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White Sox Offseason Needs: Outfielders

Among many solid options for 2022, one player stands above the rest.

New York Mets v Chicago White Sox
There are lots of solid right field picks left for the White Sox in 2022, but the smart money points to Michael Conforto filling the role.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The MLBPA and owners are finally ramping up discussions in an attempt to start the 2022 baseball season on time. It’s already been announced that spring training has been delayed and big league camp won’t open any earlier than March 5. Minor league camp will open on March 7, but minor leaguers on the 40-man roster will remain in limbo.

Rick Hahn and his lieutenants will need to be ready to strike and immediately plunge into player acquisition mode when this long layoff ends. Kendall Graveman has been added to the bullpen mix and Leury García is returning in a utility role — but more work needs to be done.

Pitching is the biggest need, as strengthening a strength is essential in order to defend the American League Central crown. There are holes in right field and second base, however, and championship contenders shouldn’t be leaving anything to chance. One significant bat, preferably from the left side, would really out the finishing touch on a very good ball club. The bat could theoretically come in the role of designated hitter, but a move like that would spur some tricky roster dynamics on a team boasting several DH types already.

White Sox outfielders finished 10th in baseball with an fWAR of 8.4 and hit .249/.321/.420 with a 103 wRC+. With serious injuries to core members like Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez, playing time was often dispersed to some unlikely heroes.

The totality of the seasons for veterans Brian Goodwin and Billy Hamilton aren’t very appealing on paper, but both provided big moments. Goodwin played in 72 games, hit some dramatic homers, and mostly excelled against right-handed pitchers. Hamilton provided mostly defense (and lots of fun) over the course of 71 games. Both men are currently free agents, and the club should thank them for their service while upgrading their roster.

Current State of Affairs

Star 24-year-old center fielder Robert slashed .338/.378/.567 with a 157 wRC+ and .399 wOBA in 68 games last season. The 6´2´´, 220-pounder spent the bulk of the season injured but still managed to blast 13 homers and accumulate 3.2 fWAR. Robert should receive some preseason MVP love, and he’s looking like one of the very best players in the sport. He will have center field covered on the South Side for the better part of the next decade.

Jiménez also spent the majority of the 2021 campaign on the shelf with an injury. The 25-year-old is one of the most powerful hitters in the league, but his 2021 was spent trying to regain lost timing. The 6´4´´ 240-pound Dominican hit 10 homers in just 55 games but only posted a league average 101 wRC+. Eloy is a below-average defender in left field, but his bat has to be in the lineup on a daily basis. During his rookie season in 2019, Jiménez hit 31 dingers with a 115 wRC+ and followed it up with 14 more homers and a 139 wRC+ over 55 games in 2020.

Adam Engel is one of the best defenders in baseball. He can really go get it and plays all three spots, and his offensive profile has improved dramatically as well. The 30-year-old posted a 127 wRC+ with a 1.2 fWAR last season despite only playing in 39 games while dealing with recurring hamstring injuries. He was solid at the dish against righties and lefties in 2020, but really thrived against southpaws in 2021 with a wRC+ of 154.

García is back on a three-year deal, remaining the longest tenured member of the club. The 30-year-old Swiss Army knife compiled 2.0 fWAR last season in 126 games. Leury Legend just always finds his way into the lineup, somehow. He put up league-average production offensively but is best utilized in a utility role. Romy González tore though the minors in 2021 before making his big-league debut. The 25-year-old struggled in 33 appearances with the big club after hitting 24 minor league homers. The pop-up prospect posted a 136 wRC+ in 78 games in Double-A Birmingham while landing on a 192 wRC+ in his final 15 contests with the Charlotte Knights in Triple-A.

Micker Adolfo and Blake Rutherford are on the 40-man roster, but it’d be a surprise to see either of them with the White Sox to start the year. Adolfo is a 25-year-old Dominican who hit 25 homers in the minors last year. The 6´4´´, 225-pounder has huge raw power, but has battled myriad injuries throughout his career. Adolfo is out of options, so he could be in DFA limbo prior to the start of the 2022 season. Rutherford likely returns to Charlotte if he remains on the 40-man roster.

One of the silver linings related to the sheer amount of bad luck and injuries that took place in Chicago last year was the ability of the organization to give some significant playing time to guys who otherwise may have not gotten an opportunity.

Andrew Vaughn made the club out of spring training, and while it wasn’t a completely unexpected path for the third overall pick from the 2019 draft, the positional versatility absolutely was. Vaughn was seen as a Top 10 prospect in the sport coming into the year — as a first baseman. He ended up playing in the outfield a ton, and his overall profile has changed significantly. The 23-year-old posted a 94 wRC+ in his first professional season while skipping Double-A and Triple-A entirely. The 6´0´´, 215-pounder held his own defensively while hitting 15 homers in 127 games. He ran out of steam down the stretch, battling a back injury as well, but was stellar against lefties with a slash of .269/.383/.555 and a 156 wRC+. Vaughn should be in line for a major role with the White Sox in 2022, but he shouldn’t be counted on as the everyday right fielder.

Gavin Sheets was a motivated former second-rounder who was left off of the Schaumburg alternate site roster in 2020. He went to work, changing his body and altering his swing. The 6´5´´, 230-pound slugger posted a 125 wRC+ while hitting 11 homers in his 54-game sample. The 25-year-old slashed .268/.344/.566 with a 143 wRC+ against righties. There is a big-league role for Sheets, but first base is his best position and he likely never plays regularly against southpaws.

Flooded Marketplace

Many players signed large and lucrative contracts before the expiration of the previous collective bargaining agreement this previous winter. The frenzied transaction period that will commence once a new agreement is in place will be wild, and there’s a segment of the market left largely untouched. The outfield market really hasn’t moved, and there are multiple premium players who will be looking for deals.

Michael Conforto, Nick Castellanos, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber are all considered big-ticket items. The Seiya Suzuki sweepstakes will also come full circle, and his new team will come into focus. Others like Jorge Soler, Corey Dickerson, Andrew McCutchen, Joc Pederson and Eddie Rosario should land with new teams as well. On the trade front, Austin Meadows could move on from Tampa Bay, and Mitch Haniger is in the final year of his contract with the Seattle Mariners.

The White Sox need a right fielder. It’s a spot that has been filled with stopgap options in recent years, but adding a formidable player for 2022 makes sense for this contending club.

The best fit on the market is former Mets first-rounder Michael Conforto. My colleague Tim Ryder explored his fit on the South Side months ago, and identified his fit in Chicago. The 28-year-old played 125 games in 2021, but had a down season overall. The lefty smacked 14 homers and walked at a 12% rate while posting a 106 wRC+ overall and 119 vs righties. In 2020, the 6´1´´, 215-pounder posted a 158 wRC+ and played solid defense. Conforto has posted a career 136 wRC+ vs righties and has always possessed on-base ability. There is some ceiling left in this profile, and his market will be interesting.

Castellanos posted a 140 wRC+ while slashing .309/.362/.576 with 34 homers with the Cincinnati Reds last year. The 29-year-old really mashed, after providing league average offensive production the previous season. The former first-rounder would be added specifically for his bat due to his status as a negative defender at pretty much every position on the diamond.

Bryant and Schwarber are on the market and could both cash in prior to the season. Bryant likely signs somewhere to play third base, but he’s extremely versatile. The former MVP posted a 123 wRC+ with 25 homers and a 10% walk rate in 2021. The 6´5´´, 230-pounder compiled 3.6 fWAR and will get decent money, but won’t come close to what was originally expected.

The 28-year-old Schwarber bounced back in a big way after a down year in 2020. The 6´0´´, 230-pound slugger posted a 145 wRC+ while clubbing 32 homers for the Nationals and Red Sox. The lefty can be counted on for power and walks, and he has averaged a 128 career wRC+ against righties.

The White Sox have been active on the international market under the guidance of special assistant to the general manager Marco Paddy, but they haven’t executed deals with players from Asia very often. Suzuki is the latest star from the NPB to seek a professional contract in the states. The 27-year-old hit 38 homers last year and has made four All-Star teams in Japan. He’s expected to sign after the lockout ends, and has drawn heavy interest from clubs. Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs wrote an excellent piece about how he’d transform multiple clubs, including the White Sox.

Could Pederson finally put on his White Sox? Maybe Rosario, McCutchen or Soler interest the Pale Hose as a low-cost option next month.

Going the trade route seems like a possibility as well, but there will be a time crunch given the likely accelerated schedule before the regular season. Tampa Bay outfielder Austin Meadows could be a realistic option via trade, and the front office in Chicago has been interested in the past. In 2021, the lefty posted a 113 wRC+ and accumulated 2.0 fWAR. He posted a 137 wRC+ vs righties, which is right in line with his career averages as well.

Likelihood

The White Sox need an upgrade in right field. Vaughn and Sheets are both former draft picks of the club, and they both could play a significant role on the 2022 team. This can’t be the plan in right field for a team with legitimate championship hopes, however. Engel will fill in and do an admirable job in his role, but it shouldn’t be as an everyday player at this stage.

Vaughn and Sheets combined for about -5 defensive runs saved in the outfield last year, and both players are best suited for first base (with some possible moonlighting in left field). Choosing to put either player on an outfield corner as Option A is untenable, though. Money should be spent in the outfield, and it should be spent on someone who hits against right-handed pitching and can play in right field.

Jerry Reinsdorf hired his buddy to manage the team. They want to go out on a high note, with another World Series trophy. Pinching pennies now just doesn’t make much sense. With a club high payroll approaching $170 million and a competitive balance tax number around $190 million, ownership has stepped up to the plate.

The money needs to continue flowing.

Conforto is a Scott Boras client. There have been conflicting reports about the veracity of the club’s interest in this perceived perfect fit. Bruce Levine of The Score recently hinted that the White Sox would have interest in Conforto. Sources have indicated to me that the 28-year-old was a top target as well.

It’s unclear how much the White Sox will spend once the lockout officially ends. It is clear, however, that an upgrade is needed in the outfield and money should be spent to fix this lingering issue. Yoelqui Cespédes and Oscar Colás aren’t options in 2022, and should be treated as found money at this point.

The front office has to have a preference in regards to the remaining and available outfielders on the free agent and trade market. They need to put on the big-boy, big-market pants quickly and capitalize on the player of their choice when allowed.

This is the point of saving all that money for years, so push in the chips and give yourself the best chance to win the World Series. Then we’ll all get to see Rick Hahn at the parade.