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Corner infield bubble among White Sox’ offseason tasks

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Matt Davidson’s homers entertained during a rebuilding season, but now more is needed

Kansas City Royals v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jose Abreu’s shin injury has provided the remaining corner infielders one last chance to make their case for 2018 roles.

Yolmer Sanchez doesn’t need the run. He’s hitting .264/.317/.410 with strong defense at both second and third base, which gives him the value of an average regular. Perhaps he’s playing a little over his head, at least when it comes to his power, but the entire package gives us an idea of how he can survive the rebuild, and not just next season. There’s a very good bench player here, and he should get the playing time to see if there’s any further growth for a player who doesn’t turn 26 until late June.

When it comes to Tyler Saladino and Matt Davidson, not so much.

Saladino missed the last month and a half of the first half with a back injury, and he’s hit .173/.225/.211 since. The juiced ball hasn’t done him any favors, as he’s slugging .239 and on the verge of a homerless season. He’s the cautionary tale when assessing Sanchez, as he came out of nowhere to look like a terrific all-around bench guy, although Sanchez doesn’t have previous back problems that indicate a chronic issue could arise so easily.

Davidson doesn’t have to worry about his home run column. Normally you’d look at a guy with 26 homers and a .238 ISO and pencil him in for next season, but the rest of his performance could be characterized as “Severe Josh Fields.” With 19 walks to 162 strikeouts over 115 games, he’s the only player in baseball history with that kind of split going for him.

There are players in his neighborhood, including one in his clubhouse. The players with fewer than 20 walks and more than 150 strikeouts in a season?

  • Mike Zunino, 2014: 17 walks, 158 strikeouts over 131 games
  • Matt Davidson, 2017: 19 walks, 162 strikeouts over 115 games
  • Tim Anderson, 2017: 13 walks, 155 strikeouts over 141 games

That’s a fascinating and frustrating group. Anderson is a conversation for a different time, but he’s had two different stretches of being an above-average MLB shortstop despite the lack of plate discipline, and his strikeout rate has stabilized 11 points below Davidson’s.

Three years after that ugly season, Zunino has regained starting-catcher status despite a strikeout rate that is tenths of a point (37.2 percent) from challenging Davidson’s 37.5 percent K rate as the worst in the league. However, he’s hit .247/.328/.500 with decent catcher defense, which makes him an average-or-better regular as long as he can sustain that .354 BABIP.

Davidson has been stuck below replacement level because he doesn’t have a secondary skill to offset the power outage, which means the only way to average MLB regular status is more dingers. It might be possible since he keeps the ball off the ground better than any White Sox regular, but Todd Frazier’s 2016 shows, even a 40-homer season needs complementary skills to deliver a proper impact.

Daryl Van Schouwen talked to Davidson about his season, and Davidson laid out his case for believing in more to come:

  1. A fully healthy offseason after a broken foot limited his activity until Christmas.
  2. A better understanding about how pitchers attack him.
  3. Adjusting to DH work.

There isn’t much of a gap between his performance as a DH and as a third baseman, and he’s going to have to DH if he’s going to stick, so that argument doesn’t have a whole lot of heft. I’d probably sub in the wrist injury he suffered in August if I were building his defense. It doesn’t explain the strikeouts, but maybe other parts of his .168/.194/.337 line since his return.

None of these generate much confidence, but they’re something for the White Sox to consider as they weigh the 40-man roster bubble and glut of utility infielders. Davidson is probably in better position than Saladino, but if he follows the Fields track much farther, it won’t be much longer until the questions resolve themselves.