Leury Garcia: The First Big Find of the Rebuild

Rebuilding has a few very clear consequences. The first is that a majority of the talent in the organization is younger, regardless of the level. The major league roster lowers in age, and the minors become robust with even younger yet more underdeveloped talent. That youth allows for some flexibility in the big leagues. Naturally, the team as constructed is still trying to win ballgames. It’s the players’ and manager’s job to keep winning games. What does happen, however, is that fringier prospects are given a chance to run wild and see what happens at the highest level. Sometimes, the results are ugly and appear as extreme tanking efforts. Other times, the results are surprisingly good. Let’s talk about the good. Leury Garcia has turned from fringe prospect to valuable major leaguer.

Garcia was acquired by the White Sox from the Texas Rangers in exchange for Alex Rios in 2013. He was a speedy, small infielder who had played every position on the field except first base. His abilities on the field were highly praised, but his bat didn’t excite. The White Sox, as they are wont to do, rushed him to the big leagues before he could even have a chance to adjust to more advanced pitching. The team then wisely limited his major league plate appearances in 2015 and 2016.

It appears that decision has payed huge dividends for the White Sox. Despite not even starting the season as a regular starter, Garcia has earned his spot as the starting center fielder. Even more than that, he’s been one of the best center fielders in all of baseball. Yes, it’s still a small sample size. But we are fast approaching the end of small sample size warnings with Garcia holding a perfectly sustainable .305 BABIP.

By every WAR metric, Leury has been among the best at his position. He’s accumulated 1.6 bWAR. If you can believe it, he’s tied for fourth among all centerfielders — yes, all of them — with 1.3 fWAR. By WARP, he’s the third best center fielder with 1.3 WARP. Needless to say, he’s been really good. A lot of that value comes from defense, which each model measures differently. The Fangraphs model likes that he’s racked up a 2.6 UZR and plus-5 DRS. Here at Baseball Prospectus we use FRAA, which thinks Garcia has accumulated 3.6 fielding runs above average.

That FRAA is why he’s been able to top everyone but offensive powerhouses Mike Trout and Charlie Blackmon. The usual suspects of Jarrod Dyson, Byron Buxton, and Ender Inciarte are the only center fielders who sit above him in the category. While Garcia does fit into the same speedy defender profile that precedes each of those players, he’s been the best of the group offensively.

The different wins-above-replacement models are dangerous to use because each and every defensive metric is flawed. Knowing that all three of the mainstream metrics agree that Garcia is very good in center tells us enough without having to necessarily quantify it perfectly. Garcia’s always had a reputation of flashing the leather, though. The real revelation this season has been at the plate.

By purely looking at offense, Garcia remains one of the best center fielders in baseball right now. In wRC+ among qualified hitters he ranks fourth at 125. The only players above him are Trout, Blackmon, and Kevin Pillar. In TAv among qualified hitters he ranks fourth at .284. The same three players rank above him. While Pillar is having a breakout season of his own, the other two players are established stars. Garcia is right there with them. Heck, even by ISO he’s still sixth among center fielders at .194.

Who knows if this version of Garcia will disappear in a month, after this season, or not for another five years. Right now all signs point toward him continuing to rake. His contact rate is excellent at 85 percent while he’s managed to keep his approach (swing rates on both pitches in and out of the zone) essentially the same. Perhaps that contact rate will fall a little, but his 13.4 percent strikeout rate and 4.2 percent walk rate aren’t likely to change.

Rebuilding is centered around the big names, of course. But finding a diamond in the rough because there’s no pressure to win ballgames can help fill out the depth of a future roster. Right now, Garcia is making the best case to be the center fielder of the future. He’s just 26 years old and perhaps hitting his prime. The White Sox lack of patience did him in early in his career, but they’ve made up for it by providing him with enough time to recover from those mistakes.

Now he looks ready to shock the league for a full season, possibly even riding his great first half to an All-Star appearance. That would be a huge win for a White Sox farm system that is sorely lacking in the outfield, despite just adding a big name in Luis Robert. It’s not easy to find a player up the middle that can contribute on both sides of the ball the way Garcia is right now. Garcia is the real deal, and I’m not convinced that he plans on stopping his torrid pace.

Lead Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports Images

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