By James Fegan
The Todd Frazier trade probably seems pretty disappointing right now to White Sox fans.
Despite being headed toward a career-high in home runs with 31 in the bank already, Frazier is also dealing with a career-high 24 percent strikeout rate. Scores of infield pop-ups have cratered his batting average to a potentially career-worst .212.
Those struggles have dragged his on-base rate below 30 percent despite commendable patience at the plate, and defensive metrics have not loved how his play at third has held up during his age-30 season.
To put things in a worse perspective, David Freeze, the 33-year-old former World Series hero, waited until March 11 to sign a deal for a fraction of what the already very affordable Frazier is pulling in for his work this season, and is outperforming him.
Freese is hitting .276/.355/.437, and the Pirates are so pleased with his work at third they announced to a two-year extension with him Monday, and did not have to yield Trayce Thompson and Frankie Montas for his services.
Drawing unfavorable comparisons to bargain bin signings is not what the Sox envisioned for their Opening Day cleanup hitter, but that is where half the trouble lies.
Frazier came to Chicago with the billing of an All-Star third baseman – a Home Run Derby champ fresh off a season where he launched 35 bombs with revered defense – but he was never meant to be anchoring a playoff-worthy offense. Frazier has batted sixth for most of this month as some sort of acknowledgment of his troubles, but in a good offense, that’s his ideal home.
Coming into 2016, Frazier had a career line of .257/.321/.463, good for a 113 by FanGraphs’ weighted runs created plus (wRC+), meaning 13 percent above average. Other offensive metrics, such as Baseball Prospectus’ true average (TAv), which values power a bit more than FanGraphs’ measurement, have a rosier view of Frazier, but tell roughly the same story: a good hitter; not a great one.
Frazier’s 2016 is certainly disappointing but he is not having unreasonably bad campaign for a 30-year-old of his skill level. His power is still very much there; he’s striking out more but also walking more; his defense may have taken a step back, but has been more than adequate considering the Sox broke camp with Conor Gillaspie last season.
Most of all, while Frazier is popping the ball up more, his .213 batting average on balls in play screams of a fluke and he could easily snap back to his typical career numbers next season, or from here on out.
He’s not setting the world on fire, but unlike Adam Dunn or Adam LaRoche, Frazier’s not killing the Sox either. Nor does he deserve to lose his job. Health woes have kept Montas and Thompson from providing any clarity about how much of their potential they will realize, but they’re the type of risky prospects who would get moved for a team reaching for a starting-quality third baseman to raise their floor in a year where they are trying to compete. But a real attempt to compete this season required the Sox to do more.
Instead of a being a cog in a competitor, Frazier was positioned as the savior. Until Justin Morneau arrived after the All-Star break, there were no free agent bats more worthy of middle-of-the-order billing than Frazier brought in, no bigger trades were swung, and any assessment of what the Sox did to improve their offense began with him.
As the Sox head toward their fourth-straight season with a below-average run total, their struggles have proven to be larger than one occasional – but not perennial – All-Star failing to max out his potential.
With a Chris Sale–Jose Quintana–Adam Eaton core in place, adding Frazier to help was not a mistake, but in failing to build out a complete roster, the Sox were able to place him in a situation where it looked like one.