MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

White Sox coming together with strong April

With AL's best record, Chicago may be heading for special summer

White Sox coming together with strong April

There's no way to know if this will be Chicago's year in baseball. It's too early for any such pronouncements, but this has certainly been Chicago's month.

As April closes, the White Sox have joined the Cubs in being a front-runner to lead their league in victories.

The White Sox are doing it the hard way, too, as the American League has seldom been as balanced as it is this season.

You can argue that the most dynamic teams are in the National League, with the Cubs and maybe five or six others capable of making a run at 95-plus wins. But the NL also features the weakest teams in the Majors, with four already featuring a run differential of minus-35 or worse.

The White Sox had no help in getting off to a 16-7 start. They did it while playing a schedule that offered them only one scheduled off-day in a four-week stretch, with 17 of the first 27 games on the road.

"This has been a really demanding schedule," general manager Rick Hahn said. "To get off to this start with this schedule is really exciting. With that said, I think we'll see some benefit from it in July and August, when we have off-days at times we might need them."

The upcoming summer should be a blast in Chicago, with the teams playing nothing but meaningful series. Imagine how nuts the city could be in late July, when the Cubs and White play their four-game Interleague battle, first with two games at U.S. Cellular and then two at Wrigley Field.

Want to carry the fantasy out a step further? If Chris Sale and Jake Arrieta both pitch in the All-Star Game, they'd likely be lined up to face each other in the City Series.

We can dream, can't we?

The Royals and the Astros were popular picks to reach the World Series, but Houston stumbled to a 7-15 start that will be difficult to overcome. Kansas City has looked vulnerable since its own 8-2 start, losing seven of 11 and slipping below the offensively challenged White Sox in scoring.

Quintana strikes out 10

Led by Sale and Jose Quintana -- not to overlook huge improvements in the bullpen and the fielding both in the infield and the outfield -- the White Sox have risen above the relatively flat AL landscape, like a high-rise project in a mid-sized city.

Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight.com runs 50,000 computer simulations a day on rosters and factors like travel and rest, and its calculation on Thursday had the White Sox winning 91 games, with no one else in the AL winning more than 86.

Baseball Prospectus had the White Sox down for 89 victories, and only four other teams projected for even winning records (the Indians with 88 wins, the Red Sox with 86, the Rays and Mariners with 84 apiece).

Having swept the Rangers and Blue Jays in their previous two series, the White Sox were 10 games over .500 before dropping their series opener vs. the Orioles on Thursday, 10-2. That means they would finish with 86 wins by playing just one game over .500 the rest of the way, and they can reach 90 by winning only a handful more series than they lose.

Not that they're slowing down to do the math.

"As competitive as the American League is, with 15 teams that think they can reach the postseason, there's no let up," Hahn said. "You can make a case that in our division, the range of [records] at the end of the season could be from 78 at the bottom to 86, 87 at the top. It's going to be very hard for anybody to run away with it. If a team does pull away, it's going to be because they competed, focused for six months. So we have to keep the approach that we've had so far."

Hahn couldn't be happier about how the White Sox have started, of course. He's happiest, he said, about the "run prevention," which is a combination of excellent pitching and fielding.

They're allowing an AL-low 2.7 runs per game. The rotation leads the league with a 2.94 ERA and the bullpen leads the Majors with a 1.68 ERA. Entering play Thursday, their fielders ranked behind only the Cubs in Defensive Efficiency Ratio, as ranked by Baseball Prospectus.

Navarro's two-run triple

The White Sox imported six veterans to change the lineup at five positions after last year's 76-86 season: catcher (Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro), second base (Brett Lawrie), shortstop (Jimmy Rollins), third base (Todd Frazier) and center field (Austin Jackson). Adam Eaton, who played with a badly injured left shoulder in 2015, underwent surgery and accepted a move to right field, where he's been the best fielder in the Majors, with plus-8 Defensive Runs Saved, per FanGraphs.

But Hahn alludes to another factor in his club's improvement.

"Our positioning has been strong from the bench," he said. "That has helped."

The White Sox made two changes to their coaching staff after last season, hiring Rick Renteria to replace Mark Parent as bench coach and Greg Sparks to take over for Harold Baines as assistant hitting coach.

Renteria, who the Cubs dismissed as manager one year into his three-year contract to create an opening for Joe Maddon, works quietly in the shadows, but he is having a daily impact.

"Rick's been a great addition," Hahn said. "He has seamlessly fit in with the coaches and players. The communication between all of us and the players this year has been fantastic, and to a large part that's been through Rick's efforts. Everyone is pleased he is here."

Hahn also appears to have made a nice addition in risking $3 million to import Mat Latos. The 28-year-old right-hander was viewed as one of the NL's top young pitchers in his early seasons with the Padres and Reds, but he has experienced a series of injuries and diminished performance in 2014 and '15.

While Latos' fastball is barely averaging 90 mph, he will enter Saturday's start against the Orioles at 4-0 with a 0.74 ERA. That's quite an early return from a deal that wasn't agreed to until Feb. 9, after Hahn had patiently waited for Latos' demands to fall into the range where the White Sox could do a deal on what remained in their budget.

"We knew he had something to prove and would be incentivized to go out there and do everything he possibly could to have a good year," Hahn said. "He liked the idea of coming to us, working with [pitching coach Don Cooper]. ... He's getting it done right now, pitching exceptionally well. If his velocity climbs over the course of the season, it should only help him continue to be successful."

After beating the Blue Jays, 10-1, on Tuesday and 4-0 on Wednesday, the White Sox had given up one run or fewer in half of their first 22 games. Hahn knows that's not sustainable. But he also believes they're going to score more runs than they have early, as Melky Cabrera is the only regular with an OPS above .770.

Frazier's solo home run

Jose Abreu and Frazier figure to be one of the AL's top combination of 3-4 hitters, but they are making a lot of outs while flashing their power. Hahn admits that the lineup is a little too right-handed, but he has to feel good that the unexpected retirement of Adam LaRoche has given the club flexibility to add a left-handed hitter at midseason, if Hahn deems it desirable.

But Hahn said that's a consideration for way down the road. The focus now is matching up with the Orioles this week, then the Red Sox after that.

"There's no messing around," Hahn said. "No let up. We know every night will be a battle. I love the way we're preparing for that, approaching it. It's been fun, but it's just starting."

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.