Nick Madrigal has been a more important part of this White Sox team than I ever expected.
Admittedly, I have not been as high on him as others. In my eyes, his ceiling came out to be a unicorn of a hitter stylistically, but someone who ends up near-league average when you boil it down to overall production, due to his lack of power.
However, with his recent play, Madrigal absolutely has been proving me wrong. The cratering offensive landscape in the MLB has had less of an effect on Madrigal because
A. The deadened balls don’t matter as much to him as others, because power isn’t a major part of his game anyway
B. Pitchers getting nastier through natural or unnatural methods has less effect on him because he rarely strikes out
On top of this, Madrigal has recently started to figure out which pitches he can drive and has begun to take advantage of that, sacrificing a bit of contact in the process — a small price to pay for someone with his otherworldly bat-to-ball skills. Over the last month, Madrigal had been slashing .318/.368/.489.
However, that might not matter anymore, as Madrigal’s hamstring tear may end his season and serves as another major body blow to an already severely depleted White Sox offense. The White Sox need to look to make a move on the trade market for a long-term solution.
There is no replacing Madrigal’s unique skill set, but let’s take a look at the internal options for replacing Madrigal in the short term.
Leury García/Danny Mendick
The safest option would be to stick with the status quo and simply let Leury García and Danny Mendick battle it out for playing time. Although García is a switch-hitter and Mendick bats solely from the right side, García is better from the right side and Mendick’s pitcher handedness splits are relatively even.
Mendick brings more thump and better defense, while García brings more speed. Both have performed about 20-30% below league average offensively throughout their careers. When people talk about Wins Above Replacement, these guys ARE basically the “replacement.” In my book, both are AAAA guys — too good for the minor leagues, able to contribute as role players, but not close to good enough for the everyday role they would be thrust into.
Tim Beckham/Marco Hernández
Down on the farm, Tim Beckham and Marco Hernández are the options, both with MLB experience at second base. Beckham, a former No. 1 overall pick, has not lived up to expectations throughout his five years in the bigs, showing some streaky pop but struggling to make consistent contact. Overall, he has been slightly below league average offensively, to go along with brutal defense (-34 career DRS). This year, at Triple-A Charlotte, Beckham is only managing a .635 OPS so far in a hitter’s league.
Hernández, on the other hand, has a .793 OPS on the back of a .333 batting average at Charlotte. He has struggled over the course of three years in the bigs, to the tune of a 67 WRC+, and almost never walks. Maybe he has turned a corner after a year off due to COVID, but betting on catching lightning in a bottle with either Beckham or Hernández is not a risk a contender should be banking on.
Here is minor league expert and South Side Sox contributor Daniel Victor’s input on the situation:
Mendick is the best defender, Beckham has the most pop, Marco the best bat-to ball. IMO— Daniel Victor (@slydanno70) June 10, 2021
As outlined, the more traditional, safe options are less than inspiring. Here is where things get more interesting. Jake Burger, after three full seasons off due to injury, has returned to provide immediate pop to the Charlotte Knights lineup, hitting .276 with six home runs. He has actually performed so well that his name has come up as a potential Madrigal replacement, either at second base himself, or pushing Yoán Moncada back to second base.
This would be a bad idea, for a few reasons. One, this isn’t the time for someone with no MLB experience to try and get his sea legs. Burger only has 100 ABs under his belt after a three-year hiatus from baseball. There is no guarantee that he will be better offensively than the underwhelming options already outlined. Add to this the possibility of either Burger learning a completely new position (when he was iffy already for sticking at third base, let alone second, due to mobility concerns) or moving a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman off of his position. The risk outweighs the reward.
That brings us to Jake Lamb. Not only is he a left-handed bat to help bring balance to the Sox lineup vs. right-handed pitching, but he also has shown the most promise both this year and throughout his career. Based on WRC+, Lamb was around 10-15% more productive than league average offensively with the Diamondbacks in 2016-17. Despite this, he has struggled for large parts of the past three seasons, and entering this year seemed to be #WASHED. Many were scratching their heads when the White Sox picked him up off the scrap heap a few days prior to Opening Day.
However, digging a bit deeper into the numbers, Lamb’s demise may have been a bit premature. Based on xwOBA, Lamb was probably not quite as good as his results in 2016-17, but also definitely not as bad as his results in 2019-20. Save for a down 2018, Lamb’s xwOBA has actually stayed relatively consistent over the past five seasons.
Add this to his outstanding 2021 results after eliminating his leg kick, and it is safe to say Lamb is easily the best and most proven in-house option offensively, especially if deployed only against RHP (career .805 OPS, 109 WRC+).
Now, what to do about the defense? Lamb has never played an MLB inning at second base. His natural position is third base. Personally, I think it is worth the defensive downgrade for the offensive upside Lamb brings to the table over the other options. It is doubtful that he would be able to pick up second base on the fly, but that route could be explored first.
Ultimately, inserting it would likely shift Moncada back to the position he came up playing, second base. I took a lot of heat on Twitter for throwing this idea out there, as people are VERY protective of Moncada and don’t want to do anything to disturb the roll he is on both offensively and defensively. Moncada is a professional baseball player, though. He has played second base his entire career prior to 2019, so he is familiar with the footwork required of the position. He was below average there for his first two years in the league, but many are acting like the major strides he has taken on the defensive side of the ball ONLY apply to third base. Yes, Moncada is better at third than he is at second, but the Sox could expect better from him at second base in 2021 than they got from him in 2018.
Additionally, with more shifting and less balls in play in general, baseball is becoming more and more positionless. Until Rick Hahn provides a reinforcement, which is vital, desperate times call for desperate measures. Is it a perfect solution? Not by any means. Is it radical? Yes. However, it is the best of the available options.
My typical lineup would see Moncada at second and Lamb at third vs RHP, letting Moncada head back to his spot at third base against LHP and starting one of Mendick or García at second base.
Sound off on why that is a terrible idea in the comments below — but try not to sound like Moncada’s helicopter parent, please.