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November 8, 2010

GM for a Day

Chicago White Sox

by Ben Lindbergh

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Kenny Williams hasn’t always seen eye to eye with either PECOTA or his human counterparts, but the White Sox GM has managed to maintain his position for a full decade, experiencing considerable success along the way. The collection of talent he assembled last season finished with the sixth-best record in the AL, which left the Sox six games behind the Twins in what seems to be a perennially winnable Central division. Chicago’s third-order record backed up its status as the second-best the Central had to offer.

Still, despite their successful record, it takes a little digging to see what the White Sox did well. Although Ozzie Guillen frequently and vocally took pride in his players’ lack of strikeouts, it should have given him pause that the only AL team to strike out less frequently was the Royals, whom it generally hasn’t been a good idea to emulate at the major-league level in recent years. The Pale Hose finished ninth in the AL with a .259 TAv, though they were just a few points away from placing among the top half of teams. They didn’t excel on the basepaths, where they surrendered four runs overall, and performed particularly badly when attempting to steal, ranking 12th in the AL—ahead of the Royals and Angels—and 26th in MLB in EqSBR (which could be at least partially rectified, in the absence of better base stealers, by flashing fewer green lights from the dugout).

The Sox certainly weren’t standouts on defense, ranking 28th in MLB and 13th in the AL (again, ahead of only the Royals, which seems to be a theme) in PADE. We can’t blame U.S. Cellular Field for their failure to record outs in the field because their AL ranking doesn’t improve when looking at plain old unadjusted defensive efficiency. That shoddy glovework obscures the aspect of the game at which the Sox were strongest: pitching. Chicago managed only the eighth-best ERA in the AL, but that’s U.S. Cellular talking: the White Sox staff posted a 107 ERA+, the third-best showing in the league.

If all of that doesn’t sound quite like it should add up to a .543 winning percentage, remember that we haven’t accounted for at least one factor: situational performance. Much like the Twins in 2008 (though not nearly to the same degree), the Sox got a little extra out of their offense by racking up hits when they were most beneficial. On the whole, the American League managed a .720 OPS with the bases empty, and a .739 OPS with runners in scoring position. The Sox put up a .735 OPS with none on, and upped their offensive game to the tune of a .783 OPS w/RISP. The fact that the team also earned the second-fewest intentional walks in the league suggests that much of that difference was “real,” though probably not sustainable.

Knowing Williams, the Sox are in for another aggressive offseason. This is the guy who gave up Daniel Hudson and a substantial chunk of Jerry Reinsdorf’s change to acquire Edwin Jackson and Manny Ramirez in pursuit of a longshot division title last season, after all. I’ll be clearing out of his office tomorrow, but in the time as GM left to me, I’ll be pursuing a similar course. The Twins aren’t unassailable, and the White Sox are close enough to make some hay before a wave of young talent washes into Kansas City, potentially tightening up the top of the division. So, how can the Sox best improve their fortunes for 2011?

The most obvious route to success might be a defensive overhaul in the vein of those successfully engineered by the Rays, Mariners, and Reds in recent years. In addition, it’s worth noting that the Pale Hose hardly qualify as a clutch of spring chickens. Last year, Guillen fielded the league’s second-oldest collection of hitters, and its third-oldest collection of pitchers. Their age certainly didn’t come back to haunt them in the DL department, but they could still stand to get younger. If the Sox could acquire some glove men while simultaneously turning the clock back on their graying roster, the South Siders would be better positioned for both 2011 and beyond

Before making a single move, the Sox have roughly $80 million committed to next year’s roster, which restricts their financial flexibility. That figure is due to rise after arbitration, as John Danks, Carlos Quentin, Bobby Jenks, and Tony Pena are in for raises. The Sox would be wise to invest in an extension for Danks, buying out his final arbitration years and initial free-agent opportunities at a team-friendly rate while giving the lefty some financial security in exchange for a moderate sacrifice in earning potential down the road.

Jenks brought home $7.5 million last season and could be in line for a raise to the $9 million range in his third year of arbitration, but he’s more likely to be non-tendered or traded than to receive it. The Sox can find cheaper alternatives in the back end of the bullpen without making much of a sacrifice in the win column—Matt Thornton is already on board and a resurgent J.J. Putz could and should be re-signed for less than Jenks would cost—but it’s worth noting that the incumbent closer turned in his best defense-independent performance in the midst of posting a career-high ERA (thanks to a .368 BABIP) and retains significant value. The Sox should assess the market for his services around the league as the arbitration deadline approaches. Jenks’ departure would leave the bullpen a tad thin, and while Chris Sale has starting-pitcher potential, the Sox possess enough rotation depth to let him linger in the pen for one more season.  

The team’s most flagrant defensive offenders were Quentin, Paul Konerko, and Mark Teahen. Konerko, who happens to be the team’s highest-profile free agent, will turn 35 before Opening Day and will be seeking a multi-year pact in the wake of his career-best offensive season. With Dayan Viciedo in place for the future, the Sox could cut ties with Konerko and seek a single-year commitment with the likes of Carlos Pena, Russell Branyan, or Adam LaRoche, avoiding a future albatross and improving on defense while adding some pop from the left side (an attribute which the 2010 team sorely lacked).

The team is stuck with Teahen thanks to last winter’s ill-advised extension but can still seek to minimize his exposure in the field. Last year’s hot-corner combo of Teahen and Omar Vizquel (who’s already been re-signed) earned points for imagination, but fell well short of the mark on both sides of the ball. Teahen’s defense was bad enough to inspire sprawling flow charts, and his work at the plate did nothing to deliver him above replacement level. Adrian Beltre is believed to be uninterested in any teams located outside of Boston or the west coast, but the Sox could wrangle another third baseman with a Seattle pedigree.

Jose Lopez handled his transition to the hot corner capably in 2010, and the Sox could rid themselves of Teahen while buying low after the Venezuelan’s BABIP-deflated 2010, reaping a substantial return in additional power as a result of his move from Safeco Field to the Cell. Failing a trade or an unlikely free-agent coup with Beltre, the Sox should hand the keys to the position to Brent Morel, whose translated Triple-A production last season suggests that he could outhit Teahen (who could spot start at all four corners) while wielding a far superior glove.

Regardless of whether Quentin seems physically capable of playing the field, his glove should be put into cold storage. If the Sox like his chances of staying healthy, he should be penciled in at DH, where almost anything he could do would trump Mark Kotsay’s 2010 contributions. If Quentin's continued fragility seems to be on the agenda, well, it just wouldn’t be a “GM for a Day” article without the ceremonial invocation of Adam Dunn. Williams pushed hard for the Big Donkey at the deadline, and while signing him now might stretch the budget to its breaking point, the OBP boost would do wonders.

Assuming it’s too late to make that Guillen-for-Mike Stanton swap happen, the Sox should look into the possibility of acquiring Luke Scott to fill Quentin’s shoes in the field. Scott’s days in right field were put on hold when he became a teammate of Nick Markakis, but the southpaw could still out-field Quentin while upgrading the offense. One almost reflexively feels the urge to extend the outfield purge in Juan Pierre’s direction, but the speedster catches almost everything in left and added a full win’s worth of value on the base paths last season. The Sox can live with what he has to offer, though batting him somewhere in the lineup that wouldn’t result in his coming to the plate over 700 times would be a nice touch.

The catching situation remains somewhat unsettled. After six years of service in Chicago, A.J. Pierzynski is a free agent and looking for a multi-year pact. The White Sox picked up their option on Ramon Castro as insurance against Pierzynski’s departure, so they needn’t let the veteran lefty hold them hostage. The team should offer arbitration to the incumbent starter (who qualifies as “Type A” in more than one respect) and reap the rewards in the draft if he proves unwilling to settle for a single-year deal. Castro will likely continue to hit well in the Cell, and the Pale Hose can complement him with tarnished prospect Tyler Flowers, who looked ready to replace Pierzynski in 2009, but went backwards both behind and at the plate in the International League last season.

The sun is setting on my day as White Sox GM, which surprisingly passed without a single reality show appearance or verbal spat with my manager. I leave the Sox much as I found them: within striking distance of their division rivals. Complacency can kill a baseball team, but Kenny Williams will never be convicted of that particular crime. His aggressive approach to roster construction should serve the Sox well as they attempt to put the final pieces in place for another crack at playoff contention.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  A.J Pierzynski,  A.J. Pierzynski

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