The Chicago White Sox will continue to turn back the clock and wear the “1983’s” for Sunday home games in 2021. The manager of that team, Tony La Russa, was chosen to return as manager of the club, and for as much consternation as there’s been over the managerial search that wasn’t, that hire won’t be the action that moves the meter most this offseason.
The Pale Hose finished the abbreviated 2020 season with a 35-25 record, and appear to be trending upward in the American League. The front office has assembled the most dynamic, cost-controlled young core in the league, and reinforcements are expected this winter. Buster Olney of ESPN, Jon Heyman of MLB Network, Joel Sherman of the New York Post and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic are among the chorus of insiders predicting that Jerry Reinsdorf will open his wallet this offseason.
Industry consensus seems to be that the 84-year-old chairman wouldn’t squash the managerial plans of his chosen front office unless he was willing to shell out the cash to put his buddy, La Russa, in the best position possible to win a lot of baseball games. Skepticism reigns in opposition to Reinsdorf’s ownership, as he’s rarely done what’s needed to finish the job. Fans and observers taking a wait-and-see approach toward Reinsdorf turning into a free spender shouldn’t surprise, with over 40 years of ownership practices as evidence.
The offense wasn’t an issue on the South Side last year and with the return of a stellar core, scoring runs won’t be a primary issue going forward. Run prevention remains at the forefront, and upgrades to the starting rotation will be the focus of the club’s plans. Pitching is aplenty, though, and with the market flooded in response to a worldwide pandemic, targeting the offseason’s biggest outfield fix could be the way to go initially.
Strengthening a strength
George Springer was the 11th overall pick out in the 2011 draft, as the Houston Astros made him the highest-selected player ever out of the University of Connecticut. Springer moved quickly through the minor leagues, and made his major league debut in 2014.
The 31-year-old is the best player available on the free agent market according to Keith Law of The Athletic due to his power, on-base ability and defensive prowess. The 6´3´´, 215-pounder is a three-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger award recipient. Springer has played center field on a regular basis, and should be even better in right field going forward. He’s annually among the league leaders in exit velocity and barrels per plate appearance.
Springer is expected to land a contract that will pay him in excess of $20 million per season. His signing will likely be met with some consternation due to the sign-stealing scandal in Houston, but his best season occurred after those allegations came to light. The outfielder has compiled 26.6 fWAR in seven big league seasons.
In 51 games in 2020, the right-handed slugger produced a .265/.359/.540 line with 14 home runs, a 146 wRC+ and 1.9 fWAR. The righty also put up huge numbers in 2019. During his 6.5 fWAR campaign, the outfielder hit .292/.383/.591 with a .400 wOBA and 156 wRC+.
Implications for the White Sox
Adding another right-handed hitter to a predominantly righty-heavy lineup isn’t the most ideal path forward — but it could be the most realistic. Nomar Mazara was brought in to be the answer in an outfield corner, but the 25-year-old is staring right at a non-tender in early December. The former top prospect didn’t pan out, and a swing and approach overhaul didn’t take under hitting coach Frank Menechino. Mazara posted a 68 wRC+ with a triple slash of .228/.295/.294 in what will likely be his lone season with the White Sox.
Adam Engel is best utilized as a fourth outfielder and platoon option who possesses stellar defensive qualities. The 28-year-old posted a 122 wRC+ and continued his assault on lefthanders in 2020.
The outfield depth was once perceived to be a strength in the farm system, but Luis González, Blake Rutherford and Micker Adolfo aren’t expected to help a pennant-chasing club in 2021. Cubans Oscar Colas and Yoelqui Cespedes are firmly on the club’s radar in the international market, but neither player would be counted on to hold down the fort in right field right away.
Handedness is important, but the organization can’t become a slave to it by settling for a player perceived as a better fit than the actual best player attainable. Michael Bradley, Joc Pederson, Robbie Grossman or Jackie Bradley Jr. could be potential fits in a platoon scenario, and all would serve as upgrades for the club. Those options shouldn’t be considered as Plan A, however. Left-handed power is important, but hitting tough righties is the real issue. This past year, Springer posted a 155 wRC+ vs RHP and a 118 wRC+ vs LHP. In 2019, the outfielder improved those totals to 161 and 144, respectively.
The White Sox were expected to carry a payroll in the $130 million range for the 2020 season. Rick Hahn and staff made a concerted effort to jump the market in free agency and execute deals in response to their passive handling of the Manny Machado discussions the previous offseason. Thus Hahn hijacked the market a year ago by inking Yasmani Grandal to a four-year deal for $73 million in mid-November.
Before also agreeing to winter pacts with Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnación and Steve Cishek, the market jumping continued. Righty Zack Wheeler was a prime target of the White Sox, although the pitcher chose to play in Philadelphia despite overtures from the Sox. It was reported at the time that the club made the best offer, and South Side Sox can confirm that the front office was under the impression that its $125 million offer would be the winning bid.
The 2021 payroll currently resides at less than $100 million and while nobody knows just how much money the franchise is willing to spend this winter, the American League Central is ripe for the taking and the White Sox have holes to fill. Pitching needs are aplenty, but if things are equal nabbing the best outfielder on the market makes the most sense. There will be steep competition for Springer, but the White Sox socked away money for years to capitalize on moments like this.
Springer would join one of the best teams in the AL and would be able to play right field primarily as his prime winds down. In order to sign the outfielder, the White Sox would have to win the bidding, forfeit a second round draft pick in 2021, and surrender $500,000 in international bonus pool space for 2022. Those are minute details and collateral damage when championships are the goal, though.
Trevor Bauer is the biggest fish available on the free agent pitching market, and the White Sox could choose to explore those waters. Splurging on one of the best position players in the sport while targeting lesser pitching reinforcements is the better play, though.
Can the White Sox repeat their modus operandi of last year and land a big fish? It all depends on how badly Jerry Reinsdorf truly wants to win another title.