Sunday night, Mike Napoli went 2-for-3 with a walk and a stolen base, providing the bulk of Cleveland’s offense en route to a 3-0 lead in the ALCS. And while it is reductive, in many ways Napoli’s season (along with Dexter Fowler‘s) has served as one of the more condemnatory examples of how the White Sox failed last offseason. For even if one excuses the White Sox for running out the same payrolls they did a decade ago, despite revenues exploding around the league, a front office apologist would still need to explain why the team whiffed on so many of the bargain bin options as well.
Cleveland is a pretty good comparison for the White Sox in many respects. It is a team with strict financial limitations that frequently finds itself drafting in the teens rather than the top five, and is built primarily around the excellent, cheap front of its starting rotation. It’s just that Cleveland has addressed the same problems better than the White Sox have. They drafted Tyler Naquin, who hit .296/.372/.514, two picks after Courtney Hawkins, who hit .203/.255/.349 in his second attempt at Double-A this year. They signed Rajai Davis as their veteran stopgap center fielder, who provided about one win above replacement instead of Austin Jackson, who did not. Jose Ramirez turned into an All-Star whereas Carlos Sanchez has shown no discernible progress in about three years.
But hey, drafting is hard, injuries happen, and sometimes a player just hits his 90th percentile and the organization only deserves the faintest of credit for it. I am hard-pressed to find an excuse for why Cleveland signed Napoli for one year, $ 7 million, while the White Sox stood pat with Adam LaRoche and Avisail Garcia. Obviously the White Sox believed they would have LaRoche on hand and they were not expecting his retirement. They probably should have had more contingency plans generally, but I won’t pretend that LaRoche’s departure was predictable. But even if LaRoche had stayed for 2016 and even if he had somewhat of a bounce back year, he still needed a platoon partner.
Avisail Garcia was tendered a $2.1 million contract in his first year of arbitration eligibility, meaning Napoli would have cost about $5 million more — or, assuming you’d be bidding against Cleveland, maybe $5.5 or 6 million more. Napoli would go on to post an .800 OPS while receiving the most playing time of his career. He has had better rate stats when used more selectively against right-handed pitching, but if you were planning on having LaRoche around, it looks like you could have used him for ~450-500 high quality PAs, or if pressed into full-time duty, you could still expect him to hold his own as a designated hitter who can spot start at first base.
Was the cost prohibitive? That seems strange, even for the White Sox. A one-year deal for less than $10 million should not be prohibitive for any organization, especially given that they spent approximately $ 5.1 million on Garcia, Jimmy Rollins, and Justin Morneau. Nor can they say they wouldn’t have enough plate appearances for him. People get hurt, players need rest, and the team wound up giving more than 1,000 plate appearances to sub-replacement bats, on a roster with tremendous positional flexibility.
How much of the decision was continuing to double down on their bet that Garcia would develop? It’s not crazy, even now, to suggest that there is a non-zero chance that he improves to make himself a useful major leaguer in some capacity. It is crazy for a team genuinely attempting to win, with elite talent in its prime, to rely on Garcia improving to the point where he has to be a quality major leaguer in order for the roster to function. It appears that after years of dashing themselves against the rocks of Dayan Viciedo — the Mike Napoli of Japan! — the White Sox bet the farm on Garcia once again, and unsurprisingly, it blew up in their face again.
600-plus plate appearances of Napoli and a couple of other minor changes would have made the 2016 White Sox a lot better. And again, mid-to-low-end free agents could make the 2017 White Sox a lot better. There just isn’t a lot of evidence that the White Sox as currently constituted have the ability or willingness to identify that you need redundancy and depth, or even the most rudimentary description of evaluation — which players are good and which players are bad?
So while I still believe that, given the cards they have to play, the White Sox should try for the playoffs again in 2017, I certainly understand those who disagree based on despair, frustration, and lack of confidence in the organization.
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