The Winter’s Hidden Winner

When you think about which team has had the best off-season, you probably think about the teams that have done the most, or at least, have done the most to improve their chances of winning in 2014. The Nationals added Doug Fister for a song, and not even a hit song; more like a break-up track from a mediocre 1990s boy band. The Cardinals got underrated contributors in Peter Bourjos, Jhonny Peralta, and Mark Ellis, and now their biggest problem is deciding whether to carry four or five relievers who each throw 100 mph. And yet, it is possible that when we look back on the winter of 2013, the best series of off-season moves will not belong to either Washington or St. Louis, nor any other 2014 contender, but instead, to the stealthy rebuild happening on the south side of Chicago.

The White Sox were pretty terrible in 2013, and realistically, they’re not likely to be all that good in 2014 either. They haven’t made the kinds of moves that are going to turn a franchise around overnight, but then again, teams who have tried those kinds of moves lately haven’t been very happy with the results, as the 2012 Marlins and 2013 Blue Jays will attest. Instead, GM Rick Hahn is taking a measured approach to the White Sox rebuild, and this off-season, he’s focused on making smaller moves that might not have made headlines, but could eventually be seen as terrific long term acquisitions that helped pave the way for the next good White Sox roster.

Their big splash of the winter came in October, when other teams were still focused on the postseason, as they shelled out $68 million to sign Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu. $68 million for an unproven player who has to hit to have value could be seen as a pretty big risk, but because it’s spread out over six years, it’s actually not that significant of a commitment. For comparison, the Mets committed a total of $67 million to Curtis Granderson and Chris Young for five years between the two; the Twins gave Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes $73 million over seven combined years. This kind of money buys you a lot of risk, whether you spend it on players with MLB experience or not.

Only with Abreu, there is some real upside here. For one, the White Sox signed him for his age 27-32 seasons, which are generally considered to be the peak years for most hitters. While many free agents are signing multi-year deals that will carry them into their mid-30s, the White Sox locked up Abreu’s prime and haven’t really committed to much of his decline phase at all, so it’s unlikely that his skills will decline that dramatically during this contract.

Power is an absurdly expensive tool to try and acquire in free agency — just look at the reported asking price for Nelson Cruz, an aging mediocre player coming off a PED suspension — and the White Sox have given themselves a chance to add a quality big league slugger in his prime for a moderate price. There is some chance that they’re just completely wrong about him and that they wasted $68 million on a guy who can’t hit big league pitching, but this is the kind of risk a rebuilding team should be taking. Rather than throwing their cash at aging players coming off mediocre seasons, the White Sox bet big on a guy whose best days should still be in front of him.

We’ve seen that same pattern emerge in the two significant trades Hahn has made as well, and in both cases, he’s managed to pluck a potentially interesting player from the Diamondbacks without sacrificing any real pieces from the White Sox future. While Chicago was considered the third wheel in the Mark Trumbo trade, simply serving as the conduit to help the D’Backs and Angels trade hitting for pitching, I wouldn’t be stunned if Eaton and the White Sox ended up as the big winners of the deal.

Eaton is the kind of players that often gets overlooked; good at a lot of things without being great at any one particular thing. He draws walks, makes contact, has some power, and plays good enough defense to hold down center field, and while he’s not a burner, he’ll provide some value as a baserunner as well. This is kind of the template for an underrated contributor, and Eaton could easily follow in the footsteps of guys like Shane Victorino, David DeJesus, Coco Crisp, and Denard Span as quality big league outfielders who don’t necessarily stand out until you appreciate their contributions over an entire season. In Eaton, the White Sox may have just found an average or better center fielder who is under team control for five more years, and all it cost them was a swingman who probably fits better in a relief role than in the rotation anyway.

And then, in a similar kind of swap, Hann shipped closer Addison Reed to Arizona in exchange for third base prospect Matt Davidson. Reed’s a decent arm, but as a guy with a lot of saves of his resume, he was going to command some pretty serious paychecks in arbitration, so his days of providing value above and beyond his salary were coming to an end. Reed could easily be the next Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, or Chris Perez, all of whom were valuable assets as young cheap closers, only to see their value tank even before they reached free agency.

Rather than seeing that happen in a White Sox uniform, Hahn used Reed’s trade value to acquire a young third baseman with enough skills to compete for a big league job in spring training, and yet, they’ll retain his rights for the rest of the decade. Davidson isn’t a sure fire big leaguer, but even if he’s just an average hitter and fields the position at a passable level, he’ll be a useful player keeping the team from embarrassing themselves and won’t cost them any money to do so.

In Abreu, Eaton, and Davidson, the White Sox have added a combined 17 years of team control. The big knock against all three is that they don’t project as stars, and might top out as solid average players, but solid average players aren’t cheap — see Jason Vargas, Scott Feldman, and Omar Infante, for instance — and the White Sox will pay the three of them a combined $8 million next year. Even in Abreu’s “expensive years”, the trio probably won’t cost as much as a single season of Shin-Soo Choo, who might not even be a better player than Eaton for that much longer.

While other teams have made big splashes, the White Sox have had the kind of low-key off-season that might look surprisingly prescient in hindsight. They’ve bet on interesting young players, and while it probably won’t manifest in terms of a playoff berth in 2014, the moves the team is making now have put them back on the path to respectability.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Michael Schieve
Michael Schieve

I’m not sure of the exact quote, but Brian Kenny has said it on Clubhouse Confidential. Brian says that Bill James has said that if you’re average everywhere you’ll be very good.