With the season fast approaching 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 eighth 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 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, so a particular transaction needs to be special in some way to push it above average.
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 Dallas Keuchel in this range, which we were all a lot happier about a year ago.
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 acquisition of Nomar Mazara prior to the 2020 season fell into this range due to its inadequacy to address a position needing major attention.
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, give a player the qualifying offer, and 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: Option decisions
- Exercised $16 million option on RHP Craig Kimbrel – PASS
- Declined $6 million option on 2B Cesar Hernandez – PASS
For quite some time, it looked like the Sox shot themselves in the foot by picking up Kimbrel’s option, but the Sox were eventually able to trade him, so they get a pass for that decision.
No. 2: Qualifying offer decisions
Only one of the eight White Sox free agents merited much consideration for the qualifying offer:
- Declined to give LHP Carlos Rodon the one year, $18.4 million qualifying offer – FAIL
The White Sox did Carlos Rodon a big favor by not attaching a qualifying offer to his free agency, but in doing so, they cost themselves a draft pick at the end of Competitive Balance Round B (between the second and third rounds of the draft) when Rodon signed a two-year, $44 million deal with the San Francisco Giants. Rodon’s contract would have been less lucrative had a team needed to forfeit a draft pick to sign him, but coming off of a 5-WAR season, there should have been a market for him nonetheless.
The “risk” in giving Rodon the qualifying offer was the possibility that he might accept it, adding a large salary to the 2022 payroll. However, looking around at the players the White Sox chose to sign instead, I am struggling to understand why it was a concern. Rodon’s upside makes him a preferable use of free agent dollars to setup men and utility guys. Unless there’s a health problem we don’t know about, the decision to withhold the qualifying offer was a mistake.
No. 3: Non-tender deadline decisions
Tendered contracts to:
It was really easy this year.
No. 4: Acquisitions
- Signed RHP Kendall Graveman for three years, $24 million
With Michael Kopech entering the rotation, Ryan Tepera walking in free agency, Codi Heuer sent to the North Side, Evan Marshall no longer an option and Craig Kimbrel just generally unwanted, the White Sox saw a need to reinforce the bullpen and swooped in on Graveman in November. Graveman was arguably baseball’s best reliever in the first half of the season before control problems rendered him merely “good” after a midseason trade from Seattle to Houston. He has only one season of relief success, but a velocity spike and adding an effective slider that hitters don’t square up makes that not feel like too much of a fluke. Clearly, the White Sox agree.
In a vacuum, this is a fine signing. However, as the biggest single expenditure in an offseason when the White Sox had holes at second base, right field, and the starting rotation, it’s perplexing. The White Sox relief corps finished second in baseball in fWAR last season but 22nd in Win Probability Added, suggesting that even a bullpen loaded with talent wasn’t effective at turning strong peripherals into wins. Here, the Sox are betting on the bullpen yet again, despite the likelihood that they’d get more expected wins for their buck elsewhere. Doubling down by signing Joe Kelly (see below) lowers the grade of this move.
Garcia’s services are certainly worth $5.5 million per season as a guy with extreme positional flexibility who can admirably fill in for a couple of weeks when a regular goes down. His return is only frustrating when viewed through the lens of what the White Sox didn’t do. Paying a $5.5 million salary for a premium supersub feels like a quality supplement to an otherwise complete team, but the White Sox never fully solved their issues at second base or the starting rotation. This is the largest free agent contract shelled out by the White Sox to a non-reliever in a year they’re supposedly pushing for a championship. Barf.
Kelly is a pretty good reliever who is coming off two excellent seasons in Los Angeles. Between Kelly, Graveman, and Aaron Bummer, the Sox have three setup men who should be able to keep the ball on the ground ahead of Liam Hendriks, which is particularly useful for a team playing its home games at Guaranteed Rate Field.
However, when following the offseason in real time, this is where things started to feel like there was a budding resource allocation issue. The White Sox had signed three players to multi-year deals, none of whom were starting pitchers, starting second basemen, or starting right fielders. There’s no such thing as having too many good relievers, but with the similarly right-handed Graveman already in tow, the Sox may have been better-served to focus their resources away from the bullpen.
Were they bidding against themselves? Nothing about Velasquez’ last three seasons screamed “major league deal,” particularly his last one, which featured an ugly home run rate and an ERA and FIP close to 6.00. A primarily fastball pitcher, Velasquez could theoretically have more success in the bullpen, where a limited arsenal is less likely to get exposed, but 29 games of relief work in his career thus far have not borne fruit. The White Sox’ nominal rotation includes Michael Kopech, who’s a bad bet to throw more than 160 innings, and Dallas Keuchel, whom the Sox don’t want throwing more than 160 innings (because his 2023 option will vest). Particularly with Lance Lynn now out, the rotation figures to have its depth tested, and barring a miracle Ethan Katz turnaround, Velasquez looks more likely to pour gas on the fire than put it out.
The best-case scenario for Harrison is that he can hold his own as a league-average regular, allowing Leury Garcia to play the supersub role for which he’s most suited. However, Harrison has a rough recent injury history and is short on secondary skills, making him overly reliant on batting average for productivity. That can lead to barren slumps, such as the .254/.296/.341 line he posted with Oakland after a midseason trade in 2021. The free agent market wasn’t flush with great second base options beyond Marcus Semien, but with Garcia already in tow, Harrison feels more like depth than an upgrade.
I fully expect Harrison to play watchable baseball with an energy that makes fans love him. Hell, I’m going to love rooting for him. But fun should not be mistaken for production, and Harrison’s an uninspired solution for a team with World Series aspirations. Maybe I’ve just watched too many fringe starters around his age (34) sign a one-year deal with the White Sox only for their careers to be effectively dead before the end of it.
Just like that, what had been a supremely disappointing offseason turned around, and the White Sox finally addressed one of their three primary needs. Pollock is coming off of consecutive seasons with an OPS very close to .900 and he has relatively balanced productivity against righties and lefties, giving the White Sox a plus everyday option in right field. The main concern with Pollock is health, but with Adam Engel and Andrew Vaughn around, the Sox have interesting secondary options to plug in should Pollock have to miss time.
As for Kimbrel, his velocity had declined over the course of 2021 and this could very well have been an underlying cause of his struggles after coming over to the White Sox. His fastball was sitting around 93-94 mph in camp, and while he may not have been maxing himself out, it certainly wasn’t reassuring. Especially given Kimbrel’s high salary, I’m amazed Hahn was able to salvage this kind of value out of the 34-year-old.
While less significant than issues with the starters, backup catcher was certainly a target for improvement in 2022 and Hahn delivered by bringing in Reese McGuire. McGuire is relatively punchless at the plate, but gets strong marks for throwing and framing, That should make him a good complement to Yasmani Grandal, who can more than carry the offensive load at the position. With McGuire out of options and Collins with one remaining, this was an opportunistic play by the White Sox to get some value out of a former first round pick who had hit a wall. The Sox acquired a guy they were ready to plug in immediately in exchange for helping the Blue Jays retain some catching depth (note: term used loosely).
The White Sox entered this offseason needing significant help with right field, second base, and the starting rotation, with secondary needs in the bullpen and at backup catcher. By the end of the offseason, they addressed all of these to some extent. Pollock is a good plan for right field, the bullpen has been significantly reinforced, and McGuire should be a capable reserve catcher. That leaves second base, which is in the hands of two utility players in Garcia and Harrison, and the rotation, which was only bolstered by a late minor league deal to Johnny Cueto. Cueto should help, but with Lance Lynn opening the season on the injured list, Michael Kopech unlikely to contribute bulk innings, and Dallas Keuchel trending toward washing out, the rotation enters the season on shaky ground.
After the lean years the Sox have had, it’s perfectly fair to want Jerry Reinsdorf to go all out on payroll. However, for the first offseason since the beginning of the rebuild, there’s been more issues with how the money was spent than how much of it was spent. This winter would have been an excellent opportunity to take a big swing at a star player. With a barren farm system and key players set to depart over the next few years to free agency, payroll flexibility four or five years down the road shouldn’t be a concern. The time to win is now.
The market had no shortage of premium options for the White Sox to choose from, and they passed on all of them, instead spreading their available dollars around to set-up men and scrap heap signings. Paying $25 million per year to an MVP candidate like Marcus Semien sounds like a lot, but when you see the team allocate $8.5 million to Kelly, $8 million to Graveman, $5.5 million to Garcia, $4.2 million to Cueto, $4 million to Harrison, and $3 million to Velazquez, one wonders why it wasn’t a possibility. The Sox could have accommodated a star free agent, Pollock, and one or two of those minor additions, all on the same payroll.
Still, Hahn did very well to salvage this offseason over the course of the last week. The Pollock trade was a legitimately great move, and bringing in Cueto and McGuire addressed the team’s needs for innings and someone (anyone!) who can hold their own behind the plate. This offseason could have been better, but thinking back to where we were at the end of March, we know it could have been much worse.
OFFSEASON GRADE: B-