The White Sox have made a couple of early splashes this offseason, inking lefty reliever Zach Duke and power-hitting first baseman Adam LaRoche to multi-year deals. While our South Side Sox community has had some positive reaction to the moves, the reaction from national baseball experts has varied from "meh" to "bleh".
That sort of response is really pretty understandable. Duke and LaRoche are set to earn $40 million over their deals and the contracts violate some unwritten rules of the modern baseball analyst community. "Don’t give multi-year deals to non-elite relievers." "Don’t overpay mediocre, aging, defensively limited players." We’ve seen these criticisms before. Heck, as White Sox fans, we’ve applied them to other teams, usually accompanied with derisive laughter.
I don’t mean to harp on comments from one particular critic, but the following tweet from friend of the podcast Dan Szymborski that Jim brought up yesterday really hit home with me.
The White Sox are pulling out all the stops to win 78 games next year.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) November 22, 2014
It’s easy to see how Duke and LaRoche inspire these types of thoughts. At their best, they’re an effective setup man and a good platoon bat. MLB Trade Rumors ranked LaRoche 25th in their list of the Top 50 Free Agents, and Duke only made it as an honorable mention. These aren’t the types of players that turn 73-win teams into contenders. These are the players that 73-win teams without much direction sign to say "look fans, we’re trying, we swear!" with little-to-no hope of immediate contention.
The high-level view sees moves like these as a push towards the hell of mediocrity between competing and building towards a better future. In a vacuum, I would buy into that line of thinking. However, I do not, for two reasons. First, as has been mentioned before, these two moves are just the beginning of what promises to be a busy offseason for Rick Hahn and the White Sox. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions before seeing how these signings fit in with the finished product in March. I don’t like needing to use an uncertain future to justify the past, however, so for the time being, I would like to focus on the second reason:
- The White Sox of 2014 were built much differently than most 73-win teams.
In most cases, poor finishes are the result of a lack of elite-level talent. The 2014 White Sox featured a quartet of stars in Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, Jose Quintana, and Adam Eaton that contributed a combined 20.8 WAR per Baseball Reference. That’s 78 percent of the entire team’s WAR tied up in four players. If you expand that top tier to include Alexei Ramirez and Tyler Flowers, the remainder of the roster combined to be essentially replacement-level. The 2014 White Sox didn’t lack stars, they lacked an adequate supporting cast.
To further this point, I looked into how the White Sox’ "big four" stacked up against the top four players from all the teams that won at least 90 games. As it turns out, they’re right there in the thick of it.
- Angels: 21.8 WAR (Mike Trout, Howie Kendrick, Kole Calhoun, Garrett Richards)
- Tigers: 21.7 WAR (Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer)
- Dodgers: 21.5 WAR (Yasiel Puig, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner, Zack Greinke)
- Nationals: 21.0 WAR (Anthony Rendon, Tanner Roark, Jordan Zimmerman, Doug Fister)
- White Sox: 20.8 WAR (Sale, Abreu, Quintana, Eaton)
- Orioles: 19.0 WAR (Steve Pearce, Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz, J.J. Hardy)
- Cardinals: 19.0 WAR (Jhonny Peralta, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Matt Holliday)
The takeaway here is that the top players on the White Sox are not only excellent building blocks, they are also more than capable of being the best four players on a championship-level roster. The fantastic quartet out-produced the top four players on teams with records similar to that of the White Sox (the Red Sox, Phillies, Cubs, Twins and Astros) by anywhere between 3.5 and 5.5 bWAR. In contrast to their re-tooling peers, the White Sox entered the 2014-15 offseason with the most difficult part of building a winner already in-hand. That puts them in a materially different situation than your run-of-the-mill 73-win team.
Another thing that sets the White Sox apart from a generic below-average team was the extremely sorry state of the back of the roster, which is primed to be fixed. Removing Paul Konerko (and by extension, Leury Garcia) opens the door to use two bench slots on players that could generate positive, rather than negative, value. Through some combination of bad luck and awful pitchers, the White Sox bullpen cost the team about seven wins relative to an average team. After a full season of separating the wheat (Zach Putnam, Jake Petricka) from the chaff (too many to list) and adding Duke to the fold, the outlook for 2015 looks brighter. The 2014 White Sox may have won 73 games, but the ability to extract a good chunk of extra wins from simple fixes to the bench and relief corps allows them execute more significant moves as if their starting point was closer to 80 wins.
This brings us back to LaRoche and Duke. Rick Hahn had a fantastic offseason preceding the 2014 season, as the acquisitions of Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton breathed life back into the franchise. These new acquisitions don’t have quite the same impact as those strokes of genius. That’s okay. Duke and LaRoche fit perfectly given the White Sox’ need for a quality left-handed bat and lefty set-up man. They represent a significant boost to the supporting cast for the team’s stars, regardless of what moves lie ahead. The Sox have gotten noticeably better in the past week, and there’s still a wide variety of paths for Hahn to choose from to get a competitive team on the field in 2015. That's a good start to the hot stove season worth celebrating.