Gambling is, by and large, for suckers. As the saying goes, there’s a reason all those casinos in Las Vegas are big and shiny. They know more than you do — they’ve got billions of dollars riding on that fact. And even if they didn’t, they still set the odds. It’s why, in the end, the house always wins.
I thought about this after something called Las Vegas Superbook (and here I thought the Las Vegas superbook was Fear and Loathing) produced updated pennant and World Series odds. Because the playoffs are so unpredictable and so far in the future, betting on any team at lower than 8–1 odds, which are the odds of a team in the divisional round winning the World Series if every series were a coin flip, is for suckers. I’m pretty sure the Indians and Red Sox will make the playoffs, but not sure enough to bet them at 7–1 to win the World Series. And forget about the Cubs at 7–2 — but remember by how thin a margin that dominant, paradigm-changing team won the title last year, then think about how many things need to go right for them to repeat.
Go down the list, and every team’s chances are overstated, except one: the Chicago White Sox at 100–1 to win the pennant and 300–1 to win the World Series.
“Wait,” you plead, “the White Sox? The team that just turned off I-94 at the exit for Hard Tanksville? The team that won only 78 games last year, then traded away two of its three best players this past offseason? That team?”
Yes, that team. I wouldn’t bet anything significant on the White Sox even making the playoffs in 2017, but at 300–1, you wouldn’t have to bet the mortgage to win big. You just need to be able to talk yourself into it. Here’s how.
1. The White Sox aren’t nearly as bad as the odds make them look.
At 300–1, they’re tied with the Reds and Brewers for the worst World Series odds in baseball, and no other team in the AL has pennant odds worse than 50–1. That doesn’t hold up if you take even a cursory look at how the White Sox are currently constituted.
Vegas might have its shadowy well of experts and supercomputers (which in my mind look like the Greco from Ocean’s 13), but public baseball fans have PECOTA, the projections system from Baseball Prospectus, first developed by Nate Silver 15 years ago and passed on from generation to generation like the Ark of the Covenant for people who ask questions about who to draft in 30-team dynasty leagues with 40-man rosters. PECOTA puts the White Sox at 76–86, which isn’t great, but it also isn’t the worst record in the AL Central. (PECOTA predicts the Royals will go 71–91, which you can take for what it’s worth; PECOTA hating the Royals is a running joke nowadays.)
PECOTA’s 76-win projection is way better than the mid-60s total that 300–1 World Series odds would suggest, but you need to get to the upper 80s to make the playoffs, and the White Sox are only halfway there. So where are the other 12-ish wins coming from?
2. They have a reliable veteran core.
Even without Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, the White Sox still have several veterans you’d expect to be able to produce: Todd Frazier and Melky Cabrera are projected to be about average for their positions, while José Abreu comes out with a projected 3.5 WARP, tops on the team. Brett Lawrie might feel like a disappointment after not living up to the promise he showed as a rookie, particularly because he’s averaged only 109 games a year over the past five seasons, but when he’s been healthy he’s been almost exactly a league-average hitter and league-average glove at either second or third base. The White Sox also bring back two solid-to-very-good relievers — Nate Jones and David Robertson — and a league-average starter in Miguel Gonzalez.
The linchpin, though, is José Quintana, who was Sale’s equal by the numbers last year, and whose 2.8-WARP PECOTA projection would be his worst season since missing his rookie year if it came true. No doubt that figure includes some built-in uncertainty about Quintana coming down with a case of the Tommy Johns, as all pitchers are at risk of doing, but if the White Sox are going to win the World Series, Quintana’s going to need to be the four- or five-WARP pitcher he’s shown himself capable of being.
So that’s two rotation spots, four of nine position players, and two key bullpen roles more or less locked down for average to above-average production without either being unduly optimistic or breaking into this team’s absurd cache of under-25 talent.
3. Their young talent has nothing but upside.
The “break your leg on Opening Day” scenario for the White Sox isn’t that bad. If Quintana blows out or gets traded, or if Frazier forgets how to hit, they’ll win 68 games instead of 76, and nobody will care. But the White Sox have a preposterous amount of upside; enough that I think there’s better than a 1-in-300 chance that they could rebuild all the way to a title this year.
The most amazing thing about the trade returns for Eaton and Sale is not only how much high-end talent they got back, but how much of it was close to the majors. This offseason, the White Sox acquired Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, and Reynaldo López, the no. 5, 10, and 30 prospects, respectively, on the just-published BP Top 101. All three played in the majors last year, but PECOTA puts all three within a rounding error of zero WARP for 2017.
That’s understandable. Compared with his former teammate and no. 3 global prospect Andrew Benintendi, Moncada’s not as polished a hitter, and during his Red Sox cameo last year, it often looked like his skills hadn’t quite caught up to his considerable physical gifts. But that’s not an indictment: He’s still only 21, and few 21-year-olds can hit big league pitching. Odds are Moncada will spend most of the year in Triple-A learning to hit advanced pitching. But what if he doesn’t need most of the year? What if Moncada figures it all out by Memorial Day?
One nice thing about PECOTA is it treats projected outcomes in terms of probability. That 76-win total is Chicago’s 50th-percentile projection. In other words, it’s as likely as not to shake out this way. That’s why projections systems always look conservative — PECOTA predicts that Mike Trout will hit 31 home runs in 2017, which seems low, but he could also break his leg on Opening Day, and you’ve got to consider both possibilities when boiling the infinite grandness of the future down to a number.
Moncada’s 50th-percentile projection is .223/.312/.387 in 130 PA — a late-season call-up with below-average production and an eye toward 2018. But his 90th-percentile projection is .269/.368/.471 in 200 PA. Stretch that to 400 PA with a June call-up, and that’s a three-WARP player — or Carlos Correa’s rookie year adjusted for position.
If Moncada forces his way into the lineup, he and Lawrie will play second and third in some combination, either forcing Frazier to DH, or to first base, with Abreu moving to DH. Moncada wouldn’t represent a marginal improvement over Lawrie or a moderate improvement over utilityman and Lawrie insurance policy Tyler Saladino — he’d be a quantum leap over Chicago’s current crop of replacement-level DH candidates who would drop out of the lineup: Cody Asche, Matt Davidson, and the act of putting your own eyes out with a spoon. Not only that, an infield of Frazier, Lawrie, Moncada, and shortstop Tim Anderson would be among the most athletic in major league history. It’s a shame that these guys will be playing baseball instead of touring the country as the best four-man flag football team ever assembled.
Giolito, meanwhile, struggled to command his once-in-a-generation stuff during a midseason cameo with the Nationals last year. So did Clayton Kershaw when he was a rookie. Roy Halladay didn’t put it all together until he was 25, and Max Scherzer and Jake Arrieta were still works in progress until age 27 and 28, respectively. But Giolito has ace potential and big league experience, putting him in a class among rookie-eligible pitchers with BP’s no. 1 prospect Alex Reyes of St. Louis and … that might be it. Because he’s a young pitcher, there’s still a decent chance Giolito never amounts to anything, but if those flashes of greatness become even a little consistent, he could become an asset down the stretch on the level of Michael Wacha in 2013 or Madison Bumgarner in 2010.
Factor in López and the returning Carson Fulmer, and that’s two more live arms with big stuff who could make the occasional spot start during the year and transition to middle-relief roles down the stretch, like Brandon Finnegan for the Royals in 2014.
If the White Sox do make a run, the magazine cover stories are going to be about Moncada and Giolito cashing in on their talent early, but the two most pivotal figures for the 2017 season are Anderson and Carlos Rodon.
Anderson was about an average shortstop as a rookie in 2016, and his projected 1.2 WARP for 2017 would actually represent a step back for the 23-year-old when you factor in that he’d probably bat around 600 times in a full season, as opposed to his 431 from last year. Anderson’s lack of on-base skills limits his ceiling, but if he hits around 15 home runs, steals 25 bases, and plays a decent shortstop, he can be a well-above-average player even if he posts an OBP around last year’s mark of .306.
Rodon, a former no. 3 overall pick entering his third big league season, was an about league-average starter in 28 starts last year, but when BP wrote up its list of top under-25 talents in the White Sox organization, Rodon topped the list. In addition to proving his body can hold up over a full year’s workload, Rodon cut his walk rate by a third in 2015 and started developing a changeup to go with his slider, which is “rocket explodes on takeoff”–level explosive. A (perhaps necessary) flaw of quantitative projection systems is they’re slow to respond when something about a player’s game changes, and I think Rodon is just as likely to turn into Quintana’s co-ace this year as he is to post a third consecutive league-average season.
4. They have room to steal wins around the edges.
Breakout seasons for Giolito, Rodon, and Moncada, as well as continued improvement for Anderson, would probably get the White Sox to about a true-talent 84-win team or so. That’s close enough to playoff-caliber that the White Sox could get there if they get a few breaks, but over the past few years they’ve done a very poor job of finding any luck.
For starters, the White Sox were by far the worst framing team in baseball last year — 33 runs below average, more than 10 runs worse than 29th-place Minnesota and more than 60 runs worse than the first-place Dodgers. Compared to the Dodgers, the White Sox lost an entire José Altuve, give or take, on framing alone.
They fixed part of the problem by getting rid of Dioner Navarro, but PECOTA sees projected starter Omar Narvaez as a minus-1.6 WARP player overall. Consider that the “RP” in “WARP” stands for “replacement player,” i.e., some dude you can get for nothing from Triple-A. There’s separating the sheep from the goats, and then there’s Chicago’s catching, which is Beyond Goats. They don’t even have to shell out for still-unsigned Matt Wieters to pick up another two wins; they could trade their no. 27 prospect for a Hank Conger or Jeff Mathis type, or pick one up on waivers.
They also replaced embattled manager Robin Ventura, who at his best was hardly Joe Maddon, with Rick Renteria, who lost his job managing the crosstown Cubs in 2014 when Maddon became available. Renteria, who has extensive experience as a coach in addition to his year managing the Cubs, should at least offer a bounce just because he’s a new voice, but he has the potential to be legitimately good. Last year I asked Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks about life under Maddon, and he went out of his way to praise Renteria, for whom he started 13 times as a rookie in 2014. At the very least, he probably can’t be any worse than Ventura.
That also goes for James Shields, who posted a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts for the White Sox last year. Either Shields will get better — if not to his career-average 105 ERA+, then at least to the point where he’s not the worst qualified starter in baseball — or he won’t make 22 well-below-replacement-level starts in 2017.
Since a White Sox–to-the–World Series scenario assumes that Moncada would displace either Frazier or Abreu, moving one to DH, that leaves three holes: catcher, center field, and right field, which are all manned by roughly replacement-level placeholders: Narvaez, Charlie Tilson, and Avisail Garcia. As a result, those holes are easy to plug.
In this year’s relatively weak free-agent class, it was tough to replace a two-win player with a four-win player just by spending money. But it’s much easier to eat a so-called bad contract or offer a veteran a one-year deal and go from replacement-level or below-average at any position.
And make no mistake, Chicago has the money. After running payrolls of $118 million and $114 million in 2015 and 2016, the White Sox are set to come in at around $92 million this year. That’s “Matt Wieters pillow contract” money or “eat the last year of Melvin Upton’s contract” money. And all it would require is the will to do so.
If the White Sox won the World Series this year after the offseason they’ve had, it would be one of the greatest surprises of the past 25 years, on par with the worst-to-first Braves winning the pennant in 1991. But it wouldn’t require any particular event that seems unlikely, just a string of good fortune that, for a 300–1 return, you could talk yourself into if you wanted to.