Sox go for ‘rebuild on the fly’ again

By Nick Schaefer
Contributor

At this point, most readers are fully aware of what happened with the White Sox in 2015. After 2014, they realized, “Hey – between Sale, Quintana, Abreu, and Eaton, we have some top-end talent. If we shore up our glaring weaknesses, we might have something here!”

To that end, they added Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, and Adam LaRoche. Unfortunately, two of those guys had the worst years of their careers, Melky was pretty close to it, and even though Robertson was as good as advertised, a closer only moves the needle so much and the White Sox’ win total was in the 70s again.

Sadly, one year later, the White Sox are basically in the same spot with all of those prime players one year older, although the emergence of Carlos Rodon certainly improves their chances.

Where is the roster today?

First base and center field are both locked in as positions of strength, with All Star caliber players in the form of Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton respectively. It will be interesting to see how much of Eaton’s 2015 Power Spike was a true step forward, or whether it was a blip. Either way he’s an extremely valuable player. Abreu battled nagging injuries and the general underperformance plague that infected the whole roster and still managed a solid year at the plate.

The White Sox have a cheap, young, and uber talented front three in their starting rotation in the form of Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon. The fact that they’re still probably bad is an embarrassment, but this is the main source of whatever hope there is.

Bullpens are notoriously fickle year-to-year, but after being a vortex of misery in 2014, the 2015 version was hardly a problem and should be fine next year. Nate Jones returned and looked strong, and he joins a potentially lethal group along David Robertson, Jake Petricka, Zach Putnam (who somehow struck out 11.8 per 9 last year?), and Frankie Montas. While there is volatility here, there is reason to believe that whatever problems may arise can be dealt with internally or with cheap external additions.

While Melky Cabrera had a down year with the bat – a problem, given his lackluster glove – he’s had down years like this before and been able to bounce back. Still just 31, it’s too early to give up on him.

He’s not popular, but Tyler Flowers is increasingly considered to be an asset defensively at the most difficult defensive position. His bat is perennially disappointing, but when paired with Geovany Soto last year the White Sox were actually middle of the pack as far as Catcher Offense goes. Given the huge problems elsewhere on the roster, this is hardly a priority to upgrade, especially when there are a ton of free agent catchers who will be available after 2016.

Where can they hope for improvement internally?

Given that Adam LaRoche will be 36 next season, his cratering last year is very likely a reflection of a permanent decrease in true talent level. And, unsurprisingly for a player with as many miles as he has, he was dealing with a plethora of deleterious injuries in 2015. That said, he still vaguely resembled a major leaguer against RHP (.221/.318/.379) whereas he is an automatic out against LHP at this point (.157/.191/.191). A strict platoon against RHP and perhaps better luck with health could yield ~400-450 PAs of ~.750 OPS baseball, which would still be a huge disappointment given his contract, but it could maybe help you win a game here or there.

Carlos Rodon had an excellent rookie year, and there is good reason to believe that 2016 will feature a better quality and higher quantity of innings from the big lefty. Along those lines, while Erik Johnson probably has a low ceiling and has failed at the MLB level before, it is reasonable to think he could match or better Samardzija’s ~5.00 ERA from last season, or whatever fringe-quality starts were thrown in by the likes of Chris Beck and Hector Noesi. For all that the White Sox have been utterly incapable of developing hitters, they do have an excellent track record of getting the most out of pitchers, and if these two take steps forward it could mean for a truly dominant pitching staff.

Trayce Thompson had a lovely September, hitting .295/.363/.533 with excellent defense in 135 PAs. He was so good (and the rest of the team was so bad) that he managed to accumulate the 3rd-best bWAR total amongst CHW position players in only 44 games. Given his track record and profile, one has to scale back expectations. RHP are going to give him trouble unless he takes a big, real step forward. That said, his glove is really good and can play in center field, and he does have great athleticism and power. If nothing else, he can crush lefties – a tool that didn’t really exist on last year’s roster, as fans had to suffer through watching LaRoche get annihilated by lefties over and over. Also, even if he gets pressed into being the everyday right field, even just by virtue of his glove he is likely to be an improvement over Avisail Garcia, who is terrible at every facet of baseball.

Carlos Sanchez developing into a legitimate starter is probably a necessary component to any real White Sox contender in 2016 unless something massive changes. His glove is really good, and that’s half the battle, and he has always been extremely young for every level he has played at. Although he hit like a pitcher for several months, he had a very-playable .687 OPS in the second half.

It is often a mistake to throw away a terrible first half and only focus on a good second half, but it’s not completely insane to think maybe a 23-year old got more comfortable with major league pitching as the year went on. Still, if he doesn’t work out there isn’t really much of a Plan B, and we’ve seen how well the White Sox cope with that scenario before. See Morel, Brent.

Okay, so that only leaves…

Third, short, right, and kind of second, catcher, and the back of the rotation to fix in one offseason. Ugh.

On the plus side, third base and right field were just so abominably bad last year that even modest acquisitions have the potential to be big upgrades. On the downside, they have had this problem before and failed to get those modest acquisitions to work.

The free agent market has elite options like Jason Heyward, Yoenis Cespedes, and Justin Upton, and just behind them is Alex Gordon. My preference is Upton, given that I think he is somewhat underrated at the moment and will be a nice balance between performance and likely price. Any of these four – although some of them may wind up being “more expensive than they’re worth” – would mean a gigantic upgrade and would potentially transform the complexion of the roster and give them a realistic chance at contending.

However, the front office has been leaking tons of quotes this fall about how they just don’t have any money, woe is us, the fans just won’t come out for some reason*, we just can’t spend! Hopefully this is just the White Sox feeling clever and sneaky, but Reinsdorf has torpedoed the franchise repeatedly by refusing to spend a little more on the margins before, so color me skeptical.

*They haven’t had back to back winning seasons in a decade and have never made the playoffs in back to back seasons. This franchise is over 100-years-old.

They have even opened up a new hole on a roster that couldn’t afford the holes it already had, parting with Alexei Ramirez despite a cheap 1-year, $10 million option available to them. And really, with the $1 million buy-out, it was a $9 million cost to keep him. He will almost certainly make more than that in free agency, and now the White Sox have Tyler Saladino penciled in at SS. Saladino probably can’t hit, and has been extremely injury prone throughout his professional career. If nothing changes, they will essentially have Glove-Only options at SS, 2B, and C, with no depth behind them, and literally a man in a tee shirt covered in question marks playing third.

Alex Gordon could be the affordable massive upgrade, and while he is the oldest of that group, he would be a desperately needed injection of OBP and defense, and would be another line of defense between my sanity and Avisail Garcia playing baseball in Chicago. While the front office has already begun to cry poverty, John Danks and Adam LaRoche come off the books after 2016, so theoretically you could back-load any free agent contracts and then fit them comfortably into the budget for 2017.

The free agent market for 3B is really, really weak, and so a trade is the most likely avenue of improvement. Martin Prado seems like a realistic option, although that might necessitate parting with Erik Johnson and others that you’d prefer to keep. Todd Frazier is the much more exciting trade target, and he would cost even more.

Releasing Alexei has the cascading effect of taking Tyler Saladino from the role of Utility Infielder – a role for which he is eminently suitable, and would be cheaper and less annoying than say, Gordon Beckham – and opening up that slot again. The White Sox actually threw $6 million at utility infielder last year in the forms of Gordon Beckham and Emilio Bonifacio. If I had to guess now, I would say it will be Leury Garcia, who is one of the worst hitters I have ever seen, but he did finally get a full docket of ABs in AAA for the first time in his career and he acquitted himself well. And uh…he’s cheap I guess.

New face in the clubhouse

Even though the offseason has yet to begin in earnest, the White Sox have added Rick Renteria as bench coach. In 2014, Renteria managed a young Cubs team and received almost universal praise for his work. He was dismissed only because the Cubs realized they could grab Joe Maddon from Tampa, an individual considered to be one of the absolute best in the business. While I have been a vocal critic of Ventura’s and would be happy to see Renteria replace him outright, adding a well-regarded individual like Renteria should be seen as a positive regardless.

Conclusion

There is real opportunity here, given that Sale-Quintana-Rodon-Eaton-Abreu are so good, so young, and so cheap. If some money were thrown at RF, 3B, and possibly SS, this team would have a very real chance at competing in 2016. Perhaps there are cheaper routes to contending than are immediately apparent to me, but Hahn is evidently going to have to be creative. Reinsdorf refuses to acknowledge that in every other industry you have to invest in making a quality product before you peevishly demand that customers buy it.

Despite this self-imposed handicap, a league average 3B and Alex Gordon combined with better years from Melky and someone like Carlos Sanchez could move the needle enough so that Sale, Quintana, and Rodon can drag this organization kicking and screaming back to the playoffs for the first time in 8 years. | @Nick_TCS.

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