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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 fifth 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.
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 Nate Jones extension from the 2015-16 offseason in this range.
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. Bringing back Miguel Gonzalez last season was a good example, even though it didn’t turn out great.
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. Signing Jacob Turner in late 2015 for guaranteed money without much place to put him fits into this range.
Grade F – “F” moves are actively harmful to a team’s goals, even if the degree of harm is small. The most recent 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: Option decisions:
- Exercised $4.65M option on Nate Jones – Pass
- Declined $16M option on James Shields – Pass
No. 2: Acquired RHRP Alex Colome from the Seattle Mariners for C Omar Narvaez
It’s not often that a team can trade away its best hitter from the previous season and basically nobody bats an eye. The main reason is that Narvaez is horrendous at his stated position of catcher, rendering him close to replacement level despite a very good 122 wRC+. That bat is useful in a lineup in some capacity, though barring a sudden and large improvement in Narvaez’ framing abilities, it’s unlikely to be a loss that burns the White Sox.
Shipping off four years of Narvaez for two years of Colome would be a good idea for teams with designs on contention in the near-term. Unlike Narvaez, Colome is above-average for his role (late-inning reliever) and more likely to be important to a team with postseason hopes. However, the White Sox sat on their hands for the rest of the offseason and didn’t convert on potential improvements. A 2019 team with a low-70s win total won’t reap the maximum benefits of having Colome, and it looks more likely than not that he’ll be a trade chip at some point. We just saw a high-performing Joakim Soria yield very little in such a deal.
Decision Grade: C-
No. 3: Tendered contracts to:
- Jose Abreu – Pass
- Yolmer Sanchez – Pass
- Carlos Rodon – Pass
- Leury Garcia – Pass
No. 4: Non-tendered
- Avisail Garcia – Pass
- Matt Davidson – Pass
The Davidson decision could have gone either way, but these choices were generally fine and non-controversial.
No. 5: Acquired RHP Ivan Nova from the Pittsburgh Pirates for RHP Yordi Rosario and international bonus slot money
Rather than sign a free agent starting pitcher, the White Sox essentially acquired their stopgap via a trade in which they gave up very little. Nova’s $8.5 million salary is approximately commensurate with his abilities, so there’s a reason he didn’t cost much.
It was clear the White Sox needed at least one starting pitcher to fill the innings-eating void left by James Shields’ departure and Michael Kopech’s barking elbow. Nova should fill that role admirably. If there’s a drawback with this move, it’s that the starting rotation was one area that the White Sox could have attempted a significant upgrade to push themselves toward contention in 2020 and beyond. Nova’s primary contribution will be stability rather than wins. It’s a fine trade, but it was a bellweather of a quiet offseason on the starting pitching front.
Decision Grade: C
No. 6: Acquired 1B Yonder Alonso from the Cleveland Indians for OF Alex Call
The stated explanation for acquiring Alonso made no sense. He’s a square peg on the White Sox roster who will either eat into Daniel Palka’s plate appearances or force everyone to watch Palka play the outfield more often. The White Sox have Abreu at first base, and he generally shouldn’t come out of the lineup when healthy. Alonso’s likely a little better than Palka, but given Palka’s late-season improvement, that’s not a certainty and the projected difference between the two is not consequential. I do like Alonso and his cerebral, data-driven approach to hitting, but given that he partially blocks 2018’s most exciting player and that the trade actually helped out a division rival with $8 million in cash relief, this decision was a failure on paper.
However, everyone understood the true point of acquiring Alonso was to help lure Manny Machado to Chicago. With the dust settled on that pursuit and Machado suiting up for the Padres on a reasonable contract, it’s clear that Alonso was a just a ploy to get Machado to sign an offer at a relative discount. Had the White Sox offered the most money and tried to use Alonso to help convince Machado to choose the Sox over a less lucrative offer at a more favorable destination (e.g., the Yankees), there would have been at least some justification for this, even if it failed. However, we now know that the White Sox put out a lowball offer and Alonso was merely a tool to attempt to shave dollars off of Machado’s megadeal, and it didn’t even work. There is little redeeming about this decision.
Decision Grade: F
No. 7: Signed C James McCann for one year, $2.5 million
Early in the offseason, the Angels claimed Kevan Smith, the White Sox’ most productive catcher in 2018, on waivers. It was a little strange that the White Sox let Smith go, but given Welington Castillo’s salary and Narvaez’ emerging bat, it appeared they were sticking with their mantra that it’s easier to teach pitch framing than good hitting. Shortly after, Narvaez was traded, which added to the confusion. I’ll give the White Sox credit for not knowing they’d have a Narvaez trade opportunity when they tried to sneak Smith through waivers, but the pair of moves left a void at catcher.
Then, the White Sox did something familiar and attempted to solve their catching problem in the worst possible way. James McCann doesn’t belong in the major leagues. He offers nothing at the plate outside of the odd extra-base hit. The White Sox’ young pitchers have had the misfortune of throwing to tiny strike zones and guys who let the ball get away, and McCann’s poor receiving and pitch-blocking will help continue that trend. McCann can throw, but that’s about it. It’ll be easy to show him the door if and when the White Sox promote Seby Zavala, but the White Sox could have just signed a strong defender like Rene Rivera (on a minor league deal!) if they wanted a stopgap. Hell, even Matt Wieters took a minor league deal with a lower salary.
The White Sox started the offseason with three catchers. They kept arguably the least desirable one, jettisoned the other two, and signed one that’s worse than all three. This move is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but the decision to hand McCann a major league contract was simply incompetent.
Decision Grade: F
No. 8: Signed RHRP Kelvin Herrera to a two year, $18M deal with 2021 team option
Similar to the Colome trade, this move makes a great deal of sense for a team with aspirations to compete in the near future. However, we now know that the White Sox don’t meet that description.
It was curious that the White Sox used what money they planned to spend to double-down on reinforcing the bullpen, the area of their team that appeared to need the least short- and long-term help. Excluding guys specifically intended to recruit Manny Machado, the White Sox’ acquisitions added about $28M to the 2019 payroll. Almost 60 percent of that salary went to relief pitchers.
Herrera’s falling strikeout rates give some cause for concern, but in a vacuum, this appears to be a fine deal. It’s just a curious allocation of resources. For reference, a real catcher in Wilson Ramos signed for just $1M more. A superutility player with starter’s credentials in Marwin Gonzalez signed for just $3M more. With mid-tier free agents getting squeezed left and right, the White Sox appeared to have paid the “old” market rate for Herrera. That’d be fine if the rest of the team was good enough to make Herrera look like an important piece on a competitive roster rather than just another flippable reliever. It’s not, and he doesn’t.
Decision Grade: D+
No. 9: Signed Jon Jay to a one year, $4M deal
Heading into the 2018-19 offseason, the White Sox outfield consisted of Eloy Jimenez and a bunch of spare parts. The dearth of attractive options made for a good opportunity for the White Sox to upgrade their current and future roster. Instead, they did nothing until signing Jay, another spare part. Jay’s a punchless hitter who can nonetheless slap some singles and get on base, and the White Sox are certainly in no position to eschew OBP. He’s stretched defensively in center and good in a corner. In other words, Jay is the prototypical fourth outfielder at this stage of his career, and would be excellent in that role for that price.
However, the White Sox didn’t need a fourth outfielder anywhere near as much as a productive one, and Jay projects to play far more than he should. Plus, it’s clear that like Alonso, Jay was another effort to reduce the price of close friend Manny Machado, and the weird Friends and Family Plan didn’t work. There’s nothing wrong with Jay being on the White Sox roster; he’s just disappointing in light of the Sox’ failure to acquire any outfielders of note.
Decision Grade: C-
The White Sox entered this offseason with a golden opportunity to add to their core and build toward contention as soon as 2020. With premium talent on the market and players signing for prices that ranged from reasonable to insultingly cheap, there was every reason for the White Sox to capitalize by beginning to build their 2020-2021 rosters and plenty of reasons to be worried they’d sit the winter out.
In the end, the White Sox did add $40M worth of acquisitions to their 2019 payroll. That’s not disappointing in of itself. However, rather than using that payroll space to add a piece or two that could have pushed the White Sox closer to contention, it went to six players that either don’t fit, are somewhere between below-average and bad, are more likely to be flipped for a lotto ticket than to actually matter, or some combination of those three. With expectations soaring high, that was a bitter pill to swallow.
The longer the offseason went on, the more it became clear that the White Sox were either going to get Manny Machado or do nothing important. Few thought the Sox would sign Machado at the outset of the winter, but much of that resignation came from the expectation that teams with either a fatter wallet or a contending roster would make the White Sox play second fiddle. In that light, not signing Machado would have been disappointing, yet somewhat forgivable.
However, the White Sox ultimately failed with Machado in the most inexcusable way possible. They were outbid by a team that 1) isn’t traditionally a financial power, 2) is coming off a season just as dreadful as that of the White Sox, 3) is also selling hope more than near-term contention, and 4) only put forth what many thought would be merely the baseline offer for Machado’s services at 10 years, $300 million. This is to say nothing of the subsequent halfhearted “pursuit” of Bryce Harper and the fact that the White Sox made zero other consequential moves to augment their future.
As a result, the White Sox of March 2019 are no closer to a championship than the White Sox of November 2018, save for the literal passage of time. The market could not have fallen any more into the White Sox’ lap than it did this offseason, and they failed to do anything at all to help themselves. That goes beyond “disappointing”; it’s a thorough destruction of whatever goodwill the overly-tenured trio of Jerry Reinsdorf, Kenny Williams, and Rick Hahn had left. Ownership gives management lemons, management sucks at making lemonade, and the fans are stuck drinking weird-tasting yellow water. The White Sox could potentially rectify this mistake by making big, aggressive moves after this season; there’s just no reason to expect them to come through anymore.
Offseason Grade: F