White Sox have big advantage in free-agent market
Tiebreaker gives White Sox final protected Draft pick
The 2015 White Sox were a below-.500 team for the final 125 games of the season, but they still had something to play for on the final day of the year. On Oct. 4, they lost 6-0 to Detroit, getting only one man into scoring position against Daniel Norris and four relievers. That sounds bad. It should be bad. It turns out to be the best thing that could have happened.
At the same time, in another game between non-contenders, Seattle was mounting a late comeback to defeat Oakland, 3-2. That left the Mariners and White Sox tied at 76-86, which would be a completely irrelevant fact 99 percent of the time. This is the other one percent: The events of the final day combined with the unique situation the White Sox are in leave them perfectly positioned to make moves in a market that's aligning to their needs. (In fact, FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal tweeted on Tuesday that the White Sox remain active in the star-studded outfield market.)
Let's back up and explain: the little-noticed Chicago loss and Seattle victory tied them for the 10th-worst record in baseball, and therefore the 10th overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft. That's a big deal, since the top 10 picks are protected from being lost when signing free agents. Since the White Sox had a worse record the previous season, they won the tiebreaker, and ended up with the final protected pick, leaving Seattle the highest unprotected pick. That's bad for the Mariners, but very fortuitous for the White Sox, who retain their No. 10 overall pick no matter what and would only have to surrender the No. 27 pick (compensation for Jeff Samardzija) if they were to sign any qualified free agents.
And they do need to sign some of those free agents, make no mistake about it, because the White Sox find themselves in a very unusual situation. They have one of the best cores in the game, with six very-good-to-elite players in their primes:
SP Chris Sale (27 in 2016)
SP Jose Quintana (27)
RP David Robertson (31)
1B Jose Abreu (29)
3B Todd Frazier (30)
CF Adam Eaton (27)
Add in expected solid contributions from new second baseman Brett Lawrie (26), starting pitcher Carlos Rodon (23), new veteran catchers Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro, and some decent relievers in Zach Duke, Zach Putnam, and Jake Petricka, and the White Sox have about half of a very competitive roster at mostly affordable contracts in their primes. This is not the time to move slowly or take a step back.
The problem, however, is the rest of the roster. Last year's White Sox took the "stars and scrubs" idea to a new level, as Sale, Quintana, Abreu, and Eaton combined for a very good 17.6 WAR, while the entire rest of the roster combined for just 5.9 WAR. That may sound impossible, but not when you realize that Chicago gave over 4,000 plate appearances to Tyler Flowers, Gordon Beckham, Tyler Saladino, Carlos Sanchez, J.B. Shuck, Melky Cabrera, Alexei Ramirez, Conor Gillaspie, Avisail Garcia, and Adam LaRoche -- every single one of whom played at replacement level or worse. No matter how good the core is, it's difficult to win that way, and they didn't.
Now, the team has made an effort to change that. Several of the names mentioned are already gone, and the moves to add Frazier, Avila, Navarro, and Lawrie are steps in the right direction. Being 17th in projected team WAR (via FanGraphs) may not sound like much, but remember where they were starting from. (The most recent two teams to have an offensive WAR as low as the 2015 White Sox were the 2013 Marlins and Astros, who combined to lose 211 games.) Simply by filling in holes, they've improved, much like the Mets did last summer.
But by looking at the positional projected WAR for 2016, you can see there's still three considerable holes -- shortstop, left field, and right field:
Saladino and Sanchez aren't really an appealing duo at short, though the team's best prospect, Tim Anderson, isn't far away. Cabrera was a disappointment in his White Sox debut, while Garcia was arguably the worst regular player in baseball. While there's not an endless payroll, the job isn't done, so moves must be made. That's where the qualifying offer players come in -- teams like the Orioles (14th) or Angels (17th) may not want to give up their top picks, driving the market down for these players:
SP Wei-Yin Chen
SP Yovani Gallardo
SP Ian Kennedy
1B Chris Davis
2B Howie Kendrick
SS Ian Desmond
LF Alex Gordon
LF Justin Upton
CF Dexter Fowler
Davis, Kendrick, Gallardo, and Chen don't really seem like fits here, but imagine the possibilities from the rest. For example, wouldn't Upton (five years of 25+ homers, projected for 3 WAR) look great in an outfield corner, particularly with his consistent pull-hitting trend -- 33.9% / 35.6% / 37.5% / 39.4% the last four seasons -- and U.S. Cellular Field's homer-friendly left field? And if so, couldn't Desmond, a regular four-win player before a 2015 downturn, see Chicago as a stop to restore his free-agent value before heading back to the market next winter?
It's not the kind of thing you'd likely consider if it cost you your top pick, 11th overall. But if it's costing lower picks, while still keeping that top choice, it begins to make sense -- and it's something not many teams can do. (We saw the Tigers, with the ninth pick, not worry about it when they signed Jordan Zimmermann.) That pair alone could add five or six wins to the Chicago total, and suddenly a team full of holes is an interesting contender in a wide-open AL Central. Mix the names any way you like, but with three huge holes, it's easy to find upgrades here.
Remember, the team already used this strategy just last year, hanging onto a protected pick (which turned into Carson Fulmer, the team's No. 2 prospect) and surrendering later ones to sign Cabrera and Robertson. Remember also, that there's no time to wait. Not only will another year of Sale, Abreu, and friends be past, but next year's market looks incredibly thin. There's no time like the present. A long-forgotten game featuring Frankie Montas, Mike Olt, and Rob Brantly may have had more to do with it than you'd ever have thought.