FanPost

Joe Sheehan Looks At the Sox and AL Central

The AL Central still exists. I know this, because I checked. However, the five teams in the division certainly have done their best to make that an open question this offseason. The five teams have made just a handful of notable moves, and even saying that stretches the definition of notable. As teams in the AL West and East scramble to win 90, 95, even 100 games, the Central provides the best case yet for the elimination of the concept of divisions.
Reprinted from today's newsletter with permission. Subscription info follows the analysis.

On September 30, the White Sox signed closer Sergio Santos to an extremely favorable contract that guaranteed Santos just $8.25 million but gave the Sox the chance to lock up a very good relief pitcher at below-market rates all the way through 2017, while only guaranteeing money through 2014. It was a strong play for a team that has so much money tied up in bad deals to give itself the chance at a good one. So it was puzzling when, two months later, the Sox dealt Santos to the Blue Jays for a single pitching prospect, Nestor Molina. The concept of turning relief pitching into more valuable properties is worth exploring; in this case, however, the Sox picked up a pitcher who by most accounts doesn't have the upside you want to seek out in trade.
Molina, who turns 23 in two weeks, is a Venezuelan right-hander who has been pitching professionally since 2007. It was just two seasons ago that he reached full-season ball for the first time, and only in 2011 did he become a full-time starting pitcher. Molina appeared nowhere on the top 20 Jays prospects as ranked by Baseball Prospectus a year ago. Last year, the 22-year-old tore up the Florida State and Eastern Leagues with fantastic command, striking out 148 hitters while walking just 16. Now, while those numbers are fantastic (as was the 2.21 ERA that went with them), Molina looks more like a number of other performance prospects who have used great control to beat up young hitters -- remember Yusmeiro Petit or Ed Yarnall? -- rather than a prospect with the raw stuff to continue doing so at higher levels. It's a curious use of a cost-controlled reliever who, in his third year as a pitcher, struck out 36% of the batters he faced.
If there was a justification for the deal, it was in the idea that by trading Santos and letting Mark Buehrle get away, the White Sox were planning to completely rebuild with an eye towards a few losing years and a surge in the middle of the decade. The rumors that John Danks was available in trade added to the notion, which made some sense. The Sox lack the talent base to be more than a fringe contender. Saddled with burdensome contracts and a poor farm system, they lack the resources to improve the talent base in the short term. So the best play would be to move what could be moved and set up for 2014.
That's why the five-year, $65-million contract for Danks came as a shock. On its own, it's a reasonable deal, maybe a little high -- just $4 million a year less than what Jered Weaver got -- but when contrasted with the Santos trade, it's incongruous. One move was a rebuilding effort focused on the future, and the other a pricey contract for a player who is pretty much in his peak right now. Looking at the trades for Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, the market was clearly in place for Williams to flip Danks for a core of talent his farm system desperately needs. Danks may not have been quite as attractive, as a 2013 free agent, but he clearly had substantial trade value.
When Kenny Williams started as a GM, he was terrible. He learned on the job and became good at it, and whatever personal conflicts may have driven he and Ozzie Guillen apart, the two were a good partnership that produced successful baseball teams and one World Championship. That a move, like the Santos trade, may be a bad one doesn't change the fact that Williams has a substantial track record as an above-average GM, but the slight return does call into question his judgment on this one deal. Of greater concern are the two moves in concert, which taken together show a startling lack of decisiveness. I can't tell you right now what the White Sox are trying to do, and their actions indicate that they're not quite sure themselves.
(Were I to resurrect the "GM For a Day" conceit, the White Sox would be first in line for the treatment. Maybe next month.)
The Joe Sheehan Newsletter is an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, a mix of analysis, commentary and opinion, all linked by a deep love of the game.
Volume IV of the newsletter will run from February 1, 2012 through January 31, 2013. The of Volume IV is $29.95, and you can subscribe through PayPal using your credit or debit card. Sign up now and get the last five weeks of Volume III, through January 31, 2012, at no additional cost.
To subscribe, use the PayPal link at http://joesheehanbaseball.blogspot.com, or PayPal tojoesheehanbp@gmail.com.

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