SAN DIEGO — The White Sox made the first big moves at the winter meetings late on Monday night. Not only did they sign closer David Robertson to a four-year, $46 million deal, but they also acquired starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija and once-heralded pitching prospect Michael Ynoa from the Athletics as part of a six-player deal whose return is headlined by infielder Marcus Semien. Taken in conjunction with Chicago's previous additions of first baseman Adam LaRoche and lefty reliever Zach Duke via free agency, the moves represent an aggressive attempt to improve a team that went 73-89 and finished in fourth place the AL Central in 2014.
The 29-year-old Robertson, who has spent his entire professional career with the Yankees since being drafted in 2006, stepped into the closer role vacated by Mariano Rivera's retirement and saved 39 games in 44 attempts in 2014. He struck out 37.1 percent of all batters he faced, the highest rate of his career, and on a per-nine-innings basis, his 13.4 K/9 were 0.1 off his career high. His 3.08 ERA was his highest mark since 2010, mainly due to an elevated home run rate, a career-worst 1.0 per nine.
Robertson's deal, which according to the New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand also includes a limited no-trade clause, makes him the game's second-highest paid reliever in terms of both total contract value and average salary behind the Phillies' Jonathan Papelbon, who is entering the last guaranteed season of a four-year, $50 million deal. Historically, other closers — Rivera, Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano — have exceeded the AAV of Robertson's new deal, but the industry has largely turned away from such staggering contracts for closers. The Braves' Craig Kimbrel ($10.5 million per year) and the Tigers' Nathan ($10 million per year) are the only other closers currently on eight-figure deals.
A reluctance to go that high or that long at a time when the Yankees have so many other needs to fill is why New York did not act more aggressively to retain Robertson, who also drew significant interest from the Astros. The Yankees signed lefty reliever Andrew Miller to a four-year, $36 million deal on Friday, albeit not necessarily to close. He and righty Dellin Betances, who is coming off a sensational rookie season, could share those duties, or the team could add another experienced closer to the mix such as free agents Jason Grilli or Sergio Romo, leaving Miller and Betances as potential multi-inning weapons out of the bullpen.
From New York's point of view, the additional advantage to the Robertson/Miller switcheroo is the gain of a compensatory draft pick. In fact, while the team gave the former a $15.3 million qualifying offer, they reportedly didn't make a multi-year offer to the latter because they preferred the combination of Miller — who was traded in-season from the Red Sox to the Orioles and was thus not eligible for a qualifying offer — and a pick
As for the White Sox, they won't lose a first-round pick for signing Robertson, since they own the eighth pick of the draft, which is protected; instead, they'll lose their second-round pick. The team cycled through four closers in 2014, with Matt Lindstrom and Ronald Belisario saving six games apiece but pitching their way out of the role by midseason (neither is on the roster now). Jake Petricka got the bulk of the ninth-inning duty in the second half, saving 14 games and finishing with a 2.96 ERA, with Zach Putnam adding six saves and a 1.98 ERA, but neither missed nearly as many bats as Robertson does.
The pair of Petricka and Putnam, both righties heading into their age-27 seasons, will likely serve in a setup capacity barring further upgrades, with the lefty Duke in the mix as well. In all, it's a significant revamping of a unit that ranked second-to-last in the AL in terms of both ERA (4.38) and strikeout rate (7.2 per nine).
As for Samardzija, the 29-year-old righty (he turns 30 on Jan. 23) posted just a 7-13 record in 2014, but he put up a 2.99 ERA, 3.20 FIP and 8.3 strikeouts per nine in a career-high 219 2/3 innings split between the Cubs and A's. Drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round in 2006 out of Notre Dame, he was traded to Oakland in a five-player deal on July 5, a win-now move that cost the A's their two top prospects in shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney.
In the hands of Oakland general manager Billy Beane, the fact that Samardzija was under club control through 2015 significantly increased the likelihood of his being traded again, since the A's didn't appear likely to retain him via free agency. Samardzija made $5,345,000 in 2014 and is projected to make $9.5 million in 2014 according to MLB Trade Rumors' arbitration estimate.
The addition of Samardzija gives the White Sox a strong trio at the front of their rotation. Twenty-five-year-old lefty Chris Sale, who ranked second in the league in ERA (2.17) and first in both ERA+ (178) and strikeout rate (10.8 per nine), is a bona fide Cy Young contender, and 25-year-old righty Jose Quintana is coming off a 3.32 ERA and career-best 2.81 FIP in 200 1/3 innings. Sale is under club control through 2019 via a pair of club options on top of a five-year, $32.5 million deal, and Quintana is under control through 2020 thanks to two options to go with a five-year, $26.5 million contract.
With a year to go before he hits free agency, Samardzija could at the very least yield a compensatory draft pick if he departs next winter. But while he'll almost certainly test free agency next winter, the fact that he grew up in Indiana as a White Sox fan and has previously indicated that he would consider the team if he were on the market opens the door to the possibility that he could stick around. In any event, he's substantially better than either John Danks (4.74 ERA in 193 2/3 innings) or Hector Noesi (4.39 ERA in 166 1/3 innings), both of whom still have rotation spots at the moment. Danks is owed $31.5 million through 2016, but Noesi is only in his first year of arbitration eligibility and could be flipped in the service of obtaining another upgrade.
To get Samardzija, the Sox gave up Semien, a 24-year-old infielder drafted in the sixth round in 2011 out of UC-Berkeley, as well as three other players: righty Chris Bassitt, catcher Josh Phegley and first baseman Rangel Rovelo. Semien hit .234/.300/.372 with six homers in 64 games for the White Sox in 2014 after batting .267/.380/.502 with 15 homers in 83 games at Triple A Charlotte. He has seen considerable time at shortstop, second base and third base in his minor league career, and in the majors, he spilt his time mainly between second and third with spot duty at short. He was penciled in as Chicago's starting second baseman for 2015, but will apparently be given the opportunity to be Oakland's starting shortstop.
Bassitt, a 16th-round 2011 pick out of the University of Akron, made five starts and one relief appearance for the Sox with a 3.94 ERA. The 25-year-old posted a 2.08 ERA in eight starts and one relief appearance split between Double A Birmingham and the team's rookie league affiliate and missed most of the first four months of the season due to a broken right hand. FanGraphs' prospect expert Kiley McDaniel reported on Bassitt last month: "[A]verage [fastball/slider] combo, up to 94 mph with life as a starter, but lacks command to start, comes from lower slot with angles and stuff could play up better in short stints."
As for Ynoa, he's a Dominican-born 23-year-old righty who stands 6-foot-7 and once stood even taller in the minds of prospect hounds. At the time he was signed back in 2008, many scouts considered him the best 16-year-old arm they'd ever seen, but even so, it rated as a surprise that it was the A's who spent a then-record $4.25 million to add him. Since then, however, he's logged just 161 professional innings and has undergone not only Tommy John surgery but also battled other arm woes. Pitching at High A Stockton in 2014, he struck out 12.6 per nine but was tagged for a 5.52 ERA in 45 2/3 innings, all out of the bullpen, and it appears that's where his future lies — as a live arm who could wind up in a late-game role if he can stay healthy.
Ravelo is a 22-year-old first baseman who hit .309/.386/.473 with 11 homers in 133 games at Double A Birmingham after totaling just seven homers in his previous four professional seasons. McDaniel ranked him 16th among the White Sox prospects, noting, "Ravelo has feel to hit, some bat control and advanced plate discipline, but he recently moved across the infield to first base and has only average raw power, so the profile is limited to the wrong side of a first base platoon. Some scouts see more of a 4-A hitter and point to 2014′s career-high 11 homers as proof that he doesn’t have enough loft in his swing for his hitting ability to matter in the big leagues."
Phegley is a 26-year-old catcher who was a supplemental first-round pick back in 2009, but whose career has been slowed by health woes that included a rare blood disorder (Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura) that required the removal of his spleen. He hit .206/.223/.299 in 213 PA for the White Sox in 2013, with three of his four homers coming in his first five major league games. He spent just 11 games in the majors in 2014, hitting .274/.331/.530 with 23 homers at Charlotte. The power is real, and he's an adequate defender behind the plate, but his plate discipline is in short supply.
Clearly, this is a move designed to help the White Sox return to respectability sooner rather than later. They'll still need a second baseman and perhaps a few other upgrades before they can contend, but they've landed two of the offseason's prizes in one night, and the offseason is still young.