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White Sox ready for next step, but need help in field

After 10-win improvement in '14, Chicago can keep improving by shoring up pitching, defense
MLB.com @philgrogers

Eight teams experienced double-digit improvement in terms of wins last season, and only half of those teams went to the playoffs.

For the Astros (+19), Mariners (+16), Marlins (+15) and White Sox (+10), the 2014 season just scratched the surface of their potential. None of them finished better than third in their respective divisions, but for all of them a second jump of at least 10 wins would show that they've tapped into something that can last, making them major players going forward.

Eight teams experienced double-digit improvement in terms of wins last season, and only half of those teams went to the playoffs.

For the Astros (+19), Mariners (+16), Marlins (+15) and White Sox (+10), the 2014 season just scratched the surface of their potential. None of them finished better than third in their respective divisions, but for all of them a second jump of at least 10 wins would show that they've tapped into something that can last, making them major players going forward.

The goal is to make moves this winter -- little ones and some big ones -- that will put them on even more solid footing heading into Spring Training. They can't afford to let the momentum slip away.

For White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, the mission seems very clear. He's got to find a way to improve a collection of pitchers and fielders who allowed 758 runs last season, the third-highest total in the American League and an increase of 35 runs from 2013, when the Sox were 10th overall in runs allowed.

The arrival of AL Rookie of the Year favorite and MVP candidate Jose Abreu and leadoff man Adam Eaton put some swagger back into the franchise. But an improvement of 62 runs scored wasn't felt as strongly as it could have been because of the backward step in run prevention.

This much is clear: The burden shouldn't entirely fall on Don Cooper's pitching staff. For a team that had Gold Glove Award finalists up the middle in Alexei Ramirez and Eaton, this is a team that gives up runs with sloppy fielding.

According to Fangraphs, the White Sox were the fourth-worst fielding team in the AL, registering -57 Defensive Runs Saved, a difference of 97 runs when compared to the Royals. (As an aside, this is a trend that runs through the AL Central, as the three teams ranked behind the White Sox were the Tigers, Twins and Indians).

While the Sox have a top-heavy pitching staff -- with production falling off quickly behind 1-2 starters Chris Sale and Jose Quintana -- and were brutal in the late innings last season (converting only 36 of 57 save situations), they could help all their pitchers by addressing some of their defensive deficiencies.

Video: Don Cooper on 1-2 punch of Sale and Quintana

While Abreu was advertised as an adequate first baseman, the metrics show him as a liability. Fangraphs ranked the White Sox with the worst defense at first base. He could easily slide to designated hitter with Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko gone, but it's doubtful the Sox want him to become a one-way player so early into his six-year contract.

No one is going to see Abreu as a problem. But you can bet there have been serious debates in the White Sox's internal meetings about outfielder Dayan Viciedo and third baseman Conor Gillaspie. They're among the team's best hitters -- Gillaspie's ability to hit for average against tough pitching makes him a standout -- but they checked in at -17 and -12, respectively, in Defensive Runs Saved.

Video: Jose Abreu reflects on rookie season, looks to future

Here's a thought: Why not see if Gillaspie is better at first base, opening up third base for a player with more range like Marcus Semien or Leury Garcia? Or throw out Matt Davidson's horrible 2014 season and see what the power hitter can do? The last idea could be a tough sell, however, as Davidson's fielding hasn't drawn great reviews.

One thing the White Sox do have is some payroll flexibility.

Assuming they enter 2015 with a payroll of $90 million, their level last season, they have $20-25 million to spend, assuming they keep all six arbitration-eligible players. They would have a lot more to spend if they traded Viciedo or setup man Ronald Belisario, as MLBtraderumors.com estimates they're due a combined $8.3 million in arbitration.

There are some intriguing third basemen on the market. The list is headed by free agents Pablo Sandoval and Chase Headley, but could include the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez, who seems expendable with Pittsburgh having no room to play Josh Harrison in the outfield.

Victor Martinez is the free agent most rumored to interest the White Sox, and as a DH/first baseman, he could be a force at U.S. Cellular Field. He was such a great hitter for the Tigers last year (32 home runs, 42 strikeouts, .974 OPS) that it seems silly to argue against pursuing him. But like Sandoval, he will be an expensive proposition. And there are two big negatives for whoever signs him -- he'll be 36 on Opening Day, and he does nothing to help your fielding.

There's a big arm on the way that will help the pitching staff immediately. Feeling the need to compete behind Sale and Abreu, the White Sox got a break when the Astros and Marlins left North Carolina State lefty Carlos Rodon on the board in the Draft last June. His fastball-slider combination can work now in the big leagues, and Cooper has a great track record for helping guys find a third pitch and increase their pitchability.

Historically, the White Sox have broken in guys like Sale and Mark Buehrle with time in the bullpen, and Rodon could be a big piece there. With the stuff he has, he could immediately be an Andrew Miller-type impact guy in that role. But he could also be the No. 3 starter in a rotation that projects to also include Hector Noesi and John Danks, who is signed for two more years. The Sox have a decision to make with Rodon.

Danks could be a trade chip, if the White Sox were willing to eat a significant portion of the $28.5 million left on his contract. He could benefit from a move to the National League, and the Pirates have a very thin rotation with Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez heading to free agency. Danks for Alvarez? That seems like something worth discussing, but the Sox seem to be committed to helping Danks find a way to improve his worst outings, as he did have 20 quality starts in 2014.

Along with Zach Putnam, rookies Jake Petricka and Daniel Webb were solid in a bullpen that collapsed after Nate Jones went on the disabled list last year. The Sox are hopeful Jones can come back, but they know they probably need to add two proven arms in the bullpen. They have the flexibility to be players if Greg Holland or Jonathan Papelbon were put on the market, but historically they have developed closers rather than spend heavily for them. It seems more likely the Sox would be drawn to a free agent like Luke Gregerson rather than Francisco Rodriguez, but they do know they have to find a way to take the load off the kids at the end of games.

You should also never take your eye off the White Sox with Cuban talent. It wouldn't be a shock if they emerged as a serious bidder for slugger Yasmany Tomas or 19-year-old shortstop Yoan Moncada (who briefly played alongside Abreu in the Serie Nacional).

There are many roads to the future for the White Sox. Which ones will they take?

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Chicago White Sox