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Is this White Sox core too good to break up?

An assessment of how the White Sox core measures up against others around the major leagues

The centerpiece of an elite core, or the best trade chip from a group that can't win?
The centerpiece of an elite core, or the best trade chip from a group that can't win?
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Most arguments for the White Sox attempting to contend in the near-term are predicated on the strength of the team's core. After all, the White Sox have Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton, Carlos Rodon, Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu, and Nate Jones locked up for at least the next three seasons at prices below their worth. Nonetheless, some bad investments and the front office's poor track record for adding value via free agency and trades have some hoping for a sell-off, thinking that either the next core that can be built will be stronger, that building will be easier after some expensive contracts expire, that the organization's major league scouting will improve down the road, or some combination of the three.

The question is: just how special is this core? Is this situation rare enough that attempting to build a winner right now is an opportunity that can't be passed up? Or do we overrate the value of this current group?

I've been beginning to question this more and more in recent weeks. Cost-controlled talent isn't a thing that's unique to the White Sox. Most teams have at least a few inexpensive players producing significant surplus value. How does this White Sox core stack up?

I undertook a research project to answer this question. First, I extracted the 2016 WARP (from Baseball Prospectus) and salary for every player in baseball. Using a rough estimate of $7 million as the market price of a win in free agency, I calculated the "surplus value" of every player in baseball as follows:

  • Surplus value = 2016 WARP minus (2016 salary divided by $7 million)
  • For example, Chris Sale was worth 6.94 WARP and was paid $9.15 million. So his surplus value is 6.94 - ($9.15M / $7M) = 5.64 wins

I then separated the players into the 30 teams and sorted them from top-to-bottom by surplus value. Finally, I calculated the surplus value generated by each team's top "X" players.  I say "X", because I ran the calculations for every possible number for "X".  Thanks to the Atlanta Braves using 59 players this year, I had to stretch "X" all the way to 59 because often the bottom-ranked player is an expensive guy who sucks, so the last guy on each team's list has a significant negative effect rather than a minimal one.

To get a feel for how this exercise shook out, here's the "Top Ten" 2016 surplus wins list for the White Sox.

  • 1) Adam Eaton: 6.00
  • 2) Chris Sale: 5.64
  • 3) Jose Quintana: 3.72
  • 4) Carlos Rodon: 3.56
  • 5) Nate Jones: 1.80
  • 6) Tyler Saladino: 1.33
  • 7) Todd Frazier: 1.29
  • 8) Jose Abreu: 1.28
  • 9) Tim Anderson: 1.19
  • 10) Brett Lawrie: 0.76
Considering only each team's top four players, here's the top five teams in surplus wins:

  • 1) Cubs, 23.31 (Bryant, Rizzo, Hendricks, Russell)
  • 2) Dodgers, 20.30 (Seager, Grandal, Turner, Maeda)
  • 3) Rockies, 19.75 (Arenado, Blackmon, LeMahieu, Gray)
  • 4) Diamondbacks, 19.41 (Segura, Goldschmidt, Ray, Lamb)
  • 5) WHITE SOX, 18.92 (see above)
However, as you might gather by the large drop-off from Rodon to Jones, the Sox don't maintain that standing as you expand the number of players included. They fall to eighth if you use each team's top five players and gradually slide down all the way to 21st as we expand to include all of each team's players.

That sort of decline is not typical. Out of all major league teams, the White Sox experience the greatest drop-off in surplus value from their top 4-5 players to the rest of their roster. The only other teams that come close are the Dodgers (who are loaded and have a bunch of dead money at the back of their roster) and the Angels (look up Jered Weaver's salary and WARP).

Aside from numerical confirmation that the 2016 White Sox were the single most polarized stars-and-scrubs team in the majors, this doesn't tell us anything we don't know already. We know the best players on the White Sox are great. We know that most of the rest of the roster is either overpaid, crap, or overpaid crap. The question is, what do we do with this information?  Does this imply that the White Sox should buy or sell?

How this analysis argues for buying

With knowledge that the White Sox' four best major league assets from 2016 were among the best in the game, it's probably not reasonable to expect a rebuild to produce a better quartet than Sale, Quintana, Eaton, and Rodon. In the future, Tim Anderson can probably be considered as part of the lower end of that group, as he'll play a full season and FRAA is the bearish outlier on his glove work (he would have easily been fifth on the team in 2016 if we used fWAR or bWAR rather than WARP). With the most difficult part of building a contender already in place, the White Sox just need to work on the roster's more fixable issues.

Furthermore, only a handful of teams were hurt more from the bottom five contributors on their roster.  Austin Jackson, J.B. Shuck, James Shields, John Danks, and Dioner Navarro combined for -9.76 surplus wins. None of these players except Shields will still be in the picture and Shields will probably get cut before he does quite as much damage as he did this year.  Trimming the fat could theoretically move the White Sox from 21st in overall surplus value up to just outside the top ten.

How this analysis argues for selling

The White Sox' core is strong at the top, but it's not deep.

I'd imagine that even if the White Sox acquired no new players this offseason besides a couple replacement-level bench guys, "addition by subtraction" would give them higher surplus value in 2017 than they had this year. Still, the starting point is a 78 win team (and by third-order wins, 78 games is right around what they "deserved" to win in 2016) and there's probably only $30 million-ish at most in spending room, which only buys you about four projected wins on the open market. The risk in buying is that acquisitions, trimming the fat, potential roster over-performance (something of a foreign concept), and luck don't combine to give the White Sox the extra 12 or so wins that they need in 2017.

Though it'd be hard for the White Sox to ultimately wind up with five assets stronger than their current cornerstones, the hope is that a rebuild would strengthen the system to the point where they can produce more major league players for cheap. The added depth could reduce their reliance on their major league scouting and prevent disasters like J.B. Shuck playing out of position and putting up a .547 OPS while batting 241 times in a season. If the White Sox are really too strapped for cash to make up for all their scouting issues and current player development holes, maybe they should aim to build a broader base of homegrown players that requires fewer such holes to be filled from outside the organization.

Other interesting observations

Of course, part of the fun in setting this up was that I'd get a good look at surplus value patterns for other teams. Here's some interesting ones:

1) The Cubs rank first regardless of how many players are used in the analysis

Four different teams filter through the second spot as we expand the number of players from one to 59, so this is pretty astonishing. Kris Bryant starts the Cubs off in the lead and they never look back. The Cubs have a $177 million payroll with relatively little deadweight.

2) If the Cubs didn't exist, the Indians would be the best model for building from within

This is possibly a secondary argument for selling. The Indians are very good and very deep without any significant external major league acquisitions aside from Andrew Miller. They've actually been terrible in free agency in recent years but it hasn't mattered because the majority of their important players have been in an Indians uniform for their whole career. Now, consider that the second-biggest drag on their surplus value was the fact that they paid Michael Brantley $7.4 million to contribute basically nothing. Brantley finished third in the MVP voting two years ago; assuming even mediocre health, he's unlikely to register as a liability in 2017.

3) The Tigers need to blow it up

The White Sox are in a gray area with regards to where to go from here. If you want an example of a team that clearly needs to start over, look no further than Detroit. The Tigers consistently rank between 25th and 30th at every possible roster size.

I mentioned above that the five biggest drags on the White Sox were worth -9.76 surplus wins, but at least most of the responsible players will disappear now that the season is over. Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, and Mike Pelfrey produced -11.04 surplus wins in 2016. None of those problems go away in 2017, and they'll continue sucking up $83 million in payroll next year.

4) Keep an eye on the Colorado Rockies

The Rockies stay in the top 10 throughout the study and they finished seventh in overall surplus value despite their 75 win total. They have significant money coming off the books both now and after 2017, plus they have two more years of Charlie Blackmon and three more of Nolan Arenado. By third-order wins, they should have finished a few games closer to .500 than they did. Now, throw in the fact that their pre-arb players contributed about half of the team's net WARP and you have a situation ripe for making a push.

Or, they could trade Arenado and Blackmon and delay their window by a couple years. Either way, there looks to be a prolonged run of contention on the horizon in Colorado.

5) The Cardinals are the reverse of the White Sox

The more players we consider, the worse the White Sox look. For the Cardinals, the script is flipped. They rank 18th through the top four players, but finished fourth in surplus value among all teams. This is because while St. Louis employs some overpaid players, they lack really, really terrible ones. By WARP, their worst player was Jerome Williams at -0.37. The White Sox had nine guys at least that bad. If you sum up all the Cardinals with negative WARP, you get -1.36 wins, which is barely anything.  Doing the same calculation for the White Sox gets you -9.66 wins.

The Cardinals finished just one game out of the playoffs at 86 wins and it's arguable that their comparative lack of elite talent is what did them in. However, they do show that having the organizational depth to avoid using sub-replacement level players is one way to stay competitive through 162 games.

I pulled together and organized a lot of information to do this and I doubt the interesting conclusions or possible interpretations stop just at what I shared here. If there's anything additional you want to know about the analysis, please feel free to ask questions in the comments.