The 2016 White Sox have an incomplete roster. They left winter with an incomplete roster, with Austin Jackson as their big free agent acquisition. With more than half the season in the books, almost all of the problems they have now were foreseeable during the offseason. Unfortunately, they punted solving them, and as is often the case with strategies based on hope, sometimes the real world refuses to give you something you haven’t earned.
The White Sox haven’t had to venture out into the insane world of free agent starting pitching acquisition. Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon were acquired for two first round picks and in minor league free agency. Sure, they’ve had to scramble to fix the fourth and fifth slots in the rotation, and even now those slots don’t inspire a ton of confidence, but that’s pretty normal. There are plenty of teams who have spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars and/or massive amounts of trade resources trying to replicate what the White Sox have in the rotation and failed — e.g. Boston, Arizona, or even the bizarre failures of the Minnesota Twins, murdering themselves with $50-80 million mediocrities.
When you only need to fill a fifth starter spot, you can do perfectly fine just digging through the bargain bin aggressively. Mat Latos was a worthwhile flyer for the cost, they got a good/lucky April out of him, and then abandoned him once he stopped being effective. Miguel Gonzalez was scooped up even while Latos was thriving, just as a hedge, and that’s actually worked out quite well. Indeed, in terms of the rotation, the White Sox front office should hold their heads high. They have struck gold at the top end and have gone on the attack to give them reinforcements.
Then you look on the other side of the ball and you wonder if it’s a completely different front office in charge.
Well, first let’s start with the good news:
Tim Anderson has been really, really fun. It doesn’t really matter how you look at it. From a results standpoint, he is hitting .304/.310/.488 at shortstop, which is good for a .278 TAv and roughly in the top half of the league in that category, even in this sudden Golden Age of Shortstops. Aesthetically it has been even better, with his much-hyped athleticism playing as advertised. It’s very early yet, but so far Anderson has represented a non-pitching draft and development success that has been virtually extinct on the South Side since George W. Bush took office.
The shortstop situation is an example of how you can cure a flaw in the roster in a very healthy way, and for White Sox fans who don’t really pay attention to other teams, this is how most teams plug a hole–from within. Moreover, even though it was risky, the White Sox’ offseason approach here was very defensible, albeit risky. The position was a liability, but they did have their top prospect racing through the system and potentially on the horizon. They had a competent understudy in the form of Tyler Saladino on hand, and so they threw a minor league deal out to a veteran who would theoretically complement Saladino’s virtues and hope that would tide them over until Anderson was ready.
The risk was a calculated one in the sense that you were throwing two mediocrities at the problem, each hedging against the other, and because shortstop has such a low bar for production. Granted, Anderson may have needed all of 2016 and even some of 2017 in the minors, but I don’t think it was crazy to do this instead of gambling on, say, Ian Desmond. Desmond has had a renaissance in Texas, but his peripherals had been collapsing for years, and there was real reason to believe he wasn’t worth forfeiting a draft pick.*
*This is notwithstanding the fact that I think Zack Burdi is a disappointing result for said pick. I doubt Burdi was Plan A for the pick, and I’m frustrated that this is how it turned out, sacking the pick for someone as volatile as Desmond would mean surrendering the ability to exploit draft opportunities. That they didn’t necessarily materialize is not the flaw in this strategy.
Similarly, Melky Cabrera, Todd Frazier, and Brett Lawrie have more or less been what you’d realistically expect from them. The troika of modest trade and free agency adds have been somewhere between average to above average while representing one third of the lineup. That’s great! Good job, everybody.
That’s the good news.
Since the 23-10 start, the White Sox have been–to put it charitably–limping along with less talent than they need, and what’s infuriating is that none of the problems they’ve had are a surprise. Avisail Garcia has been one of the worst players in the majors. Again. Alex Avila got hurt, and if that startles you, I would suggest you don’t have much interest in baseball. Austin Jackson was a glove-only option, but really, that the role he was cast to play.
Remember, as soon as Adam LaRoche retired, Avisail Garcia was Plan A at DH. In Spring it looked like the organization was willing to take the same aggressive bargain bin dumpster diving that they have applied to the back of the rotation. Scooping up guys who have succeeded in the majors in the past, targeting contracts that cellar dwellers want to get rid of, etc. Travis Ishikawa and Jerry Sands are pretty poor options, even by those standards, but they were bodies from outside the organization that were brought in to see if they could get any sort of boost at all. Sands wound up with a K% above 40, and Ishikawa never even played in the majors.
Then the White Sox…stopped trying to solve the problem. Justin Morneau is the first and only major league player they have added on the offensive side of the ball of any consequence, and he has yet to actually play for the team. Meanwhile, James Loney became available on waivers and was untouched. Even though the Padres added him on a minor league deal, he was clearly still freely available, as the Mets acquired him for “future considerations.”
Loney has hit .277/.336/.438 for the Mets, which is only slightly better than his 2014 numbers, and is basically a photocopy of his career averages. So, even if the White Sox say, “Well, we were counting on LaRoche and we were blindsided by his retirement,” there is little excuse as to why they didn’t pounce on someone like Loney–who was definitely available–after LaRoche quit.
Similarly, Minnesota signed Robbie Grossman to a minor league deal on May 17th of this year, months after LaRoche had retired. He has a .421 OBP.
Now, there are reasons to argue against acquiring both of these guys. Before their short spurts good performance this year, you could argue that Loney was washed up based on his 2015* and Grossman was a failed prospect, although it is worth pointing out that the Astros kept him instead of J.D. Martinez and he was a BP Top 100 prospect once upon a time.
*Note: The White Sox were evidently counting on Adam LaRoche, who is both older than Loney, and was worse in 2015, so I’m confused as to why LaRoche would be acceptable but Loney wasn’t an option.
So the White Sox missed on these guys, not necessarily because they should have known they’d each be plus bats, but rather because they sat on their hands. They didn’t do anything. The same organization that added Jacob Turner, James Shields, Mat Latos, Anthony Ranaudo, and Miguel Gonzalez when it was clear that John Danks couldn’t hack it anymore did absolutely nothing to help the disastrous DH situation for three months.
And it all circles back to this offseason, when the White Sox did not add any free agents of consequence for the outfield or DH. The defense I saw from many on social media was that the White Sox could always add at the trade deadline instead.
Even ignoring how an organization like the White Sox cannot afford to keep acquiring talent in trades–how useful would Marcus Semien or Trayce Thompson be for this roster right now, even if one or both of them did bring something potentially helpful?–and even ignoring the fact that if you wait till the end of July you punt more than half the season without needed upgrades: The market does not always match what you need if you bank on this strategy.
As of Saturday, July 9th, Sandy Alderson explicitly said that there just aren’t that many sellers out there period. The only team he would cite as a seller as of now is Atlanta. Even if there are more–I bet Tampa or Cincinnati would listen to offers–they can afford to wait until July 31, or the end of August or even until this winter to sell players unless they get an offer that suits them. And, what if the players who are a good fit get hurt, like Josh Reddick did?
The White Sox decided they’d like to roll the dice on the remote chance that Avisail Garcia could be adequate, or that the market would provide them exactly what they needed and when they needed it. In the meantime, they sat on their hands, refusing to make any additions that could have helped bridge the gap until a more permanent solution was found. If the excuse for inaction is that they didn’t have any targets they could pry away for a reasonable price, the organization still only has themselves to blame. This was an extremely obvious and likely risk to their “strategy” of doing nothing all winter, and doing nothing once Adam LaRoche quit.
If they had aggressively rifled through the bargain bin, I’m pretty sure they could have found someone–anyone–who could beat Avisail Garcia’s .234 TAv. Maybe it would have been a Robbie Grossman, who would be the best hitter on the team right now. Maybe it would have been James Loney, who, by TAv, would also be the best hitter on the team right now. And this is an organization that realized that there was a problem at the back of the rotation and did exactly what they needed to do to make their offseason strategy make any sense at all, but wouldn’t for DH.
I can’t think of an explanation, other than the fact that maybe they really thought Avisail Garcia could hack it? If that is the explanation, then this team needs to take a hard look in the mirror as to why they seem to be the last ones to figure out that a position player isn’t a major leaguer time and time again. Or why their Plan As are so frequently underwhelming and paired with no credible Plan B.
There are problems that can’t be fixed. Catchers are really hard to find, for example, at any time, and if your catching situation is poor you’re not at much of a competitive disadvantage, because most teams have a bad catching situation. But if you can’t find a DH who can post a TAv better than .234 then…I suppose I have nothing else to say.
It was a risky strategy, based far more on hope than calculation, and what they were gambling with was yet another of the peak years of Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Adam Eaton. It doesn’t look like this gamble paired with baffling passivity is going to pay off. And maybe they pay a trade deadline premium for a bat–impact or not–at the end of July, but I suspect the damage has already been done.
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