By Cee Angi-
(CBS) There’s a cosmic wrongness in having to ask why the Seattle Mariners can have nice things while the White Sox play the role of fragile small market team this offseason. Not only did the Mariners sign top free agent Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal on Friday, their organization was rumored to be chasing after several other free agents in the past few weeks.
In discussing the Mariners’ desire to sign Carlos Beltran before he agreed to a deal with the Yankees, one beat writer made it sound like the Mariners were so interested that they would continue to pursue him even if he signed a deal with another team first. Of course it was just poor phrasing and not at all what he meant, but the misphrasing adequately captures the aggressiveness of a team that’s sick of losing and is committed to making changes. It feels strange to be envious of a team like the Mariners given that they are probably still several moves away from competing, but given the Cano signing, it’s warranted.
It would have been naïve to assume that the Sox were going to fix their roster by signing a dozen free agents, but it does seem reasonable to think that they might grab a bat or two to improve the offense. No one has forgotten that the White Sox signed Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million deal back in October, but since then it’s been difficult to trust that the White Sox are committed to improving the roster. That distrust was exacerbated last week as even the “small market” teams were signing free agents and making trades at a pace that seemed to instill urgency in other deals getting done. While some of the inactivity by the Sox might not be for lack of trying — they were rumored to be interested in both Curtis Granderson and Jarrod Saltalamacchia before they signed with the Mets and Marlins, respectively — some of their inactivity has undoubtedly been a conscious decision, and that’s not helping the roster nor silencing the critics.
The biggest cause for concern isn’t what the Sox did or didn’t do relating to free agents and trades, but in their decision to maintain status quo on last Tuesday’s non-tender deadline. Instead of letting some of their weakest youngsters head to free agency, the Sox are betting on their upside yet again next season. They re-signed Tyler Flowers to a one-year, $950,000 deal last Monday, and they tendered contracts to Gordon Beckham, Dayan Viciedo, and Alejandro De Aza. While their contract terms have yet to be determined, the Sox will inevitably be giving them a raise (the process does not allow for a pay cut no matter how poorly you do), devoting an estimated $12 million to four players whose struggles contributed to the Sox’ 99 losses this season. The decision to keep them was a risk but not unexpected since teams tend to prefer known quantities, even if they have weaknesses, over new players who might have their own deficiencies, but it doesn’t take a lot of number crunching or projections to know that giving raises to those four players and re-signing Paul Konerko isn’t the fast path out of last place.
Not surprisingly, many people have been critical of what they perceive as Hahn’s decision to punt next season, but even though I tend to be more of a cynic than an optimist (especially when analyzing baseball deals) for some reason I’m inclined to give the Sox the benefit of the doubt for now. Perhaps I’ll come to regret that on Opening Day when I’m writing a bunch of familiar names into my scorebook, retreaded players collectively hoping for a redemptive season, but the truth is that there is still plenty of time for the Sox to make roster adjustments before the season starts. The flurry of activity last week might make it seem like the Sox have missed the boat on getting better next season, but there’s still a chance to make some deals, even small ones, that could be impactful. Of course, the fact that of the top 20 free agents as ranked by ESPN’s Free Agent Tracker, only seven are still available as of the beginning of the winter meetings today will make it harder for the Sox to get immediate relief, below are some avenues that they could pursue to improve their lineup before Opening Day.
Trade Chris Sale. I hate writing this part as much as you’ll hate reading it, but even though Sale was labeled as immovable at the trade deadline, there’s still a compelling case to trade him for much needed offensive help. Sale is a baseball unicorn–he’s a lefty, he’s an ace, and he’s has an extremely team-friendly contract–and many teams would be interested. Sale’s contract guarantees him $32.5 million through 2019, and even though his contract includes an escalator (which is based on performance and a Cy Young win) that could increase the total value of the contract to $60 million over seven years, it’s a bargain for an elite pitcher in an era when aces are getting ridiculously rich. The likelihood of the Sox trading him is still extremely low, but in the event that a team is desperate enough to make them an offer they shouldn’t refuse, the Sox might be in a position where they at least consider it.
Trade Jose Quintana: If Sale truly is not on the market, the Sox could attempt to sell high on Quintana instead. In his sophomore season, the 24-year-old southpaw’s earned run average dropped to 3.51 from 3.76 as his strikeout rate jumped from 5.3 to 7.4 per nine innings. He made 32 starts and pitched 193 innings, and would have hit the 200-inning benchmark were it not for the fact that the Sox used a six-man rotation in September. Some of his improvement can be credited to a change in approach (throwing fewer cutters and more changeups), but there’s also the possibility that last season’s success was just an anomaly and that the Sox should trade him now before he regresses. There’s a shortage of left-handed pitchers available this offseason, which might mean a higher return than usual for Quintana, especially since he has two more seasons before reaching his arbitration years.
The Arbitration Players: In principal, the Sox have committed to keep Beckham, De Aza, Viciedo, and Flowers next season, but that doesn’t preclude them from trading them. Tendering them contracts prevented them from hitting the free agent market, but given that they all have shown weaknesses in their tenure in the majors, if there’s another team that is interested, the Sox are definitely listening. While they might not have teams beating down their door to get these players—though the Blue Jays were rumored to be interested in Beckham, and the Mets in Flowers—what seems more likely is that they could be packaged as part of bigger trades, rather than showcase pieces, for teams who believe in their upside.
Catcher: Solving the issues at catcher, a position at which the Sox hit .196/.238/.326 this season (in the bottom 30 aggregate performances at catcher by a team in nearly 100 years, though incredibly, the Marlins were worse), is difficult to do now that the two best available, Brian McCann and Saltalamacchia, have agreed to deals with the Yankees and Marlins, respectively. The Sox gave Flowers the vote of confidence by re-signing him, but that doesn’t mean they plan for him to be the everyday starter. What seems to be the most likely scenario, is that the Sox will put Josh Phegley back in the minors to give him time to mature (although he’s going on 26) and find a platoon partner—someone who can hit righties—to pair with Flowers. The Rays signed catcher Ryan Hanigan last week, which led to rumors that Jose Lobaton was available and that the Sox were close to working out a deal for him. Lobaton is a switch-hitting catcher who takes a fair number of walks and hit .246/.330/.406 against righties this year could provide a low-cost, low-risk boost.
Third Base: The Sox aren’t going to find a franchise third baseman this offseason unless they somehow trade for someone like Chase Headley—which seems unlikely—but they could find a way to improve over last season’s .236/.285/.350 with 15 home runs. The organization seems to have a lot of faith in Conor Gillaspie, but he can’t hit lefties. They also have Jeff Keppinger, Brent Morel, and Alex Liddi, but they are all fraught with weaknesses. It might have made sense to forfeit the position and try to piece together production at the hot corner since the market is thin, but in the absence of improving the offense at other positions, it might be a better strategy to now consider a free agent like Juan Uribe, who hit .278/.331/.438 in 426 plate appearances last season and plays solid defense, to make a bigger impact offensively than their internal candidates can.
Outfielders: Many of the top free agents have already signed, but Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz are still available. While seemed unlikely that the Sox would be interested in either of them a few weeks ago, now that they won’t be spending big money on a catcher there’s reason to at least consider them now. The payroll for next season is currently around $80 million, low compared with last season’s $118 million commitment. Now that the Yankees have reached a deal with Beltran, they are reportedly listening to offers for Brent Gardner. Gardner is in his final arbitration year before hitting free agency next season. Fast and rangy, Gardner saved six runs on defense last season in a down year, which would be a big upgrade defensively over De Aza, who cost the Sox 18 runs last season. Gardner is better at the plate, too–though he played just 16 games in 2012 after injuring his elbow on diving catch, he returned this season to hit .273/.344/.416 and steal 24 bases this year. His patience at the plate would also be a good example to a Sox roster that likes to swing first and ask questions later. The Yankees are looking to upgrade the back of their rotation; would they be interested in reclaiming Quintana, who passed through their organization before being signed by the White Sox?
Pitchers: The Sox’ rotation is in good shape for next season, and unless they make a trade that involves a starter, they won’t need to make any changes to the rotation. In the bullpen, the Sox signed righty reliever Ronald Belisario to a one-year, $3 million deal last week following his non-tender from the Dodgers. The Sox are hoping that Belisario is able to get his strikeout percentage back to where it was in 2012 (24.1 percent), and he could make a great addition to the late-relief core of Matt Lindstrom, Nate Jones, and closer Addison Reed. The Sox, however, are still looking to fill the void left by Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain, both of whom were traded last season. While it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to spend a lot of money on relievers given their variability, the number one priority is to find a left-handed pitcher in case Donnie Veal and Charlie Leesman struggle again next season. If the Sox start making trades, it seems very likely that Hector Santiago will end up on someone else’s roster since he’s their most versatile bullpen arm.
Trade Adam Dunn: Listing Dunn here is counterintuitive given that trading him wouldn’t necessarily improve the team beyond freeing up a roster spot and clearing the logjam at first base/designated hitter that was created by signing Abreu and re-signing Konerko. While the Sox are suggesting that they can accommodate all three players, there’s still a chance that they move Dunn. The decision to dump Dunn, however, would be a mistake given that despite his low batting average and plentiful strikeouts he provides a much-needed offensive boost to a team that is anemic at the plate. That said, given that Dunn is slated to make $15 million next year, if there’s a team willing to pick up the bulk of his salary it’s understandable that the White Sox would make that deal happen. Yet, in a sport awash in money, merely trying to save a few bucks because the team is incapable of making proper concessions to a player’s limitations (in Dunn’s case, burning his glove, telling him he doesn’t have to report to the ballpark before the fifth inning if a left-hander is starting for the other team) seems both self-defeating and out of step with the times. Even though it’s a bad idea, though, it doesn’t mean that it won’t happen.
While it doesn’t seem possible that the Sox can fix all of their roster woes in just one offseason, especially given how slow they have been to make changes thus far, teams like the Red Sox have shown that if you start with a good core it is possible to make great strides in a short period of time. It’s not the entire roster that is in disrepair; the White Sox have a good core of starting pitcher and relievers, and should be focused on decisions that make the offense stronger. The good news where trades and upgrades are concerned is that other than first base with Abreu and perhaps Avisail Garcia in right field, there aren’t any sacred cows among the position players on this team, which could give the Sox the flexibility to make deals that other teams can’t as the season draws nearer (“Mr. De Aza, we understand there are opportunities for a man of your abilities in Houston”). The 2014 season probably won’t be a year in which the Sox win the division, but with any luck they’ll at least make some moves that push the number in the loss column farther away from the century mark.
Cee Angi is a freelance sportswriter, whose work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, The Platoon Advantage, The Classical, and is currently one of SB Nation’s featured columnists covering Major League Baseball. Follow her on Twitter @CeeAngi and read more of her CBS Chicago blog entries here.