Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Evaluating the offseason: Big long update

It’s still a long time before pitchers and catchers report, but if rumors of another big trade just around the corner are true, we might as well get a head start at looking at how White Sox GM Kenny Williams is reshaping his championship roster.

Let’s start with the first and biggest:

Traded Aaron Rowand and two minor league pitchers for Jim Thome:

Knowing that Paul Konerko could be on his way out the door, and that Frank Thomas might not be able to play in 2006, Williams decided it was worth the risk of taking on Thome, who saw his 2005 season abbreviated by injuries.

Some of that risk is mitigated by the fact that Philadelphia is paying almost half of the money owed to the 35-year old slugger. That means he’ll only cost the Sox about $8 million per season just three years after the Phillies gave him a six-year, $75 million contract.

But it’s still a huge risk. Here’s what Thome has done the last few years:





















That’s a pretty disturbing trend. But I’m less alarmed for a couple reasons.

The first is that Thome has had OPS+ seasons of 131, 125, 158, 166, 155, 152, 142, 132, 169, 191, 151, 148 and 83 in seasons going back to 1993. There are only two outliers here. The first is the 191 he put up in 2002, his last year in Cleveland and the season that earned him a $75 million payday. The other is his dismal 2005 where injuries halted his streak of excellence.

So while the table above looks like an aging slugger crashing hard from his peak years put up during his prime, 2003-04 was really just a continuation of what could be a Hall-of-Fame career even without the monster ’02 campaign.

And make no mistake about it, Thome is a devastating hitter. His career on-base percentage of .408 is something the Sox could desperately use in their lineup. And even if Thome’s best days are behind him, consider this: in 2005, the aging Thome posted a .360 OBP despite posting only a .207 batting average. The highest OBP on the Sox last year? Konerko’s career-best .375.

In other words, his secondary skill set is still there. So if he can rebound from his injuries and even play as a shadow of himself in his glory years, Thome is an upgrade to the middle of the lineup, where we’ve fortunately seen the last of Carl Everett (.311 OBP).

Of course, there is also the talent the Sox gave up, and that has to figure into the mix as far as how this trade is evaluated.

Aaron Rowand could be the best defensive outfielder in baseball. But I think it’s time to admit that his great hitting year of 2004 was probably an anomaly.











That the Sox have a carbon copy of Rowand in Brian N. Anderson ready to take over the job in center makes it an easy decision. Rowand probably won’t get any better with the glove, or with the bat. That’s not to say he’s not still a good player. He is, and his defense in center is a big reason the Sox pitching staff was so successful. But by the same token, his value will never be higher than it is right now. The Sox were wise to cash him in. I hope he’s appreciated in Philadelphia, where he’ll be a great fit playing between Pat Burrell and the defensively overrated Bobby Abreu (Gold Glove or no).

Daniel Haigwood and Gio Gonzalez are a pair of good left-handed pitching prospects. But they’re still only prospects in the same way Corwin Malone was a prospect years ago. It’s a dangerous game to flip everyone in your farm system for the here and now, but with a wealth of minor league pitchers, it’s not a bad idea to capture value from some of them before they become casualties to pitching’s war of attrition.

Re-signed Paul Konerko to a 5-year, $60 million contract:

On the surface, this is too many years and too much money. Nobody would have given Konerko this kind of contract going into 2005, and nobody was really interested in trading for him before either of the last two seasons because his price tag of about $8.5 million per annum was deemed excessive for the type of player he is (an aging first baseman of less-than-spectacular hitting prowess).

Now Konerko is going to make $12 per season. That, my friends, is what a big postseason will do for you.

However, I’m not that down on this signing. Yes, it does sting that it effectively ended Frank Thomas’ career in a White Sox uniform. And yes, Konerko’s performance on the field could never merit this kind of cash (he has a career OPS of .837 and OPS+ of 114 with his prime likely behind him). But there are two reasons why it makes sense for the Sox.

The first is that Konerko will provide a guaranteed quality in 2006 that Thomas just can’t, simply because he should be healthy, and should be able to post a .900 OPS in more than 600 plate appearances. That is important if the Sox hope to mount a serious title defense.

The second reason, which also happens to be tied to the first, is that the Sox really have to hit the ground running in ’06 if they want to capitalize on their success in winning a title by expanding their fan base in and around Chicago.

The Cubs have held a stranglehold over the hearts and minds of most Chicago-area baseball fans. In my opinion, the reasons for this are many. But I think one of the more significant factors has been the availability of Cubs baseball via WGN television for more than a generation.

Cable TV, however, is changing this. Now anyone with basic cable through Comcast in the Chicago area can watch every Cubs and Sox game. The market for baseball fans is there for both teams to exploit, and there’s no more crying foul about one team having a built-in media advantage by merit of its shared ownership with a broadcasting behemoth.

Letting the best hitter from your championship team leave, no matter how weak a distinction that may be, is not a way to capture the attention of casual fans who are known for their fickle affections. You just can’t argue with the guy on the street stuff like performance value vs. opportunity cost for bringing back one of a team’s most popular player.

From a marketing standpoint, it then becomes worthwhile to overpay Konerko a bit beyond what you would normally hand over to a player of his ilk. That, combined with his ability to help the team start strong in 2006, could help the team make inroads to a fan base that could support a team with one of the highest payrolls in baseball. That would be worth it, even if the Sox do have to eat the last couple years of the deal.

Traded Damaso Marte for Rob Mackowiak:

This was my favorite move of the offseason, and not just because Mackowiak is an Oak Lawn native.

Let’s start with what the Sox gave up. Marte was pretty much finished with the Sox. He imploded so badly last season that even with his solid overall numbers, even with his history of success dating back to the 2002 season, he was never going to have a role with this Chicago team ever again.

Despite that, Williams was still able to flip the lefty reliever for one of the best utility men in baseball.

Just looking at the numbers, Mackowiak’s .742 career OPS screams that he’s nothing special. But look at how his numbers break down in lefty/righty splits.


vs. LHP

vs. RHP










Mackowiak is stretched when asked to bat 500 times in a season because he has to go up against left-handed pitching, which absolutely kills him. However, he’s a legitimately good hitter against right-handed hurlers.

That’s a good thing, because look at what Sox third baseman Joe Crede has been doing against pitchers the last few years:

vs. LHP

vs. RHP










Outside of 2004, when Crede was just plain terrible against everyone, the 27-year old has been better against left-handed pitching than he has been against righties.

Now, I’m not suggesting a straight platoon. Crede is still the superior hitter with more room for upside, and he and Mackowiak are worlds apart in the fielding department with Crede taking the advantage. But with Crede’s back necessitating more days off in 2006, getting Mackowiak’s left-handed bat in the lineup against a number of right-handed foes makes for a good combination that can maximize both players’ strengths, and minimize their weaknesses.

But here’s another reason to like this trade. Consider the other bench options the Sox carried around last year. These guys all had more than 100 at-bats:





Pablo Ozuna




Timo Perez




Willie Harris




Chris Widger




Geoff Blum




*Totals from White Sox and Padres

That group is just downright putrid. Should Ozuna’s batting average fall from the .276 he posted in 2005, he instantly becomes a Black Hole of Offensive Death. Timo the Terrible lived up to that moniker. I guess I can’t complain too much about Widger because he still has a little pop in his bat, and even though he’s in Brad Ausmus territory, the Sox aren’t throwing 600 plate appearances at him. Harris can get on base and has some speed, so he has his uses off the bench. But World Series heroics aside, why did we trade for Blum?

The Sox’ biggest weakness of a year ago was the awful bench. Bringing in Mackowiak helps solve part of that problem.