Winter Report Card: White Sox improve, but is contention realistic?
With less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Chicago White Sox.
76–86 (.469), fourth place in American League Central (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
Give general manager Rick Hahn credit: In a division featuring the defending world champion Royals and the rapidly retooled Tigers, the White Sox have made several substantial upgrades in an effort to break their streak of three straight losing seasons. Of course, they made substantial upgrades last winter, adding starter Jeff Samardzija, closer David Robertson, setup man Zach Duke, outfielder Melky Cabrera and first baseman Adam LaRoche, and all they got for the extra $28 million in payroll—beyond a fair bit of "winning the winter" buzz—was three additional wins. Still, Chicago looks to have upgraded at three or four positions this winter, which should help an offense that ranked dead last in the league in 2015 in scoring (3.84 runs per game), homers (136) and slugging percentage (.380) and second-to-last in on-base percentage (.306).
Chicago's biggest move thus far has been the addition of third baseman Todd Frazier in a three-team deal with the Reds and Dodgers. Frazier, who turns 30 in February, is a two-time All-Star who hit .255/.309/.498 with a career-high 35 homers en route to 4.0 Wins Above Replacement last year, though he tailed off drastically after the All-Star Break (.220/.274/.390, 10 homers) after a stellar first half (.284/.337/.585, 25 homers). That he slowed down after winning the All-Star Game's Home Run Derby in Cincinnati ensures we'll have to hear cautionary tales about it for the next decade. Slump aside, Frazier is affordable—he makes just $7.5 million in 2016 with another year of club control remaining—and he's a vast improvement upon the "offense" (.226/.277/.345) the team received from Gordon Beckham (who signed with Atlanta), Conor Gillaspie (traded to the Angels last July), Mike Olt and Tyler Saladino. Of that group, Saladino is currently slated to take over shortstop—his natural position—for the departed Alexei Ramirez, who signed a one-year deal with the Padres. More on that below.
The cost in talent for Frazier wasn't all that high. Trayce Thompson (who turns 25 in March) hit well (.295/.363/.533) in 135 plate appearances after being recalled in August, but his .241/.319/.429 line in seven minor-league seasons, including a .256/.301/.433 mark in 437 PA at Triple A, paints a picture of a fourth outfielder unlikely to sustain that initial burst of productivity. Also in the deal were the 25-year-old Micah Johnson and the going-on-23-year-old Frankie Montas. Johnson hit just .230/.306/.270 in 114 PA as a rookie and struggled at second base (-7 Defensive Runs Saved); he was part of a group, headed by Carlos Sanchez, that was even less productive than the third basemen (.222/.275/.305). Montas, who made seven appearances for the Sox, is the departure that stings: He can reach 100 mph with his fastball, though his command and the quality of his secondary offerings leaves doubt as to whether his future lies in the rotation or the bullpen.
Replacing Sanchez and Johnson at the keystone is the enigmatic Brett Lawrie, who just turned 26. Though healthy enough last season to set career highs in just about every key offensive category—including games played (149), plate appearances (602) and homers (16)—Lawrie hit just .260/.299/.407 for a 92 OPS+ in his lone year in Oakland, and his disturbing 144/28 strikeout-to-walk ratio represents spikes in the wrong directions for both. Like Frazier, Lawrie is cheap ($4.125 million) and has one more year of club control left, and he boasts far more upside than those he's replacing, though the fact that he's already on the fourth organization in 7 1/2 years since being drafted is a reminder that he's not for every taste. The cost for him in talent—pitching prospects J.B. Wendelken and Zack Erwin—wasn't all that high, either. Wendelken is a near-ready reliever, and Erwin is a 2015 fourth-round pick with 19 innings above Rookie ball. Lawrie could be long gone before anyone has time to lament those hurlers' loss.
Less clear is whether the Sox have truly upgraded at catcher, where Tyler Flowers (non-tendered, signed with the Braves) and Geovany Soto (free agent, signed with the Angels) combined to hit .230/.293/.376 with 19 homers but were a combined 19 runs above average according to DRS; the former was an AL-best 14.9 above average via Baseball Prospectus' framing-inclusive measure as well. Incoming is Alex Avila, who will be 29 years old in two weeks. A former All-Star who's been increasingly beset by concussion and knee woes in recent years, Avila hit just .191/.339/.287 in 219 plate appearances with Detroit and cratered defensively as well (-9.5 runs via BP). Put it this way: he was non-tendered by his own father and wound up taking a pay cut of over 50% to $2.5 million. How the playing time shakes out in tandem with the well-traveled Dioner Navarro, who was signed for $4 million after spending two years with the Blue Jays, remains to be seen. Navarro, who will be 31 in February, hit .246/.307/.374 in 192 PA for Toronto and was no great shakes afield (-3.3 runs, via BP).
As for the rotation: Samardzija was a flop in his lone year on the South Side, delivering a 4.96 ERA in 214 innings, but the Sox did net a draft pick when he signed with the Giants. Some of his innings will be absorbed by Carlos Rodon, but taking Samardzija's spot in the rotation is 26-year-old righty Erik Johnson, who has posted a 4.17 ERA and 5.32 FIP in 16 starts and 86 2/3 innings over the past three seasons, including six starts last year after a strong season (2.37 ERA and 9.2 strikeouts per nine in 132 2/3 innings) at Triple A Charlotte. The former second-round pick out of Cal—"the can’t-miss prospect who missed," as Tom Verducci wrote in November—owed his better results to cleaned-up mechanics, which have restored some of the luster to his career. Behind Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Rodon and John Danks, and under the watchful eye of pitching coach Don Cooper, Johnson offers reason for some optimism.
Unfinished Business: Upgrade shortstop or an outfield corner
The Sox didn't get much from Ramirez in 2015—just 1.0 WAR in the form of a .249/.285/.357 (79 OPS+) batting line and -6 DRS—so turning down a $10 million option for his age-34 season wasn't a difficult call. Saldano gave the team 1.3 WAR in just 68 games himself despite his dismal performance at the plate and could provide more value than that over the course of a full season based on the strength of glove alone. Chicago also has a top prospect at shortstop waiting in the wings in Tim Anderson. The 2013 first-round pick hit .312/.350/.429 with 49 steals at Double A Birmingham last year, though his patience and contact skills on breaking balls still need work, and his future at the position isn’t settled.
Given that combo, it’s worth exploring the possibility of a short-term deal with Ian Desmond, who remains a free agent at this writing. The 30-year-old shortstop hit a Ramirez-like .233/.290/.384 for an 80 OPS+ last year but was average afield despite a spate of early-season errors en route to 2.0 WAR. Over his previous three seasons, he hit for a 114 OPS+ and averaged 3.6 WAR. His shot at a nine-figure contract evaporated with his walk-year jitters, though a one-year bounceback—or a longer-term deal with an opt-out, like all the cool kids are getting—isn’t a bad idea. Desmond would cost a draft pick, albeit just a second-rounder, as Chicago's first-round pick (No. 10 overall) is protected; it's essentially a wash with the pick gained via Samardzija's departure. Alternately, the White Sox could try to trade for a shortstop such as Zack Cozart, since the Reds have Jose Peraza waiting in the wings and can't seem to move Brandon Phillips.
At least in the near term, any upgrade at short is a better fit with the current roster than a Yoenis Cespedes signing, given the commitment to Cabrera (owed $29 million over the next two years) and the belief that Avisail Garcia's three years of club control are worth something. Both had subpar 2015 seasons: Cabrera hit for a 97 OPS+ with 12 homers, and Garcia posted an 89 OPS+ with 13 homers. Then again, Garcia was so bad afield (-11 DRS) that there's an extra win to be had by moving him to designated hitter and launching LaRoche (who's owed $13 million and coming off a 78 OPS+ with 12 homers himself) into the sun. The Sox have spoken to Cespedes about a short-term deal, but this is a team for which a longer-term move could make sense, particularly considering that Chicago has ranked 13th in attendance in each of the past two seasons and could use some more star power. Unlike Desmond, Cespedes won't cost a pick.
Another option to add some outfield punch is to revisit talks with the Rockies regarding Carlos Gonzalez, who’s coming off a big year and has two years and $37 million remaining on his deal. The slugger has apparently been told by the team that he won’t be moved this winter, but that didn’t stop Colorado from dealing Troy Tulowitzki last summer.
Preliminary Grade: B+
An AL Central title for a team that hasn't been above .500 since 2012 and hasn't been to the postseason since '08 is a tall order, and it's probably an unreasonable one. Still, the Sox have visibly improved this winter, and another key addition could push them towards contention.