The White Sox are between many rocks and many hard places.
The team’s best, most beloved player of the last decade — and the latest in the franchise’s storied history of borderline Hall of Fame first basemen — is a free agent. There might not be room to bring him back.
I’m the last person to make excuses for this front office, and I’m rarely one to throw up my hands and stop advocating for a $230 million payroll with the knowledge that Jerry Reinsdorf can afford it, particularly after what might be the franchise’s most disastrous season of the century.
In this case, though? There may be no better option than running it back.
It might not be as difficult — or as much of a terrible fit — as the 2022 season would have us believe.
A consensus appears to be building in relation to the defensive woes prompting this logjam: There’s simply not room on the roster for all three of José Abreu, Eloy Jiménez, and Andrew Vaughn. Not without continuing to hinder team defense to a critical degree, at least.
It’s worth asking how true that really is.
It’s easy to understand why this is a hot topic as we head into the early offseason far earlier than anticipated. Of all the ways that the 2022 White Sox were brutally unwatchable, the Little League-esque outfield defense might sit at the top of the list. Losing one of the slow-footed first basemen that GM Rick Hahn has spent the last five years collecting like Beanie Babies is the simplest way to improve that element heading into 2023.
Nonetheless, you’ll be hard-pressed to convince me that the 2023 White Sox will be a better team without José Abreu.
The primary argument against returning all three players is that playing either Jiménez or Vaughn in the outfield essentially neutralizes their offensive value. There’s no better example than Vaughn of how ham-handed roster construction can turn what should be a good player into a net negative. It takes a lot of bad defensive play to turn a batter who’s hitting 25% better than league average (124 wRC+) into a replacement-level player, but that’s the unenviable position that the White Sox have forced onto the final top pick of their rebuild: Vaughn is two weeks away from joining Carlos Santana (2011) as the only modern players ever to fail to break even 0.4 fWAR despite hitting at such a level.
Jiménez’s defensive woes shouldn’t need an explanatory paragraph. Anyone who’s watched since 2019 is plenty familiar with the injuries, brutal metrics, and ongoing ceding-of-outfield-ground to Luis Robert that resonated as perhaps a little bit less playful than the team’s bobblehead giveaway would have us believe. After watching Vaughn’s breakout offensive season be effectively erased by being forced into an unfamiliar defensive position, it’s logical to come to the conclusion that there are simply two spots for three players.
I’d like to challenge that assessment. The error being made in these discussions — in my view — is equating Vaughn’s generationally dreadful glove with Jiménez’s simply bad one.
It’s an unquestionable fact that a legitimately contending team can’t play a fielder like Vaughn on even a semi-regular basis. However, that’s not necessarily the case with Jiménez.
It’s true that he was one of the worst outfielders in the game in 2019 by almost any measure, and the manner by which he missed the first four months of the 2021 season did no favors to perceptions of his defense. Since that awful 2019 showing, the numbers still show a poor fielder — but not such a poor fielder that touching the grass will cancel out what he does in the batter’s box. Jiménez has played just less than 1,000 innings in the field since the start of the 2020 season, and on a per-inning basis, his Defensive Runs Saved rank 94th out of 119 players with at least that many outfield innings. By Statcast’s Outs Above Average (generally considered to be the most reliable fielding stat currently available), he ranks 99th.
That’s bad, to be sure. Looking at some of the names near or below him on that leaderboard, however, tells us that it’s not so bad as to make a full-time move to DH an absolute necessity. The Phillies are in a playoff position with Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos in their corners, making for perhaps the only outfield arrangement more unwatchable than the one on the South Side. Joc Pederson has been a White Sox target for multiple presidential administrations, and there were plenty of Sox fans last winter who were more than ready to stick Kris Bryant in the outfield, defense be damned. Multiple recent pennant winners have done so in spite of deploying virtual statues in left field.
It’s not an ideal arrangement, but keeping Jiménez in the field at least part-time while re-signing Abreu and finally relieving Vaughn of glove-based duties may be the most feasible route to a 2023 bounce-back for this moribund offense while concretely upgrading their defensive standing.
The key word in that clause is feasible. If this were MVP Baseball 2005, the front office would thank Abreu for his service and spend that money on Brandon Nimmo or Trea Turner. Or perhaps they’d re-sign Abreu and trade Vaughn or Jiménez for equivalent pitching or infield talent.
The reality, unfortunately, is a Reinsdorf team is not going to spend near the top of the weakest free agent class in years, and finding a fair match in a trade for either young player is considerably easier said than done, particularly given Hahn’s less-than-stellar trade history. The moves that would be necessary to replace a bat of Abreu, Jiménez, or Vaughn’s caliber have almost no chance of being made under the current regime.
As much as it pains me to say it, the most reasonable route lies internally. Minor league fielding numbers for Oscar Colás are scant and middling, but scouting reports generally peg his glove as average to slightly above-average alongside an excellent arm. The addition of Colás to a healthy Luis Robert (and boy has he not been healthy this year) should deliver a significant recovery from this season’s worst-in-the-AL outfield defense — even with Jiménez remaining in the fold.
His presence didn’t stop Sox outfielders from ranking in the top five by most measures during the shortened 2020 season. It’s reasonable to believe he won’t completely hamstring their defensive effort in 2023 as Vaughn has in 2022, if they make the right supplementary additions. More importantly, the sad fact is that an addition in the mold of a Kevin Kiermaier or Michael A. Taylor, or perhaps Adam Duvall — spare outfielders with plus gloves who can actually hit, with all due respect to Adam Engel — is an exponentially more realistic option than spending the money to adequately replace Jiménez, Vaughn, or Abreu.
Put it another way: if the money that it takes to retain Abreu isn’t spent on Abreu, is anybody under the impression that it’ll be given to a player who can deliver a similar impact in the lineup, much less in the locker room?
To a degree, we already went through this with Carlos Rodón last winter. Why, many asked, do we need to keep Rodón when Michael Kopech is ready to step into his rotation spot? The answer now, as it was then, is simple: The White Sox do not have the developmental chops of the Astros, Dodgers, Yankees, or other teams that routinely replace departed stars from within. If Sox management thinks they need to let a player go because they already have too much talent at the position, history shows they’re almost certainly wrong — point blank.
The elephant in the room that you’ve been waiting for me to mention is health. It may very well be that Jiménez is incapable of playing more than perhaps 80 to 100 games in the field without health issues.
Here’s the crux of this article: If you’ve paid attention to the last few years — and acknowledge the general nature of a 162 game baseball season — there’s little reason to believe there won’t be enough space at DH to accommodate Jiménez’s injury history.
Consider this: If Vaughn remains in the lineup for the next two weeks, it’ll be the first time either he or Jiménez surpasses 130 games played in a season. They’ve combined for seven injured list stints in their brief careers, and they’ve been prohibited from playing more than a few times a week for a not-insignificant chunk of the time they’ve spent not on the IL. If you think there won’t be enough at-bats at DH to go around among the three sluggers in 2023, you’re probably incorrect, just as those who projected that Rodón’s innings wouldn’t be necessary in 2022 were far, far off.
And if I’m the one who turns out to be wrong, and we get a full 150 games of availability from the trio? No complaints here.
There’s also the question of making space for Yasmani Grandal when he isn’t catching. But after posting a sub-replacement level 2022 season, there’s no reason to allocate space for Grandal when he’s unable to sit behind the plate. This free agent market is saturated with affordable, platoon-friendly catchers who know how to swing the bat. If Grandal returns to previous levels of production, then the Sox have an excellent problem on their hands. But at age 34 and with 8,000 innings behind the plate on Grandal’s knees, it would be a mistake to bank on it.
Let’s imagine the state of affairs if Abreu does leave and the money isn’t spent on an equally impactful hitter — the most likely outcome, if we’re being frank. Assuming he picks up his no-brainer option, AJ Pollock would handle full-time left field duties while Vaughn heads to first and Jiménez to DH as Colás presumably inherits right field. What happens in the event that Pollock, who has now failed to break 1 WAR in three of four seasons, doesn’t rebound? Pollock missed at least 45 games in five of six seasons prior to 2022, including the bulk of several of those years. If he, Colás, or Robert were to miss any time — and it would be incredibly foolish to plan on them not doing so — the team is stuck with one of two options: Roll with a viable fourth outfielder and possibly sacrifice a large chunk offensive production, or return Jiménez to left field, which only leaves them in same spot as before but with Jake Burger or Gavin Sheets in the space where Abreu used to be.
If you believe that Vaughn will play 150 games at first base while Jiménez remains healthy all season on top of Pollock doing the same and finding his offensive groove again at age 36, then sure, let Abreu go somewhere else. I’m comfortable in predicting that’s not going to happen.
As miserable as it’s been to watch the outfield, DH, and first base juggling act among those four, the way to solve that issue isn’t by letting by far the most reliably healthy and productive of those hitters go somewhere else. Rather than repeat the mistakes of last offseason, the priority should simply be to retain the All-Star talent they have in their lap. The rest can be figured out later.