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Luke Smailes’ White Sox offseason plan

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A focus on pitching help, and strategic adjustments, to move the South Siders forward into the playoff window

Boston Red Sox v Chicago White Sox
Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox, watches as broadcaster Ken ‘The Hawk’ Harrelson was honored before the game against the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 2, 2018 at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

[Luke Smailes is a college baseball player and an analyst who joined our staff when we were writing on the White Sox at Sports Illustrated. He comes over with the group now to SSS, debuting with his highly-detailed offseason plan.]

After a successful 2020 season that signified the White Sox turning the corner into contention, a normal set of circumstances would likely have the team compounding the spending of last offseason and pushing the limits of Jerry Reinsdorf’s debt threshold. The team will still hold a lot of surplus value from currently-controlled players, a fact that usually gives mid- to large-market teams the ability to theoretically overspend on players in the free-agent market. However, this offseason’s circumstances are in no way ordinary. There are questions surrounding every phase of it.

Will we see more non-tendered players, who were set to earn raises through the arbitration process than usual? How will the free-agent market change? Will certain types of players be hurt financially more than others, or will the whole market be scaled down?

The Sox are in an interesting position because their rebuild plan is starting to culminate into to success in Chicago. However, will the COVID-19 pandemic (and the fact that the organization took in $0 in gate money in 2020) force a change? The salaries of Yoán Moncada, Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez, and the rest of the core of this team are only going to grow, so if the pandemic does significantly change what Rick Hahn and Co. had in the works for this offseason, we may never know how good this team could have been through this contention window.

With all of that being said, I present to you a plan that probably isn’t going to excite many just given the names, but in reality, it fills the holes that Hahn pointed out in his postseason presser without unrealistically breaking the bank. Even Hahn seemed somewhat unsure of what the markets would look like this winter, or what exactly the financial impact of the past seven months will be.

Manager

It’s Tony La Russa. I was hoping for Matt Quatraro (the current Rays bench coach) to at least get an interview, but ultimately the process never even got close to that.

Given last week’s announcement of the hiring, one that surely is not long-term, it may point to more spending this offseason than previously expected. While it’s a puzzling move to most, bringing in La Russa does absolutely signal one thing — Reinsdorf believes the 2021 team should be competing for a championship.

There is no more time to wait around.

Arbitration-eligible (with projected salaries from MLBTR)

The estimates below are MLBTR’s “method 3” for this year’s arbitration projections. Matt Swartz describes it as “for non-first-time eligibles, finds the raise they’d get in a 162 game season, then gives them 37% of that raise.”

This method makes the most sense given the economy and the abbreviated season that was played in 2020. Merely applying their model to a 60-game season or even extrapolating those statistics over a full 162-game season doesn’t seem like something that would fly in negotiations and hearings.

Swartz and the MLBTR folks deserve a lot of credit for their model that all of us use (and count on for pieces like this) every offseason.

  • Nomar Mazara, $5.7 million — Non-tender. Just a weird season overall. I talked about Mazara’s struggles at the season’s mid-point, as the adjustments he made under Frank Menechino’s watch effectively turned him into a slap-singles hitter. There wasn’t much in his 149 plate appearances to inspire a lot of confidence that we would have seen different results over the normal 400-500 opportunities. It was a good idea in theory, but it didn’t work out.
  • Yolmer Sánchez, $2 million — Non-tender, but bring back (see below).
  • Adam Engel, $1 million — Tender. From cracking the lineup against LHPs, to entering the game late giving you Gold Glove outfield defense or one of the game’s highest sprint speeds on the bases; Engel is a great guy to have on a winning team.
  • Carlos Rodón, $4.5 million — Non-tender. Even though his fastball and slider combo could probably carve out a nice career for Rodón out of the bullpen, he (and his agent Scott Boras) likely still see the southpaw as a starter every fifth day. However, his inability to stay healthy have prevented the Sox from understanding exactly what they have in him at this point in his career. At $4.5 million, this isn’t a gamble worth taking, especially when better back-end options like Dylan Cease, Dane Dunning, and Michael Kopech can still be had on pre-arb deals.
  • Lucas Giolito, $2.5 million — Extend! Four years, $48 million + club option for $17 million in 2025, $4 million buyout in 2026, $2 million signing bonus. This deal would buy Giolito out of his three arbitration seasons and two potential free agent seasons. It’s almost a carbon copy of the deal the Phillies signed Aaron Nola to prior to the 2019 season. Giolito would get a slightly higher AAV than what Nola, German Marquez, and Blake Snell got with similar extensions with their respective clubs. And from Giolito’s standpoint, he would still be able to enter free agency in 2027 at age 31.
  • Reynaldo López, $1.7 million — Tender. Given that it’s only Reynaldo’s first season of arbitration and also that he has one minor league option remaining, we can give him yet another opportunity to prove himself. Depending on how the spring goes for other Sox pitchers, he could open his 2021 campaign in the bullpen, or even in Charlotte.

To be an effective starter, López would need to make massive changes. His fastball command, particularly, is hard to do much with. If his stuff can play up in a bullpen role, the Sox can still salvage some value. The new pitching coach will have his hands full, but whoever it is gets a crack at fixing López.

  • Evan Marshall, $1.4 million — Tender. By pitching the way he did in 2020, Marshall backed up my early-August assertion that this has been a fantastic find by Hahn. Just like 2019, Marshall’s changeup was once again a Top 25 pitch in baseball in terms of my pitch quality metric, xRV.
  • Jace Fry, $800,000 — Tender. A solid (but sometimes volatile) reliever who’s only due for a small raise, as he’s just entering arbitration.

Impending Free Agents

  • Alex Colomé (2020 salary: $10,532,500) — Cut loose. Colomé, for the most part, did what he was acquired to do: Convert save opportunities. He was 42-for-45 over the past two seasons. He’s also been able to stave off some seemingly due negative regression, something that was of concern last offseason to some fans when considering whether or not he should be tendered a contract for his final season of team control. All in all, landing him for Omar Narváez was a great trade for Hahn.

In reality, some team desperate for a “traditional closer” is going to give Colomé a multi-year deal. The Cubs, Nationals and Red Sox very likely fit this bill. With the emergence of Codi Heuer, Matt Foster, and Garrett Crochet (among others) in the bullpen in 2020, the Sox don’t have to pay a premium for Colomé’s services and can allocate that money elsewhere. He’s probably the fourth- or fifth-best reliever who sees the open market this winter.

  • James McCann (2020 salary: $5.4 million) — Cut loose. As nice as it would be to bring back McCann for 2021 and beyond, it just doesn’t make sense for either side. McCann has earned the right to be someone’s primary catcher, and the Sox just handed their biggest free agent contract in team history to a top-five catcher in baseball, Yasmani Grandal. Given McCann’s leadership reputation and rapport with starting pitchers, he makes sense for not only teams looking to contend in the next two or three seasons, but also teams in transitional periods that would value McCann handling a young pitching staff. McCann put in the time to take himself from statistically the worst pitch framer in baseball in 2019 to ranking in the Top 10 this season and being named as a finalist for a Gold Glove award. That only adds to his value.

After browsing the catching situations across the league, I figure there are at least 10 teams that will be looking for a new catcher for 2021. This doesn’t even include teams like the Cubs (with Willson Contreras) or the Yankees (Gary Sánchez) that could be looking to go in a different direction with the position. After J.T. Realmuto, McCann is the best option available, and therefore will be paid handsomely this winter. Given the other White Sox needs, re-signing McCann is just not a realistic option.

My prediction is that he’s signed to be a New York Yankee for the next three seasons.

  • Jarrod Dyson (2020 salary: $2 million) — Bring back on a minor league deal (See below)

Team Contract Options

  • Edwin Encarnación (2021 salary: $12 million) — Decline. Another good move in theory last offseason, but the fact of the matter was Encarnación simply met Father Time, a fact I feared after watching him through the first week of this season. Even before this season, there was never a big chance that this option would be picked up.
  • Gio González (2021 salary: $7 million) — Decline, pay $500,000 buyout. González was not good in 2020, in whatever role he was placed in. He had significant control and command issues. By xRV, he had the worst arsenal of any pitcher in baseball who threw at least 400 total pitches. There have to be better options.
  • Leury García (2021 salary: $3.5 million) — Pick up. García is a solid bench piece who can competently switch-hit and provide depth in the infield and the outfield. He makes a lot of contact, which is a good trait coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter. This kind of player doesn’t grow on trees, so $3.5 million is suitable. He preformed well in this role in 2020 prior to his injuring his thumb.

The only way García’s option wouldn’t have been picked up is if the bench-hitter’s market is completely diluted this winter. Is Josh Harrison’s recent deal with the Nationals some evidence of that?

Free agents

With the decisions I made above, I estimate team commitments for 2021 at just over $104 million prior to free agency.

  • Sign RHP Kevin Gausman to a three-year, $55.5 million deal

The popular pick for the team’s largest expenditure is either Trevor Bauer or Marcus Stroman, but the White Sox could get better value by adding Gausman for the next three seasons. Depending on how the market shakes out, Stroman should command a five-year deal for upwards of $100 million. In other words, that would be more than Madison Bumgarner’s five-year, $85 million deal last offseason, but not quite as much as Zach Wheeler’s five-year, $118 million deal.

Giving Gausman essentially the same deal as Keuchel would give the Sox a very solid No. 3 starter. Gausman was masterful in 2020 utilizing mostly a two-pitch combo, a lot like Giolito. In Gausman’s case, it’s a fastball/splitter combo that is thrown with great deception. The splitter is his pitch that catches the eyes of fans, as it had a .123 xBA and a mere .150 xwOBA (the lowest of any changeup/splitter, min. 150 pitches) with a 46 Whiff% (third-best in 2020).

Gausman’s pitches and locations 91% of the time
Baseball Savant

Gausman kept his splitter low and out of the zone, only throwing it in the zone 28.6% of the time, the sixth-lowest of any changeup or splitter in 2020 (Keuchel had the lowest percentage, at 23.1%). However, xRV didn't like it as much as his fastball. Gausman’s four-seamer ranked as the league’s 21st-best pitch in 2020, while his splitter was ranked 896th. Gausman’s ability to spot his fastball at the top of the zone at 95 mph, and a 2312 rpm raw spin rate at 92.5% efficiency, helps his splitter play up even though the latter pitch lacks spectacular movement metrics. In addition to the 11 mph velocity differential, keeping his arm speed and release point consistent also helps their deceptive nature.

  • Sign LHP José Quintana to a two-year, $26 million deal

Quintana was not the same pitcher after the trade to the north side in the middle of 2017. Hahn was able to trade him at the peak of his value. Even with that being said, Quintana’s track record of durability still makes him very valuable. He was a 3.5 fWAR pitcher in his most recent full season (2019), while his 2020 season was derailed by a freak thumb injury in preseason, and then by a lat strain in early September (the latter of which could have been the result of trying to ramp up too quickly following thumb surgery, for a Cubs team that desperately needed him).

Quintana doesn’t necessarily do anything to “wow” you, other than routinely start 30 games each season, which is more of an accomplishment today than, say, even five to 10 years ago. He’s a command over “stuff” guy who keeps the ball in the ball park and doesn’t issue free passes. After watching Cease, González, López, and Rodón attempt to make up the back end of the 2020 rotation, sign me up for that.

Are there some concerns? Sure. His fastball velocity is a about a mile per hour slower than when the White Sox traded him, and its spin efficiency dropped as a member of the Cubs. In 2017, Quintana’s fastball got 18.4 inches of vertical movement, and in 2019 and 2020 combined, it was only 15.7 inches, which is teetering right on the “dead zone,” or the danger zone, especially at 90-91 mph. This means that Quintana’s command will likely be even more essential to his success than it was from 2013-17, when he was a consistent 3.5- to 5-WAR pitcher.

Bring us this smooth, left-handed delivery back to the South Side.

  • Sign OF Robbie Grossman to a two-year, $16 million deal

Grossman did not have a great 2019 season offensively. He posted an 88 wRC+ and a 0.8 fWAR in 138 games with Oakland, and was in the 74th percentile of Baseball Savant’s defensive metric, Outs Above Average. His preseason ZiPS projection had him at roughly 0.5 fWAR (assuming a full 162-game season). Instead, Grossman changed his offensive profile, was (albeit in a small sample) a better defensive outfielder (94th percentile in OAA), and put up 1.3 fWAR in only 51 games, on pace to be a 3.5-win player over a normal season.

At the plate, Grossman was much more aggressive in 2020. An O-Swing up 7% and a SwStr up 1.7%? That’s not good, but it was worth it. He had a 38 wRC+ improvement and a massive 134-point ISO improvement. He more than doubled his Barrel %, going from really bad to not as bad.

Grossman always has been a disciplined hitter who doesn’t strike out much. From 2017-19, Grossman had the 14th highest BB:K ratio among qualified hitters at .75. He recognized the need to hit for more power after a disappointing 2019 and made the necessary adjustments. When he arrived in Oakland, he was a much better right-handed hitter, only posting a 99 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers. Since then, he has improved as a lefty significantly. In 2020 alone, he posted a .370 wOBA and a 140 wRC+ against righties.

His ability to make these kinds of changes (that manifested into improvements) was also seen with his defense. In 2016, OAA had him as one of the league’s worst defensive outfielders (-13). By 2017, he was league average. In 2020, he was the 10th-best defensive outfielder in baseball.

It’s a desirable trait, indeed.

Here’s a cool look at some of those specific adjustments at the plate.

A final note on Grossman is that he should be due for at least some positive BABIP regression. In his 2,556 plate appearances from 2013-2019, Grossman had a .315 BABIP which is about 15 points higher than league average. In 192 plate appearances in 2020, he had a .267 BABIP.

This would be the same contract the Arizona Diamondbacks handed to Kole Calhoun last offseason after he posted a 108 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR season. Grossman, 31, will be a year younger than Calhoun was.

  • Sign C Sandy León to a one-year, $1 million deal

León is really nothing more than a solid pitch framer and a veteran presence. In 2019 and 2020, he was in the 80th percentile in Baseball Prospectus’ Catcher Defensive Adjustment metric. However, he doesn’t hit much better than a pitcher.

Even on this deal, it’s no guarantee that he has to make the team. If Zack Collins or Seby Zavala prove that they can be thrown behind the dish once a week or so, León can be cut loose.

  • Sign INF Yolmer Sánchez to a one-year, MiLB deal ($1 million if he makes the team)

Yolmer can switch-hit and provide above-average defense at second, short, and third base. As a bonus, he even made the most of his 21 plate appearances this year, posting a 213 wRC+. Danny Mendick looks like he may be a fine utility player, but given that he still has all three minor league options remaining, they might as well give him some competition.

Yolmer is beloved in the clubhouse and in Chicago. He may look to catch on elsewhere where the team’s infield situation is less secure, as he attempted to do this past spring with San Francisco.

[As it turns out, Yolmer was enticing enough to another team. The Orioles claimed him off of waivers on Friday, and Baltimore had the fourth-highest claim. The Rangers, Tigers, and Red Sox passed on him.

On Thursday, the White Sox announced the signing of Tim Beckham (uh, OK?) to a minor league contract. Beckham holds a career 96 wRC+, but strikes out a ton and is not known as a good defender. His strength is some pop, as he has a .182 ISO in 1,751 career plate appearances. He did not play in the majors in 2020. Mendick’s 2021 major league role looks a little more secure, for now.]

  • Sign OF Jarrod Dyson to a 1-year, MiLB deal ($1 million if he makes the team)

Dyson is a good baserunner and a good outfielder. An outfield of Adam Engel, Robert, and Dyson to end games should provide some positive value. Ricky Renteria did not end up using this combination as much as we thought he would. However, an addition of Grossman may make a player like Dyson less crucial. Still, it’s not a bad option to have him in camp if no one gives him a guaranteed deal.

Trades

  • OF Micker Adolfo and RHP Andrew Dalquist to the Pittsburgh Pirates for RHP Richard Rodriguez

With Pittsburgh in the thick of a rebuild, they could be looking to trade a good reliever in Rodriguez, who is entering his first year of arbitration in 2021. With an estimated salary of just $1.1 million, the Sox can cheaply fill the void left by letting Colomé walk.

Rodriguez’s fastball is average in terms of velocity, but it has a 2543 rpm raw spin rate that’s also 94% efficient (86th percentile spin efficiency). xRV loves the pitch, ranking it in the 92nd percentile among all pitches. He pairs it with a nasty slider that’s in the 92nd percentile of vertical movement. The two pitches play off each other extremely well. Similarly to Gausman, Rodriguez’s fastball profile helps his slider generate whiffs, a pitch that the xRV model wouldn’t expect to be effective otherwise.

The Pirates should be able to give Adolfo opportunities right away, as he’s out of minor league options. Dalquist, the team’s 2019 third round draft pick, would be a development project. FanGraphs gives Adolfo a 40+ Future Value and Dalquist a 40.

Summary

Lineup vs RHP

  1. Tim Anderson - SS
  2. Yasmani Grandal - C
  3. José Abreu - 1B
  4. Eloy Jiménez - LF
  5. Yoán Moncada - 3B
  6. Luis Robert - CF
  7. Robbie Grossman - RF
  8. Nick Madrigal - 2B
  9. Zack Collins - DH

I like Madrigal in the eight-hole directly behind Moncada, Robert and Grossman, setting up some hit-and-run opportunities. Collins’ potential on-base skill should work well in turning over the lineup.

Speaking of Collins ...

Zack Collins needs an extended opportunity before he’s written off. When he was recalled in September 2019, he put up a respectable 102 wRC+ as a rookie catcher in the season’s final month. He’s never going to be a great, maybe never even a good defensive catcher. Is he bad enough that he can’t even catch a little less than once a week? We’ll see.

He’s mashed at every minor league level since being drafted, most notably a .401 wOBA and a 140 wRC+ in Charlotte in 2019. However, the question remains if the severe swing-and-miss issues will completely overshadow his raw power and keen eye (actually “keen” is too modest of an adjective — It’s downright elite). If they don’t, he’s your classic three-true outcome hitter that could put up 30-homer, 100-walk seasons. If Andrew Vaughn is going to get called up in May or June anyway, Collins has earned this opportunity.

Lineup vs LHP

  1. Tim Anderson - SS
  2. Yasmani Grandal - C
  3. José Abreu - 1B
  4. Eloy Jiménez - DH
  5. Yoán Moncada - 3B
  6. Luis Robert - CF
  7. Robbie Grossman - RF
  8. Adam Engel - LF
  9. Nick Madrigal - 2B

Bench

  • Adam Engel OF
  • Leury García UTL
  • Two of: León C, Yolmer Sanchez INF Tim Beckham INF, Danny Mendick INF, Jarrod Dyson OF

Rotation

  1. Lucas Giolito (R)
  2. Dallas Keuchel (L)
  3. Kevin Gausman (R)
  4. José Quintana (L)
  5. Dane Dunning (R) / Dylan Cease (R)

Bullpen (screw the classic roles)

  • Aaron Bummer (L)
  • Codi Heuer (R)
  • Matt Foster (R)
  • Evan Marshall (R)
  • Jimmy Cordero (R)
  • Richard Rodriguez (R)
  • Jace Fry (L)
  • Reynaldo López (R) / Garrett Crochet (L)

Yes, relievers are volatile year-over-year, but especially with Crochet in a multi-inning role (something that Hahn alluded to), this could be a damn good bullpen. My hope is that the new manager and pitching coach steer away from having defined bullpen roles. The Rays have showed us that the optimal strategy is to play matchups and utilize the best options in the highest-leverage situations. The last three outs aren’t necessarily the most important in the context of the game.

My estimate has the team’s 2021 payroll at $145 million. If both Sanchez and Dyson made the team out of spring training, it would be bumped up to $147 million.

With a much better back-end of the rotation and improvements in right field and DH; this is a roster that could be the best team in the American League by the end of next September. All I can do is speculate on what the upper bound of the payroll will be. Is $145 million too much? That’s very possible, but with each deal signed, we should get a better idea about how the markets will play out.