with the 13th pick of the 2012 draft. But Hawkins is still yet to even make it to AAA, and he hasn’t shown much progress (if any) in 4 years in the Sox farm system. He is still just 22 years old, and he has a ton of raw power. But the fact that his defense is below-average is likely the biggest factor of all since the Sox already have their 3 starting outfield spots solidified are aren’t looking for a shaky defender to replace a starter in the later innings.

That being said, if he goes on a terror this spring like he did last year, the Sox might find a way to get his name on the Opening Day roster.

Adam Engel is a name that flew under the radar for a few years in the Sox farm systems until this past fall when he won the Arizona Fall League Most Valuable Player award. Engel is still yet to make it past A ball, but after stealing 65 bases last year in the Carolina League and following up with fantastic play in the fall, he is beginning to raise some eyebrows. Engel led the fall league in batting average (.393) and stolen bases (16). He also posted a very impressive 25:15 BB:K ratio, which was a sight for sore eyes after posting a 66:132 ratio in the Carolina League season. The million dollar question moving forward for the Sox organization is – Was Engel’s fall league performance an aberration, or did something click for him at the plate?

Predicted Winner – J.B. Shuck

Unless something crazy happens this spring, the 4th outfielder job belongs to Shuck. He had too good of a year last year as the 4th outfielder to not give him the same role to start 2016. He probably doesn’t have the “difference-maker” potential of Hawkins or Engel, but he is more suited to help the Sox win games in 2016 than anyone else on this list.