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2019 MLB preview and predictions: How the White Sox stack up against the Cleveland Indians

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USA TODAY

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How the White Sox stack up against the Cleveland Indians

As the 2019 season nears and the White Sox get ready to take on the rest of the American League, we're taking a team-by-team look at all 14 of their opponents.

The Indians have dominated the AL Central in recent seasons and are just three years removed from a trip to the World Series, just two years removed from that 22-game winning streak and a 102-win season.

But the Indians are not one of the American League's uber teams. In fact, despite having perhaps the best starting rotation in baseball, they seem to pale in comparison to the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Houston Astros. Somehow, in a weak division that features three teams that combined for more than 300 losses in 2018, it's hard to describe them as a playoff lock. They still have to enter 2019 as the favorites in the Central, but that's a status earned as much by the weak teams around them as it is by their own strength.

We'll start with the positives, though, the things that should send the Indians to a fourth straight division title, and of course that begins with the starting staff. The quintet of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber features as many as four Cy Young candidates, depending on how much you like Clevinger — and that should be a lot after his 3.02 ERA and 207 strikeouts over 200 innings in 2018. And that was the fourth, yes, fourth most strikeouts of that group. Carrasco led the way with 231 (to go along with his 3.38 ERA). Kluber was his typically amazing self with a 2.89 ERA and 222 strikeouts. And Bauer, in only 27 starts, went all the way to 221 strikeouts with a rotation-leading 2.21 ERA.

That's four potential aces, right there, and there's no rotation in the game that comes close to that.

The Indians are also the home of two of the best position players in the game: Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Lindor will likely miss the start of the season while injured, but that doesn't strip him of his ability to mash, as he did last season when he launched 38 homers. But Ramirez was even better in 2018, challenging for the MVP with a .939 OPS, 39 homers and 105 RBIs. Those two guys are absolutely fantastic, and a better 1-2 punch than you'll find elsewhere in the AL Central.

And that's why the Indians should remain atop the division. None of the other four teams, including the Minnesota Twins, the only non-rebuilding squad of the four, have anything close to what the Indians have in their rotation and in the middle of their lineup.

Good thing for the Clevelanders, too, because the rest of this group isn't terribly imposing.

Edwin Encarnacion and his 32 homer, 107-RBI production was sent away so that Carlos Santana could come back to town, even though as an inductee of the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame he never left. Santana had eight fewer homers and 21 fewer RBIs than Encarnacion last season. The quiet steadiness Michael Brantley brought to the proceedings is now playing for one of those uber teams in Houston, and there's still nothing replacing him in the outfield. The Opening Day outfield is projected to consist of Jake Bauers (a .201 batting average as a rookie for the Tampa Bay Rays last season), Leonys Martin (a sub-.300 on-base percentage in just 133 games over the past two seasons with four different teams) and Tyler Naquin (three homers and a .287 on-base percentage in just 80 games over the past two seasons). Former Colorado Rockies MVP candidate Carlos Gonzalez was signed to a minor league deal recently. He's no longer an MVP candidate but would figure to be an upgrade to that outfield. Jason Kipnis is well removed from his glory days, with a .704 OPS over the past two seasons.

Then cast your eyes to the bullpen, where you might expect to see Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. But those two departed via free agency for the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Angels, respectively. Brad Hand is still an All-Star closer, but this is a team that had claimed the relief corps as a strength for so long, only to finish with a relief ERA of 4.60, 25th out of 30 teams.

The Indians do seem, in certain areas, a far cry from the team that was good enough to reach the World Series and rattle off that 22-game win streak. But thanks to a weak AL Central, it'd still be somewhat surprising to see them toppled from the top of the division. They have a dominant starting staff and two legitimate MVP candidates. Who can compete with that. Not the Twins. Not the rebuilding squads in Kansas City, Detroit or on the South Side of Chicago. The Indians' window might be nearing its close. But it won't slam shut this year.

2018 record: 91-71, first place in AL Central

Offseason additions: Carlos Santana, Jake Bauers, Hanley Ramirez, Kevin Plawecki

Offseason departures: Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Michael Brantley, Josh Donaldson, Lonnie Chisenhall, Melky Cabrera, Josh Tomlin, Rajai Davis

X-factor: Brad Hand made the NL All-Star team with the San Diego Padres in each of the last two seasons, sensational in 2017 and quite good again in 2018. But his numbers were even better last season after the trade that sent him to Cleveland. He posted a 2.28 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 27.2 innings with the Indians.

Projected lineup:

1. Leonys Martin, CF
2. Jason Kipnis, 2B
3. Jose Ramirez, 3B
4. Carlos Santana, 1B
5. Jake Bauers, LF
6. Hanley Ramirez, DH
7. Tyler Naquin, RF
8. Roberto Perez, C
9. Eric Stamets, SS
*Francisco Lindor, SS, expected to start the season on the IL

Projected rotation:

1. Corey Kluber
2. Trevor Bauer
3. Carlos Carrasco
4. Mike Clevinger
5. Shane Bieber

Prediction: First place in AL Central

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Alex Colome unsurprisingly named White Sox closer, though bullpen mysteries abound ahead of Opening Day

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USA TODAY

Alex Colome unsurprisingly named White Sox closer, though bullpen mysteries abound ahead of Opening Day

Though Rick Renteria isn't fond of naming one, the White Sox have a closer.

Alex Colome, acquired in a trade with the Seattle Mariners this offseason, will be the White Sox designated closer when the season starts next week in Kansas City, Renteria shared with reporters Friday in Arizona.

As that tweet shows, Renteria is still very much standing by his philosophy of "having a bunch of different guys who can close out games," not a bad philosophy to have should Colome spend any time on the disabled list, struggle in a significant fashion or just get tired and become unavailable at various points throughout the 162-game season. Regardless of whether Colome is the guy or not — and he is — there will be others Renteria will deploy in save situations. That's just the nature of the game.

But Colome is a no-brainer of a choice here considering what he's done the past two seasons. In 2016, he logged 37 saves with the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2017, he was baseball's saves leader, with 47 of them. He saved 11 more games with the Rays last season before getting traded to the Mariners, where he served in a setup role to last year's saves leader, Edwin Diaz.

In the last three seasons, Colome has a 2.78 ERA and 201 strikeouts in 191.1 innings, many of them high-leverage situations.

Saying Colome is the obvious choice to close is no insult to the other guys in an improved White Sox bullpen. It's a reflection of how good an addition Rick Hahn made this offseason.

Meanwhile, the rest of the bullpen is full of preseason mysteries.

Kelvin Herrera, another offseason upgrade White Sox fans are thrilled is no longer pitching out of the Kansas City Royals' bullpen, is still on the way back from an injury that ended his 2018 season in late August. Nate Jones has had himself a very rough spring (a 15.43 ERA in 4.2 Cactus League innings) and has recently described his outings as "unacceptable." While Renteria said Friday that "the next couple of days are very important" for Jones, it would be quite surprising if he wasn't on the Opening Day roster.

Jace Fry, another projected late-inning option for Renteria, has also had a poor spring, with eight runs allowed in eight innings. Ian Hamilton has made just one Cactus League appearance, recovering from an injury sustained during a car accident this spring. Manny Banuelos, who could be the long man out of the 'pen, has allowed eight earned runs, surrendered three home runs and issued six walks in 14 innings this spring.

Ryan Burr, though, has been a bright spot, with just three runs allowed over his seven outings.

So what will the Opening Day bullpen look like? Assuming it will contain eight pitchers, Colome, Herrera, Jones, Fry, Banuelos and Burr could account for six of them. If Hamilton is healthy, he could get another. Same for Caleb Frare, who also got his first taste of the majors at the end of last season. There are only two other potential relief pitchers currently listed on the White Sox roster: Dylan Covey and Jose Ruiz. Covey could likely only serve as a long man, and with Banuelos out of options, it's Banuelos who seems most destined for that spot after the White Sox made a trade to acquire him this winter. Ruiz could step in in the event Hamilton isn't healthy enough to make the roster out of camp or beat out one of his fellow youngsters for a more secure job.

We'll see how all that plays out. One thing you can mark down in pen: Colome is the ninth-inning man.

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Sounds like a Chris Sale reunion won't be happening as extensions keep shaking up next winter for White Sox

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USA TODAY

Sounds like a Chris Sale reunion won't be happening as extensions keep shaking up next winter for White Sox

A certain segment of White Sox fans were wishing for a Chris Sale homecoming. It looks like those wishes will not be coming true.

Sale, who just won a World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox, is reportedly the latest to jump aboard the extension bandwagon, joining huge names like Mike Trout, Alex Bregman, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and more who are taking themselves off future free-agent markets and re-upping with their current teams for long terms and big dollars.

Given the current state of free agency — yeah, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper cashed in big, but other great players like Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel remain jobless just a week away from Opening Day — and the looming uncertainty surrounding the collective-bargaining agreement, these extensions make plenty of sense. Even if the goal for every player always seemed to be getting rewarded with a huge free-agent payday, that seems to be changing, and that's changing things for the White Sox.

It might have never seemed that a Sale reunion on the South Side was very likely, even if some fans wanted one of the best pitchers in franchise history to return. Sale had multiple, highly publicized beefs with members of the organization during the 2016 season, including anger over the Drake LaRoche situation and the infamous jersey-cutting incident.

But Sale is just the latest player to remove himself from what figures to be an important round of free agency for the White Sox next winter. Arenado, Sale, Goldschmidt, Aaron Hicks and Miles Mikolas all looked to be part of a loaded free-agent class. Trout was supposed to headline the group of available players following the 2020 campaign. Now, none will be available for the White Sox, who will be looking to add impact talent from outside the organization to a team planned to be transitioning from rebuilding to contending. And other players could follow suit. Anthony Rendon has been mentioned as a possible extension candidate. J.D. Martinez could decide not to opt out of his current deal. And considering how surprising some of these extensions have been, particularly Trout's, these could seemingly come at any time and dramatically shake things up months ahead of the offseason.

Again, while Sale specifically might not have been a White Sox target — same, potentially, for the likes of Trout and others — this trend is altering the landscape on a daily basis. Next winter's free-agent class seemed a safety net of sorts after the White Sox missed out on Machado and Harper this offseason, a shining example of the remaining opportunities Rick Hahn's front office has to add big-time talent from outside the organization. Those opportunities have undoubtedly diminished in recent days and weeks.

They haven't been completely eliminated, of course, and that free-agent class could still feature big names like Rendon, Martinez, Gerrit Cole, Xander Bogaerts, Justin Verlander, Madison Bumgarner, Josh Donaldson, Yasmani Grandal, Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna and more. Plus, there's the ever-present trade market, which the White Sox could be in a unique position to take advantage of thanks to their loaded farm system.

And the White Sox, too, are reportedly a part of this trend. They're supposedly close to finishing off a new deal with top-rated prospect Eloy Jimenez, one that could keep him on the South Side for the next eight seasons.

But for a team still likely to be searching for help via the free-agent market over the next two offseasons, some of the biggest potential additions are taking themselves off the market. That limits the opportunities for Hahn's front office, and it might force the White Sox down some previously less-considered paths in an effort to finish off the rebuild.

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