This post addresses a fairly straightforward subject: next moves for the White Sox. Yet I’ve re-written it about three times since I started, since the club keeps changing its roster.
Just look at some of the notable moves from the last ten days:
- Acquire SP James Shields
- Designate 1B/OF Jerry Sands
- Designate SP Mat Latos
- Sign 1B Justin Morneau
- Promote SS Tim Anderson
- Designate SS Jimmy Rollins
- OF Austin Jackson to DL for at least 6 weeks
- RPs Daniel Webb, Jake Petricka out for season
Okay, yes, I broke up some of those combined transactions for effect. But for mid-June, that’s a lot of action! Latos and Rollins were both important buy-low, fill-in pieces that Chicago hoped would bolster a top-heavy roster. Those experiments ended early, with pricier (Shields) and glitzier (Anderson) replacements brought in. Sands was also sent out, and the club suffered three notable injuries. Oh, and Chicago finally added that Adam LaRoche replacement … except that it’s largely unknown when Morneau will suit up.
Despite all the movement, it’s not clear that the organization is really much better situated than it was ten days back. There’s a nice step up from Latos to Shields — despite the latter’s immense struggles through two outings — and some worthwhile rolls of the dice, but the injury hit likely saps any gains and there’s risk aplenty.
That creates a bit of a dilemma for GM Rick Hahn and his staff. None of the recent changes have been too terribly dramatic, but they are a bit committing. Chicago will reportedly owe Shields $27MM, which ain’t nothing, and gave up Erik Johnson to get him — taking away the team’s most plausible “next starter up.” And going with Anderson leaves Chicago exposed to the variance of young talent; if he isn’t quite ready, Rollins won’t be around to step back in.
Having started the acquisition process in early June, with the club hovering around .500, there’s still time to reverse out at the deadline if things really go south. But the first round of moves still begs for a counterpart — another addition or two that ramp this up from a minor makeover to a reasonably substantial renovation of the parts of the roster that are most in need. The division is still there for the taking, with a Wild Card berth an achievable consolation prize in a tightly-bunched American League.
Moving on the market at this stage means picking from among a few highly-motivated selling organizations. In all likelihood, not all of the players mentioned in my recent post ranking the ten top trade candidates are available yet. That results in a fairly limited field and likely would require the White Sox to be aggressive in its offers.
So, what areas could Chicago target?
True, the addition of Morneau supplies the left-handed first base/DH option that LaRoche once was. But he’s not providing plate appearances right now and there’s no time to lose. Plus, with Jackson down for at least six weeks, and not performing terribly well anyway, there’s still a need in the outfield.
Without Jackson around, the South Siders are reduced to shifting Adam Eaton back to center and utilizing defensively-deficient regulars Melky Cabrera and Avisail Garcia at the corners. It’s certainly not an optimal mix, at least from a fielding perspective, and there isn’t much promise among the organization’s internal options.
Adding a center-field capable player, who could either share time with Jackson down the line or operate as a frequent fourth outfielder, would seem optimal. It’s not often that there’s a readily-available fit this time of year, but Jon Jay of the Padres may be just what’s needed. He is solid with the glove and with the bat, would create some additional platoon options with Jackson (though the latter doesn’t generally carry significant platoon splits), and he’s a reasonably-priced rental. Jay would add real value now — while Jackson and Morneau remain unavailable — and be useful once they return.
Some might tab Jay Bruce of the Reds here: he’s eminently available and is slugging again. But he’d have made more sense before the addition of Morneau, since he’s best suited as a DH given his abysmal fielding metrics. Adding Bruce now would boost the offense some, but wouldn’t do much for run prevention.
It’s also arguable that the team should wait in this area. Players like Josh Reddick and Carlos Gonzalez could be made available later, but probably aren’t realistic options in the near term. And if the team is willing to look at right-handed hitters, Ryan Braun could be in consideration. But these players will come with a higher acquisition cost, aren’t options in center, and likely won’t solve the immediate need.
A middle-ground approach could involve making a run at Carl Crawford. He isn’t an option in center at this stage of his career, but he’s been a solid-enough hitter and fielder who adds value with his legs. Plus, he can be employed for the league minimum. Crawford would provide a near-term solution — at least, a reasoanble upgrade over the likes of Sands and J.B. Shuck — while leaving the club free to assess and act accordingly over the next six weeks.
Chicago reportedly has interest in a pen lefty, and odds are a marginal upgrade wouldn’t be considered. The White Sox have three relief southpaws at present; all are useful, but none represent true set-up options. Zach Duke has basically been a LOOGY this year, dominating same-handed hitters while struggling mightily against righties. Dan Jennings has lost velocity and his whiff rate is down, to go with an already-troubling propensity for the free pass, even if the results are good so far. And Matt Purke, a reclamation project, has been surprisingly solid, but it’s hard to count on him for much.
In short, there’s no need for a solid southpaw, because Chicago has those. But an impact arm that would could slot into a set-up role in front of closer David Robertson would be intriguing. At present, it’s not entirely clear who that might be, however. Will Smith of the Brewers and Sean Doolittle of the Athletics would qualify, but their extended control would make for steep asking prices. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that Fernando Abad is good enough to push for an early strike, but it’s hard to see that kind of addition moving the needle too forcefully.
The unfortunate realization that Petricka and Webb aren’t coming back this year also opens some additional need and opportunity in the pen. Petricka, in particular, has given the ChiSox a lot of solid frames in recent years, and the club could respond by bolstering its right-handed unit. Nate Jones, Matt Albers, and Zach Putnam are useful set-up options, so there isn’t a pressing need here, but this is probably the easiest area for a team to add depth throughout the year.
This may be a low likelihood area to make a change, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila have combined to underwhelm both with the bat and behind the plate. Both are playing on one-year contracts, too, and there’s long-term uncertainty at the position.
The backstop ranks are fairly thin all around baseball, and the Sox don’t need another solid second catcher type. They have that on hand already. If the team is going to look at this position, it’d be looking for a significant upgrade.
Jonathan Lucroy remains the top dog on our list of the biggest trade chips, and he’d be a great target. Lucroy has been at the top of his game in all regards, remains cheap this year and next, and could also see action at first or DH. Trouble is, other organizations surely see him the same way, and the Brewers are said to be asking for a lot.
There are some other possibilities, but it’s not clear that they represent enough of a bump over Navarro and Avila to warrant the outlay that would be required. Derek Norris of the Padres and Welington Castillo of the Diamondbacks are, however, at least worth considering — though it’s unknown whether and when the latter will be made available.
Yes, the team just added Shields. But with their new righty struggling, Carlos Rodon still looking more like a wild card than a playoff starter, and Miguel Gonzalez more serviceable than sensational, there’s still a conceivable need here.
Plus, there may be a little bit of a two-for-one possibility at play. It may or may not be something the team would ever consider, but adding a rotation piece could allow it to put Rodon into the back of the pen, where he could be a force. He’d still offer rotation depth, provide a long-relief option, and might well dominate — all while clearing the way for a starter who is perhaps better able to contribute every fifth day right now.
Regardless of whether that concept holds water, and despite already checking this box, picking up a real rotation upgrade still holds appeal. That could take many forms: a sturdy rental (Jeremy Hellickson?), a play for the top short-term arm available (Rich Hill, arguably, at least once he returns), another Shields-like gambit (Ervin Santana, perhaps?), or a higher-performing, controllable piece (Julio Teheran?).
Of course, acquiring a more impactful starter would raise the possibility of parting with a significant return. And that would likely implicate Carson Fulmer, last year’s top draft pick. A decent portion of his draft stock was tied up in the belief that he’d make it to the majors quickly, but he has encountered some bumps in the road at Double-A. Rather than hoping for a sudden ascension, perhaps it’s time to cash Fulmer in.
All those areas to improve arguably point to quite a different conclusion, though. The White Sox aren’t playing all that well and aren’t projected to do much more. They have lots of needs. And without significant prospect capital to work with, they’re faced with the options of clearing out the farm and/or taking on some major future salary commitments.
It’s certainly arguable that this just isn’t the time to go for it. A densely-packed division provides opportunity, but also means there are a lot of teams to outperform. Chicago could position itself as the top seller, depending upon who it’d be willing to spin off, were it to make a beeline back to port after charting a course for contention in rough seas. It’s also possible that the team could hold that out as a back-up plan even if it does seek additional early strikes via trade.
The one path that seems least desirable, perhaps, is a half-hearted buying effort that harms the future without really boosting the team’s chances at present. Hahn has said that he believes strongly in the core of this roster, so perhaps it’s time to act boldly to surround it with a few more strong pieces. Without a mix of new blood (some solid fill-ins and/or a significant addition or two), the Sox may be in need of some breaks to remain in the hunt in the AL Central.