Brett Lawrie’s injury has a problem sitting still. That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise considering it’s a part of Lawrie himself, but two and a half months after a leg injury first sidelined the White Sox second baseman, the parties involved appear to be no closer to resolving the issue.
When Lawrie left the game on July 21, it was initially described as a hamstring tweak that might not require a stint on the disabled list. It did, of course, and it also halted rehab stints while roping in more and more parts of his body. Previous injury reports cited his quad, knee and calf as additional culprits, and now Robin Ventura introduced a new body part over the weekend:
"He had come in at one point and just said he was feeling a click behind his knee, and he just came over and said, 'I can't do this,' because he couldn't bend it and then he couldn't straighten it out," Ventura said. "Usually, that's just a meniscus or something getting underneath the kneecap or getting in the knee, that gets caught, and he couldn't straighten it or bend it. So, then he went out and it became more ... They tried to make sure it wasn't his hip, and we're still trying to figure that out."
All of this is to say that Lawrie probably won’t be playing again this year, which means it could be a career-ending injury ... for the White Sox portion of it, at least.
Up until the injury, Lawrie met expectations, more or less. He hit .248/.310/413 with 22 doubles, 12 homers and seven steals over 94 games, which would normally be pretty good for a second baseman (the position happens to be stacked this year). His defense drags down his overall value, but he still registered around 1 WAR through a little more than half a season. He and the White Sox achieved the goal of bringing adequate production to an infield spot that offered nothing in 2015, and for the reasonable cost of two fringy pitching prospects and $4.1 million in his second year of arbitration.
Unfortunately, he also met expectations when it came to his health. His five full seasons are hardly that when looking at his games column — 125, 107, 70, 149 and now 94.
We’ve seen other areas of the White Sox come unglued due to an injured starter. Austin Jackson’s injury led to overdoses of J.B. Shuck and Avisail Garcia. Jake Petricka’s injury caused Matt Albers to overheat.
Second base stands out as an exception, because after Lawrie hit the disabled list, Tyler Saladino established his presence.
Since taking over for Lawrie on July 22, Saladino has a .292/.321/.416 line with 10 doubles, three homers and seven stolen bases. That’s basically Lawrie’s production with a few differences along the edges — fewer walks, fewer strikeouts, more steals.
This gives a little too much weight to Saladino’s recent hot streak. Add in the 45 games before Lawrie’s injury, and Saladino’s everyday case gets diluted some (the .292 OBP against righties stands out). Yet when you bring defense into it, Saladino makes up that ground. Second base looks like his least natural position, but his actions have smoothed out some with reps, and the metrics reward him for it. Neither major advanced defensive system cared for Lawrie’s defense, but DRS (four runs) and UZR (2.7 runs) both label Saladino above average, even if only slightly.
On an ideal depth chart, Saladino enters the year as a bench infielder, providing an excellent stopgap starter option at multiple infield positions. The White Sox do not have an ideal depth chart. In fact, they had been so far from ideal that they had to go out and trade for a player of Lawrie’s limited upside, and even the modest expectation set represented a significant upgrade.
Saladino now saves the Sox that move. They can still seek out a bigger, better acquisition, but Saladino makes it harder to justify retaining Lawrie, one way or another.
The White Sox could maybe tender a contract to Lawrie with the idea of trading him, but his math doesn’t check out. After the 2014 season, Lawrie came off a career high in games with two years of team control remaining ... and the A’s could only get Zack Erwin and J.B. Wendelken in return.
One year later, he’ll be working on a one-year contract, he’ll be a million or two more expensive, and he’s coming off a mysterious lower-body injury that limited him to 94 games. Maybe the Sox could still send him somewhere for one A-ball pitching prospect, but based on the way frugality kneecapped their designs last winter, the Sox may not want to be so cavalier with these small-but-significant contracts. After all, we’re talking about the same amount of money the Sox gave to their biggest free agent acquisition last winter.
This assumes that the Sox are going to give contending one more shot in 2017. If that isn’t the case, then you can basically reach the same conclusion via a different path. Envisioning a scorched-earth rebuild, Lawrie’s salary won’t matter, but the opportunity cost does, whether the playing time is for Saladino or a newer, shinier prospect to be named later.