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Grading the White Sox offseason

An evaluation of each move executed by the White Sox and an overall assessment of what this offseason means for their playoff aspirations going forward

The trade for Jeff Samardzija rates as Rick Hahn's best move of the offseason
The trade for Jeff Samardzija rates as Rick Hahn's best move of the offseason
Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Rick Hahn's offseason is essentially complete, let's take a look back at each major move and see how all the pieces fit together.  I'm excluding minor league signings from the individual move assessments because even though some (like Geovany Soto) may have a real impact on the 2015 team, the minimal risk inherent in those moves makes them feel like no-brainers. They do, however, matter for the final grade.

A quick note on the grading scale. A "C" is an average grade. An "A" is a move that looks like a complete win, through and through. The best example I could give of an "A" move from recent years is the acquisition of Kevin Youkilis in 2012 for Zach Stewart and Brent Lillibridge. An "F" is a decision with very little, if any, redeeming qualities. Trading Nick Swisher for Jeff Marquez, Wilson Betemit, and Jhonny Nunez comes to mind.

As a final thought before we dive in, I believe that there still may be a minor move forthcoming to strengthen the bench, but I don't think that this will materially affect my final grade.

Here we go.

No. 1: Signed LHP Zach Duke for three years, $15 million

Duke was pretty much the perfect relief pitcher for the White Sox to target this offseason. With virtually no left-handed depth and little-to-no trustworthy high leverage relievers in the system, Duke helps to fix two problems at once. It's true that he's coming off of a breakout season at age 31 and that this is typically a shaky reason to pay real money to a reliever.  However, as has been discussed here before, the breakout came along with dramatic improvement in his peripherals, particularly strikeout rate, and we can point to a real reason why it happened; Duke changed his arm slot and began to rely more heavily on breaking pitches.

The deal falls short of being a total home run because it required a third year, which was probably one more than was desirable and stirred up a negative reaction to the move from many national writers. I concede that it's probably a slight overpay, but does anyone really think that the thing that will keep the White Sox from making the playoffs in 2017 is the $5.5 million that they'll be paying Zach Duke?  Kudos to Rick Hahn for recognizing that it was worth it to go the extra mile to bring in the second-best left-handed free agent reliever.

Decision grade: B+

No. 2: Signed 1B Adam LaRoche for two years, $25 million

Like Duke, the LaRoche move looked to many like a below average team tying up money in a low upside player. As a platoon hitter that will have the DH penalty tacked onto his expectations, LaRoche is not likely to be worth much more than 2.0 WAR in 2015. However, he's also a great bet to at least be worth close to 1.5 WAR, and that's the type of certainty that a team armed with legitimate stars needs in a complementary player. Furthermore, somebody's gotta DH, and the free agent alternatives appeared to be either overpaying Victor Martinez or giving Billy Butler a three-year deal coming off of a disastrous season. In that light, LaRoche's contract seems pretty reasonable.

At the time that LaRoche was signed, Hahn still had many paths to choose from for his offseason. It was a simple hole patch in advance of more significant moves.

Decision grade: B-

No. 3: Tendered contracts to C Tyler Flowers, RHP Hector Noesi, RHP Javy Guerra, OF Dayan Viciedo, and RHP Nate Jones; non-tendered RHP Ronald Belisario

The decisions to retain Flowers, Jones, and Noesi were pretty much no-brainers. Non-tendering Belisario was probably the right call at his likely arbitration salary. Guerra is inexpensive and was adequate last year, so even though he's not great, it's hard to make a case that tendering him was a mistake.

That leaves the choice to tender Viciedo. Plenty of words have been spilled about Viciedo, and he's been released already, so the White Sox will owe him $733,000 and maybe more to not play for the team. This was the only real mistake that could have been made on this group of players, and the White Sox made it.

Decision grade: F

No. 4: Acquired RHP Jeff Samardzija and RHP Michael Ynoa from the Athletics for SS Marcus Semien, RHP Chris Bassitt, 1B Rangel Ravelo, and C Josh Phegley

This was the move that defined the direction of the offseason. By acquiring just one year of Jeff Samardzija, the Sox announced their intent to compete in 2015. It was a classic quality-for-quantity move, with the White Sox acquiring an all-star caliber pitcher for what may well amount to just spare parts. Semien was the biggest loss, but if he winds up as the good utility player he projects to be, that's replaceable on the open market without breaking the bank.

If the Sox aren't in the thick of it when the trade deadline rolls around, Samardzija could be flipped for a package that recoups most of the value the Sox lost when they acquired him. The risk here is that the White Sox will be in the hunt for all of 2015 and fall short of the postseason, in which case the move will leave them with just the possibility of draft pick compensation if Samardzija signs elsewhere or the chance that familiarity with the organization will help in extension talks. Even if that happens, it's unlikely that the package Hahn gave up will burn the Sox too badly in the long run.

Decision grade: A-

No. 5: Signed RHP David Robertson for four years, $46 million

Paying for a premium closer jives with the win-now attitude from the Samardzija trade, and the sorry state of the White Sox bullpen meant that Robertson would provide more value to the White Sox than he would to pretty much any other team. At the outset of the offseason, I liked this idea so much that I included the signing of Robertson in my offseason plan (and for slightly more money!). However, I've since soured on the move a little due to the draft pick compensation attached to him and the fact that the White Sox apparently could only afford one more major player after this move with multiple holes left to fill. The dollars could arguably have been better spent elsewhere.

In the end, it's probably an overpay, but for a player who really fits.

Decision grade: C

No. 6: Acquired LHP Dan Jennings for RHP Andre Rienzo

Rienzo had essentially run out of chances in Chicago and couldn't establish himself in one of the most disastrous bullpen situations the team has ever seen. He was a great change of scenery candidate, and acquiring another lefty reliever in exchange made a good deal of sense. However, Jennings hasn't been the LOOGY that the Sox look to need, as he's yielded a .354 OBP to lefties in his career as part of a slight reverse platoon split. This could be a case in which Don Cooper saw a way to remedy that situation, or it simply could be a matter of bringing in additional bullpen depth in exchange for a guy the White Sox won't use.  Either way, there's very little downside here, even if the fit doesn't look perfect at the moment.

Decision grade: B

No. 7: Signed OF Melky Cabrera for three years, $42 million

First, we'll look at the good. The White Sox had a need for a left fielder and that contract is downright reasonable for a player of Cabrera's caliber. There's a great chance that Cabrera either lives up to the deal or provides surplus value. He'll be just 30 years old this season and although he's rough in left field, Cabrera should continue to hit and will fit nicely into the second slot of Robin Ventura's batting order.

The downside is that this signing essentially marked the end of the White Sox' big moves for the winter, and it left them short of being divisional, or even wild card favorites in a year in which they signed a big money closer and traded for one year of Jeff Samardzija. Signing Cabrera at that price looks good in a vacuum, but stopping here arguably was a mistake, and it appears that Cabrera was the piece that pushed the White Sox close to their payroll limit.

Decision grade: B

No. 8: Signed UTIL Emilio Bonifacio for one year, $4 million with 2016 club option

The White Sox bench desperately needed help, and Bonifacio fit perfectly with his ability to play all over the diamond, hit lefties a bit, pinch run, and serve as an insurance policy for Carlos Sanchez at second base. The Leury Garcia / Paul Konerko situation sapped the 2014 White Sox of at least a couple wins, and Bonifacio represented the first real effort to shore up the reserve unit.

If there's a criticism of this move, it's that Bonifacio looked like a consolation prize compared to the still-available Ben Zobrist, who was subsequently dealt to Oakland. Zobrist would have been similarly versatile and represented a true star that could have helped give the White Sox an inside track for a playoff slot.

Decision grade: B+

No. 9: Signed INF Gordon Beckham for one year, $2 million

Beckham helps the depth situation at second base and could serve as a defensive replacement and platoon partner for Conor Gillaspie at third base. His arrival essentially blocked Tyler Saladino's path to the majors as an infield reserve, which makes sense given that the White Sox can't really afford to risk unproven bench players giving away wins, particularly after watching the Leury Garcia fiasco. Beckham should be a stable reserve that stays above replacement level.

However, Beckham's a poor hitter without a platoon split, which makes him a questionable right-handed caddy for Conor Gillapsie at third. He can hit lefties better than Gillaspie, but so can everyone. At the very least, he'll be a defensive upgrade when he fills in at third. Furthermore, if the Sox were set on filling this role externally, there weren't any other obvious candidates at the time of the signing. The only free agent alternative appeared to be Rickie Weeks, a capable hitter against lefties but a guy who's never played third in the majors before and has been a poor defensive second baseman.

Despite the lack of good alternatives, it's fair to question whether the Sox could have fared better via trade or addressed this need earlier in the offseason when there were more options available. It felt like a case of picking the guy you know over seeking the best possible fit.

Decision grade: D+

Overall Evaluation

Through a number of major acquisitions, Rick Hahn pushed the White Sox back into the playoff conversation, and they have a reasonable shot at a return to postseason baseball if things break their way. They may not be the clear best team on paper in the division, but they absolutely could win it. That's a far cry from where we were in October.

As alluded to in a couple of moves above, however, the concern is that the White Sox essentially maxed out their payroll one or two moves short. The Samardzija and Robertson deals signaled an attempt to win this year, and it would have made sense to push to acquire another impact player to launch the White Sox into the American League's top tier on paper. Instead, the White Sox retained most of their top prospects in an effort to compete in future seasons, a direction inconsistent with signing several aging mid-tier free agents and trading for one year of a pretty good pitcher.

Furthermore, the payroll limits in place for 2015 seem to pose similar difficulties for 2016. The only significant contracts coming off the books after this season (besides Jeff Keppinger) are those for Samardzija and Alexei Ramirez (in the unlikely event the Sox decline his option), and both players are assets at their current salaries. Barring notable contributions from the farm, it will be difficult to not only replace Samardzija, but further improve upon the 2015 team next offseason without another increase in payroll.

Still, for 2015, the option remains to improve mid-season if the situation dictates, and I fully expect Hahn to pull the trigger on acquiring an impact player if need be. The Sox found a way to improve by a double-digit win total on paper while sacrificing only one of their top ten prospects. By using payroll space rather than minor league trading chips to upgrade the team, Hahn is in a position to watch the events of the season unfold before truly deciding to go all-in on this year.

In short, there's a real risk that the White Sox wind up stuck in the middle of the pack for the next couple of years as currently constructed. They may be among the most improved teams of the offseason, but that improvement should ultimately only be judged in terms of their playoff chances, and the Sox haven't made themselves favorites. However, even if they're not among the American League's top dogs on paper, they've given themselves a legitimate shot at the postseason, which is of critical importance while Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Jose Abreu, and Jose Quintana are under team control. Considering where the Sox started the offseason, that's a pretty significant accomplishment.

Overall grade: B