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Luke Smailes’ White Sox Offseason Plan

Budgets are tight these days, so let’s try and thread the needle

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Chicago White Sox
Squeeze those pennies, guys!
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Apparently, I have around $180 million to work with. Without making a single free agent signing or trade, I’m already at more than $160 million, so let’s get creative.


Arbitration-eligibles

Dylan Cease $5.3 million Tender
Michael Kopech $2.2 million Tender
Lucas Giolito $10.8 million Tender

I’m still concerned with Giolito’s 2022 season, but he at least apparently has pinpointed the major culprit. Even if the White Sox shared my concern, they’re not finding a considerably better option that Giolito for less than $11 million. Plus, the team already has one rotation spot to fill and can’t afford to add another.

Reynaldo López $3.3 million Tender
José Ruiz $1 million Non-Tender

Yeah, it’s only $1 million for Ruiz, but the time has come. Every year, Ruiz looks absolutely nasty for a couple of games, but he eventually falls back to earth once he earns some higher-leverage opportunities. It’s been five years, let’s use the last slots in our bullpen for arms with higher upside for the same price, or, like, just go with Jimmy Lambert or Tanner Banks.

Ruiz’s fastball got torched in 2022 (.409 xwOBA) and, this was mainly a command issue — a major difference from 2021. He looks to have found something with his changeup and he should probably start to throw it more than his curveball, which is a very “meh” pitch despite surprisingly solid results in 2022.

Adam Engel $2.3 million Non-Tender

We were all hoping that Engel could scale his 2020-21 production, a 123 wRC+ and the 12th-best defensive outfielder in baseball by Statcast’s Success Rate Added metric, over a much larger sample. But Engel’s offense torpedoed to his 2017-18 production levels. He can still play a really good center field and has some offensive upside if he can stay healthy, so someone may still throw a couple-million guaranteed at Engel, but he’s more likely a minor league sign with a chance to make the team out of spring training.

The Sox need to address their outfield defense, but I’ll do that elsewhere. I’d extend an MiLB offer to Engel, but he’s likely looking for an opportunity with a clearer path to playing time.

Danny Mendick (recovering from knee surgery, may not be ready to start in 2023) $1 million Non-Tender


Impending Free Agents

José Abreu (2022 contract: $18 million, Sportrac market value: $9.1 million) Let Go

Trading Andrew Vaughn and retaining José Abreu is certainly an option. Depending on what kind of cost-controlled outfielder or starting pitcher Vaughn could net, it’s not a crazy idea, even if that player arrives in Chicago with less club control than Vaughn. However, I just don’t think a Vaughn trade is something that this front office is willing to entertain. They likely value Vaughn far more than any other team across baseball.

However, this isn’t a prediction piece, this is about what I would do. I came into this offseason believing that trading Vaughn and retaining Abreu was the correct path, but have since switched. Miami makes a ton of sense if Vaughn was shopped, and that trade would net a player like Pablo Lopez or Trevor Rogers. My thinking was that Abreu likely comes back on a discount (maybe just a small one) and it becomes the best allocation of resources to push for a championship in a two-year window.

I’ve landed on parting with Abreu mainly due to concern regarding his 78-point ISO decrease (a career low), and I’m also factoring in ownership’s reported unwillingness to push the payroll over $200 million, which makes this path hard to fit in. If Abreu’s market doesn’t materialize as quickly as he would like, it will be interesting to see if Rick Hahn and Ken Williams re-evaluate their attachment to Vaughn and float him around the league if José wanted to return at a number too good to pass up.

The one idea I absolutely won’t consider is retaining all three of Abreu, Vaughn and Eloy Jiménez — it cannot happen. That’s how you get another 100+ games of Andrew Vaughn in the outfield and a negative WAR.

Elvis Andrus (2022 contract: $14.25 million, Sportrac market value: $4.5 million) Let Go

Someone is going to give him a nice AAV, maybe over two seasons, once the big four shortstops find their homes.

Johnny Cueto (2022 contract: $4.2 million, prorated based on late start to $3.2 million) Let Go

The rare, great, one-year-deal find for Hahn. Cueto is going to suffer a bit from the shift ban, and I’m acquiring a cheaper version of him below via trade.

Vince Velasquez (2022 contract: $3 million) Let Go


Team Contract Options

Tim Anderson $12.5 million (or a $1 million buyout) Pick Up

Josh Harrison $5,625,000 (or a $1.5 million buyout) Decline


Player Contract Options

AJ Pollock $13 million (or a $5 million buyout) Buyout Exercised


Free agents

Cody Bellinger (one year, $11 million) + 2024 Player Option ($11 million)

Bellinger provides some intriguing offensive upside with a floor of being serviceable against right-handed pitching and a top-end defensive outfielder. Steamer has Bellinger projected at .222/.294/.411 with a 99 wRC+ and a 1.9 fWAR, which is fine, but ideally the change of scenery helps push him closer to his near eight-win MVP 2019 season than his 1.7-win 2022.

Though Bellinger’s struggles since his MVP season can be traced back to the middle of the shortened 2020, him dislocating his shoulder in Game 7 of the NLCS celebrating a home run did not help. He then suffered a hairline fracture to his left fibula in April 2021 after colliding with A’s reliever Reymin Guduan as he tried to beat out an infield hit. After missing nearly two months, Bellinger opted to play the remainder of the season through pain in route to a 47 wRC+ and -1.0 fWAR.

Tieran Alexander of Prospects Live did a deep dive on some of the differences between Bellinger’s 2019 and 2020 seasons, wherein he concluded that Bellinger’s leg injury likely contributed to mechanical differences in his swings. In short, Bellinger hasn’t been able to shift his weight from his left to right leg as well as he used to. Bellinger would become a big project for the (alleged) new White Sox hitting coach.

Even if the best-case scenario for Bellinger’s offense doesn’t come to fruition (i.e., probably something like his 2018 season .260/.343/.470 and 120 wRC), he’ll retain a lot of fall-back value with his defense. Bellinger has 22 Outs Above Average since the start of 2019, ranking 15th in baseball among 147 qualified outfielders. His Sprint Speed (via Statcast) sat in the 90th percentile from 2017-20, but has been in the 75th and 71st percentiles respectively over the last two seasons that likely has something to do with recovering from a broken leg. Yet in 2022, Bellinger remained in the 90th percentile of Outs Above Average.

The fact of the matter is, outfield defense is integral to success, and we just watched this club deploy the worst defensive outfield in the American League in 2022. Also, the 2022 pitching staff ran a 41.5% ground ball rate (eighth lowest in baseball) and a 38.7% fly ball rate (ninth highest). If offensive production against right-handed pitching is priority 1 for the offseason agenda, then outfield defense should sure as hell be 1A. It’s time to prioritize it. Bellinger hopefully helps in both categories, but the latter should be the club’s main attraction to him.

With this deal, Bellinger and Scott Boras are able to re-enter the free agent market next offseason should the outfielder play his way out of another one year, $11 million contract. If there’s a league-wide attraction to Bellinger’s offensive upside and defensive-quality that pushes his AAV out of Reinsdorf’s range, then I’m quickly pivoting to Kevin Kiermaier.

Wil Myers (one year, $8 million)

Myers fills AJ Pollock’s 2023 role that he abandoned — the fourth outfielder and weak-side platoon option, for $8 million. Myers’ 130 wRC+ against southpaws wasn’t as good as Pollock’s 161, but Myers was better the defender. As you may be noticing, my plan avoids defensive liabilities in the outfield.

Myers played all three outfield positions last season along with first base, and posted a .261/.315/.398 slash overall. He consistently winds up in the 100-115 wRC+ range every year and can still be serviceable against right-handers (106 wRC+ for his career).

Luke Weaver (one year, $2 million)

Weaver is given Velasquez’s 2022 role — roughly 75-ish innings between the bullpen and a handful of starts. Luke should have more upside than Vince, as he notably revamped his changeup in 2022, something that FanGraphs’ Justin Choi dove into. In short, Weaver’s new change is intriguing, as it features more drop and run than before. At the same time, Weaver saw his fastball’s spin efficiency drop for the second straight season in 2022, and he’s gotten considerably less ride on his fastball as a result. Ethan Katz working through the offseason and spring training to revive that once-elite fastball vertical break would be the first order of business here.

Weaver posted a 2.69 FIP in 2022, but he somehow left with a 6.56 ERA thanks to a .429 BABIP even with reasonable xBA numbers. Let’s bet on some regression to the mean.


Trades

José Rodríguez and Matthew Thompson to the Miami Marlins for Jon Berti

Welcome to the second base market, where Milwaukee somewhat unexpectedly picking up Kolten Wong’s option leaves the Sox lacking an obvious option. We have a handful of trade candidates that may be available for a significant haul (Jazz Chisholm, Gavin Lux, Brandon Lowe), and some Josh Harrison-types (Jean Segura, Adam Frazier, Harrison himself).

I’m trying to get creative here and have landed on Jon Berti. He’s coming off of a breakout 2.3-win season for the Marlins, accruing his value with speed on the bases, great defense, not chasing pitches out of the zone, and versatility. If my math checks out, those are all things that this roster needs.

Berti played most of his 2022 innings at second base for the Marlins after Chisholm went down with a back injury, but also saw plenty of third base while also moonlighting at short, left and center. He totaled one Out Above Average at second and one Defensive Runs Saved along with three Outs Above Average and one Defensive Runs Saved at third. Overall, Berti was in the 87th percentile of Outs Above Average when also factoring in his league average outfield defense. At 32 years old and in his fourth full major league season in 2022, Berti’s 404 PAs represented a career-high by a wide margin

The Sox also had the lowest walk rate in the league as a team last season, a disgusting 3.5%. Berti’s 10.4% was in the top quarter of baseball in 2022 and is right in line with his 10.7% career rate.

The cherry on top is that Berti also stole 41 bags in 2022, the most in baseball. If he maintains his on-base clip with the new rules coming to MLB in 2023 and a more regular starting role, he should push that number closer to 60.

Berti is projected to earn $2.3 million in his first year of arbitration in 2023 and is thus under club control for the next three seasons. Miami will get Chisholm back this season, so Berti would either be its everyday third baseman, or more likely a superutility guy. The Marlins have a great young pitching staff, which makes putting yourself in Kim Ng’s shoes a little more interesting, but they’re not on par with New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia. They’re going to need a lot of offensive improvement to make noise in the NL East, so turning this roster into a playoff team in one offseason seems improbable. An unwillingness to move (and sell high on) a 33-year-old utility type would seem unwise, even if they would like Berti running rapid for them with the new rules.

Miami receives the White Sox’s seventh-best prospect by MLB Pipeline in Rodríguez, who only posted a 103 wRC+ in Double-A last season, but did so as just a 21-year-old. He also stole 40 bases himself, and has a chance to stick at short. The Marlins are apparently prioritizing high-contact hitters this offseason, and Rodríguez represents one who better fits into their contention window.

They also acquire Thompson, the second-round pick from 2019 who has yet to develop as hoped. Thompson would enter a Miami pitching development program that’s seen a ton of recent success, to try to unlock his potential.

Jake Burger, Peyton Pallette, Kohl Simas, and Terrell Tatum to the Oakland Athletics for Seth Brown and Paul Blackburn

Chicago’s 93 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers in 2022 ranked 23rd in baseball, and the seven teams below them all finished in either fourth or fifth in their divisions. Seth Brown is coming off of a season in which he hit .243/.320/.473 with a 129 wRC+ against right-handers.

Outs Above Average liked Brown at all three outfield positions in 2021, and specifically it graded him out as a plus-corner outfielder with 5 OAA. In 2022, he played 84 games at first base and 70 games as a corner outfielder, where he was worth -3 OAA in 406 innings. However, that breakdown is actually 1 OAA in left and -4 OAA in right. In three seasons and 441 innings as a left fielder over the last three seasons, Brown has been worth 3 OAA, and that’s where I’d like to play him. Defensive Runs Saved largely agreed, marking Brown as poor in center and right last season, but average in left, representing a massive improvement from any of Vaughn, Sheets and/or Jiménez.

Brown is set to make the league-minimum salary in 2023 before entering his final three seasons of club control with salaries set through the arbitration process.

The best description I can give for Paul Blackburn is that he’s essentially Johnny Cueto, except eight years younger and will earn roughly a quarter of what Cueto will in 2023. Their 2022 stuff, command, and xRV grades are nearly identical. Blackburn has great command of his cutter, curveball, and changeup. Blackburn’s curveball generates elite downward vertical break at 61.1 inches. (For reference, Dylan Cease’s curveball, though thrown two mph harder, was at 59.1 inches.) Blackburn’s sinker, the pitch he throws the most at 34%, is nothing special, but it did generate ground balls at a 62% clip last season. He’ll also break out a 4-seamer that’s almost exclusively thrown to lefties up and in (and usually with great precision).

Blackburn does do certain things well, but when you step back and look at his 2022, he gave up quite a bit of hard contact and didn’t generate chases or whiffs much at all. It’s a cost-effective fourth- or fifth-starter profile that relies on craftiness, not nastiness.

For a team with self-imposed payroll restriction, I must pony up some prospect capital instead to fill out the rotation and find left-handed power. Pallette was the club’s latest second round pick from Arkansas, and he’s the main prize here for Oakland. He was said to have one of the best breaking balls in the draft, with a fastball that has started to sit in the mid-90s. The general consensus around their pick of Pallette, now Chicago’s eighth-best prospect, seemed to be that was that this was a great find in the second round.

Burger slugged .458 in 2022, and now through his first two short MLB stints, he’s put up a 114 wRC+, which is impressive especially given everything that Burger has endured. He’s a good fit in Oakland, where he should have the opportunity to get 500 PAs and see if he can pump out 30 bombs. They can also put him in a better position to succeed defensively, which is first base with some DH mixed in. From the A’s standpoint, I don’t think it would be crazy for Burger to out-produce Brown at the plate next season.

Simas looks like a reliever, but still has a chance to start. He has two good breaking balls and a fastball that has worked up into the mid-90s. He’s the 18th-rated prospect in the farm system by MLB Pipeline.

Tatum is a fourth piece throw-in who had a nice abbreviated 2022 after being drafted in the 16th round of the 2021 draft. He posted a 119 wRC+ with a 15.2% walk rate in Winston-Salem, but also looks like he’ll have some swing-and-miss issues as he works his way up through the minors.


Lineup vs. RHP
2B - Jon Berti (R)
SS - Tim Anderson (R)
LF - Seth Brown (L)
DH - Eloy Jiménez (R)
CF - Luis Robert (R)
RF - Cody Bellinger (L)
1B - Andrew Vaughn (R)
3B - Yoán Moncada (S)
C - Yasmani Grandal (S)

Lineup vs. LHP
LF - Jon Berti (R)
SS - Tim Anderson (R)
DH - Eloy Jiménez (R)
CF - Luis Robert (R)
1B - Andrew Vaughn (R)
RF - Wil Myers (R)
3B - Yoán Moncada (S)
C - Yasmani Grandal (S)
2B - Romy González (R)

Rotation

  1. Dylan Cease (R)
  2. Lance Lynn (R)
  3. Lucas Giolito (R)
  4. Michael Kopech (R)
  5. Paul Blackburn (R)

Bullpen

  • Liam Hendriks (R)
  • Kendall Graveman (R)
  • Aaron Bummer (L)
  • Garrett Crochet (L)
  • Joe Kelly (R)
  • Reynaldo López (R)
  • Jake Diekman (L)
  • Luke Weaver (R)

Excluding the MiLB singings, this adds six players to the roster and roughly $25.9 million to the payroll, bringing the total to just more than $188 million. That’s reasonably close to the $180 million cap.

The greatest difference here from most of the offseason plans I’ve read is the lack of Oscar Colás at an outfield corner on Opening Day. While I think Colás ends up playing a significant role on the 2023 team, I’d rather let him get more than 33 plate appearances in Charlotte and not strike out more than a third of the time in them. It also wouldn’t be the worst thing to have a potential impact player as an insurance policy for the likes of Robert and Jiménez, who have barely played 300 games over the last two seasons combined.

Another good thing about this roster construction is that Colás could be the Plan B for five different spots in the order — the three outfield slots, DH, and also first base given Brown, Myers, and even Bellinger’s ability to handle the position.

My initial thought is to put Berti at the top of lineup and letting Anderson hit more often with runners on base. I’m also envisioning the Berti/Anderson hit-and-run working to perfection, making TA’s punches to right field even more fruitful. Anderson isn’t the perfect guy to hit behind Berti if we truly want to unleash him on the base paths (Tim doesn’t want to take a lot of pitches), so maybe Jiménez or a rejuvenated Moncada fits better, but seeing Anderson somewhere second through fifth in the order is something I’d like to see.

Berti’s versatility can also serve as a hedge if Leury García displays another month or two of his 2022 production. Another sub-60 wRC+-García should not be on the roster in June. Just eat the remaining $8 million or so at that point.

With Blackburn being the offseason’s add to the rotation, Giolito’s bounce-back become vital to this staff’s success. He has to get his fastball back. This is coupled with Kopech getting himself in shape to throw 150+ innings while maintaining his mid-90s fastball more consistently.

Though I think these adds address many of this clubs weaknesses and could propel them back to the top of the AL Central, this is not a home-run offseason. A home-run offseason for the organization would start with committing a nine-figure deal to Brandon Nimmo, because his skill set checks a ton of boxes that this roster needs. Instead of committing $20.5 million to Cody Bellinger and Wil Myers, should they be willing to add another four million (or so) and pay that for the next six seasons to land Nimmo? Yes. Will they be willing to win the bidding war for someone of his caliber? I can’t see it, especially if the budget handed down from Jerry Reinsdorf is as tight as they’re making it seem publicly. So, Nimmo’s spot (136 wRC+ overall in 2022) effectively becomes the platoon of Brown (129 wRC+ vs RHP) and Myers (130 wRC+ vs LHP) for less than one-third of the cost in 2022.

It’s exactly like the Moneyball scene where Brad Pitt preaches to his staff about creating Jason Giambi in the aggregate.

This plan also leaves two spots open on the 40-man roster (plus the non-locks of Bennett Sousa and Jason Bilous) that should allow the front office to peruse the waiver wire for some upside and be more aggressive with some of the veteran MiLB signings.

Analysis

SSS Staff Predictions 2022, revisited: Well, that didn’t go as planned

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Jimmy Lambert

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