In our neverending series of staring and tilting our heads quizzically at the White Sox post-teardown roster like a dog listening to their owner shuffle through new ringtones, let’s ponder a role that’s especially poorly suited to a rebuild: the designated hitter.
It’s not exactly a developmental position. The only qualified DHs under the age of 30 last season were Khris Davis and Corey Dickerson (Davis is 29), and is mostly occupied by aging players whose elite bats have kept them in the game past the death of their defensive utility. The Sox don’t figure to have any of those types unless they force that status upon Jose Abreu against his will, so they will probably be filling it the other commonly seen way: a rotating cast of players with some power potential and no consistent defensive home.
While reviewing a still in-development effort by Baseball Prospectus to project playing time for the 2017 season that I probably shouldn’t be discussing yet, I couldn’t help but notice that Sox DH was…a hodgepodge, to put it politely. They basically listed every position player on the 40-man who is not already a regular at another position, and they were not wrong to do so.
Avisail Garcia saw the most time there in 2016 of anyone returning, which, gives him some vague theoretical leg up. Melky Cabrera is still on the team, can hit, and is a declining defender who would figure to take some days off playing the field if he sticks around for a while, Rymer Liriano and Jason Coats are corner outfield types who will be looking to squeeze into whatever gap they can fit in, and Matt Davidson is on the 40-man roster, and thus in the mix. And this is alongside the possibilities of guys like Abreu, Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie swinging over for some occasional PAs, just because they’re currently around.
Garcia is likely the worst defender of the three corner outfielders, but his power drought only ended when he got into the field more in the second half. He only slugged .366 as a DH in 2016, compared to .435 as a right fielder. It’s hard to work up a great reason to project success for Davidson, as he got nearly 2000 plate appearances in Triple-A alone before a mild, still strikeout prone (26.4 percent in 2016) turnaround earned him a short-lived call-up last season, but how is anyone too stalled to give a shot when Garcia is still in the mix?
Liriano is the freshest face in this regard, since the last significant playing time he received saw him hit .292/.383/.460 with San Diego’s Triple-A affiliate in 2015. He seems like a longshot to perform well enough in Spring to win a job, given that he will have a full year of injury rust to knock off, but really is just a mystery box since he was a raw prospect who showed promise but has now missed two years of development. But everyone has a specific advantage over Coats, who is otherwise projected by many to lead the field in playing time. Coats was only added to the 40-man roster last Summer, and can easily be stashed in the minors without risk of being claimed off waivers, whereas Liriano and Davidson cannot.
Coats has never suffered through a long stall in production at any stage of the minors, and has certainly earned a shot on a rebuilding club, but lacks the standout tools to project him as a consistent regular. If not wanting to lose a guy on waivers was enough to give Jerry Sands an Opening Day slot last year, it could definitely keep Coats in Charlotte for the start of April.
A sentiment we’re at risk of losing when discussing the turgid mechanics of figuring out playing time, is that unless Melky just becomes a full-time DH, none of these guys figure to fill the position particularly well. Davidson was supposed to have plenty of power, but also strike out a ton and hit for a low average that would make his offense an asset only if he could stick at third base. Liriano was always revered as a toolshed, and his throwing arm and athleticism were supposed to help prop up the unrefined elements of his game at the plate, and Garcia was looked upon similarly but with more reverence for his speed and hit tool, and all three have seen hopes of fulfilling those past expectations dim drastically.
So all three are options to slot at DH for the sake of giving them at-bats and a chance to prove themselves, but are not necessarily great fits that would preclude the Sox from finding a veteran bat and hoping they hit well enough to be flipped for prospects. Mets writers have been very keen to suggest the White Sox relieve New York of their inability to trade Jay Bruce, but that could be a very expensive and thankless favor.
But maybe the Sox should be in the business of doing expensive favors with little chance of paying off; they have all of $69 million in pre-arbitration obligations for 2017 and figure to shed Frazier’s expensive third year of arbitration at some point, not to mention David Robertson and possibly Cabrera’s contract. If the budget-conscious Mets are willing to sweeten the pot with a prospect to have Bruce taken off their hands, it becomes a worthwhile maneuver. The Sox could similarly do well to inquire just how disenchanted the Cardinals are with Matt Adams, and see if the 28-year-old could reclaim any of his promise on the South Side. The Cardinals have a lot of infield options and no true first base bat, and would probably be interested in shedding some of them for Abreu, while we’re at it. And that’s before we glance at a slow-playing free agent market that still has Chris Carter, Pedro Alvarez and Mike Napoli hanging around.
Just because the big league club is set to become a clearinghouse for reclamation projects doesn’t mean they need to be inherently overmatched ones, and the realm of hitters with some chance of success who are too risky for contenders to take a chance on does not end at the Sox 40-man roster, and they would be wise to leverage their ability to survive a flop.
Lead Image Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski // USA Today Sports Images