Landing a big fish is something that fans and observers have their sights on, and George Springer constitutes a move of that magnitude. The former Astro is the best outfielder on the market and the top position player available at an area of need for the White Sox.
With pitching painted as the biggest need on the South Side, however, it seems like one of Rick Hahn’s white whales of the past could be much more attainable.
With a cost-controlled young core comprised of cheap and ascending players on the offensive side, the White Sox should have one of the best offenses in the American League for the better part of the next decade. Their positional core is mostly locked in, and the front office doesn’t need to have the same urgency to shore up the offense that exists in regards to the pitching staff. Upgrades are preferred and even likely, though, and the decision-makers at 35th and Shields have numerous paths that they can take to improve one of the league’s best offenses and further sharpen iron with iron.
Right field and designated hitter are the areas of need, and lineup balance is being sought in an attempt to improve vs right-handed pitching. The Sox possessed the No. 1 offense in baseball last year after accumulating 13.8 fWAR and posting a 114 wRC+ as a team while clubbing 96 homers in 60 games. The team murdered southpaws to the tune of a .285/.364/.523 triple slash with a .378 wOBA and 143 wRC+.
While the club was elite vs. lefties, they weren’t as good against right-handed pitching. Coming in 11th in baseball overall vs righties, the White Sox posted a 106 wRC+ during the abbreviated campaign. The team hit .254/.315/.434 but posted a .180 ISO. The only left-handed hitters in the projected lineup as of now are switch-hitters Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal. Leury García and Zack Collins swing from the left side as well, and could factor into the club’s plans in 2021. The Edwin Encarnación and Nomar Mazara experiences didn’t work out as anticipated, and both are now former White Sox.
Pale Hose right fielders ranked 19th in baseball in 2020, slashing .246/.303/.348 with four homers and an 82 wRC+. The position has been a black hole for years, and it should be easy enough to upgrade — although the same thought was prevalent last year. The designated hitter spot was even worse: Slotting in 27th overall in the majors, White Sox DHs hit .140/.237/.333 with 10 home runs and an embarrassing 57 wRC+. This shouldn’t be that hard, but the organization has struggled to find hitting at designated hitter.
Adding an everyday designated hitter like Nelson Cruz would be exciting, and robbing a division rival would add an additional wrinkle. But shelling out significant cash for another hitter-only at this stage doesn’t seem to be in the plans for 2021. Andrew Vaughn was the No. 3 overall pick in 2019 and while he hasn’t played above A-ball to date, he was extremely impressive at the Schaumburg alternate site this summer and almost earned a big-league call in 2020.
As the top first base prospect in the sport, Vaughn factors heavily into the club’s plans in 2021. That doesn’t mean he will break north with the major league club at the conclusion of Spring Training, however; a short-term option to receive plate appearances as the DH early in the season seems likely to be added at some point.
Lineup balance is important, and the club could use two left-handed bats to fill the open roles. Right field is the easiest way to achieve this goal, and the market is flooded with potential upgrades. On Saturday, Josh Nelson of Sox Machine wrote about some of the left-handed options on the market.
Ex-Cub Kyle Schwarber and Eddie Rosario from the Twins are recent additions to the free-agent market after being non-tendered on December 2. Schwarber is the name that everyone wants to talk about, but he’s not really an option as a primary right fielder given he can barely play functional left field. The No. 4 overall pick out of Indiana back in 2014 really struggled in 2020, but posted a 2.6 fWAR with 38 bombs in 2019. The 27-year-old has clubbed 121 career homers and has posted a 123 wRC+ and .358 wOBA in his career against righties.
Schwarber could be a potential addition to play some DH on the South Side if he doesn’t want to break his lease, but he’ll likely have the opportunity for a more prominent role elsewhere.
Rosario is likewise a 27-year-old, and he too possesses defensive shortcomings. The former Twinkie posted a 110 wRC+ in 2020 and smashed 13 homers. He has 119 home runs in his career and has posted a 113 wRC+ vs righthanders. Neither player should be scoffed at as a fit for the White Sox — but they shouldn’t be asked to play right field, either.
Michael Brantley, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Robbie Grossman are some other options that could become familiar to the fellas in Section 108. Brantley is 33, and can really handle the bat. He’s a poor defender, but would be a perfect compliment to the White Sox lineup. He’s a contact hitter who gets on base and doesn’t strike out often. His Statcast data paints an ominous picture, though, and he shouldn’t be putting on a glove at this stage of his career. Brantley hit .307/.365/.470 in 2020 and has posted a 127 career wRC+ vs RHP.
Bradley Jr. is a free agent for the first time after spending his career in Boston. He’s known as a tremendous defender in center field, but his tantalizing offensive profile has yielded puzzling results. The 30-year-old posted a 1.4 fWAR in 2020 but hasn’t managed even league average production (97 wRC+) vs righthanders in his career. Bradley does have 98 career homers and would be a Gold Glove level defender in right, but will probably get the opportunity to stay in center for someone.
If Grossman leaves in free agency, he’ll be playing with his fifth different organization since being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates all the way back in 2008. With just 50 career homers, the 31-year-old has been a definite late bloomer. Switch-hitters take awhile to develop at the dish, and true to form Robbie broke out for Oakland last year. He posted a 126 wRC+ and compiled a 1.3 fWAR in the shortened season, hurting righty pitching with a 140 wRC+.
All of these players could help the White Sox and improve on the squad’s 82 wRC+ from 2020. None of them fits perfectly, though. Even Springer, while being the superior performer and largest fish on the free agent market, leaves the lineup with potential deficits versus tough righthanders. If the glass ceiling of $100 million contracts isn’t broken by the White Sox this offseason, there’s another free agent option that suits the organization’s needs in a big way.
Joc Pederson has been a bit of a white whale for Hahn. Maybe he’s more of a beluga whale in this case, but he’s been a future White Sox for what seems like three straight offseasons now. Pederson would be a solid addition and a great way to balance the 2021 lineup. Joc is also a solid right field defender who could play other outfield spots if necessary.
The lefty slugger turned down a scholarship to USC in 2010 and instead signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $600,000 after being selected in the 11th round. Pederson mashed as a professional almost immediately and became a top prospect after posting an OPS of 1.429 for Palo Alto High School in California.
The 28-year-old is the essence of a platoon player in the big leagues, but smart organizations have successfully turned platoons into thriving big-league production. The 6´1´´, 220-pounder bats and throws with his left hand, but he shouldn’t face southpaws any longer if used properly. Luckily for the White Sox, Adam Engel has turned into a bit of a lefty killer and has really carved out a spot for himself in the majors.
In 2020, Pederson struggled in 43 games with the world champion Dodgers. He hit just .190/.285/.397, with an 88 wRC+ and seven homers. With a preponderance of in-game video becoming a norm in the outfielder’s career, having it taken away could have played a detrimental role in his small-sample struggles as well. Playoff heroics have been common for Pederson and he did bounce back in 2020 to provide a spark down that avenue.
Pederson combine s a very low batting average of balls in play (BABIP) with a high walk rate (career 12%) and increasing strikeout rates (career 24%). In 2019, Joc posted a 3.0 fWAR with a 127 wRC+ after hitting 36 homers in 149 games. He was actually better against lefties in the abbreviated 2020 campaign — providing a 112 wRC+ that was quite unordinary.
But Pederson’s numbers don’t do him enough justice. He’s a prodigious slugger and has compiled 121 career homers, but context is definitely important. The former Israeli National Team member destroys right-handed pitching, and that’s the job he should be paid to accomplish going forward. He doesn’t need to be exposed by playing against southpaws. It’s the proper way to extract as much value from the player as possible.
In his career vs righthanders, Pederson has slashed .238/.349/.501 in 683 games. The .849 OPS is stellar, to go along with a .360 wOBA and 128 wRC+. In recent years, the outfielder has done his job for the perennially-contending Dodgers. In 2018, the lefty slugger hit .260/.338/.556 vs righties with 24 homers. Those slash numbers produced an .893 OPS with a 139 wRC+ to go along with a .374 wOBA and staggering .295 ISO.
The numbers against righties were even better the following season. In 2019, Joc posted a .920 OPS with a 137 wRC+, .377 wOBA and .319 ISO after hitting .252/.349/.571. The energetic and fun-loving character also has also provided plenty of playoff success throughout his career. Pederson has hit .382/.432/.559 with nine post-season homers during his career in Los Angeles. It’s a small sample, but he gets it done on the big stage year after year.
Hahn is familiar with Springer’s agency and has likely spoken to his representation quite a bit this offseason (the same agency also represents Brantley and Pederson). Landing a big fish like Springer would add icing to the cake for the offense on the South Side, but upgrades can be found elsewhere if long-term dollars are being prioritized for pitching .
Pederson could finally no longer be just a “future” White Sox in this scenario — and the fit makes as much sense as it ever has.