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Alex Rios Is A Gamble Worth Taking

I could probably write a few thousand words explaining why the White Sox waiver claim of Alex Rios was a great move -- and I just might by the time this post is finished -- but my best snap-judgement would just be a restating of what's been written plenty of places around the web, none more concisely than by NBC Sports' Matthew Pouiliot.

Score another one for Kenny Williams. It almost never happens that players as talented Alex Rios can be acquired without surrendering anything in return. The White Sox didn't even have to outbid 29 teams or surrender a draft pick. In Rios, they brought in a player who is about to start getting expensive, but one who figures to age well and live up to his contract.

The Jays can point to the fact that Rios' numbers have dipped in an effort to justify the move, and it is entirely possible that his OPS will end up declining for a third straight year this season. However, Rios is more than just his OPS. He's a legitimate center fielder who had no business being shoved to a corner for a declining Vernon Wells. He's a very durable player whose only DL stint in six years as a major leaguer came about because of an infected leg. He's an excellent basestealer, succeeding on 82 percent of his attempts over the last three years.

Rios will make $9.7 million next year and then $49 million over the following four years, so it's not a move without risk for the White Sox. Still, his durability and defensive value makes a collapse very unlikely. Even if he wanders aimlessly and never lives up to his potential, his athleticism should guarantee that he's something close to an average regular. It's more likely that he'll have a couple of All-Star campaigns in Chicago and prove to be a modest bargain.

Players of Rios' caliber don't exchange hands without something going in the other way in return. In fact, I'm pretty sure this is the largest waiver claim (in terms of salary left on a player's contract) in major league history. Rios was only available because of Toronto's current financial state, which was almost entirely their own doing. 

J.P. Riccardi painted himself into a corner when he wasn't able to extract maximum value from the Roy Halladay trade discussions. He still had one completely unmovable contract on the roster (Vernon Wells), and not enough money to keep Halladay, Rios and Wells around going forward. Oh, and he still has to cover the rest of the B.J. R yan contract. Riccardi could probably use that contract-management resume to land himself a nice gig at [insert bailed out bank here].

Williams has almost treated the last two weeks as a quasi-free agent period.

There's no doubt that Kenny has taken a gamble here. But that gamble is not on Alex Rios, it's on the US economy and White Sox fans. He's built a team that can make a run at the division title this year, and then make a playoff run. He's built a team that figures to be the early AL Central favorite next year, and then keep reloading with some high-upside talent from the farm. 

Williams has his eyes on the horizon. As with the Jake Peavy deal, the Rios acquisition isn't just about the next 8 weeks; it's about the next few years.

Williams has almost treated the last two weeks as a quasi-free agent period. Part of the rationale for the Peavy trade was that the White Sox would be unable to get a pitcher of his caliber on the free agent market, which can be applied to this deal as well. There weren't going to be any 3 WAR center fielders on the open market this year. And even if there were, those hypothetical center fielders were unlikely to land with the Sox and would most-likely be on the wrong side of 30.

I refer to Rios as a center fielder because that's what he is. Yes, he played right field in Toronto because of the presence of the gold-glove winning, though inferior for the last 3 seasons, Wells. But Rios is fully capable of playing a major league center field, where his career near-.800 OPS plays much more respectably.

An .800 OPS doesn't sound like much, but White Sox center fielders have combined for a .224/.282/.314 batting line this season, and have OPSed under .752 every year since '04. To put it another way, the last two times the Sox have gotten an average production from their CFers, '05 (Aaron Rowand) and '07 (when Nick Swisher got a majority of the reps and the 4th/5th guys slugged well) they've made the playoffs. More often than not in recent years, the White Sox have punted the CF position, which has led to a deification of Rowand and some to criticize Jim Thome for that which he can not control.

Of course those are probably the same people who reacted to news of the pickup with cries of "where will he play?" or "Who will leadoff?," which may as well be phrased "What are we supposed to do with all these good players?" 

Rios should be the Sox starting CFer, and it's likely he'll get most of his starts there. But it's more likely that he'll be moved around much like Nick Swisher last year after the Ken Griffey Jr. trade. With the past and present leg issues of the Sox pre-Rios starting outfield, it's hard to argue with rotating playing time (though I think we all know which pixie-dealin'-with-the-devil should see the largest reduction). 

For the first time this year, for the first time probably since '06, I'm relatively happy with the White Sox roster. Sure they've got some issues with the back end of the rotation right now. But they've gone through a staggering number of changes since the low point of the season which was arguably the day before the blogger appreciation suite nightback in May. I've consistently called the Sox mediocre this year, and perhaps my malaise over the last week or so has been because I no longer believed the talent-level was mediocre, only the performance.

Now there's no denying it. With Jake Peavy on the mound and Alex Rios filling the last glaring offensive weakness, the White Sox are a good team. Now it's time to play like one.

* * * * *

See, I told you I'd get wrapped up writing about the non-trade. I've gotten this far and haven't even written the main point I wanted to make, the one you probably won't see written anywhere else. 

When I wrote about the Peavy deal, I noted that although the Sox were picking up a hefty contract, they still had plenty of payroll flexibility going forward. Now that they add the nearly $10M salary of Rios next year, they have a little less. Take a look at the White Sox Payroll Spreadsheet and you'll see the Sox have nearly $70M in contracts committed to the '10 team. Add in the arbitration-eligible guys and you'll quickly be approaching $85M. That doesn't leave a whole lot of room to find a decent DH (Thome is a free agent) and 3rd OFer (Dye has a $12M option).

Not only that, but the Sox are well over $100M this year. I'm not sure of the exact figure -- there are lots of pro-rata deals where KW picked up salary -- but it doesn't really matter. Williams admitted that the Sox now lie "over-budget," an area I'm sure many teams occupy right now, but none of them got there by making the type of moves as Kenny. 

Sometimes you have to zig while everyone else is zagging. Kenny Williams seems to be the only GM in baseball looking to take on big contracts during these uncertain economic times. He's taking a gamble that acquisitions of Peavy and Rios will pay for themselves, that the team will make a playoff run, and most of all that White Sox fans will come out to the park.

That's where you come in, or where we come in, I should say. If you want the Sox to keep their two big sluggers who may depart after this season, or if you want them to be able to be players on the free agent market, show up. If you weren't planning to go to a game for the rest of the season, make it out for one. If you were planning on making one more trip to USCF, why not make it two? You get the picture.

Let's support this team not just for their play on the field this season, but to keep giving the GM with the biggest balls in the game the opportunity to swing for the fences.

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