The White Sox won 78 games this year and 76 last year. On July 31 of this year, they were 10.5 games out of the division and below .500. I suppose that was a modest improvement on being 11.5 games out of the division at the same time the previous year. Despite being so situated, they only saw fit to make one trade at either deadline — Zach Duke to St. Louis for Charlie Tilson. Sadly, while Duke would post a sub-2.00 ERA for the Cardinals in the second half, Tilson would tear his hamstring in his major league debut and miss the rest of 2016.
While the White Sox have been slammed from all directions for seeking free agents in the bargain bin, Duke represented the type of modest acquisition that is well worth pursuing. And although Duke was underwhelming in 2015, he was exactly what they’d hoped for in 2016 — a wipeout reliever against lefties who could be used against righties without it being lunacy. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, it was just announced that Duke will need Tommy John surgery, wiping out the final year of his contract, meaning they’ll just have to accept his 23.1 superb innings they got while coming up just short of the playoffs. Maybe one day they’ll catch a break.
Assuming Tilson is able to return from injury substantially in the state he was in before — not a given — he projects to be the type of player the White Sox have struggled to generate on their own. He’d have to max out his development to be a solid or plus starting center fielder, but he doesn’t need to do much to be a plus fourth outfielder. That’s hardly something that changes the long-term fate of the team, but it also describes Austin Jackson, who was the team’s biggest free agent acquisition last winter. If you can have good bench pieces for the league minimum it frees up resources to spend elsewhere. For example, how nice is it to have Tyler Saladino instead of Gordon Beckham or Emilio Bonifacio for $2-4 million a pop?
With an organization like the White Sox, there is always the risk that Tilson becomes Plan A in centerfield with zero backup plan. That would be foolhardy. However, if used properly, Tilson is a safe bet to be a burner on the bench who can come in as a defensive replacement or be used to help the flexibility of the lineup — or soak up an extra couple hundred plate appearances in case of injury instead of someone like J.B. Shuck, who just posted a sub-.600 OPS while pressed into full time duty. Beyond the tragedy of Tilson potentially degrading his key tool as a result of his hamstring injury, it also meant that the White Sox didn’t get to use the final few months of the season playing out the string giving him exposure to major league pitching and getting to evaluate how well he will do moving forward.
Tilson may need more time in Triple-A or he may be nothing at all. And there’s also the aforementioned possibility that he hits his ceiling and he’s a perfectly usable center fielder. Or, if the White Sox retain Brett Lawrie — and there is no legitimate reason that they should not — they could run out a bench of Tilson, Saladino, Omar Narvaez, and perhaps the other half of a DH platoon like, say, a Pedro Alvarez or Mike Napoli. And you don’t have be a wild optimist to believe that would have a good chance at being one of the better benches they’ve had in recent memory.
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