By Nick Shepkowski–
(CBS) You don’t have to be Bill James to realize the 2015 White Sox were particularly awful at second and third base.
Sure, there were plenty of issues. Right-hander Jeff Samardzija didn’t pitch like anyone expected, catcher Tyler Flowers again couldn’t hit his weight, shortstop Alexei Ramirez took a step back and outfielder Melky Cabrera was a bust for a large part of the season, but the pathetic numbers they put up in the second and third base were as big of issue as any of these.
As a result, you’ve now seen executives Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams make a couple of moves. First, it was a trade for Brett Lawrie from the Athletics in exchange for a couple of minor league pitchers who virtually nobody had ever heard of. On Wednesday, it was the acquisition of two-time All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier from the Reds in a three-team deal that included the Dodgers.
While neither Lawrie nor Frazier is going to be competing for an MVP award anytime soon, both are upgrades from who manned their respective positions a season ago.
In Lawrie’s case, he’ll take over a second base that was manned primarily by Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson. Along with another dozen-and-a-half games started by Emilio Bonifiacio and Gordon Beckham, that pair was among the worst in the league for production at the position.
The White Sox’s .275 on-base percentage from second base was better than only the Royals’ in the American League. Their .305 slugging percentage was 35 points lower than the second-worst Braves in all of baseball. White Sox second basemen hit a measly six home runs all of last year, which only bettered the Marlins’ total of four.
Lawrie isn’t going to step in and be Jason Kipnis or Jose Altuve, so let’s get that straight right now. However, if he can stay on the field, he’ll be a sizable upgrade. Lawrie’s career on-base percentage is .316, though that mark is .299 and .301 in the past two seasons.
Where Lawire makes a big difference is in his power. Playing last year in Oakland, one of the worst hitter’s ballparks around, Lawrie had 16 home runs, 10 more than what White Sox second basemen had.
The White Sox finished last in the American League in home runs in 2015, something they’re obviously hoping Lawrie helps them improve on. If Lawrie plays out to his Steamer projections, he’ll be worth 1.8 wins. He may not reach that number if his health slows him down, but when you compare that figure to the -2.3 wins above replacement the White Sox got a year ago at second base, there’s a realistic chance at a four-win for the White Sox increase based on his performance over that of last season’s at second base.
I wouldn’t go expecting Lawrie on the field for all 162 given his injury history, but hey, this appears to be a solid improvement — even if it is largely based on how bad the position played out a season ago.
You’ll see a similar improvement at third base for the White Sox, too.
Tyler Saladino, Conor Gillaspie and Beckham combined to make 142 of the team’s starts at third base in 2015. And they made them awfully, I should add.
Only the Red Sox got less production from third base a season ago, as the White Sox hit just .226 at the position, with a team on-base percentage of .277 and a slugging percentage of .345. Their 13 home runs from the spot were second-worst in the AL.
Playing in a park like U.S. Cellular Field, it’s tough to undersell the value of home runs. We can all look at the recent Giants’ teams that the World Series or the most recent champs in the Royals and see they weren’t hitting bombs at any record paces, but U.S. Cellular Field traditionally plays a lot smaller than either of those teams’ home ballparks. If you aren’t hitting home runs on the South Side, chances are your opponent is, and the White Sox gave up 11 more home runs at home a season ago than they hit, despite what was supposed to be a solid starting rotation for Chicago.
Now, enter Frazier as another reason to expect a gain in the win total in 2016 after a 76-86 season.
I do have some concerns about the Frazier acquisition. He’s been an All-Star each of the last two seasons and has hit 64 home runs over that span, but last year in his age 29 season with a red-hot Joey Votto hitting in front of him virtually all year, Frazier couldn’t capitalize after the All-Star break.
In fact, he was pretty bad for a long stretch.
Frazier’s average dipped from .284 to .220 after the break. His on-base percentage fell 63 points from .337 to .274, and his power numbers took a huge hit, as he recorded just 10 of his 35 home runs after the All-Star break.
With that said, as long as Frazier is somewhere in the middle of those first- and second-half numbers, he’ll give the White Sox another bump in expected win total. He still played out to be the eight-best third baseman in the game in 2015 despite the second-half decline, something the White Sox a season ago would have been thrilled to have. Some say his Home Run Derby is to blame, but I side with it being a regression to the mean.
As a unit, the White Sox’s WAR at third base was a pathetic -1.8. Add in what Steamer/Fangraphs projects Frazier to do in 2016 — valuable for roughly 3.2 wins — and you find it’s possible the improvement at third base adds five wins for the White Sox.
I get why the trade comes with skepticism from part of the White Sox fan base. Hell, as a baseball observer, I’d like to see them try something that sets them up for long-term success, not seemingly reapplying band-aids each offseason. Realistically speaking though, that’s just not going to happen — especially when the likes of Jose Abreu, Chris Sale, Adam Eaton and Jose Quintana are locked up to the deals they are.
So this is where we are now: a 76-win team from a season ago may have found nine more wins this season at second base and third base. If that’s the case, the White Sox would be at 85 victories.
It’s not perfect math, nor is it that simple. I fully assume the club takes a hit with Avisail Garcia being depended on again every day in right field instead of Trayce Thompson, who showed signs of life late last year and who’s now headed to the Dodgers. That could be a downgrade and problem spot over the previous expectation.
But factor in a starter who you hope performs better than whatever that was from Samardzija in 2015 and the acquisitions behind the plate with Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro, and maybe there are another couple wins to be found. Will Melky Cabrera be as bad as he was for a large part of 2015? Perhaps there’s another win-and-a-half improvement there.
When I first heard the news on Frazier, I was hesitant to get excited based off of his second-half slide a season ago. Looking deeper at the numbers and remembering how bad the White Sox were at two of the positions they’ve made moves at this offseason, I see a team that could be on the rise in an AL Central.
Will it work? If I knew that, I’d take out a loan to put on the outcome in Vegas, wait 10 months and forget about working the rest of my life.
What I do know is that albeit quietly, the 2016 White Sox might be closer to competing for a spot in October than we realize as we sit here on Dec. 16 and think.
I’d still call it a long shot that the White Sox compete for a playoff spot, but if they go and sign Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes, we can really start to talk.