The White Sox have holes to fill prior to Friday’s trade deadline.
Second base has been an obvious need since Nick Madrigal’s hamstring injury ended his season, but acquiring at least one relief pitcher should be viewed as the more pressing need. This is certainly surprising given this group’s pre-season outlook. I would have never thought that a reliever would be need No. 1, but here we are.
Matt Foster was expected to regress, and has he ever. He’s given up twice as many hits and four times as many homers compared to last season. His fastball (still possessing elite vertical movement) and changeup combo that drove his 2020 success hasn’t been the same, with both pitches ending up over the middle of the plate far too often. The latter’s xwOBA has gone from .312 last year to .412 this season.
Codi Heuer was also due for some regression (.193 BABIP in 2020), even with stuff that was downright exciting last year. All of the middle-middle sinkers that Heuer has thrown this year were not middle-middle last season. His sinker velocity and spin are both down while correspondingly its whiff rate is down 10%. The pitch’s batting average has soared from .196 to .423. Even with Heuer’s 5.26 ERA, he shouldn’t be demoted like Foster – Heuer’s .372 xFIP is still in the 62nd percentile, only up 12 points from 2020. He’s due for some positive BABIP luck, too.
José Ruiz has been fine in mop up duty but has struggled in the brief opportunities that FanGraphs qualifies as medium- or high-leverage. His 97 mph fastball is a solid weapon mostly because of that velocity, but Ruiz doesn’t have another pitch that hitters really have to worry about. His 2.89 ERA isn’t exactly what it looks like.
Evan Marshall is currently out with a forearm injury, with no timetable for his return. His changeup is still nasty, but he’s gotten unlucky with its results (.341 BA, .210 xBA) and overall (5.60 ERA, .3.37 xERA). If he’s healthy, and with forearms that could be a big “if,” Marshall should still be in the mix come playoff time.
Aaron Bummer and Garrett Crochet both have been extremely effective at times, and at others their fastball control completely eludes them. Both have Fastball/Slider combos that are lethal at their best, but consistently getting in put-away positions has been the problem. Thus, the current best options in front of Liam Hendriks in the White Sox bullpen can’t be confidently thrown out there by Tony La Russa on a game-to-game basis.
Because of this, we’ve seen Ryan Burr inserted into some high-leverage set up situations that he really doesn’t have the stuff for. To his credit, Burr earned some of these opportunities after giving up only two hits through his first 14 innings this year. It seems as though La Russa has liked Burr’s ability to command his fastball when some of the other aforementioned bullpen options have been unable to do so. He can certainly be a front-end option in a postseason bullpen, but Burr can’t be the eighth-inning guy.
The story told here is that after their dominant closer, the White Sox bullpen has a lot of uncertainty. Even with this, they still have the fourth-highest fWAR among major league bullpens this season. Two stable veteran additions to go along with Hendriks, Kopech, Bummer, Crochet, Heuer, and Burr/Marshall would be fantastic, and getting at least one veteran needs to be viewed as a must.
The reality for Rick Hahn at this year’s trade deadline is that the prospect capital he has to trade from is not strong. The system was viewed as extremely top-heavy prior to this season with Andrew Vaughn, Michael Kopech, Nick Madrigal and Garrett Crochet leading the pack. All four have since graduated from prospect-dom and have become pivotal parts in a White Sox first-place campaign.
Vaughn and Kopech are practically untouchable. Kopech is a key cog in the projected future starting rotation while also being the best current option in front of Hendriks in the bullpen. Madrigal still projects as the club’s long-term second baseman, and Crochet, whose long-term outlook is a matter of debate among evaluators, has been the Sox’s second-most valuable reliever by fWAR this season.
That said, there should still be enough within this farm system to make some “smaller,” yet impactful, deals in this 2021 season, a season that could end up being the White Sox best shot at winning a championship this decade. As much as a couple of these options make sense (especially if the team is truly “going for it” this year), it’s not going to be Joey Gallo, Marcus Semien, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez or Trevor Story, (although Story isn’t totally out of the question) but filling these holes while subsequently getting Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert and Yasmani Grandal back from injury should put the Sox in as good a position to win the AL pennant as any team.
Acting in my order of priority, my first move would be to call Jed Hoyer on the North Side and get one of their slew of solid relievers that should be available.
White Sox get: RHP Ryan Tepera
Cubs get: RHP Andrew Dalquist + INF Yolbert Sánchez
The Cubs have up to six relievers who teams could value leading up to Friday afternoon. Kimbrel, Chafin (heading to Oakland) and Tepera, all among the Top 30 in baseball in reliever fWAR, are the top dogs; Tepera makes the most sense for the Sox as I mentioned on last week’s Dugout Metrics podcast.
For a White Sox bullpen that could use some strike-throwing assuredness in the back end of their bullpen beyond Hendriks, Tepera is a great fit. Command is his calling card. If you take a look at the pitch locations on his Baseball Savant page, Tepera lives on the corners. His 43.6 Edge % is in the 71st percentile and his 66.5 first pitch strike % is in the 84th percentile. With less than flashy stuff, this has allowed Tepera to have the 18th -lowest xwOBA in baseball, elite chase and whiff rates in the 88th and 92nd percentiles, respectively, and finally a 1.0 fWAR that’s the 22nd -highest among relievers this season. Tepera is running an extremely low .202 BABIP, so xFIP likes about a half-run ERA regression to 3.56 even with him suppressing hard contact in the 80th percentile.
My xRV model run on last year’s pitches wasn’t in love with Tepera overall, likely due to his unassuming “stuff” metrics. Without major changes to Tepera’s stuff or evident changes to Tepera’s deception qualities that already weren’t factoring much into his success, Tepera, who had a nice season last year, has taken the next step because of command strides. On the surface, this is seen in Tepera almost cutting his walk rate in half.
OK, so he’s commanding his arsenal better, but what specifically has led to his success? Last year’s cutter has quite clearly been re-branded as this year’s slider, and he’s throwing not just more strikes, but well-located strikes.
This year, the pitch has a .119 BA (.142 xBA), .196 wOBA (.240 xwOBA) with a 50.3% Whiff (97th percentile) and a 39.3% CSW (91st percentile). Again, this is all with the pitch having below-average vertical break and just average horizontal break. The pitch is nasty is an unusual way.
Tepera is the kind of pitcher that La Russa can confidently go to if Bummer and/or Crochet are going through more control woes at any point down the stretch. Tepera, a two-and-a-half-month rental owed less than $500,000 for the rest of this season, shouldn’t cost too much in terms of prospect capital. Taylor Rogers, Raisel Iglesias, Daniel Hudson, Richard Rodriguez and Tepera’s teammate Craig Kimbrel are all likely viewed as more supreme potential bullpen acquisitions for contenders. It’s why it would behoove Hahn and Co. to target Tepera at the top of that second-tier bullpen group sooner rather than later this week, with those other guys as the more frequent topics of conversation.
The Cubs would be getting a raw but projectable recent second round pick in Dalquist who has yet to excel as professional, but he could be added to a crop of young pitchers in their system. In FanGraphs’ preseason White Sox prospect rankings that had Dalquist tabbed as their 11th -best prospect, Eric Longenhagen notes him as having four-pitch potential and projects him towards the back of the rotation. The Cubs are pushing to develop some young, controllable pitchers of their own – something they’ve struggled to do in recent years.
In this scenario, they would also get infielder Yolbert Sánchez who hit .286/.340/.387 with a .327 wOBA and a 102 wRC+ at Winston-Salem before being promoted to Birmingham earlier this season. Since the promotion, Sánchez has a 216 wRC+ in just 23 PAs. He’s viewed as a glove-over-bat guy who likely projects as a utility player.
I originally had Luis González as the second piece heading to the Cubs in this deal, but given that Greg Deichmann (a Triple-A outfielder from Oakland who has a profile similar to González’s, just much better numbers this season) is the centerpiece for the Andrew Chafin deal, another major league-ready, left-handed outfielder is probably no longer on the Cubs target list.
White Sox get: INF Eduardo Escobar
Diamondbacks get: 1B/OF Gavin Sheets
At second base, Leury García and Danny Mendick aren’t going to cut it. The two had wRC+s of 90 and 68 heading into Tuesday’s contest and both have -3 Defensive Runs Saved as second basemen in 2021. The former is better suited as depth in both the infield and outfield, while the latter could use some regular at-bats in Charlotte.
With Adam Frazier being dealt to San Diego on Monday, a big name that was reportedly being considered by the White Sox is off the board. Frazier only made sense for the Sox if the team was ready to deploy him as their everyday right fielder in 2022. Even with García as an impending free agent, the substantial arbitration raise that Frazier will be owed this winter likely makes him too expensive for a super-utility player after this season. Right field for Frazier next season wouldn’t have been a terrible proposition, but Pittsburgh ultimately chose a package headlined by infielder Tucupita Marcano, an ultra high-contact, major league-ready 21-year-old — the kind of prospect that the Sox don’t currently posses in their system.
The other name that the White Sox have been connected to since June is Eduardo Escobar (and was even thought to be a done deal at one point) currently carries a .248/.301/.482 slash with a .332 wOBA and a 106 wRC+. Those numbers certainly don’t “wow” you, but that slugging percentage would be the highest of any Sox hitter with at least 100 PAs this year. Defensively, Escobar’s three Outs Above Average rank in the 86th percentile among second baseman, and he also provides a two-run DRS improvement over the current in-house options. His 2.1 fWAR would be the third-highest on the team as well (Yoán Moncada, Tim Anderson).
As a switch-hitter, Escobar would provide the left-handed bat towards the bottom of the order that was lost with Adam Eaton’s departure. The cost of Gavin Sheets for a rental of Escobar may seem steep given the impressive 124 wRC+ through his first 70 plate appearances that indicate Sheets is a major league ready hitter. The fact of the matter is, Sheets doesn’t have a long-term spot on this roster. The advanced metrics aren’t needed to tell the story that Sheets isn’t ready to be the strong-side platoon option at either outfield corner, especially with one of Andrew Vaughn or Eloy Jiménez penciled in at the other. Outfield defense is too integral to have two rookie first baseman in the outfield, much less in a pennant chase, and there may be no better year than this one to chase given the current starting rotation.
That said, while Sheets could potentially be a long-term fit in Arizona (their current everyday first baseman, Christian Walker, is pushing a 71 wRC+), there’s no guarantee that he’s the kind of player the Diamondbacks are looking for in return for Escobar. They could be looking for a teenage outfielder, for all we know. It would be interesting to see what Sheets has done to his trade value this season.
Escobar should have plenty of suitors, as I could see the Yankees, A’s, Mets, Brewers, Dodgers and Giants all utilizing his talents for the rest of this season. Hell, the Padres might acquire him in their quest to build a team of all second baseman.
If Frazier was plan A and Escobar is plan B, then I’d say Detroit’s Jonathan Schoop could be plan C with Washington’s Josh Harrison as plan D and Colorado’s Trevor Story as the wild card. All of which represent marked improvements over Leury Garcia and Danny Mendick at second base.
White Sox get: RHP Ian Kennedy
Rangers get: DH Yermín Mercedes + RHP Kade McClure
Ian Kennedy is doing something very interesting this year — he’s throwing 82.5% fastballs. This isn’t like Lance Lynn throwing 90%+ fastballs while cutting, sinking and riding it. No, Kennedy has thrown 82.5% 4-seam fastballs.
His 17.8-inch vertical break (77th percentile) on the pitch combined with 10.7 inches of arm-side break (87th percentile) that’s consistently in the mid-90s is tough to handle even when hitters know it’s coming. Combine this with the fact that Kennedy consistently puts it at the top of the strike zone, and hitters are getting under the pitch too much and are only hitting a paltry .207 with a .265 xwOBA against it. Kennedy has got one really good pitch, and in his usual one inning of work, he’s going to challenge hitters to be better than it.
This piece isn’t intended to be about Yermín Mercedes or what is future is with the White Sox given what has transpired this season. All of the off-the-field antics aside, Yermin Mercedes is still a very talented hitter — one that, at his peak, could be a .285/.340/.450-ish hitter. It was a couple months of extremes for Mercedes, as he saw his .446 April BABIP crater to .204 in June. Ultimately, Mercedes showcased skills like his ability to annihilate baseballs early and when ahead in counts, while also shifting to a no-stride approach with two strikes to make a lot of contact. You can’t just luck your way into a 207 wRC+ month over 88 PAs in the major leagues. There is something here.
The issue with Mercedes, and one of of the biggest reasons why he couldn’t stick on the current White Sox roster and doesn’t fit into future plans, either, is that he has literally no defensive position. He’s about as DH-only as they come, is now 28 years old, and already has had multiple off-the-field issues in a young career. Thus even with his intriguing hit and power tools, Mercedes would be moved here for a 36-year-old rental reliever.
For the Rangers, the risk here is minimal. They can try Mercedes in full-time and/or platoon roles offensively while also experimenting with him at first base, or even where he still sees himself fitting on a major league roster, at catcher. If Mercedes becomes a clubhouse distraction at any point, they can just cut him.
If the Rangers don’t feel like taking on the “Yerminator” phenomenon despite the upside, they could opt for someone like Kade McClure, who is having a nice season at Birmingham, plus another prospect. McClure features a four-pitch mix that has created a nice 18.4 K-BB%. FanGraphs projects him as a near major-league-ready, multi-inning relief option, though he’s had success starting through his first three full minor league seasons since being drafted in the sixth round.
If a fourth trade was to be made, it’s likely going to be for a backup catcher. In fact, the club may be giving a catching acquisition more thought than I am here. Zack Collins certainly isn’t doing the trick, but will any acquisition be a better option than Seby Zavala? Zavala has the minor league options remaining, so he could be stored in Charlotte as an insurance policy should the opportunity to acquire a veteran backstop present itself. Yasmani Grandal is a warrior, but with healthy lead in the AL Central, there will likely be no need for him to over-exert himself catching through August and September.
My scenario here has Adam Engel, Brian Goodwin, Billy Hamilton, Leury García and Jake Lamb as the right field options for the remainder of this season. An outfield acquisition isn’t off the table, but I wouldn’t give it much priority given the other needs and those in-house options.
So, walking away from July 2021 with Ryan Tepera, Eduardo Escobar and Ian Kennedy, does that fire up the fan base? No. Does it fill three needs, with three quality veteran players, on a team that is also getting three middle-of-the-order bats back from injury?