Improved White Sox take important step in 2014

Highlighted by talented new faces, Chicago made strides in solid year

Improved White Sox take important step in 2014

CHICAGO -- The 2014 White Sox presented a noticeably improved overall version from what was on the field in '13.

It actually would be difficult not to move upward and forward from that previous 99-loss debacle, but there was real progress made under the ongoing reshaping process spearheaded by general manager Rick Hahn. Yet, better certainly doesn't qualify as nearly good enough for Hahn and the organization.

"This is an important offseason in our process," said Hahn during a recent interview, melding the present gains with the future goals. "We've known this was going to be a multiyear process for us from the start.

"Obviously we were pleased with some of the things we were able to do in the first year. But at the same time it's readily apparent there are still other items that need to be addressed."

Hahn spoke back in Spring Training of the desire to build that consistent postseason contender, put up against the desire to never simply give away a season as part of a rebuild. Hahn also used the phrase "fool's gold" in analyzing whether a potential '14 contender was for real and worthy of supplementing the cause in-season, or staying the course under the reshaping plan and differentiating between a team with a modicum of success that probably wasn't a true playoff threat.

There were great moments for the '14 White Sox, topped off by the season-ending celebration recognizing Paul Konerko's illustrious career, stretches where they actually looked in the realm of a long-shot threat for Wild Card contention. But even when the team was hovering around .500, Hahn knew of the shortcomings at the back end of the rotation and in the bullpen, not to mention the significant injury voids left by outfielder Avisail Garcia and relievers Nate Jones and Matt Lindstrom.

Jose Abreu, the rookie free agent who came from Cuba to the White Sox via a six-year, $68-million deal, emerged as such a powerhouse that he deserves a '14 plus column all his own. The first baseman not only was a power threat and run-producing threat, but finished with an average well over .300. Abreu, the player and the person, far exceeded expectations, and the White Sox had high expectations prior to his arrival. The White Sox also found a leadoff man to spark their lineup and a solid center fielder to anchor their defense in Adam Eaton, while getting continued top-flight starting performances from All-Star Chris Sale, and under-the-radar excellence from Jose Quintana.

Ultimately, this season stands as just one step of apparently many needed by the White Sox to get to where they want to be. It's a significant step nonetheless, enhanced by individual excellence.

"We knew coming in that this was still a rebuilding, retooling, reshaping, whatever word you want to say," pitching coach Don Cooper said. "It doesn't stop us from coming every day, wanting and trying to win.

"We are in a much better place. The addition of Abreu alone, let alone Eaton, let alone Avi, who we missed a lot this year. ... Big positives."

Record: 73-89, fourth in the American League Central.

Defining moment: On April 25, with the White Sox trailing, 6-5, and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a star was born. Abreu connected for an opposite-field, walk-off grand slam off of Rays closer Grant Balfour and a 9-6 victory. The arrival of Abreu as a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat and a soon-to-be clubhouse leader supersedes pretty much anything else that happened this past season. On the negative side, an eighth-inning Oswaldo Arcia double off the glove of left fielder Alejandro De Aza via a catchable drive turned a potential seventh win in nine games into a brutal late-game, 8-6, loss to end July. Any remote White Sox playoff hopes were dashed by a 9-19 August to follow.

What went right:

• Abreu became a first-time All-Star and, as a player ranking in the Top 6 among all three Triple Crown categories, stands as the odds-on favorite as AL Rookie of the Year.

• Despite missing just over a month from April 18 to May 22 with a flexor muscle strain, Sale still put up Cy Young caliber numbers.

• Quintana continued to form a formidable one-two combination with Sale at the top of the rotation.

• A healthy Tyler Flowers added offensive production, albeit not season-long consistency, to his exceptional handling of the pitching staff.

Conor Gillaspie asserted himself as the team's third baseman for '15 with an improved showing offensively and defensively

• Carlos Rodon fell to the White Sox at No. 3 overall in the First-Year Player Draft, with Rodon possibly joining the '15 rotation out of Spring Training.

• Hahn was able to free up money and obtain potential future help in the trades of Gordon Beckham, Adam Dunn and De Aza, three veterans who were not part of the team's future.

Alexei Ramirez bounced back from a sub-par '13 by his standards with a performance worthy of Gold Glove and Silver Slugger consideration.

Hector Noesi found a home at the back end of the rotation with the White Sox, who were his third team of the season.

• Garcia, whose left shoulder injury suffered on April 9 was deemed to be season-ending, returned on Aug. 16.

Zach Putnam went from non-roster invitee to co-closer by season's end

• Konerko completed his 16-year-run in Chicago as one of the most respected players in franchise history

• Frank Thomas became a Hall of Fame inductee as part of an historic six-person class in Cooperstown.

What went wrong:

• Erik Johnson and Felipe Paulino struggled mightily at the back end of the rotation and were both replaced by late April.

• Garcia missed four months due to a torn labrum and avulsion fracture suffered while diving for a ball in right field April 9 in Colorado.

• Jones never really threw a healthy pitch due to back issues and now could miss most of next year after having Tommy John Surgery

• Injuries to Jones and Lindstrom threw the bullpen into disarray and made it an overall weak spot.

• Beckham, the team's top pick in the '08 First-Year Player Draft, was moved to the Angels after an especially rough offensive stretch.

Biggest surprise: Eaton. It's hard to call Eaton a pure surprise, considering he had posted exceptional numbers at the Minor League level with Arizona. But the left-handed hitter proved to not only be a much-needed presence at the top of the lineup, but a strong, gritty overall player.

Hitter of the Year: Abreu. With all due respect to Eaton, Ramirez and/or Gillaspie, there's really no debate on this topic. Abreu is a man with a plan at the plate, and a man who executed that plan more often than not.

Pitcher of the Year: Sale. He ended up with a career-low 26 starts and less than 180 innings pitched. He also topped 200 strikeouts for a second straight year and laid claim to being the game's top left-handed starter not named Clayton Kershaw.

Rookie of the Year: Abreu. He carries himself like a 10-year-veteran, but Abreu will be rightfully honored as a first-year success.

Scott Merkin is a reporter for Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.