Trayce Thompson's extremely successful debut month has been a bright spot in a disappointing season. Regardless of what role one thinks he might realistically be able to lock down, he's played himself into the White Sox' plans, barring a trade to an understandably interested team.
That's a very good thing because the White Sox have many roster repairs to make if they intend on competing next season. It's true that if Thompson is ticketed for a bench role or the short half of a platoon, he doesn't completely fix anything. However, his skill set gives the Sox a welcome tool to use to make the reconstruction easier. Regardless of which strategy the Sox pursue, Thompson could play an important role. Here's how Thompson could help the White Sox under a few broad courses of action to address their outfield.
1. Do Nothing
This is not recommended! However, we'll look at this simply because it's the default option. We're at the point at which it's hard to argue that Avisail Garcia is a better baseball player than Trayce Thompson. Thompson's defense alone puts his floor for value higher than what Garcia's ever shown himself capable of, and he's furthering his case at the plate. Thompson's batting line comes from a small sample and he's had the benefit of the platoon advantage more often than not, but he's slashed .377/.424/.689 over 66 plate appearances, which surpasses Garcia's best-ever stretch of similar length (.400/.426/.600 from April 30 to May 17 of this year). It wouldn't be advisable for the Sox to stand pat and give Thompson the starting job next season without any sort of insurance policy. The point is that if they did, they'd already be better off in right field than they were in 2015.
2. Acquire an Everyday Starter
This was essentially most viable option before Trayce showed up on the big stage. There's a glut of excellent everyday outfielders on the free agent market, and the White Sox could pursue one of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, or Alex Gordon. Even with a new starting right fielder in tow, there's still plenty of room for Thompson to have a significant role.
If Adam LaRoche is still around, Thompson can serve as his de facto platoon partner by pushing one of the primary outfielders to DH against lefties. Three of those four top free agents are good-to-excellent defensive players, and teaming one of those three up with Eaton and Thompson would make for a tasty defensive outfield, particularly if the Sox have the stones to shift Eaton to left when Thompson plays.
Along the same lines, the White Sox will want to keep an eye on Melky Cabrera's platoon split as we head into 2016. Cabrera's hit .236/.262/.329 over 161 plate appearances from the right side this year, with a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, compared to 1.8:1 as a lefty. It's a small enough sample to argue that it's just a rough patch that will pass, but Melky's always been a little better from the left side, and if this sort of pattern persists, the presence of a good starting right fielder could allow the White Sox the flexibility to use Thompson to occasionally spell Cabrera against left-handed pitchers.
In any event, Thompson appears to be a perfect complement to at least one current White Sox starter. Even if the Sox bring in an everyday right fielder, there's little fear that he'll get buried and used in a similar way as J.B. Shuck, who's only received playing time as an infrequent spot-starter, pinch-hitter, and "break glass in case of injury" guy. The White Sox can shoot for the stars to upgrade right field knowing that Thompson will still be able to contribute in a meaningful way.
3. Acquire a Left-Handed Hitting Platoon Outfielder
This is the option that might best help the White Sox optimize their roster given whatever budget constraints are in place. It's true that the top available outfielders look to be extremely enticing, but the Sox have plenty of other concerns to address. They're completely lacking even a credible platoon option at third base, let alone a full-time starter. Carlos Sanchez has limited upside at second, Alexei Ramirez (or whatever stopgap replaces him) will have a non-negligible price tag, and Jeff Samardzija's likely departure will punch a 200-inning-shaped hole in the starting rotation. A big resource expenditure in right field might limit what's available to address the rest of that shopping list.
Fortunately, similar to the thick crop of available everyday starters, there's plenty of free agents that could serve as quality platoon partners for Thompson. Here's some options, with their career and 2015 OPS against right-handed pitching in parentheses.
- Kelly Johnson (Career: .754; 2015: .785)
- Gerardo Parra (Career: .769; 2015: .830)
- Colby Rasmus (Career: .782; 2015: .738)
- Denard Span (Career: .760; 2015: .880)
- Alejandro De Aza (Career: .754; 2015: .786)
I'll pause here to allow you to express a healthy amount of internal rage at my suggestion of that last guy.
Okay. We good? Let's move on.
These names aren't all that sexy, and each one presents their own unique problems. However, they're all going to be available at a far more reasonable price than the top dogs. What if settling for one of these guys meant freeing up the ability to bring in a more expensive infielder or pitcher? Thompson essentially gives the White Sox the ability to pursue that course of action while reasonably expecting at minimum average-ish production from right field.
This is of course not an exhaustive list of strategies and I haven't even included potential right field trade targets due to questionable availability of individual players. Heck, it's even possible that the White Sox package Thompson in such a trade. No matter which path the White Sox choose, though, Thompson eases the burden of trying to find a way to put a competitive team on the field in 2016. He's been a pleasant surprise in a season filled with the opposite, and that context might lead us to exaggerate his importance. However, all signs point to Thompson being an asset as at least a quality role player on a team starved for those. He'll be appreciated even when his rate stats stop looking like Bryce Harper's.