Another active offseason is in store for the White Sox, who find themselves with needs all over the diamond.
- Jose Abreu, 1B/DH: $44MM through 2019; may opt into arbitration after 2016
- David Robertson, RP: $36MM through 2018
- Melky Cabrera, LF: $29MM through 2017
- Adam Eaton, CF: $22.65MM through 2019; club options for 2020-21
- Jose Quintana, SP: $22.25MM through 2018; club options for 2019-20
- Chris Sale, SP: $22.15MM through 2017; club options for 2018-19
- John Danks, SP: $14.25MM through 2016
- Adam LaRoche, DH/1B: $13MM through 2016
- Zach Duke, RP: $10.5MM through 2017
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by MLB Trade Rumors)
- Tyler Flowers (4.148) – $3.5MM
- Nate Jones (4.000) – $900K
- Dan Jennings (2.171) – $700K
- Avisail Garcia (2.167) – $2.3MM
- Zach Putnam (2.135) – $800K
- Non-tender candidates: None
- Alexei Ramirez, SS: $10MM club option with a $1MM buyout
I have difficulty criticizing Rick Hahn’s active 2014-15 offseason, as I was a fan of his moves and thought the White Sox would contend this year. However, major acquisitions Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, and Jeff Samardzija bombed. To compound matters, position players Avisail Garcia, Conor Gillaspie, and Alexei Ramirez were brutal as well. It’s almost freakish that so many players performed below expectations in the same year, and the result was an 86-loss season. That came on the heels of 89 losses in 2014 and 99 losses in 2013.
This team seems in too deep to blow it all up, plus they’ve still got a strong, affordable core. Abreu, Sale, Quintana, and Eaton generated about 18 wins above replacement in 2015, and will cost less than $30MM in 2016. That remains a fantastic bargain, so GM Rick Hahn needs to take another shot at complementing his core with the right veterans.
So, what can be done about baseball’s worst collection of position players, by measure of wins above replacement? Starting behind the dish, WAR doesn’t do Tyler Flowers justice, as he’s worked himself into one of the game’s best pitch framers. With so much work to do elsewhere on the diamond, retaining Flowers is a reasonable starting point. Geovany Soto, a minor league signing who worked out well, could be re-signed early in the offseason.
I don’t see much point in trying to sell low on Cabrera. This might be grasping at straws, but he at least showed signs of life in July, and the best bet for 2016 is to hope he can bounce back and supply a two-win season at age 31. Given Cabrera’s consistently poor defense, the team would be improved by having him spend the majority of his time at designated hitter. Abreu’s defense at first base is no longer a liability, and the team could reduce his DH games to 25 or so.
This alignment leaves LaRoche without a starting spot on the 2016 club. Hahn can spend the next few months searching for an interesting bad contract swap or a salary dump partner, and then release him if those efforts come up empty.
Though Avisail Garcia is only 24, it’s time to try someone else in right field. Hahn says he’s still confident in Garcia, but the team can’t afford another replacement level season as they hope for him to develop. Garcia should be shopped to rebuilding clubs for something useful this winter, and sent to Triple-A if no good offers come in. 2015 rookie Trayce Thompson is actually three months older than Garcia, but could land a starting outfield spot on the strength of a strong 135-plate appearance debut. It’s a red flag, however, that Thompson hit .260/.304/.441 at Triple-A. In a perfect world, he’d be penciled in for a fourth outfielder role next year.
The White Sox should be in the market for at least one regular corner outfielder, as well as another player who can help out. The free agent market features four excellent options in Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, and Alex Gordon. All of them are projected to earn $100MM+ and more than $20MM per season. There are ways to fit such a signing into the team’s payroll, though it would require most of their available resources. There is a tier of outfielders below this group in the $8-15MM salary range, such as Dexter Fowler, Denard Span, Gerardo Parra, Austin Jackson, Steve Pearce, and Colby Rasmus. The trade market could include Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, Marcell Ozuna, and Yasiel Puig. Ozuna would be particularly interesting for Chicago, as he’s yet to reach arbitration and will be earning less than $600K. He’ll be appealing to many teams, however.
So outfield is wide open and in need of multiple acquisitions. The infield picture isn’t much better for the White Sox. The big question is whether to choose a $10MM club option or a $1MM buyout for longtime shortstop Alexei Ramirez. Ramirez’s improved second half suggests he might have another two-win season left in him, but at age 34 picking up his option would definitely be a gamble. I think the $9MM net price is only slightly above Ramirez’s market value, but the White Sox might not want to tie up that much payroll space in him.
There’s the idea of using 2015 rookie Tyler Saladino as a bridge to top prospect Tim Anderson, though that’s a poor win-now plan. The free agent market offers Ian Desmond, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jimmy Rollins. Though Desmond himself had an off-year, I still see him pushing for a four or five-year contract, so I don’t see him as a fit for the Sox. A crosstown swap for Starlin Castro makes some sense. Castro, 26 in March, is signed through 2019 but could spend a few months at shortstop until Anderson is ready and then settle in as an above average second baseman. However, the Cubs may still like him for that role. In that case, Javier Baez could be a target.
Third base is another question mark for the White Sox. Saladino, Mike Olt, and Matt Davidson are in-house options. Juan Uribe could be a fun pickup on the free agent market, and David Freese will be out there as well. Trade options include Todd Frazier, Martin Prado, Daniel Murphy, Trevor Plouffe, and Luis Valbuena. One sleeper could be Korean third baseman Jae-gyun Hwang, who might be posted by the Lotte Giants.
This year, second base was handled mainly by Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson. It’s yet another potential area of upgrade, with Daniel Murphy and Howie Kendrick profiling as the top free agents and Brandon Phillips and Neil Walker looking like trade candidates. One free agent we haven’t mentioned yet is Ben Zobrist, who MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk pegged as a potential White Sox target given their multitude of needs and the veteran’s versatility. However, the 34-year-old Zobrist could seek the Victor Martinez contract (four years, $68MM), which the White Sox were wise to avoid last winter. Murphy is a younger player who should cost less than Zobrist and can at least handle both second and third base, though he’d likely cost the White Sox their second round draft pick.
Once again, Sale and Quintana are locked in atop Chicago’s rotation, a duo that provided 415 strong innings this year. Danks’ contract makes him likely to hang around as the fifth starter. Rodon, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2014, joined the big league rotation on May 9th and recorded a 3.79 ERA in 23 starts. His control needs improvement, but it was a solid rookie effort. Samardzija isn’t likely to return, but making a qualifying offer is an easy decision. The Sox could replace Samardzija in-house with some combination of Erik Johnson, Frankie Montas, Tyler Danish, and Chris Beck.
Hahn probably won’t address all of his team’s needs through free agency, and it’s possible he’ll deal from the team’s pitching depth to acquire a position player. Assuming Sale remains off-limits, Quintana will be a popular target for other teams. Only a handful of position players would justify surrendering five affordable years of control of Quintana, Puig among them. I think Hahn is more likely to deal from his stash of unproven but mostly MLB-ready arms. It’s possible the team could add a low-level veteran starting pitcher in free agency if they compromise their rotation depth.
Hahn’s retooled bullpen was above average in 2015. There’s reason for further optimism in 2016. Robertson is better than his 3.41 ERA, and the Sox will enjoy a full season from Nate Jones. I imagine they’ll try to re-sign Albers, who came on a minor league deal and had a quality season despite missing three months in the middle with a broken finger.
Earlier this month, Hahn told reporters the team will be retaining Robin Ventura as manager for 2016. Given the way Ventura’s last three seasons have gone, however, he will likely be on a short leash entering the new season. Before then, expect plenty of offseason action for the White Sox, who have a laundry list of needs to address if they are to return to contention in 2016.