Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Perfect Pickup: Chicago White Sox

Much like the Cards, the White Sox are excruciatingly close to being a serious title contender. After signing Adam Dunn to DH, they may be ready to do just that, as they’ve mostly kept together the pitching staff that led the league in WAR last season with 24.9 overall. Bobby Jenks, JJ Putz, and Freddy Garcia are gone, but the core of their bullpen and the bulk of the rotation will be the same as last year’s impressive staff.

The offense, on the other hand, could use a bit of an overhaul, as they graded out to a wRC+ of 100 that, by definition, is exactly average. As I’ve noted before, this isn’t the NFL, NBA, or NHL, where half the teams make the playoffs. Average doesn’t do it in baseball, so the White Sox will need to provide a bit more support for their men on the mound. Dunn is a good start, but the White Sox missed out on another opportunity to upgrade- and possibly even save some cash- when they re-signed AJ Pierzynski to a two-year deal worth $8 million. He’s been very pedestrian for quite a bit of time now, hovering around 2 WAR with an average of 1.86 per year over the last 5 years. Last year, he put up 1.8 WAR in 128 games, and at 34, he’s not getting any younger, making the two-year commitment a bit risky.

In addition, the White Sox do have some prospect help on the way. Though Tyler Flowers no longer has the prospect luster of a year ago after a brutal year in which he put up a .220/.334/.434 triple-slash in Triple-A, the Sox now have three catchers among their top 20 prospects, according to prospect maven John Sickels. If Flowers can regain some of his pre-2010 form, or if another of their catching prospects can continue to climb the ladder and show that they’re ready for big-league action, the Sox could find themselves in a tough situation, forced to bench Pierzynski or keep their promising prospects in the minors for longer than they’d like.

Instead of allowing the minimally productive and potentially disruptive Pierzynski to retain catching duties, I believe the Sox should have gone a different direction. Ramon Hernandez, also a free agent this offseason, ended up staying with the Reds on a one-year pact worth $3 million. Hernandez posted 2.6 WAR in only 97 games last season before relinquishing catching duties to the younger Ryan Hanigan, but Hernandez proved he can still be a productive backstop. Hernandez’s triple-slash of .297/.364/.428 compares favorably to Pierzynski’s .270/.300/.388, and his wRC+ of 113 far outpaced Pierzynski’s 78. Bill James’ projections have Pierzynski bouncing back to a wRC+ of 93 next year and Hernandez dropping to a 100, but even if they converge to the point where they perform at essentially equal levels, Hernandez will be the much better value as his deal is cheaper and shorter.

Though the White Sox may have done enough to give themselves a great shot at the AL Central title, it’s going to be a tight race where every win will count. The defending division champ Twins and much-improved Tigers will be right in the thick of things, and one good move (or one bad one) could turn the tide of this division in the direction of any of these teams. I believe the White Sox missed out on a chance to get better and conserve payroll by adding their Perfect Pickup, Ramon Hernandez.

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