While the Tigers and the Indians sit atop the division, the AL Central is still a relatively open race. The White Sox and the Twins might sit 5 and 6.5 games out, respectively, but the failure of both the leaders to establish dominance has left questions open. All four of these teams have flaws that could certainly haunt them in the second half. That should open up opportunities for the two trailers to make up ground. The White Sox probably stand the best chance due to their strong pitching staff, which ranks fourth in the league with 14.6 WAR. They’ll need some help on the other side of the ball, though, if they want to seriously turn things around.
I’ve written previously about the team’s folly of using Juan Pierre at the top of the lineup, and at all. Yet he’s not the only one dragging down the offense. In fact, the entire White Sox outfield has accumulated just 1.8 WAR this season, and that includes Carlos Quentin‘s 2.4 WAR. While Pierre ranks the lowest at -0.7, the man standing to his left isn’t far behind. Alex Rios has produced -0.6 WAR this season. If this were just a half-season of futility the Sox might have hope for the future. But this is something that has been going on for about a year now.
The White Sox knew they were taking a risk when they claimed Rios off waivers from the Blue Jays in August, 2009. A year and a half earlier he had signed a seven-year contract worth nearly $70 million, which at the time didn’t seem like a bad deal for the Jays. Rios had always been hyped as a prospect, and in 2006 and 2007 he had produced 8.6 WAR on the strength of a .367 wOBA and a 17.5 UZR. At just 27 years old when he signed the extension, Rios figured to help the Jays throughout his prime years. He did decline a bit in 2008, producing just a .350 wOBA, but he also produced the best fielding numbers of his career. It was his second straight season with 5 or greater WAR.
In 2009 things took a turn for the worse, as is clearly evident in Rios’s stat lines. The Blue Jays at the time were clearly giving up on the present. They nearly traded Roy Halladay at the deadline, and were sure to do so in the winter. Yet it seemed unlikely at the time that they could unload the contracts of Rios and Vernon Wells, given their performances and future monies owed. But when they placed Rios on waivers in the standard August fashion, the White Sox claimed him. After a day or so of mulling the options, the Jays decided to cut bait and save the money. The White Sox were saddled with five years and $63.2 million. But with a player of Rios’s potential it might have worked out.
At the start of 2010 it appeared that the Sox had made a savvy move. Rios hit well enough in April, and then surged to a .471 wOBA in May. That was part of a White Sox rally that put them back in control of the AL Central. In June his performance dipped a bit, but not alarmingly slow; after a month like he had in May it was completely excusable. But from there his numbers dipped, to a .310 wOBA in July, .313 in August, and .297 in September. The Sox missed the playoffs and had to go back to the drawing board.
This year Rios has played like one of the worst players in baseball. We know he’s not one of the worst, at least in terms of talent. He’s put it on display before. But it’s not as though this is just a half-season slump that we can expect to correct itself. In the last calendar year Rios has hit .233/.282/.346, which amounts to a .277 wOBA. That ranks 137th out of the 140 qualified players. He has produced just 0.2 WAR in that time as well, which ranks 134th. Given this poor year-long performance, it’s tough to expect an improvement from Rios in the second half.
The problem extends even if we go back two calendar years. In that span Rios has hit .251/.299/.395, a .305 wOBA, and has been worth 2.6 WAR. That ranks 114th out of 133 qualified players. If we take that back even another year, which would include Rios’s worthwhile 2008 season — and give us the magical three-year sample for UZR — he has produced 6.5 WAR, which ranks 89th out of 124. His batting runs above average in the last three years is -10.3, which ranks 109th out of 124. Any way you look at it, his numbers are a far cry from the 8.6 WAR (29th out of 151) he produced from 2006 through 2007.
What, then, are the White Sox to do? The evidence is clearly stacked against Rios. He signed the contract coming off two superb years when he ranked among baseball’s best, but has proven to rank among the worst since signing. They’re likely not going to dump a talented player who earns a guaranteed $38 million in the next three years, and there’s absolutely no way to trade him at this point. The options look bleak beyond waiting it out. Unfortunately, given the way he has played waiting it out could do more harm than good.
Yet if the Sox want to take advantage of the wide open AL Central they’ll have to do something, not only with Rios but with Pierre as well. They have an enormous need in the outfield and aren’t well served at all by playing both of them every day. Making matters worse, they reportedly don’t have the budget to make a splash, so they can’t go out and get, say, Carlos Beltran as a half-year band-aid. That might make sense, in that they could sit Rios more often, especially against righties, while hoping that he can change something in the off-season and perhaps return to form in 2012. But a cheap outfielder who can hit righties well and who won’t cost a bounty in prospects does not exist in this market.
It appears, then, that the Sox hands are tied. They have the opportunity to do something with Pierre, but their problems cross over to Rios as well. He may well turn it around, given his talent, but it would be folly to expect that in the second half of 2011. His numbers from the last few years just don’t bear it out. Something has to change. Unfortunately, but the time it does change the Sox will likely be eliminated from contention.
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