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White Sox: Five things to watch for in 2016

Todd Frazier should improve the White Sox' power, infield defense and clubhouse chemistry in 2016. AP

SAN DIEGO – A productive offseason led to an explosive (in more ways than one) homer-charged spring training.

White Sox home runs flew at an extraordinary rate in March, and not even the Adam LaRoche and son train wreck could stop it. When the debris was cleared, the Sox picked up where they left off, clearing fences with old bats (Jose Abreu, Avisail Garcia) and new (Todd Frazier, Brett Lawrie). They also played relatively clean defense and kept bad base-running decisions to a minimum, two more encouraging developments with the 162 games that matter starting Monday.

After finishing 10 games below .500 in 2015, the Sox look capable of getting to .500, maybe a bit better.

But significantly better?

Here are five things that will impact just how high – or low – they finish around the .500 mark.

 

LaFallout

Camp was “rolling full steam ahead” as ace Chris Sale put it when the Drake LaRoche mess turned things upside down for several days. Since then, the Sox have gathered themselves, are enjoying a loose clubhouse and appear to be focusing on baseball. If they start poorly, LaRoche’s retiring and the circumstances causing the ensuing blowup will get dragged back under the spotlight. And a difficult April schedule awaits them, starting with Sonny Gray and the Oakland Athletics for four games on the road. After going home for three days to open against the AL Central rival Cleveland Indians, it’s back on the road for the Central’s Minnesota Twins to start a weeklong trip. A month with only 10 home games concludes with a tough road trip in Toronto and Baltimore.

 

Back end of the rotation

 

The lefty trio of Sale, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon is arguably a top-ten top three in baseball. After that, who knows? Left-hander John Danks, in the last year of his $65 million contract, is a 4.75 ERA pitcher since shoulder surgery. And right-hander Mat Latos, trying to rejuvenate his once-shining career after injuries sidetracked him in 2015, is a wild card with minimal depth to back him up. Keep an eye on No. 8 overall draft pick Carson Fulmer, who will start the season at AA Birmingham but could be pressed into service in Chicago if he continues to impress.

 

Avisail Garcia

 

A score of skeptics scorched management for not quitting on the 24-year-old right fielder after Garcia’s offensive and defensive 2015 metrics lumped him among baseball’s worst starting outfielders. The 6-4, 240-pounder looks the same defensively but LaRoche’s exit and Austin Jackson’s addition to the outfield allows for better-suited time for Garcia at designated hitter. Citing an altered stance which helps him see the ball the better, Garcia slashed .333/.390/.667 with four homers and a team-high 17 RBI over 59 plate appearances this spring. The offensive Arizona sample size is small but encouraging, and the real test comes when the real games begin this week.

 

The bullpen

 

If the additions of Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie and fewer at-bats from LaRoche spike the Sox’ lowly home run numbers – they were last in the American League in long balls in 2015 but led all of baseball this spring with 49 – the Sox will be a much improved offensive club. This could mean more leads to protect and more outcomes in the bullpen’s hands. On paper, the same returning seven-man pen was much improved ERA-wise from 4.38 in 2014 to 3.61 in 2015. But bullpens, erratic by nature, often fluctuate from year to year. The Sox’ pen must stay on the good side, and having a full year of Nate Jones – who was dominant this spring – is big.

 

About that $13 million

 

Left on the table by LaRoche, who, as a 12 homer, 44 RBI guy did a favor by retiring, the Sox have extra cash to to sign a pitcher or swing a trade for a needed piece. They might go with what they have out of camp, assess their needs as the first couple of months unfold and go from there. If they’re in contention mid-season, look for chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to go beyond that saved $13 million.