When Bob Nightengale tweeted that the White Sox signed Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $25 million deal, it just didn't move me.
And then the absence of a reaction led to a negative one.
Rick Hahn moves usually register something viscerally, at least since the beginning of the reconstruction. It's not that all his major transactions are capital ideas and critical darlings, but there's a bold concept driving them. The Jake Peavy trade, the Jose Abreu signing, the Adam Eaton trade and the Matt Davidson trade all figured into a grand design. One of them hasn't come close to panning out, but 75 percent is a strong success rate.
Even last week's Zach Duke signing -- a move viewed from the outside as an unresourceful overpay -- looked proactive to those with a closer understanding of recent White Sox bullpen history.
In contrast to those moves, there's nothing avant garde or audacious about paying LaRoche the second-highest salary on the team in 2015 and 2016. He's a 35-year-old first baseman who needs to be platooned, and he seals off the designated hitter spot, which was the green space of the White Sox roster. Now, if they signed Victor Martinez for that job, that would scream, "WE'RE GOING FOR IT!" LaRoche, in comparison, could just be an impulse buy.
It does leave some room for the imagination, but mine ran the wrong way with it. I understood the boxes he ticked off -- left-handed home run power and an understanding of the strike zone -- but I'd grown accustomed to applying the standard 48-point check to 20somethings, and projecting some degree of improvement.
With LaRoche being on the other side of 30, the hope is that he just doesn't lose anything. The Sox still wear the scars from similar lost bets, and so I flipped to the worst-case scenario. I saw his age, his problems against lefties, his limited defensive utility, his lack of exposure to American League play and his precipitous drop in doubles, and I could easily envision a pretty dour June storyline:
Adam LaRoche is still getting acclimated to a new league and new position, but he better pick it up if the Sox want to be buyers at the trade deadline...
Hell, even the uptick in walks brought to mind Jermaine Dye's last season. If this signing were a Rorschach test, I'd probably be sedated by now.
I recognize the melodramatic bent to that response, so adjusting for standard immediate overreaction tendencies, I think it's safer to say that I'm not all that excited by this move.
Which might sorta be the point of it.
Last year, the White Sox had a Big Idea for filling the void at catcher, but Brian McCann ended up being too expensive. So Hahn reluctantly gave Tyler Flowers a second chance at starting, and then gave him a backup catcher who had never played above A-ball for goofs and grins.
It worked out well enough, even though it probably shouldn't have. That position could've easily -- easily -- been the laughingstock of the league by the end of April. Yet aside from cumulative eyeball trauma, the failure wouldn't have any real cost in the long run. It's the same thing with Dayan Viciedo in left field, or Felipe Paulino in the rotation. Realized upside is striking roster oil, but total face-plants at least answer questions.
Those experiments aren't nearly as noble when the team has aspirations. For instance, the Sox could've left the DH spot open while addressing other positions, hoping it ends up being the way station for a good-bat ballplayer who was squeezed out of the best defensive alignment.
Alternatively, maybe that offseason unfolds in a way that leaves Hahn two moves short, leaving us to wonder if Viciedo or Micah Johnson would be the best use of those plate appearances. That's not an acceptable outcome for a team that genuinely wants to contend.
LaRoche, on the other hand, seems rather acceptable. Part of the aforementioned bummer is that "acceptable" might be his ceiling, and that isn't thrilling for a $12.5 million salary. If this is their big move, then that's a whole lotta blah.
The White Sox are pulling out all the stops to win 78 games next year.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) November 22, 2014
The Orioles fell into this trap a decade - roster not good enough to win now or win later, so make a few middle-of-the-market signings.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) November 22, 2014
But given what we know about the White Sox payroll and MLB finances, it shouldn't be anywhere near a reckless contract in and of itself. It could actually be money well spent on a per-need basis. By the time the rest of the roster firms up, LaRoche's brand of "acceptable" might be powerful enough and left-handed enough to free up the front office for bolder moves elsewhere, resulting in a major net profit.
Isolate the investment in LaRoche, and this acquisition seems far less ambitious compared to the ones that came before. However, it's not especially useful to compare it to moves made during an earlier stage in the reconstruction, especially with a couple winter months left to go. The rebuild has proceeded to a more advanced state, and like any other maturation process, sometimes boring moves are absolutely necessary.