White Sox are no lock to win American League Central

Despite their offseason dealings, the South Siders still have holes. Meanwhile, the Twins continue to add big-name talent.

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The White Sox signed Liam Hendriks to a four-year, $54 million contract this offseason.

The White Sox signed Liam Hendriks to a four-year, $54 million contract this offseason.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Are they as we know them today? Is general manager Rick Hahn’s team, as he put it after signing closer Liam Hendriks to a four-year, $54 million contract Jan. 15, almost complete and “on the floor?”

With significant question marks at the back end of the rotation and designated hitter, there should be room on the Sox’s payroll to address those needs. But Hahn hasn’t spent a dime since adding Hendriks’ $11 million salary to the 2021 books.

Closer Alex Colome made $10.5 million in 2020, so the trade-off with Hendriks was mild. Before reeling in Hendriks, the Sox added starter Lance Lynn, an All-Star right-hander acquired in a trade for rookie Dane Dunning, for $9 million in 2021. And free-agent right fielder Adam Eaton will be paid $7 million this year.

So it’s not like the Sox are stretching themselves at a time when — with the rebuild coming together and World Series aspirations legit after years of payroll savings — they could have put the hammer down on the competition by signing another big piece or two.

Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer and outfielders George Springer and Michael Brantley were out there. Designated hitter extraordinaire Nelson Cruz, for whom many fans clamored, didn’t re-sign with the American League Central champion Twins until this week.

After the Twins brought back Cruz, it became harder to crown the Sox, who were once thought by many to be the clear choice to win the division. While the Sox rest with most of their offseason work seemingly done, the Twins have been active of late, also signing Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons, left-hander J.A. Happ and Colome, who posted a 2.17 ERA with 42 saves in 46 opportunities for the Sox over the last two seasons.

Knowing their record of signing or trading for proven veteran DHs who underperformed — think Adam Dunn, Adam LaRoche, Yonder Alonso, Edwin Encarnacion — it’s not surprising the Sox were hesitant to pony up for Cruz. Perhaps they felt jinxed in the DH realm.

The Sox say they’re comfortable with their top prospect, 2019 third overall draft pick Andrew Vaughn, in a lineup surrounded by Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez, Yasmani Grandal, Luis Robert and Eaton. It would seem prudent, though, to give Vaughn a good run of at-bats above Class A before running him out to face the Angels’ Dylan Bundy on Opening Day.

But Vaughn is very close, and he comes at the major-league minimum price.

“Based on what we’ve seen with Andrew Vaughn since he’s been part of the organization — and I anticipate he’s going to carry that same approach that has made him successful not only as an amateur but throughout his time here — I would imagine that the amount of success that he’s had and he probably will [have] in spring training that he’ll be in position to be that DH or be on the major-league club,” Sox assistant general manager and director of player development Chris Getz said Wednesday. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if that question is asked [by upper management]. I would certainly share with them that he is ready to help this team.”

The belief of many fans that playing Vaughn over, say, Cruz or another free agent (Marcel Ozuna signed a $64 million deal with the Braves Friday night) at DH was more about saving money isn’t preposterous, and it will take a good year from Vaughn to quiet the disapproving.

The Sox have a sweet stadium deal and they saved on payroll during their rebuilding years, but like everyone else, they sustained financial hits in a pandemic-ravaged 2020 season in which the baseball industry lost $3 billion, according to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.

Designated hitter isn’t the only question mark that could have been answered with additional spending for a team with World Series aspirations. The rotation after Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Lynn is far from certain. Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez and Carlos Rodon need to establish themselves.

And as for the No. 2 catcher behind Grandal, you wonder if new manager Tony La Russa lobbied chairman Jerry Reinsdorf for pricier 38-year-old Yadier Molina, his guy during his Cardinals days, before settling for 34-year-old Jonathan Lucroy on a minor-league deal to push the defensively challenged Zack Collins, a .167/.286/.314 hitter.

In any event, the Sox’ payroll, barring significant upgrades, figures to be near $130 million, likely a middle-of-the-pack number. (Their all-time high was $127.8 million in 2011, according to Cots Contracts.) With it, they have plenty of flexibility to add midseason, if not sooner. And as constructed on paper, they are pegged among the best teams in the league, but probably headed for a dogfight with the Twins in the AL Central.

Hendriks was reminded by La Russa what that paper is worth.

“He’s like, ‘Look, we may have a good team on paper, but at the end of the day, paper doesn’t win a ring,’” Hendriks said.

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