Tuesday August 11th, 2009

With a pair of high-priced acquisitions, first trading for injured Padres ace and former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and then adding ex-All-Star Alex Rios from the Blue Jays on Monday, White Sox general manager Ken Williams has served notice that his team is not willing to settle for perfection.

On July 23, Mark Buehrle blanked the Rays with a perfect game and the Sox moved into a first place tie atop the AL Central with the Tigers. But since then, they've gone just 7-10 and fallen three games in arrears of Detroit, leading to doubts that this team has the staying power to make a serious postseason push, much less do significant damage once they get there. That perfect day was looking more and more like the last good day of their season, a trend that Williams and the White Sox hope to have reversed by adding the multi-talented Rios to settle their scattered center-field problem once and for all and improve an offense that ranks ninth in the AL in runs, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS.

Like the Peavy trade, the Rios acquisition involves taking on a significant long-term contract -- in this case the remainder of the almost $70 million deal he signed early in the 2008 season -- but unlike the Peavy trade, the White Sox commitment ends right there. Not a single player, neither off the major league roster nor a minor league prospect, is going back to Toronto in the deal. That speaks to just how ready the Blue Jays were to be free of Rios' underperforming bat (his .264/.317/.427 line is a notable dropoff from his .291/.337/.461 mark of a year ago, which was itself a steep decline from 2007), his massive contract and his behavior, which had worn thin in Toronto -- especially after a confrontation with his cursing out a fan was posted on YouTube earlier this season.

The risk comes entirely in taking on a humongous contract with uncertain return on that investment. Rios' youth is enticing and his talent tantalizing, which explains why the White Sox would commit themselves to a player with declining numbers and escalating salaries for each of the next five seasons, plus a club option in 2015. Rios will make $9.7 million next year, $12 million in 2011 and 2012 and $12.5 million in 2013 and 2014. For that kind of money, the White Sox are not looking for simply a hired gun to give them a boost this year, but rather a fixture in the outfield the foreseeable future.

With Gold Glover Vernon Wells alongside him in Toronto, Rios has been able to spend most of his time in right field, where his strong arm has been used to maximum effect. Only two players (Jeff Francoeur and Alfonso Soriano) have more assists than Rios' 55 since 2004. Incumbent right fielder Jermaine Dye has a club option at season's end, which would seem to leave Rios' most likely position as centerfield, which just happens to be where the White Sox have had the greatest need for the longest time.

Since winning the World Series in 2005 and sending Aaron Rowand to the Phillies in the Jim Thome trade, the White Sox have undergone an annual parade of new faces in center field. In 2006, the job was given to then-top prospect Brian Anderson, but he flamed out with a .225 batting average and didn't have more than 200 at-bats in either of the next two seasons. In 2007, they tried Jerry Owens, who provided speed (32 stolen bases) but little else and has played just 24 big league games in the two years since. In 2008, Nick Swisher was brought in to play center, but he hit .219, prompting Williams to acquire the ancient Ken Griffey Jr. late in the year for a mostly ceremonial turn at the position of his youth. Griffey went back to Seattle in the offseason and Swisher was traded to the Yankees just weeks after the Sox season ended with a loss to the Rays in the AL Division Series.

This year no fewer than three players have taken turns trying to win the job. Anderson batted .238 before being traded, Podsednik was brought back after being out of baseball entirely this spring but has played twice as often in left field (filling in for Carlos Quentin while he recovered from an injury) as center, and DeWayne Wise, despite making the defensive play of the year with the catch that preserved Buerhle's perfecto, has just a .200 average and .240 OBP.

If nothing else, Rios will be an instant upgrade in center and solidify the position for years to come if that's where the Sox choose to keep him, but it is unclear just what else he's giving the White Sox. Scouts have raved for years about his talent and potential, but while his contract is kicking in to cover the prime years of his career, his talent may not be. It won't take much for him to be better than his immediate predecessors. White Sox center fielders rank last in the American League and 29th in all of baseball with a .224 average, .281 on-base percentage and .309 slugging percentage and have hit just three home runs this season.

His arrival means fewer at-bats for someone, likely either Podsednik or Quentin, who has batted just .239 with three home runs since returning from a foot injury but was a leading AL MVP candidate a year ago before a broken wrist ended his season in early September. Dye and Jim Thome could also be affected by it, but since those are two of the team's top three run producers, that seems less likely.

It is certain that Rios will play. Whether he plays well and long enough to justify such a massive infusion of payroll is far from certain.

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