Grading the White Sox 2019-20 Offseason

Yasmani Grandal speaks to the media at SoxFest 2020 (Photo by Josh Nelson)

With the winter in the rear view mirror and most consequential free agents signed, it’s time to look back on the White Sox offseason and grade their transactions. This will be my sixth annual installment of the series.

I’m going to provide an individual evaluation of every move involving major league players or major league commitments. I’m excluding minor league signings, the Rule 5 draft, and waiver claims from the individual move assessments because even though some may have a some real impact, they generally boil down to either “no risk, but with upside” or “a little extra depth can’t hurt.” The next minor league signing that deserves an “F” will be the first. However, I will take these moves into account for the final grade.

Here are broad definitions I’ll use for the various letter grades. The rationale for the scale as a whole is that most moves that major league teams make are helpful to their goals and have a good deal of logic to them; simply making an improvement is not enough to merit an above-average grade.

For some orientation, I would consider a perfectly average move to be somewhere on the C+/C borderline.

Grade A – This includes moves that either are extremely significant in pushing a team toward its goals, involve “beating the market” (i.e. fleecing another team in trade, signing a key free agent at a very noticeable discount, etc.), or are otherwise brilliant for their fit or use of resources. For example, the trade of Chris Sale earned an “A” for both being the most critical trade of the rebuild and accomplishing the difficult task of attaining fair value for one of baseball’s most valuable assets to ever be on the block.

Grade B – Like an “A” move, but less superlative. “B” moves represent above-average decisions and are generally remarkable in some way. I put the signing of Welington Castillo in this range (not all good ideas work out!).

Grade C – This includes moves that are helpful to a team’s goals, but relative to other moves, are not notable for their scale, brilliance, fit, or cost-effectiveness. They are generally reasonable decisions and preferable over doing nothing. The trade for Ivan Nova prior to the 2019 season is a good benchmark for this range.

Grade D – While not all-out blunders, Grade “D” moves are not obvious steps in the right direction. This section of the scale includes either moves with questionable strategic fit,  moves with a difficult-to-accept risk/reward ratio, moves with preferable and seemingly feasible alternatives, or total nothingburgers. The signing of Kelvin Herrera fell into this range due to both appearing like an overpay and a being weird allocation of resources.

Grade F – “F” moves are actively harmful to a team’s goals, even if the degree of harm is small. The most prominent example of an “F” is non-tendering Tyler Flowers to sign Dioner Navarro, which would later demonstrate the cruel intersection of an awful thought process and unfortunate results.

Decisions to tender or non-tender a player along with choosing whether to pick up a team option are binary decisions, so they’ll be evaluated on a pass/fail basis.

Let us begin.

No. 1: Acquired “Jonah McReynolds” from the Texas Rangers in exchange for C Welington Castillo and $250,000 in international bonus pool money

This is so minor that it doesn’t really deserve a writeup, but as the Sox had a major league option on Castillo, I’m playing by my own rules. The Sox didn’t want to pay Castillo’s $500,000 buyout for next year, so they’re having Texas do it in exchange for international bonus pool money. It’s unclear why an organization that struggles this much to build minor league depth is this indifferent to the international market during a rebuild or why saving $500,000 is such a big deal, but here we are. This trade is the very definition of “small potatoes”, but it’s puzzling nonetheless.

Decision Grade: F

No. 2: Signed C Yasmani Grandal for four years, $73 million

I haven’t stopped gushing about this move since it was made. There are so many reasons why this was a great decision. Here are some of my favorites:

  • The White Sox finally solved the pitch framing crisis that has plagued the team since they jettisoned Tyler Flowers for no reason.
  • The White Sox rejected the path of least resistance and upgraded over incumbent James McCann, when it would have been easy to simply accept the superficially-fine McCann and allocate resources elsewhere.
  • As a switch-hitter, Grandal can be a lefty power bat to add to a lineup that otherwise leans heavily to the right.
  • Grandal is an OBP infusion to a lineup that’s been starved of it for years.
  • The Sox managed to ink an elite player in free agency for the first time since Albert Belle.
  • For a player as good as Grandal, the contract length and amount are unbelievably team-friendly.

There’s a chance this move won’t work out, but there’s no particular reason to think that will be the case. Bringing in Grandal is just about the best decision the Sox could have made.

Decision Grade: A

No. 3: Signed 1B Jose Abreu for 1 year, $17.8 million (qualifying offer); extended Abreu to three years, $50 million

The White Sox let a mere day go by after the Grandal signing before doing something questionable. Giving Abreu the qualifying offer was reasonable enough, and the Sox had the opportunity to see how the 33-year-old Abreu would fare in 2020 before working out a deal for future seasons. They declined this option and extended him before there was any urgency to do so. Abreu’s not Mark Teahen, but Teahen looms as a specter of what could happen when you extend a veteran before you have to.

On the other hand, this is a difficult move to evaluate purely by cost and talent given everything Abreu has meant to the White Sox. He’s a leader in the young White Sox clubhouse, and there’s little question that ensuring Abreu would be here for the next several years carries some symbolic value among the players:

On the field, Abreu has been a valuable run producer whose notable strengths (slugging, clutch hitting) have been reined in by his weaknesses (defense, plate discipline, baserunning). Over the last two seasons, Abreu has averaged 2.1 bWAR, 1.6 fWAR, and 1.3 WARP, so a three year, $50 million contract would have been a stretch on the free agent market (and looks ugly to outsiders).

It’s easy to be happy that the Sox were generous with Abreu. He’s a beloved player who has suffered along with us fans on losing teams, and it’s great to know he’s going to be here if and when the winning starts. At the same time, if his skills deteriorate further, we’d be looking at a guy who will average a $17M salary in 2021-22 while potentially not providing much value. If you’ve followed this organization the last decade, you’ve seen more modest salaries than this hard-cap the 2016 payroll (and to a lesser extent, the 2013 payroll), so you’ll know that Abreu’s paycheck could be prohibitive based on how Jerry Reinsdorf runs the team. If they’re willing to spend much further despite Abreu’s salary, that’s great. We’ll have to wait to know for sure, however, and in the meantime all we can do is look at history and make an educated guess.

This grade may be generous; if Abreu were an external acquisition with no connection to White Sox fans or players, it would be worse.

Decision Grade: D+

No. 4: Tendered contracts to:

  • Alex Colome – Pass
  • James McCann – Pass
  • Carlos Rodon – Pass
  • Leury Garcia – Pass
  • Evan Marshall – Pass

No. 5: Non-tendered / Otherwise punted

  • Yolmer Sanchez – Pass
  • Josh Osich – Pass
  • Ryan Goins – Pass

Several debatable calls, but all of this was reasonable. Hopefully the years of the Sox doing weird stuff at the non-tender deadline are behind us.

No. 6: Acquired RF Nomar Mazara from the Texas Rangers for CF Steele Walker

There were plenty of options for the White Sox to choose from to solve their right field hole, and they chose a guy entering his fifth year in the major leagues who has yet to clear 1.0 bWAR in a season.

I spent some time earlier this winter looking at the ways that this move might be OK. Mazara gets neutered by lefties and the Sox haven’t acquired a platoon partner for him, so for the time being, that one’s out. That means we’re down to a Mazara breakout or a big splash next winter as the ways to rectify this questionable decision. A Mazara breakout isn’t impossible given his age (25 in April) and former prospect pedigree, but it certainly clashes with Hahn’s history of acquiring external players. This move might look better in a year if the White Sox are able to take advantage of being free from a multi-year commitment for a right fielder and bring in a Mookie Betts or a George Springer. At this juncture, skepticism is warranted whether the Sox will follow through on that (or even if that’s the plan at all), so it’s hard to give them credit in advance.

Mazara is the type of dice roll that could have been a great idea during last year’s frustratingly dormant winter. However, in the fourth season since Rick Hahn sent away Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and Jose Quintana for elite, near-major-league-ready prospects, it’s reasonable to start expecting some results. For the 2020 White Sox to succeed, they will need big performances from unproven players such as Luis Robert, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease, Eloy Jimenez, Nick Madrigal, and Reynaldo Lopez. Hahn would have done well to hedge against young player struggles by acquiring a right fielder with an established track record of success. Instead, with Mazara, he added another unproven player to a roster that already had too many of them.

Decision Grade: D

No. 7: Signed LHP Gio Gonzalez for one year, $5 million, with second-year club option

Gonzalez is heading into his age-34 season, but has been a plus run-preventer essentially every season dating back to 2010, with the lone exception being a roughly average 2018 season. He’s a quality major league starter whose addition should help give Michael Kopech time to get up to speed as well as provide some insurance against Dylan Cease or Reynaldo Lopez falling apart. Gonzalez’ average fastball velocity dipped below 90 mph in 2019, but increasing usage of an effective changeup helped offset the fact that both his fourseam and sinker got beat around. While there’s plenty of joke-speculation that Gonzalez will get traded before the season begins, the Sox are getting a great deal on the lefty, and here’s hoping he finally throws his first major league pitch for the organization that drafted him.

Decision Grade: B+

No. 8: Signed LHP Dallas Keuchel for three years, $55.5 million, with a fourth year club option

The White Sox had their heads in the right place when they made an aggressive, public pursuit of Zack Wheeler. That ultimately failed, and it seemed that they had no interest in pursuing higher-level options in the form of Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. After Madison Bumgarner (another guy to whom the Sox weren’t connected) signed with the Diamondbacks, the Sox were down to Hyun-Jin Ryu and Keuchel for impact starting pitchers. Ultimately, Keuchel was the man, and the Sox inked the sixth-best starting pitcher on the free agent market.

That makes Keuchel sound a lot like a consolation prize, and to a fair degree, he is. Wheeler carried front-of-rotation ability and was clearly the preferred target. What Keuchel lacks in upside, however, he can partially make up for in stability. Amidst all the volatility on the Sox staff, Keuchel’s a great bet to throw close to 200 innings at an above-average level. His ground ball tendencies make him a good fit for Guaranteed Rate Field, and if Tim Anderson can clean up his defense (to be fair, this could be a tall task), the Sox could give Keuchel a set of infield gloves to maximize his ability.

Decision Grade: B-

No. 9: Extended OF Luis Robert for six years, $50 million, with 2026 and 2027 club options

As the Sox were going to manipulate Robert’s service time in the event that this wasn’t signed, the extension effectively buys out a year of free agency. Jim looked at how the shape of these extensions has changed over the years, both in terms of the value to the player and the degree of “proven-ness” at the time of signing, and they aren’t as team-friendly as they used to be. The Sox actually absorbed some risk with this move, but gain the benefit of preventing Robert’s arbitration salary from ballooning out of control. Given the muted benefits and non-trivial cost, it’s hard to look at this move as some massive coup for the Sox, but it’s a beneficial one, and they’re better for having locked Robert down.

Arguably the best thing about this move is that Robert is going to be on the 2020 Opening Day roster and nobody is going to make a buffoon of themselves pretending that there was something Robert needed to learn over two weeks in Charlotte. That means on March 26, the focus will be entirely on the exciting season ahead rather than partially on bad-faith reasons that Robert’s not in center field.

Decision Grade: C+

No. 10: Signed DH Edwin Encarnacion for one year, $12 million, with second-year club option

There’s only a few designated hitters in the league that look definitively better than Encarnacion coming into the 2020 season, meaning the Sox are replacing one of the worst positional sinkholes in major league history with someone who should keep the Sox comfortably in the black at the position. This will be Encarnacion’s age-37 season, which isn’t the most reassuring fact in the world, but he’s aged gracefully to this point and hopefully can continue that trend. He should be an ideal bridge to Andrew Vaughn, and the 2021 club option means that between the two of them, the Sox will likely have someone they’re comfortable with starting at the position next year as well.

Decision Grade: B

No. 11: Signed RHP Steve Cishek for one year, $6 million, with second-year club option

After extending Abreu, it was decided that every player the Sox signed or extended had to have a club option attached to their deal. Them’s the rules.

A quick curiosity on Cishek:

Cishek’s a bullpen groundball pitcher who has played for some good defenses and in some good pitchers’ parks. There’s four potential reasons in that sentence alone for his ERA consistently beating the more advanced metrics. We also can’t rule out the possibility that he has a “guile” factor that helps him control contact better than his arsenal might suggest. Regardless, Cishek makes the 2020 White Sox bullpen look substantially better, and he should serve as insurance against the threat of an Alex Colome regression. He’s a good add.

Decision Grade: C+

No. 12: Acquired MAIN tacos, SIDE chips, and DIP guacamole in exchange for cash considerations

Fairly straightforward.

Decision Grade: A

Overall Assessment

The White Sox entered this offseason with a laundry list of holes and very few payroll commitments. As such, the expectations for improvements this winter were high. This grading is done with that in mind.

Thanks to the litany of acquisitions, the Sox have assembled a complete roster that should win more games than it loses. However, To make the rebuild a success, the Sox will need to take another step before the 2021 season to attain a roster that more closely resembles a 90-win team. One way to get closer is through further internal development. There’s a ton of breakout potential on the 2020 roster, and a few big performances could get the team’s outlook closer to where it needs to be, with the possible bonus of a 2020 playoff appearance.

The other way will be for the team to fire more bullets next winter, and that’s where evaluating this offseason gets dicey. The Sox made some large (for them!) financial investments during the 2014-15 offseason. I bought into the hype back then, only to look foolish when the next winter rolled around and it was revealed that the Sox had effectively used all of their payroll flexibility on Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera, and David Robertson. The reason this concerns me is that the $118.9 million payroll from 2015 is almost an exact match for their payroll in 2020. The Sox hiked up their commitments another $11 million in 2016, but if $130 million is some sort of payroll ceiling for Jerry Reinsdorf, Rick Hahn is going to face some challenges using external resources to carry the team to the next level.

Fortunately, the external additions the Sox made this winter are better than those acquired prior to 2015, and the upside on the roster means that they’ll have a chance to make this thing work even if ownership continues to be stingy. It’s possible to squint at the acquisitions and see many of the mid-tier signings that have failed the Sox in the past, but Grandal’s a big differentiator here, as he’s the type of star that the team hasn’t been able to lure before. The team could have done better by acquiring a plus right fielder or a star-level starter like Wheeler, but for the most part, they plugged their holes with guys that can be expected to be adequate at a minimum. If the Sox’ young players break out, Hahn has made it such that those gains shouldn’t be offset by the equivalent of hundreds of J.B. Shuck and Dioner Navarro plate appearances.

The Sox began their rebuild with the unique advantage of elite, near-major-league-ready prospects acquired for Sale, Eaton, and Quintana. As such, it’s somewhat disappointing that we’re in 2020 and needing to close a 10 win gap with the Twins rather than being at minimum co-favorites. That’s less a product of this winter’s moves and more a result of 1) injuries and ineffectiveness devastating the team’s prospect depth, 2) the blatant manipulation of service time reluctance to promote Jimenez, Robert, and Madrigal, and 3) the general indifference to improving the team that the Sox showed last offseason. What Hahn has accomplished this winter is commendable, and while there’s concerns about the next step and holes that can be poked, he deserves credit for building something exciting from a roster that won just 72 games last season.

Offseason Grade: B+

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