The White Sox have shaken up their outfield picture from last year, a fairly sensible move given their weak results during the 2022 season. The club’s outfielders collectively hit .254/.301/.393 last year for a wRC+ of 97, placing them 18th in the majors. Defensively, the results were even worse, with the club posting -22 Defensive Runs Saved and -16 Outs Above Average on the grass, both of those numbers coming in 27th in the league, while their -28.6 Ultimate Zone Rating among outfielders was dead last. At least part of those results could attributed to both Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez missing significant time due to injuries, but it was clear that some change was needed.
The club’s first move was letting José Abreu depart, thus allowing Andrew Vaughn to come in off the grass and take over at first base. Reports emerged in October that this was the course the club was considering, and Abreu signed with the Astros the following month. Vaughn was a huge part of those terrible defensive numbers, as he personally posted a -14 DRS, -16 OAA and -10.5 UZR last year. Now that he can return to his natural position, that could allow the club to deploy a more traditional outfielder in his place, depending how the situation plays out.
The other move the club made was signing Andrew Benintendi to a five-year, $75MM deal. Defensive metrics are somewhat split on his glovework, with OAA considering him subpar while both DRS and UZR are much kinder. Despite that disagreement, it still seems fair to expect the Sox to get better defensive results this year. Vaughn will be on the infield while Jiménez, who is also graded poorly on the grass, seems to be lined up to be the club’s primary designated hitter this year. With Benintendi in left and Robert in center, the club should at least have two competent everyday players in the mix. The question left to be resolved is who will be in right field. The club also lost AJ Pollock when he turned down a player option and signed with the Mariners, in addition to non-tendering Adam Engel, who then signed with the Padres. The right field job has been left open as a battle this spring, so let’s take a look at the candidates.
“Oscar Colas is going to be given every opportunity to see if he can become our right fielder on a daily basis,” manager Pedro Grifol said in an interview a few weeks ago. The prospect has a short track record in affiliated ball and is not yet on the 40-man roster, but it seems the team wants to leave a path open for him to seize a job once he proves himself ready for it.
Now 24 years old, Colas played in Cuba when he was younger, serving as both a hitter and a pitcher. Though some liked to call him the “Cuban Ohtani,” he only logged 3 1/3 innings in Cuba when he was 19 and the comparison never seemed truly appropriate. After spending some time in Japan, Colas was eventually declared a free agent and agreed to terms with the White Sox in 2021. That deal didn’t become official until January of 2022 when a new international signing period began, delaying his debut in affiliated ball until last year. Colas now has one season in the minors under his belt and there’s no denying that it was impressive. He began in High-A before jumping to Double-A and Triple-A, getting 526 plate appearances in 117 total games. He hit 23 home runs in that time and produced a batting line of .314/.371/.524 for a wRC+ of 137.
Those results certainly suggest Colas has earned a shot in the big leagues, but there are also concerns. His work at Triple-A was only a seven-game stint as the season was winding down, and though he hit .387 in that time, he also struck out at a 36.4% rate while walking just 6.1% of the time. It’s a small sample, but plate discipline is the primary red flag on his profile. His strikeout rate wasn’t quite as drastic at the lower levels but increased as he moved up the ranks. Scouting reports from both Baseball America and FanGraphs raise concerns about his propensity for chasing.
He’s not considered a strong enough defender for center field or a burner on the basepaths, with scouts agreeing he makes more sense in right field. He could still be an above-average fielder there, especially because his arm is considered an asset. But corner outfielders are generally expected to produce more offense than center fielders, putting a bit more pressure on his bat. Though the power seems to be legit, the strikeouts could potentially be an Achilles heel. It seems the Sox are open to letting him take a job with a hot spring but he could also warrant a bit more time on the farm after not playing in 2021 and a quick run through the minors last year.
Sheets, 27 in April, has shown some solid work at the plate in his career so far. He debuted in 2021 and launched 11 home runs in 54 games, leading to a .250/.324/.506 slash line and a 124 wRC+. He got his first extended stretch of playing time last year but couldn’t quite maintain that torrid pace. He hit 15 home runs over 410 plate appearances and hit .241/.295/.411 overall for a wRC+ of 100, or exactly league average.
The defensive side of his game hasn’t been graded well, however, as Sheets has a -10 DRS, -7 OAA and -6.0 UZR in the outfield so far. He’s only been in the majors a short time but the profile appears limited, supplying power but not much else since he doesn’t run well or get on base at an especially high rate. He seems like the frontrunner to hold down the job until Colas is deemed ready.
Jiménez, 26, certainly provides value with his bat. Despite missing over two months with a hamstring strain last year, he still hit 16 home runs and finished the season with a .295/.358/.500 batting line for a wRC+ of 144. But his defense has been a liability in his career, leading to tallies of -15 DRS, -17 OAA and -8.2 UZR. It seems the club will try to utilize him as a DH for the most part, though not entirely.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing Eloy in right field,” Grifol said recently. “I’m not talking about seeing him there every day, but I’m talking about maybe seeing him there a day or two a week if possible and keeping him athletic and keeping him working on the defensive side, because I know that helps on the offensive side as well.”
Regardless of who’s getting the regular right field reps, it seems Jiménez will be rotated in there a bit. That’s a fine enough plan but situations could always arise where he has to jog out there more often. Last year, for example, Bryce Harper was diagnosed with a torn UCL that kept him from taking the field but allowed him to continue hitting. That forced the Phillies to put Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos out on the grass more often than they initially planned. That’s an extreme example in the sense that Harper was such a good hitter that the Phils had little choice but to allow him to clog up their DH slot for most of the year. However, it still shows that an injury can sometimes throw off a club’s designs for its ideal alignment, and it’s possible such a scenario arises and leads to an extended stretch in the field for Jiménez.
Garcia, 32 in March, is a candidate to help out with Chicago’s unsettled second base position as well as here in right. In his many years with the club, he’s served a super utility role, playing everywhere except first base and catcher. His glovework in the outfield is considered to be around average, though he doesn’t provide much at the plate, with a career batting line of .253/.293/.350. That amounts to a wRC+ of 74, indicating he’s been 26% below league average for his career. He was well off that pace last year, getting into 97 games but hitting just .210/.233/.267 for a wRC+ of just 39. He’s likely to be bouncing around the diamond to fill in wherever he’s needed. That could include some time in right field, but if he’s getting an extended run here it likely means something has gone terribly wrong.
Victor Reyes/Jake Marisnick/Billy Hamilton/Adam Haseley
None of these outfielders are currently on the roster, but they will be in camp as non-roster invitees. In the case of Haseley, he was outrighted in November while the other three were brought aboard on minor league deals. Marisnick and Hamilton are both glove-first veterans who will be 32 years old this year. They could make their way onto the roster as a fourth outfielder at some point, but it will be difficult to earn an everyday role unless there’s a cascade of injuries to other players. Haseley, 27 in April, was once a top-100 prospect with the Phillies, but his bat seems to have stalled out once he got to the game’s upper levels. He has a .262/.323/.364 batting line in 380 MLB plate appearances for a wRC+ of 82. His Triple-A work isn’t impressive either, coming in at .241/.308/.389. His defense is well-regarded and he’s yet to reach arbitration, so he could theoretically carve out a meaningful role if he can take a step forward at the plate. Reyes, 28, is fairly similar, having hit .264/.294/.379 in his career for an 83 wRC+. He has over four years of service time but still has an option remaining.
There are still some names available in free agency, such as Jurickson Profar, David Peralta, Tyler Naquin, Ben Gamel, Robbie Grossman and others. Convincing any of them to sign as a placeholder or a part-time player could be difficult, though an injury during Spring Training or the World Baseball Classic could quickly change the whole picture. The club isn’t close to the $233MM competitive balance tax threshold, with Roster Resource currently pegging their number at $205MM. They are, however, getting pretty close to their franchise spending record. Per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the club ran a $193MM figure on Opening Day last year, smashing their previous record of $129MM. Roster Resource has them at $187MM right now, just shy of last year. They could seemingly afford to make an addition if they wanted, but it’s possible they simply don’t want to block Colas and the remaining free agents feel they could probably find better opportunities elsewhere.
Though the Sox seem capable of having a better outfield this year, the overall depth does seem to be lacking at the moment. If Colas comes into spring and looks great, then things are probably in good shape. But if he looks a little shaky and goes back to the minors, then Sheets and Jiménez are likely handling things, with both of those guys being defensive liabilities. One injury would suddenly vault Garcia or one of the non-roster guys into an everyday role. More than one injury would really create a problem.