As the calendar approaches 2017, multiple positions on the White Sox remain uncomfortably undecided.
No, I mean, even for a rebuilding season.
Regardless of whether the White Sox have designs on contending, they still have a vested interest in presenting a somewhat cohesive 25-man roster for Opening Day, even if it’s not exactly designed for winning games. The bigger priority is maintaining a sense of order throughout the minor-league depth chart while sustaining some resemblance of a meritocracy at the top.
Let’s use third base as an example. Last year, the White Sox couldn’t pretend to contend if they presented Brett Lawrie and Matt Davidson as Plans A and B, so they acquired Todd Frazier.
Frazier’s still around for one more year, but should the Sox find a taker for him, Lawrie and Davidson are plenty good for the times. Lawrie is a credible MLB player, even if he’s average at best. Davidson is still trying to stick, but he deserves at least one good look with the White Sox. Both players can be rotated — with Tyler Saladino interspersed — until a working solution is found, and it won’t necessitate reaching into the high minors for a legit prospect before the situation demands it.
Those are the standards toward which the Sox should
strive reach aim point drift. In a few places, the Sox still have some work to achieve this most modest of goals.
On a sturdy depth chart, Omar Narvaez would get more time to shore up his game in Triple-A, since he only accrued 54 games of experience above A-ball before the Sox’ catcher emergency called. He posted a .350 OBP in 34 games at Chicago and looked more capable than Dioner Navarro on both sides of the ball, but his receiving isn’t (yet?) an asset, and the quality of contact says he shouldn’t expect the same amount of good fortune at the plate.
On a rebuilding depth chart, I can see starting the year with Narvaez as a well-exercised backup. It’s a hedge against a collapse, but there’s no obstruction in the event that he’s better off finishing his development with a second-division club. Right now, though, he’s the unchallenged starter, with Kevan Smith hanging out as the second option, which is suboptimal.
The Sox have done a decent job of improving the situation underneath them, bulking up their high-minors depth by picking Alfredo Gonzalez and Roberto Pena out of Houston’s system over the last half-year. They’re both talented defenders and 24 years old, which gives them the kind of late-bloomer base upon which Narvaez capitalized last season.
There’s reason to stay flexible, so it might not make sense to commit beyond a year to a catcher. But as young pitchers like Carson Fulmer, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez get their first legit shots at establishing themselves in the majors, it’d be great to have a catcher who wouldn’t make their jobs more difficult, even if he can’t hit a lick. Caleb Joseph, he of the zero RBIs over 141 plate appearances in 2016, is this kind of catcher distilled to perfection.
If the White Sox can’t find a suitable match for Jose Quintana, then you can scratch this one off the list. Carlos Rodon, Miguel Gonzalez, Derek Holland and James Shields would then round out the rotation, and Joseph could tell you that ambitious teams have tried pinning their hopes on less.
Assuming Quintana is dealt, the situation becomes far dicier — less in terms of quality innings, and more in terms of health. Gonzalez and Holland aren’t sure bets to get out of spring training in one piece, and Shields pitched like he hid something in 2016. The key to a rebuilding roster is having enough fodder between the 25-man roster and the best prospects for proper incubation, and this situation flirts with chaos a little too much for comfort.
The White Sox did select Dylan Covey from the Athletics in the Rule 5 draft, and he needs to pitch somewhere in the majors in 2017 to stick around, even if he’s only thrown six whole unremarkable starts at Double-A. The Sox also re-signed Chris Volstad, who pitched 177 innings for Charlotte last season, to a minor-league deal. Neither one even quite meets the description of “AAAA starter,” though, so I imagine the Sox will continue to amass options. I wonder if Anthony Ranaudo is kicking himself for jumping to the KBO (although Hector Noesi finished second in its equivalent of Cy Young voting this year).
Assuming Charlie Tilson rebounds from his hamstring rolling up on him like a busted window shade, this is his turf. A second center fielder is difficult to identify, at least if you don’t consider Jacob May or Adam Engel worth a trial at this point. One seems necessary in case Tilson’s recovery is turbulent.
Leury Garcia has the best case among the incumbents. He’s strung together two strong seasons at Triple-A and wouldn’t benefit from more playing time there, even if nobody looks likely to benefit from seeing him in the majors. After him, they’re down to Rymer Liriano, who has 213 games of secondary-option experience in the minors, but didn’t play in 2016 due to a broken face and could use his own rehab grace period.
The Sox could use somebody on a one-year deal to keep things from getting out of hand during the first couple months. Austin Jackson fits this description, even if he hopes nobody notices that.
At least if you’re heavily concerned with the “hitter” part of the job title. That’s a reasonable default setting, but it might be irrelevant this year.
The Sox are loaded with guys who had success at Triple-A -- Liriano, Garcia, Davidson, Jason Coats, Carlos Sanchez — but might never replicate it at the MLB level. Waiting in the wings are Knights like May, Engel, Jake Peter and Nicky Delmonico, who could warrant their own evaluation periods halfway into the season. An extra spot in the lineup might be better used for resting veterans while giving these fringe players one more chance to make their case. I suppose this also applies to Avisail Garcia, who is somehow both a veteran and a fringe player.
The Sox could also use this flexibility to sign one of the devalued free-agent sluggers to a flippable contract, but the most exciting options would require surrendering the 11th pick, which seems counterproductive at this early stage. Maybe somebody like Michael Saunders makes more sense, but it’s more likely that this position will be an afterthought on purpose, if that’s even possible.