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White Sox offseason now underway after Brett Lawrie trade

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Trade for third baseman marks first true problem-solving move of the winter

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It took until the last full day of the Winter Meetings, but the White Sox are now on the move.

Rick Hahn hadn't been dormant, but he hadn't yet presented a clear-cut upgrade at any one position, either. Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila give the catcher setup quite the different look, but they'll have to prove that their version of value is better than what Tyler Flowers and Geovany Soto accomplished last year.

After acquiring Brett Lawrie from the Oakland Athletics Wednesday night, the Sox finally have one of those unquestionable improvements on paper, even if Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections don't see anything special:

That's only a .255/.310/.406 line and 1.8 WAR, but it represents a tremendous upgrade at third base over the previous internal options, which Robin Ventura identified as Mike Olt and Matt Davidson.

Of course, Lawrie comes to Chicago with questions about his production. Doug Padilla put a positive spin on it by noting improvements in Lawrie's Triple Crown stats, but that enthusiasm may have been boosted by a couple of wrong reads on his Baseball-Reference.com page:

Lawrie established career bests this past season in batting average (.260), doubles (29), home runs (16) and RBIs (60). A right-handed hitter, he also batted .293 with a .484 slugging percentage against right-handed pitching. After nagging injuries slowed him with the Toronto Blue Jays, Lawrie's improved numbers were a result of him staying healthy.

Lawrie hit .273 in his first full season, and he hit .293 with a .484 slugging percentage against left-handed pitching in 2015. Against righties, he hit .247/.282/.378, which dragged his overall OBP down to a career-worst .299. We've also discussed the worrisome jump in strikeouts.

But just like the swing-and-miss problems, Lawrie's exaggerated splits also look like an aberration at first glance, as he entered 2015 with a history of slight reverse splits:

  • vs. RHP: .264/.326/.434
  • vs. LHP: .265/.311/.402

The good news: Even with these strange and unwelcome developments to his offensive game, his 16 homers would've qualified for second on the White Sox, so perhaps we shouldn't overthink this part.

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There's also plenty of room for interpretation with his glovework. Copying over the chart from Wednesday morning's post:

G OPS+ BB% K% UZR* fWAR
2012-14 101 98 6.3 16.1 3.6 1.8
2015 149 92 4.7 23.9 -17 0.6

Hahn acknowledged this in his brief assessment of his defense. Talking to reporters in Nashville, Hahn said, "Last year was a bit of a down year, but before that he was certainly Gold Glove-caliber back in Toronto. He regressed a little bit last year for whatever reason, but we see a fair amount of defensive upside in him."

Beyond that, it's even unclear where Lawrie will play. He occupies third base at the moment because Carlos Sanchez, while flawed, at least brings above-average defense to second base. But the Sox cast a wide net at third base, and it's possible they could snag a different Plan A. The "A" doesn't stand for "Asdrubal Cabrera," as he signed with the Mets. Still out there: Nobuhiro Matsuda, who is a free agent, or Todd Frazier, whose asking price is steep:

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Compared to that rumor, the asking price for Lawrie was Nebraska-flat: Zack Erwin and J.B. Wendelken.

That's no knock, especially on Erwin, who performed as well as anybody could expect in his professional debut. He posted a 1.33 ERA with peripherals to match after the White Sox selected him out of Clemson in the fourth round, but as a sinker-oriented lefty who doesn't clear 90 mph by much, his upside is limited. The same can be said for Wendelken, who is a reliever without big velocity (93-94). He might be able to make up for the lack of an impressive fastball with his changeup and slider, but you could say the same for a lot of pitchers. The Sox have a number of them left.

The deal took its sweet time finalizing after Susan Slusser's initial Tuesday night report involving "a pair of minor leaguers," which offered time to wring hands over the quality of prospects involved. Apparently Billy Beane and David Forst blinked, because the Sox somehow upgraded third base at a cost that was both non-prohibitive in terms of money and players. Lawrie's projected 2016 salary is just $3.9 million, and the White Sox will have solved at least one problem with their top two layers of prospects wholly intact.

There are risks with buying low -- we've outlined the two big ones above -- but should Lawrie flop with the Sox, there won't be any significant ramifications or second-guessing. It's a bigger deal for the A's, who counted on Lawrie to address some of the immediate gap left by trading Josh Donaldson. Instead, Oakland now faces a bigger void. Franklin Barreto was the centerpiece of that deal and is still in good shape, but now they need a 19-year-old to complete the development climb and turn into a good major leaguer, because Donaldson won the MVP ... as a Super Two.

This bad chain of deals is similar to the one the White Sox started last decade when they traded Gio Gonzalez for Nick Swisher, then ended up with Jeff Marquez after a year.

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There are other similarities as well:

While Lawrie has oodles of talent – potential All-Star level if he harnesses his ability – the fit never seemed quite right in Oakland. And his max-effort, high energy style is probably a plus on a contending team, but with a last-place team such as the A’s in 2015, it could be something of a drain.

Indeed, it's kinda exhausting to watch Lawrie on screen, so I've always figured being around him is a mixed bag at best. He sounded supercharged on his conference call, going above and beyond even in response to a simple question about defensive preference. When asked whether playing second or third mattered to him, he said, "No, it does not matter to me. Wherever I help the team win, that's what I'm out there to do, so whether that's center field, left field, right field, catcher, whatever that may be."

There's also what everybody on Twitter saw:

And that's all positive, but as the above blurb shows, it doesn't always manifest itself positively when other elements are introduced to the situation. Hahn addressed that as well:

"We've seen that intensity on display, in terms of both the way he attacks defensively and offensively, and sometimes it's gotten him into a little bit of hot water and altercations with others, but we don't see anything wrong with adding more guys to the club that have a little bit of extra fire and a little bit of edge to them."

One altercation Hahn might've been alluding to: a run-in with Yordano Ventura. The Sox are no strangers to beefs with Kansas City, but they're also well-versed in coming out on the wrong end of them.

There's plenty to consider here -- defensive utility, worrisome trends, clubhouse cohesion -- but cost isn't one of them. The team's lack of infield depth made adding Lawrie at that price a no-brainer. Now, it's up to the Sox to mitigate potential pitfalls, and they can start immediately by keeping their own expectations in check. As long as they don't name him a "captain of attitude" or give him a three-year extension before his first game, they'll be off to a better start.