Two New All-Stars, and an Uncertain Future
By picking up Jake Peavy and Alex Rios, the Chicago White Sox have seriously altered the landscape in the always-winnable AL Central. Whether the change is to their advantage or not remains to be seen.
The Peavy trade came first, on July 31. Chicago bundled off its top pitching prospect in Aaron Poreda, two big-league ready arms in Clayton Richard and Adam Russell, and Single-A pitcher Dexter Carter.
The White Sox currently have the second-best ERA+ in the American League, and the starters are second in OPS against. The fourth and fifth slots, however, have been a somewhat messy of Jose Contreras, Bartolo Colon and now Carlos Torres. Adding Peavy will eliminate one of those question marks, leaving Torres and Freddy Garcia to battle over the last spot.
The Rios addition, which no one, probably including Kenny Williams, expected, doesnâ€™t fill a void as much as create a logjam. The outfield alignment of Carlos Quentin, Scott Podsednik and Jermaine Dye has been more or less fixed, with DeWayne Wise caddying in tight spots.
Rios played mostly right field in Toronto, but is unlikely to unseat the popular Dye. His starts will more probably come at the expense of Podsednik in center, and giving Quentin a blow in left from time to time.
While Ozzie Guillen sorts that out, he may as well consider whether Riosâ€™ expected production is worth the trouble. On that question, opinions vary. After two All-Star seasons, heâ€™s currently hitting .264/.317/.427. Line drives and extra base hits are down, strikeouts are up marginally. Most of his peripherals, however, have stayed steady, and his BABIP is currently at a career-low .289.
Defensively, his ultimate zone rating is pedestrian (+.01) after two seasons well above average, including a +23.9 in 2008. Heâ€™s played 103 games in right field and 8 in center.
As far as 2009 is concerned, the White Sox have to be considered the favorites for the AL Central. On August 10, they stand three games back of the Tigers, who are hardly world beaters. The Twins are two games behind the White Sox, but look worse than that as of late.
Among the three, the Twins are the best hitting team, but have a canyon of a gap at the bottom of the order. Detroit and Chicago are similar in runs per game and OPS; with Rios, the Sox should pull ahead. Similarly, the three teams have similar pitching stats. The Tigersâ€™ acquisition of Jarrod Washburn, and the Twinsâ€™ trade for Carl Pavano, are unlikely to produce the same effect as Peavy (when he gets healthy, reportedly in late August).
The problem for the White Sox is what happens after they win the AL Central. In the playoffs, theyâ€™ll likely face either the Yankees, Red Sox or Angels, though Tampa Bay and Texas are also in the hunt. A series victory over one of those teams would be impressive; over two of them, downright shocking.
Of course, thatâ€™s no way for Kenny Williams to think. After all, the 2005 White Sox were by no means the favorites going into the playoffs, but with much of the same cast they have todayâ€”Konerko, Dye, Pierzynski, Podsednik, Buerhle, Contreras, Jenksâ€”they made a nearly flawless run to the title.
Skeptics, however, will point to the inevitable deluge. In Peavy and Rios, Chicago has taken on over $120 millionâ€”and none of it comes off the books for at least three more years.
That, obviously, presents a few problems for the team down the road. In the short term, it almost certainly precludes them resigning Dye and Jim Thome after their contracts expire this winter. Thome made $13 million this year; Dye made $11.5 million, and has a mutual option for $12 million for 2010, with a $1 million buyout.
Podsednikâ€™s expiring contract is much more modest, but was viewed at the time as an opportunity to prove he can still play at the major league level. He has proven that, and should be looking for a substantially larger check in 2010. Contreras and Jenks also both need to be re-signed or bid farewell this winter; next year, Konerko and Pierzynski are up.
So what are the White Sox to do? If they canâ€™t afford to re-sign Thome and Dye, they canâ€™t afford to go get similar production on the free agent market. By acquiring two players with long contracts, they essentially did their free agent shopping several months in advance.
Theyâ€™re then left with two options: plugging holes with more moderately priced free agents, or promoting from within. Going the free agency route in this instance would be tricky. With Rios signed through 2014 and Peavy through 2012, the team has set itself up to be competitive for several years. They donâ€™t have the money, though, to sign a star free agent to a long-term deal. Theyâ€™ll more likely look to make another Podsednik-like pick-up, signing someone to a low-risk deal and hope for the best.
That leaves them reliant on their farm system, which, unfortunately, provides no clear answers. In the Peavy trade, they dispatched all of their pitching depth, including the one personâ€”Poredaâ€”who could have made an immediate impact. Whether or not Contreras is re-signed, heâ€™s no longer a viable starter, and certainly not at his current $9 million price tag. If and when the White Sox need to plug a gap in their top four next year, theyâ€™ll be hard pressed for an internal solution.
Offensively, catching prospect Tyler Flowers is a good bet to replace Pierzynski in 2011, but theyâ€™ll need help before then to replace Thomeâ€™s bat in the middle of the lineup. One man who may have helped, Brandon Allen, was traded away for bullpen help. Cuban prospect Dayan Viciedo, a big-name signee last fall, is hitting .277/.314/.386 in Double-A. Heâ€™s only 20 years old, and still is on track to help in Chicago, but wonâ€™t be ready for next season.
In sum, by committing substantial sums of money to Peavy and Rios, the White Sox have severely compromised their chances over the next several years. Their 2005 core is aging, they donâ€™t have the money to replace it in free agency, and they donâ€™t have the bodies to move up from the farm system. Peavy and Rios on their own are valuable pieces, but the money is a killerâ€”and itâ€™s not going to change anytime soon.
For historically minded White Sox fans, thereâ€™s an interesting parallel to be drawn between the 2009 team and the 1997 team, that of the notorious White Flag Trade. That team was in third place, three games out of first in the division, when it traded three key pitchers for six minor leaguers. Fans, predictably enough, were unimpressed.
This year, the Sox were 1.5 games out on Deadline Friday, with the less-than-daunting Tigers ahead of them. Instead of throwing in the towel, they dealt for one of the premier arms in the game, and (perhaps inadvertently) picked up a solid young slugger at a price a touch above market value. For it, they relinquished all the pitchers in the pipeline.
The 1997 Sox finished 80-81, six games behind the Indians. The 2009 Sox should do better than that. Will it be better enough, though, to justify the cost? Thatâ€™s a tougher question to answer; the resolution may come back to bite the team in the next half decade.