White Sox projected to win 90 games, division by USA Today

SHARE White Sox projected to win 90 games, division by USA Today

White Sox general manager Rick Hahn has assembled a team picked to win the American League Central by USA Today. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

Let’s hope general manager Rick Hahn didn’t read USA Today’s prediction of 90 victories and an American League Central title for the White Sox and pull an offer for former Cubs outfielder Dexter Fowler off the table.

The USA Today forecast, published a few days in advance of spring training, was the latest and boldest in a recent stream of national love being showered on the Sox, who didn’t exactly blow the doors off the offseason. They made a few nice moves to improve their roster this winter, but not like they did last offseason.

The Sox will take any favorable publicity they can get — there are tickets to be sold — but they also want to approach the season as underdogs. After all, they have finished a combined 62 games under .500 in the last three seasons and have finished with a winning record once in the last five.

They have laid low in their pursuit of the switch-hitting Fowler, a leadoff man who would make a splendid finishing touch on a roster and lineup begging for improved on-base percentage, better baserunning and capable outfield defense.

There are reasons to like the Sox’ chances and reasons for them to make one more move. With bargain-priced right-hander Mat Latos (one year, $3 million) plugged in as the No. 4 starter behind Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon and overpaid-but-still-adequate John Danks at No. 5, the Sox’ starting rotation is top-10 material, if not better. Plus, Hahn rebuilt the bullpen, which was deplorable in 2014, into a unit with depth and no weak link.

A year ago, the Sox had miscalculated by thinking their pitching and lineup would offset a suspect infield of Conor Gillaspie, Alexei Ramirez, Micah Johnson and Jose Abreu. After pulling off trades for All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier and second baseman Brett Lawrie and plugging good-glove shortstop Tyler Saladino between them, the infield defense is sound.

But here’s the rub: Behind them, an outfield of Melky Cabrera, Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia is a defensive weakness the pitching staff will fret over. That’s where Fowler comes in. Put him on a corner or put him in center and move Eaton to left, and the Sox improve on a number of fronts on both sides of the ball.

The Cabrera-Eaton-Garcia unit ranked 26th in outfield WAR (wins above replacement) among the 30 major-league teams last season. That’s not the stuff 90-victory teams are made of.

Of course, such a move likely would push the 24-year-old Garcia, whose upside and downside are debated long and hard among Sox decision-makers, into a platoon role or out of the mix.

‘‘These guys are tough to scout, mid-20s and on the fence,’’ a veteran AL scout said. ‘‘We have seen guys like this flip the switch and instantly tap their ability. We have also seen them never get one lick better. At 24, [Garcia] still has another couple of years to prove it, but the Sox need at least average every-day production right now. They can’t afford to wait a year or two.’’

Fowler, who will turn 30 next month, probably would cost the Sox around $20 million over two seasons, plus the No. 28 overall draft pick. But they still would have two top-50 picks, including No. 10 overall, as they continue to make inroads in the international market.

The Baltimore Orioles also are interested in Fowler and are said to be willing to part with the 29th overall pick as compensation.

Pitchers and catchers report Friday.

Follow me on Twitter @CST_soxvan.

Email: dvanschouwen@suntimes.com

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