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Scouting the Tradeable White Sox

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With the other Chicago team now looking to follow their Northern neighbours into Tanksville, there will be plenty of players available.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

So a thing happened yesterday morning. It was a momentous thing, easily the biggest thing we’ve seen happen so far this hot stove season. (With all apologies to Jaime Garcia and the players for whom he was traded.)

Said thing, of course, was the blockbuster trade between the Red and White Sox, which saw Chris Sale, one of the top, say, five best pitchers in baseball, head to Boston in exchange for literally all the prospects. It’s hard to hate either side of the deal, honestly, at this point; the Red Sox get another ace pitcher to stick into their rotation along with 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and, oh yeah, David Price. From the White Sox end of things, though, this trade has the potential to turn into baseball’s version of the Herschel Walker deal, and that’s pretty tough to find fault with.

This trade really signaled two things to the rest of baseball: one, any package you thought of putting together for any player from this point forward will probably have to be upped by about 40%, and two, the White Sox are now open for business. There’s a fresh carcass out here now, and the hyenas should be along shortly.

Ben Markham already wrote a column yesterday evening detailing what this state of affairs could mean for the Cardinals in terms of the player they would most likely be pursuing from the White Sox; namely, mediocre-center-fielder-turned-all-world-right-fielder Adam Eaton, who I certainly would have interest in seeing the Cards acquire. I would prefer it if Eaton were acquired as part of an overarching plan to somehow trade for Andrew Toles to play center, move Piscotty to left, and install Eaton in right as one-third of perhaps the best defensive outfield in baseball, but somehow I suspect that’s not going to happen.

Regardless, the Eaton stuff is already out there, so I won’t spend a ton of time covering him specifically. Suffice it to say, he’s a good fit, a good player, and will cost a ton in terms of value going back in all likelihood. What that means from the Cardinals’ end of things is up to anyone’s interpretation.

What I’m going to do today is to scout the rest of the players the White Sox could be looking (or maybe should be looking), to trade as part of their new rebuild scheme. Sale is only the beginning.

Okay, first things first: the White Sox are weird. No, I don’t mean weird in that Kenny Williams delusion way those late-2000s Ozzie Guillen teams were weird, wherein multiple overbearing personalities, all of whom seemed to have different delusions present, fought over how best to steer the ship into those rocks. What I mean is this: the Chicago White Sox in 2016 were a 78-84 club. They weren’t incredibly unlucky, either; their Pythagorean Record was 78-84. Sequencing was not the issue, or at least not the simple kind of sequencing that’s apparent by run differential.

Here’s the really weird part, though: the Cardinals in 2016 were an 86-76 club. By run differential, they were an 88-74 club, so there was some bad luck/sequencing/what have you involved in that record. Some other measures even more granular put them closer to 90 wins, but I’m fine with just saying they were an upper-80s win team. If we go over to Baseball-Reference and look at the Redbirds’ top performers by WAR in 2016, we can go eight players deep, all the way to Randal Grichuk, and still be comfortably above league average. (Grichuk was worth 2.7 wins above replacement in 2016.) Alex Reyes checks in at 2.1 WAR in obviously limited action, but that’s basically average value, so we’ll cut it at eight players. Those eight players for the Cardinals were worth 27 wins above replacement on the nose, with Carlos Martinez’s 5.9 bWAR leading the pack. So just under three and a half WAR per player for the Cards’ core of production.

The White Sox, on the other hand, with their record that was eight games worse than the Cardinals’, and even further behind if we look at the other types of records, could not possibly have gotten that kind of value from their core, right?

Well, the White Sox had eight players comfortably above two wins. Nate Jones, at 2.3, is the eighth and final player to have eclipsed that mark; the ninth guy over is Miguel Gonzalez, at exactly two wins. So the White Sox and Cardinals had basically an equivalent number of players enough above 2.0 WAR that you would feel okay saying they were more productive than a league average player.

The value for the White Sox Eight: 30.1 WAR. Three full wins better than the Cardinals’ most productive portion of the roster.

There’s a column to be written here about the styles of roster construction, and how it’s possible with even a great core — which the White Sox kind of appear to have — to be sunk if the back half of your roster is just so wretched as to undo a lot of the positive. The balanced roster represents its own set of problems; a roster with diffuse value and no real weaknesses can lead to a lower ceiling, through the simple math of a limited number of roster spots and a resulting difficulty in adding to the club’s WAR total by anything but drips and drops. However, neither of those are the column I’m writing today; rather, I just want to see what else the White Sox, with their very strange, top-heavy roster construction, might have that could be of significant interest to a club like the Cardinals looking to bolster their 2017 chances.

So let’s onward and upward, shall we?

Adam Eaton, OF

Like I said, Ben covered Eaton already yesterday evening, so I won’t dwell on him too much here. Eaton was Chicago’s best player according to BRef with 6.2 wins above replacement. He’s quite good, and just turned 28 yesterday. Make your own judgment about those things.

Jose Quintana, LHP

Part of the weirdness of how the White Sox were so bad last year was the fact they had not just one, but two of the best left-handed starting pitchers in all baseball last year. By runs allowed based WAR models, Quintana was actually slightly better than Chris Sale (5.1 to 4.9), while going by FIP-based versions, he loses out to Sale by a count of 5.2 to 4.8. Regardless, the point is, Jose Quintana was essentially neck and neck with Chris Sale last year in terms of quality.

Quintana has been extraordinarily durable, throwing at least 200 innings each of the past four seasons, and has averaged almost 5 wins above replacement (Fangraphs version), over the past three years. He’s not nearly the smoke artist Sale is, having struck out between 20 and 22% of batters faced each of the past three seasons, compared to the 25%+ (and occasionally 30%+), numbers Sale regularly puts up. Still, Quintana strikes out a healthy number of hitters, doesn’t walk many, and excels at inducing suboptimal contact. (He’s especially good at getting popups.)

Contract-wise, Quintana is crazy cheap, much like Sale. He’s signed through 2018 for just under $15 million total, and has a pair of $10.5 million options for 2019 and 2020. Both of those come with $1 million buyouts.

Value: Extreme

Cost to acquire: Almost certainly prohibitive.

Todd Frazier, 3B

Frazier was the White Sox’s big acquisition last offseason, as they picked him up from the Cincinnati Reds as part of the Reds’ somewhat bungled teardown efforts. Frazier’s first season in Chicago didn’t go quite as well as planned, as he fell from 4.8 and 4.5 fWAR in 2014 and ‘15, respectively, to a 2.4 fWAR/3.4 bWAR total that was at least a moderate disappointment.

Frazier was actually a more patient hitter in 2016 than he had been previously, setting a career high in walk rate at 9.6%, but also struck out a bit more often. He hit for a similar amount of power as he had in 2015 (.239 ISO vs .242 in ‘15), but saw his batting average on balls in play take a nosedive to .236. The overall line of .225/.302/.464 was not extremely inspiring, to say the least, but then again, Todd Frazier has never really been much of an on-base guy.

The defense also appeared to fall off, which could be one-year noise, but could also be 30 year old legs slowing down. UZR and DRS both had Frazier as a below-average defender at third for the first time in his career, which I have to admit is a little scary when you’re talking about a player who rolled over into his fourth decade of life this year. Overall, a league-average batting line and mediocre defense at a premium position led to him being slightly above average, but definitely less valuable than he had been previously.

Frazier has always been a fairly low BABIP guy — he’s right-handed, slow, and tends to hit the ball in the air a lot (including an unfortunately high infield fly percentage) — but .236 feels unsustainably low. If you buy into a rebound in BABIP and the defense coming back to slightly above-average, Frazier could be a good buy-lowish candidate. He’s an arb-3 guy this season (he got a late start to his career), and will be a free agent this time next year.

Value: Moderate; potentially a 1-2 win upgrade on Peralta/Gyorko at third base.

Cost to acquire: Also probably fairly moderate.

Jose Abreu, 1B

The big Cuban defector had himself a really odd sort of season in 2016, with an ugly first half dragging down a brilliant second half, and leaving him ultimately a decent hitter, but not one whose bat is enough to make him a star at first base.

In the first half of 2016, Abreu posted a .756 OPS and 98 wRC+; in the second half he looked more like Jose Abreu, with an .898 OPS and 142 wRC+. He improved his plate discipline numbers in the second half, raising his walk rate two percentage points and dropping his strikeout rate by five points, and he traded in a bunch of first-half groundballs for second-half line drives. Line drive rate is fickle, so it’s worrisome to read too much into that, but the fact is Abreu squared the ball up better, and took a better approach into his plate appearances, later in the season than he had at the beginning.

Here’s the bad news: Abreu is still a first baseman, and a pretty bad one at that. Had the DH come to the National League in this new CBA, perhaps Abreu would have been a really attractive acquisition target, but with him only capable of playing a poor first base, he’s going to have limited value to the Cardinals. Picking him up would dictate either shifting Matt Carpenter back over to third base, which I consider somewhat less than ideal, or else moving Carpenter to second base and Kolten Wong elsewhere, which I consider significantly more less ideal.

Abreu has seen his production fall badly over the last two seasons since his monster debut in 2014, even while continuing to play in a bandbox stadium. He’ll be 30 years old for the 2017 season, opted out of his guaranteed deal to go year by year in arbitration (he’s under control for three more seasons, but will be paid according to arb rules the rest of the way), and has never been the most spry individual. He’s a bad baserunner and a poor defender, and unless a club bought into the second-half resurgence (which still featured less actual power than you might hope to see from this kind of player), as the norm for him going forward, Abreu is not going to be a terribly valuable piece.

Value: Moderate to Low; may not be an upgrade over Carpenter at first at all.

Cost to Acquire: Moderate to Low; lack of cost certainty and mediocre production are going to keep Abreu’s market suppressed, I think.

Nate Jones

Up until now, we’ve been looking at relatively high-end players, guys who could theoretically provide four-plus wins worth of value if they hit something close to their ceilings in 2017. Nate Jones is a different story, being a reliever.

Here’s the thing, though: Nate Jones is kind of an awesome reliever. He had a fantastic season back in 2013, was hurt and missed most of 2014, came back in limited action in 2015, and then returned to full duty this past year and was fantastic again. He’s one of the harder throwers in the game, with a fastball that averages right around 97 mph, and an outstanding slider to complement it. Nate Jones is essentially the Platonic ideal you have in your head of a power reliever.

He also has kind of a strange contract. He’s signed for the next two seasons for $6 million total (that’s less than Jonathan Broxton money), and then has three options tacked on to the back of his deal. The first two are club options; the third a mutual. There is also a clause that if he has Tommy John surgery within a certain window the option becomes a club one and the value drops, but...it’s all a little too complicated for me. The bottom line is this: Jones is very affordable over the next two seasons, and after that you have tons of flexibility in terms of how long you want to continue employing him.

In 2016, Jones struck out almost 30% of the batters he faced, walked 5.5% of them, and rolled up an above-average groundball rate. He does basically everything you would want, in short. Now, he wouldn’t really be filling a position of need for the Cardinals; they already have what looks like a potentially elite bullpen for 2017. But we’ve seen that it’s possible, if a team can’t find a good way to fill a need, to double down on a strength and try to gain value there instead. If the White Sox are now tearing their team down and shooting for a window three years away, an elite reliever under control for cheap for the next two seasons (at least), is literally the perfect asset to move.

Value: High, but limited by reliever status.

Cost to Acquire: It’s a very valuable contract, and Jones is an elite relief arm. Still, he’s had injury issues in the past and will turn 31 soon. He’ll be expensive, but not nearly to the Andrew Miller/Chapman sort of level.

Looking at the rest of the White Sox roster, I don’t see a ton of other players worth covering here. Sure, there are other assets I might like to acquire — I’ll take Tim Anderson if you want to move him, sure — but most of them have more on the ‘keep them’ side of the ledger. I happen to think the best is still ahead for Carlos Rodon, and would love to get him somehow, but he’s also 23 and just beginning to really come into his own. David Robertson struggled with control and a knee injury in 2016 and could be a good buy-low candidate, but he’s also expensive over the next two years ($25 million total due), and an Established Closer, so the ask may be too high. I liked Brett Lawrie a whole lot a few years ago, when it looked like he was going to be a plus defender at third base with lots of power in the bat (in other words, Todd Frazier), but somewhere along the way Brett Lawrie just forgot how to play baseball, it seems.

Of the players here, I would certainly be interested in Eaton, and over the moon about a potential Jose Quintana acquisition. Given the asking price, though, I don’t know that I believe either is realistic.

Todd Frazier would be an interesting pickup, I suppose, if the price was right, but with the market what it is I think I would much prefer spending money and a draft pick on Justin Turner than multiple prospects on a not-that-much-younger Todd Frazier. Abreu doesn’t move the needle much for me; he has too many warts to really represent a big upgrade for the Cardinals. And Nate Jones, as good as he is, probably doesn’t present the most efficient use of resources. There are more important areas to address than another potentially dominant reliever.

Give all this, I get the feeling a trade between the White Sox and Cardinals will not be happening this offseason. As much as I want to see the Redbirds make that big upgrade I think they really do need to make, the cost looks like it just might be prohibitive in nearly all cases. I won’t go so far as to predict market paralysis, since I’ve done that in the past and it’s been proven that baseball teams will go to the mattresses more than I believed, but at some point it seems teams have to realise you can’t spend talent like Dave Dombrowski unless you inherited a stealth all-time great farm system from Ben Cherington. And even then you might only spend your talent into bankruptcy.