By James Fegan
For the second-straight year, the White Sox were one of the most active teams in the offseason. After a 86-loss flop in 2015, the Sox will suit up at least five different Opening Day starters in their lineup next week, but the leaner focus is hard to miss.
Their biggest free agent signing came a few days into Spring Training, when they reeled in center fielder Austin Jackson for one-year, $5 million, four years removed from his career peak. It was also longest contract they gave out. The Sox core of Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana and young Carlos Rodon is as good as anyone’s, but they have been surrounded by veterans on one-year fliers. In all, the Sox added eight players likely to make the Opening Day roster for under $31 million.
Filling out the roster so inexpensively took creativity from Hahn, and surely made his boss happy; Adam LaRoche’s retirement means the Sox Opening Day payroll will be nearly $4 million lower than last season. But while the 2015 team had so many holes anyone with the ability to flirt with league-average is an upgrade, as spring comes to a close: have the Sox built a discount contender, or are they getting what they paid for?
New catcher Alex Avila was an All-Star in 2011, and is still only 29 years-old, but lost his starting gig in Detroit and was available for $2.5 million because he battled injuries and was struggling to make contact so much he posted a career-low .191 batting average in 2015. This spring, he’s missed time with a stiff back and collected one hit in 10 Cactus League games. He’s expected to return to action this week, and spring stats are quickly made meaningless, but there’s little indication the Sox stumbled onto a bargain so far, and his platoon partner Dioner Navarro is much more likable as someone who comes in and crushes lefties twice a week than as a regular backstop
One of their most lauded signings was Mat Latos for $3 million, as the 28-year-old right-hander seemed ticketed for a $100 million deal after a monster 2013 season, and most of his subsequent troubles could be blamed on a since surgically repaired knee. Instead, Latos has a 12.46 spring ERA after two clunker starts, and even the normally supportive Robin Ventura is calling on him to show improvement. Ventura is obligated to take a hard stance, since Erik Johnson, and former prospect Jacob Turner, who was curiously granted a $1.5 million contract, have seen themselves out of the race for a rotation slot.
It’s not all bad. 37 year-old Jimmy Rollins’ hot bat has spurred optimism he can take the reins at shortstop and push Tyler Saladino into his more natural utility role. Adam Eaton has reacted favorably to Austin Jackson pushing him out of center field, which will allow the Sox to get the most out his defense even while their failure to land any of the plethora of available outfield bats this offseason still stings. And even average seasons from Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie will be serious upgrades.
It’s still spring; Latos could still dominate, whereas Rollins might not have a full season left it in the tank, but this is about the hit-and-miss rate that can be expected when a team trades costs for risk across the diamond. Money they won’t be paying LaRoche will allow the Sox to improve mid-season, but they’ll need to be ready to use it, because a roster like this one will be a work-in-progress all year-round.