The White Sox have one of the best closers of his generation burning a hole in their pocket. Craig Kimbrel’s trade availability is no secret, so much so that speculation has reached the what-happens-if-they-don’t-trade-him part of the trade rumors life cycle, as explored yesterday by MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk. That said, when GM Rick Hahn picks up the phone to talk shop with one of the other 29 general managers, Kimbrel’s not likely the sole topic of conversation.
After all, determining value for a player like Kimbrel can often be accomplished by touching on a number of evaluative points, i.e. players, before circling back to the original focus. And of course, sometimes those conversation never return to the original player of focus at all. Vinnie Duber of NBC Sports speculates on who some of those other players are that the White Sox might bandy about in trade talks. This practice mostly amounts to a listing of the White Sox prospects and young players who haven’t yet established themselves in full-time roles, and sure enough, for Chicago’s Southsiders, they are the type of win-now club that must consider moving prospects.
The top player on Duber’s list (after Kimbrel), is Andrew Vaughn, the third overall pick of the 2019 draft. After an explosive season with the California Golden Bears, Vaughn was seen as a potential fast-riser, but it was still surprising to see the White Sox take a first baseman third overall, behind only superstars-in-waiting Adley Rutschman and Bobby Witt Jr. Impressive though his bat was, first baseman simply don’t usually go that high in the draft.
What’s more, the White Sox already had a first baseman in Jose Abreu. Abreu hadn’t yet put up his 2020 MVP season, but internally, the organization has always held him in high regard. Drafting for positional need isn’t exactly the rule of thumb for the MLB draft, of course. Regardless, at the time, Abreu was a potential free agent at the end of the year. So Vaughn, besides being a high-end college bat, benefited the White Sox as an insurance policy and negotiating tactic even before he donned a uniform.
Vaughn being blocked at first by Abreu was an easy can to kick down the road for Chicago’s draft team, but the hypothetical quandary actualized in 2021 as Vaughn approached big-league readiness. Though 2019 was his only season of minor league experience because of the pandemic, the White Sox nevertheless deemed Vaughn ready for the show in 2021, and they didn’t let the fact that there wasn’t an avenue to regular playing time stop them from placing Vaughn on the opening day roster. Of course, injuries cleared a path: all Vaughn had to do was learn a new position on the fly at the highest level of the sport.
All things considered, Vaughn held his own rather well in his rookie season, slashing .235/.309/.396 across 469 plate appearances while spending time at first base, left field, right field, second base, and third base. His performance at the plate was a touch disappointing as he finished six percent worse than average with a 94 wRC+, but if anyone deserves a little grace, it’s Vaughn.
Again, let’s consider the circumstances. Vaughn played his age-23 season not having played organized baseball in more than a year, never having appeared above High-A while adjusting to life as a part-time player and learning not one, but four new positions. He did so for a team with postseason expectations that absolutely did not have time to wait for Vaughn to “grow up.” He did so while taking the place of not one, but two injured outfielders in Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert who had quickly become the faces of the rising power in Armour Square. Even to be roughly the value of a replacement player under those circumstances (0.2 rWAR, 0.3 fWAR) has to be counted as a win for the ChiSox. The future is bright for Vaughn, with Steamer projecting Vaughn to become a 114 wRC+ hitter by next season.
For a high draft pick debuting for a championship contender, Vaughn’s national spotlight was surprisingly dim. His low profile can be partially attributed to the other stars on the team that pull attention their way, it could be partially attributed to the fact that the White Sox ran away with the division, but most of all, it’s probably attributable to the fact that part-time players rarely take center stage. And as Gavin Sheets, another rookie bat, crushed righty after righty, Vaughn was more-and-more relegated to the short-side platoon duties for which he was probably best suited.
Vaughn’s platoon splits are hard to ignore. The young slugger mauled southpaws to the tune of a 156 wRC+ with a .269/.383/.555 line. Against right-handers, Vaughn shrunk to a .221/.277/.332 triple slash, a mere 68 wRC+. Based on that production, Vaughn is already an elite short-side platoon bat. The question is whether he can grow to be more than that if he’s not getting those at-bats against same-handed hurlers. The White Sox will be heavy favorites in the AL Central, but the Royals and Tigers are rising, and the Twins and Guardians were formidable foes not long ago. It’s fair to question whether they can give him that time and space to develop.
We have to ask the question: should the White Sox trade Vaughn? For as much as Chicago will be favorited, they have holes to fill at second base, right field, and potentially in the rotation. It would hurt to move Vaughn, but to Duber’s point, we need only return to the Kimbrel trade to see Hahn’s willingness to shuffle pieces around to meet positional need – even when that means sacrificing young players. Last year’s trade of Nick Madrigal was a particular circumstance, of course, where Madrigal’s injury rendered him a zero in 2021. Hahn saw the potential to turn Madrigal’s zero into positive points on the ledger as they made a bid to be World Series contenders.
Of course, given how that turned out for Chicago, Hahn might think twice about making a similar move. That said, moving Vaughn would be a similar move if Vaughn is going to continue as a part-time player. Turning part-time production into full-time production would be a similar capitalization of resources, but that assumes that Chicago won’t find a way to get Vaughn into the lineup on a regular basis. Besides, his long-term potential coupled with his elite production against lefties might be enough for Hahn to tighten his grip on Vaughn, regardless of what kind of player he could get in return.
There’s also the matter of Vaughn’s “versatility,” which Chicago certainly utilized in 2021. Vaughn didn’t embarrass himself defensively at any position, but he also wasn’t a positive in any spot. Sure, they can continue to move him around the diamond as needs arise, but that might not be the best way to maximize Vaughn as a resource.
There are basically two avenues that the White Sox will want to consider for Vaughn as a resource. How can they maximize his value to help this team right now, and how can they best develop Vaughn as a player to reach his substantial ceiling? If they feel confident in aligning those tracks, then there’s no reason to consider moving Vaughn, not when alternatives to fill those roster holes remain. If the White Sox have doubts about their ability to multi-task Vaughn’s development, then it’s worth considering his value on the market.
Then again, what exactly would they be targeting in a deal? A regular second baseman or right fielder with similar team control and potential. Say, a Nick Madrigal type? I kid. But maybe they could pair Vaughn with Kimbrel to get a true in-their-prime superstar in return? Unfortunately, Kimbrel and Vaughn together offer the wrong blend of win-now and build-to-the-future potential for a team that might be willing to subtract a “true superstar.” Besides, there are only so many young players who have proven themselves to be Major League players that a team wants to surrender, even if they have holes to fill.
These deals happen, of course, and they’re rarely easy to spot before the trades are delivered to the league office. The Brewers and Rays excel at these types of deals, but they typically avoid any preciousness about their young players. The White Sox don’t have quite that history. Therefore, more than likely, Vaughn will continue his development as a member of the 2022 White Sox, sometimes playing right field, sometimes playing first base, always crushing lefties, and hopefully beginning to find his way to holding down an everyday spot in the lineup – and that much is true no matter what uniform he wears.