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White Sox decision review: Outfielders

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A slow start put Melky Cabrera on a disappointing course and opened the door for second-guessing

Here's Melky Cabrera taking a double away from Nelson Cruz.
Here's Melky Cabrera taking a double away from Nelson Cruz.
David Banks/Getty Images

Of all the offseason plans turned in last October, only two South Side Sox general mangers decided on the course chosen by the White Sox: Melky Cabrera.

Then again, there were a lot of ideas for this roster spot. In fact, at the time I counted, the offseason plans roped in 28 different outfielders.

Seven of them were free agents (in order of popularity: Nick Markakis, Colby Rasmus, Nori Aoki, Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Mike Morse, Ichiro Suzuki). While we can go through all of the trade ideas to figure out who might've had the best idea pound for pound, the free agents are the only ones we can really scrutinize, since they were theoretically freely available to everybody.

Cabrera was one of 11 corner outfielders signed to a free agent contract during the 2014-15 offseason. The White Sox made a significant investment -- only three deals were longer, and only two had a higher average annual salary. Here's how this class unfolded (with Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter and Yasmany Tomas included):

Deal G PA BA OBP SLG BB% K% bWAR fWAR
Cruz 4/$58M 152 655 .302 .369 .566 9.0 25.0 5.2 4.8
Rasmus 1/$8M 137 485 .238 .314 .475 9.7 31.8 2.6 2.8
Markakis 4/$44M 156 686 .296 .370 .376 10.2 12.1 1.9 1.6
Aoki 1/$4.7M 93 392 .287 .353 .380 7.7 6.4 1.0 1.5
Cabrera 3/$42M 158 683 273 314 .394 5.9 12.9 1.4 -0.3
Cuddyer 2/$21M 117 408 .259 .309 .394 5.9 21.6 0.5 0.0
Hunter 1/$10M 139 567 .240 .293 .409 6.2 18.5 -0.8 0.5
Rios 1/$11M 105 411 .255 .287 .353 3.6 16.3 -1.1 0.2
Morse 2/$16M 98 256 .231 .313 .336 9.0 29.7 -0.3 -0.5
Ichiro 1/$2M 153 438 .229 .282 .279 7.1 11.6 -1.2 -0.8
Tomas 6/$68.5M 118 426 .273 .305 .401 4.0 25.8 -1.3 -1.3

If you judge it by Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement valuation, the White Sox could've fared worse. If you abide by FanGraphs, the signing was a disaster.

That phenomenon is nothing new, because when it comes to its chief player valuation metric, Cabrera's case is one of many that could lead one to believe that FanGraphs really does hate the White Sox. Cabrera joins Alexei Ramirez and J.B. Shuck as players who go from a notch above replacement level by B-Ref to below replacement level by FanGraphs.

White Sox position players as a whole lose nine wins from the former to the latter. The biggest differences from one system to another:

  • White Sox: 9.1 wins lower by fWAR
  • Diamondbacks: 5.7 wins lower by fWAR
  • Giants: 5.3 wins higher by fWAR

And unlike Arizona (30.5 wins by bWAR) and the Giants (32.7 wins by fWAR), the White Sox didn't have wins to spare. To put it another way, here's who lost the biggest percentage of their wins from one system to another:

  • White Sox: 75 percent reduction from bWAR to fWAR
  • Athletics: 26.1 percent reduction from bWAR to fWAR
  • Phillies: 26.1 percent reduction from fWAR to bWAR

In this isolated case, it seems a little unfair. We have Dayan Viciedo's defense seared into our recent memories. Cabera might not have distinguished himself in terms of range, but he didn't make the kind of colossal errors that plagued Viciedo. I'm comfortable with pinning him in the area of 1 WAR, because that's still a disappointing number befitting of Cabrera's season, even if misfortune over the first two months may have played an abnormally large part in the proceedings.

Drawing some conclusions from the rest of the chart...

Best player: Cruz. The move to Safeco Field did not bother him in the least. He set career highs in homers (44), OPS+ (160) and walks (59). He hit 27 of those homers on the road, but anybody would've taken his home line, too (.304/.375/.517). As a result, if you put stock in the WAR/dollars valuations, he's more than halfway to earning his entire contract based on his first year alone.

Best value: Rasmus. He continued his pattern of alternate-year success with a well-rounded season in Houston. He contributed 50 extra-base hits, played significant time in all three outfield positions, and, in a bizarre development, hit lefties better than righties to buck a career-long issue.

(If Nori Aoki didn't break his leg, he might've exceeded Rasmus. Yet it would've been tough to count him, because he accepted less money to play in San Francisco.)

Weirdest signing: Markakis. Atlanta made a win-now move by signing Markakis, then did nothing else to give the idea that they had any designs on contending. It was confusing at the time, and he stuck out even more as the Braves tanked around him. He had a decent season, especially considering that he hit just three homers. Carlos Sanchez outhomered him.

Biggest what-if: The Royals reportedly offered Cabrera a bigger deal to bring him back to Kansas City, but Cabrera preferred playing east of the Mississippi. Rios didn't quite work out as a Plan B, although the Royals haven't really suffered from that misstep.

Worst idea: It looks like the White Sox picked the right time to make their major investment in the Cuban market. Since Jose Abreu signed for six years and $68 million, that contract has been exceeded in guaranteed dollars by the ones for Yasmany Tomas and Rusney Castillo, neither of whom have found their footing. Tomas was a little too eager to meet those Viciedo comparisons:

  • Tomas in 2015: .273/.305/.401, 90 OPS+, -1.3 WAR
  • Viciedo 2012-14: .250/.294/.425, 96 OPS+, -0.9 WAR

Granted, Tomas is dinged for his terrible defense at third base, and that's more the Diamondbacks' fault than his, since apparently everybody else agreed that he couldn't handle the hot corner. Yet his defense in an outfield corner wasn't much better.

If the White Sox could do it over again:

They guaranteed $66 million to Cabrera and Adam LaRoche.

Which is the same amount that was guaranteed to Cruz and Rasmus last offseason.

Heh.