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There are a lot of things wrong with the 2022 White Sox. It just depends on whether you want to get macro or micro about it.
Over at The Athletic, James Fegan has spent the last couple days detailing trends that never improved, both elements within their control (plate discipline, ground-ball rate) or league-imposed shortcomings (the death of the opposite-field fly).
If you pull back and want to merely want to size up the entire Baseball-Reference.com page, the problem is that the core that Rick Hahn locked up with early- or pre-career extensions have either been injured, awful or both. Here are their 2022 totals of games played and FanGraphs WAR:
- Tim Anderson: 79 games, 2.0 WAR
- Eloy Jiménez: 53 games, 1.0 WAR
- Luis Robert: 89 games, 2.5 WAR
- Yoán Moncada: 80 games, 0.4 WAR
The first three WAR totals reflect adequate full-season paces (a 3 WAR season for Jiménez reflects a significant offensive impact given his defensive limitations). As full-season outputs, they’re about on par with peak Yolmer Sánchez. Supplement their production with that of the bench players filling in during their absences, and the replacements are putting “replacement” in “replacement-level.”
- Shortstop: 2.7 WAR (11th)
- Left field: 1.0 WAR (22nd)
- Center field: 2.5 WAR (14th)
- Third base: 0.6 WAR (23rd)
That doesn’t seem as awful as it could be, except then you compare it to what the White Sox were projected to get from each position before the season, and it’s considerably grosser:
- Shortstop: 3.6 WAR (9th)
- Left field: 2.7 WAR (7th)
- Center field: 5 WAR (4th)
- Third base: 4 WAR (8th)
Worse yet, it’s hard to see any particular position improving its standing the rest of the way. Shortstop has been on a steady slide downward since Danny Mendick’s knee exploded, ravaging the depth behind an Anderson who resembled Alcides Escobar at the plate for two months before he injured his hand. Leury García and Romy González are getting Moncada’s playing time while he’s on the injured list, and Jiménez and Robert are finding it hard to string games together due to hamstring and wrist issues.
In order to overcome this kind of cluster failure, the offseason additions really needed to come through. The discerning Sox Machine reader needs nobody to inform them that this has not been the case.
Now, does this kind of poor group showing make the contract extensions a mistake? It’s too soon to issue a final judgment, but the underachieving has certainly made it harder to think about waiting out the status quo, especially if you’re inclined to attribute some of the struggles to premature paydays.
For instance, Eloy Jiménez is making $6.5 million this year, in what would’ve been his first year of arbitration eligibility had the Sox started him on Opening Day without an extension (lol). His most comparable player according to Baseball-Reference.com is St. Louis’ Tyler O’Neil, who entered his first year of arbitration coming off a 6.3 bWAR season and agreed to a $3.4 million deal for 2022.
Luis Robert hasn’t logged enough MLB action to automatically generate comparable players, but Teoscar Hernandez picked up a $4.32 million salary in his first year of arbitration eligibility in 2021, which is less than half what Robert will be owed in 2023, which would’ve been his first year ($9.5 million).
If you were to compare the money Robert and Jiménez have earned year-to-year against what they would’ve made without a contract extension, it looks like the White Sox outsmarted themselves.
- Robert, with: $20.5M
- Robert, without: ~$6M
- Jiménez, with: $12.5M
- Jiménez, without: ~$5.1M
But that probably doesn’t represent the White Sox’s perspective in their calculations. Had Robert and Jiménez not signed the deals before Opening Day, the White Sox probably would’ve called them up at a time that made them Super Two eligible. Jiménez would’ve had his first raise of note last season, and Robert would be looking at his coming up.
Under those circumstances, it’s more like:
- Robert, with: $20.5
- Robert, without: ~$12M
- Jiménez, with: $12.5M
- Jiménez, without: ~$9.5M
That still doesn’t look great on its face, but it’s still within range of redemption with one big year. It just requires both Robert and Jiménez to be players they haven’t been over the last two seasons (i.e., healthy and productive). When considering their trade values, other teams have to buy into that vision as well, and even if they did, they’d probably pretend they didn’t.
These contract extensions are a fascination of mine because they stopped being no-brainers over the course of Hahn’s tenure, and he built both of his rebuilding attempts around the strategy. The deals that Chris Sale, José Quintana, Adam Eaton and Tim Anderson had a lot more margin for error than the ones signed by Robert, Jiménez and Yoán Moncada.
(Moncada has been absent from this discussion because he’s hitting .197/.269/.313 and is guaranteed $47.6 million over the next two years. He signed his contract extension after he’d achieved the form of a guy who could get down-ballot MVP support. Now the math is grave.)
The conversation has gained even more angles and facets since we last discussed this, and we last discussed this when Lucas Giolito reportedly turned down a four-year, $50 million extension.
As Giolito tries to soldier through the rest of a season that could be charitably described as “mediocre,” the White Sox look like they dodged a bullet. Yet it doesn’t mean that Giolito made a mistake. Carlos Rodón showed everybody how much value a well-time resurgence has, so Giolito can still be rewarded for reaching free agency as quickly as possible, even if it cost him some present money. Teams and players operate on different time tables, so these equations aren’t zero-sum.
For the White Sox, the way this has unfolded should be seen not as a victory over Giolito’s camp, but an example of the benefits of leaving more of the roster open-ended. When building a resin shed, you’re told not to tighten the screws all the way, because it restricts the ability to work other pieces into the framework.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from following extensions and service-time debates is that a lot can happen in six years, and the seventh is even further away. The Nationals didn’t pick up the last option of Eaton’s no-brainer extension. The Cubs survived a grievance to secure a seventh year of Kris Bryant, and they mostly spent it trying to trade him. The same can be said for the Guardians with Francisco Lindor and the Red Sox with Mookie Betts, and only Cleveland has been able to convert on the predicament so far.
Moncada’s extension went from being celebrated to a potential albatross. Jiménez and Robert aren’t in that sort of hole, but their salaries have risen to from “afterthought” to “obligation” when everybody expected the value to remain blinding at this point.
This all has made the ambiguity about Andrew Vaughn’s future earnings rather refreshing. The White Sox started him on Opening Day without an extension, so he’ll make the league-minimum or thereabouts through next season, and then he’ll have three arbitration years afterward, rather than waiting for the Super Two cutoff to calculate a potential explosion in his 2027 earnings. If he plays well, he’ll earn more. If he gets hurt or stagnates otherwise, he’ll earn less. A team interested in trading for him can determine what they might want or have to pay him for future seasons, rather than undertaking what the White Sox already signed. There may be a point where everybody gets itchy about whether to extend or replace him, but that means he’s doing well enough for everybody to care.
Robert can be lumped in with Jiménez and Moncada because of his extension’s timing and size, and the fact that he isn’t healthy. Yet he still stands apart because he’s playing the most, he’s produced the most this year, and he’s doing both at a premium defensive position. If you combine his production over the last two seasons, you get a really good full season:
- 157 games
- 674 plate appearances
- 40 doubles
- 1 triple
- 25 homers
- 99 RBIs
- 17-for-21 SB
- 31 BB, 130 K
- 138 wRC+
- 6.1 bWAR, 5.8 fWAR
You can quibble with the plate discipline or the wildly fluctuating quality of his defense in center field, but that’s an excellent season for a 24-year-old no matter how you slice it. The only issue is that he’s needed two seasons to compile one year’s worth of playing time.
As long as the top end of his talent remains evident — and I’d probably give him one more standard non-lockout, non-COVID winter before ruling out 140 games from him — I think you have to regard him separately from Jiménez, who is only a bat.
Which makes sense, because Robert’s extension was considered different from the others when he signed it. Third parties considered it less of the traditional great value, and more along the lines of superstar insurance. If he came up a level short of his best, he’d be paid market rate for the stage in his career, more or less. If he made good on his potential, the White Sox would secure his services for a cost and length of time that would be otherwise impossible.
With the recent extensions for center fielders in their first major-league seasons, it’s a little easier to see what Hahn had in mind.
A couple weeks ago, the Braves signed Michael Harris for eight years and $72 million, with club options of $15 million and $20 million for the following two seasons. Harris is hitting .298/.343/.517 with 13 homers and 15 steals (in 15 attempts) over his first 82 games at age 21, so it has the initial markings of a steal for the Braves, even if it’s not quite Ozzie Albies-grade robbery.
Steal as it may be, the Braves still had to guarantee Harris a greater sum than Robert, whose deal was six years and $50 million, with the ability to make it eight for $90 million if both club options are exercised.
Then there’s the Julio Rodriguez extension, which can’t be summed up with one number for years or dollars. This MLB.com article has to break down its structure into three stages:
- The base: Seven years, $105M, plus a $15M signing bonus
- The club option: Eight to 10 years, $200M-$350M
- The player option: Five years, $90M
- The mutual option: Seven years, $168M
The incredible number of routes and ranges of value vary on escalators dependent on MVP voting, but basically he’s guaranteed 12 years and $210 million in the worst-case scenario, and up to $470 million if he makes Mike Trout look like Steve Trout.
Rodriguez’s rookie season at 21 was better at Robert’s than 22, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a healthy Robert could’ve generated a similar kind of mania among the fan base. Since the extensions for Harris and Rodriguez kick in starting next season, I’ve stacked them up against Robert starting in the second year of his deal.
The “superstar insurance” indeed remains in place with Robert. The White Sox did not buy high, or at the tail end of a trend that the rest of the league saw abating. The value is just contingent on Robert reaching those heights, and as everybody knows, it’s not exciting to pay premiums on policies you never end up using. However, if Robert puts it all together, it still could turn out to be history’s most exciting extended warranty.
It’s hard to come up with an all-encompassing takeaway from this body of extensions. There still hasn’t been a team to match the White Sox’s commitment to players before their MLB debuts, but the extensions to Harris and Rodriguez don’t seem that different spiritually, unless three months of exposure to MLB pitching makes it so much easier to handle the expectations of guaranteed money. The Braves’ success with a whole host of cost-controlled players suggests it’s a practice worth continuing, even if the costs require more pause.
The lesson sounds like it’s as banal and unhelpful as “Extend some players, but make sure they’re the right ones.” Even if you did your best to figure out what hindsight might have to say about it, the White Sox made the Moncada extension official one week before the COVID-19 outbreak cancelled spring training. Good luck mapping out that one.
If I were to offer something a little more useful as the second rebuild tries to K-turn itself out of a dead end, perhaps it’s worth examining the motivations behind the extensions. Do the White Sox genuinely believe in the talent, or do the White Sox have to commit to anybody who might be worth a $100 million contract at some point, since it’s apparent that Jerry Reinsdorf will never approve one himself? Do the White Sox genuinely think those two club options will be put to use, or are they just worried they won’t have developed a replacement by then?
I’m sure the White Sox would stand by the former condition in each of those questions, but the suspicion generated by the results makes me see some value in letting young players work themselves in or out of the foundation before cementing them into place.