Though Rick Hahn isn’t taking anything off the table – including, he acknowledged, a potential breaking up of the team’s young core via trade – a complete makeover is going to be a tough task for the White Sox this winter.
Even in the wake of a mighty disappointing season, trade value isn’t something to completely dismiss with an outrageously talented group, and there’d surely be plenty of heads of baseball operations willing to listen should the likes of Luis Robert, Tim Anderson or Eloy Jiménez be brought up as possible trade pieces.
But those three, along with Yoán Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease and Andrew Vaughn, represent the core of this White Sox team, the exact assemblage of players that was supposed to deliver championship contention to the South Side. Plans change, of course. But considering most, if not all, have been bothered by one injury or another, it could be easily argued that this group hasn’t really had a chance to live up to the hype.
Even if Hahn wanted to break it up, though, that’s easier said than done, with long-term contracts that seemed steals at the time getting ready to grow to larger and larger annual salaries. Those griping that the money was never spent are about to realize just how much of it was on guys already on the roster, and those aforementioned heads of baseball operations can look those prices up, too, perhaps making trading someone like, say, Moncada rather difficult. And it applies all over the field.
If Hahn was to move forward with this core intact, whether because he still believes that this combination of talented guys can produce what it was supposed to or because the contracts will force him to, there aren’t many areas on the roster that allow for an upgrade.
This all brings us to one of those few areas that does exist: second base.
The White Sox signed Josh Harrison last spring with the idea that he’d solve the second-base problem created when Hahn sent supposed core member – see, he’s done it before – Nick Madrigal to the other side of town in 2021’s much discussed deadline deal. Harrison didn’t exactly deliver offensively, despite a good stretch in the first half of the season. He ended 2022 with the same kinds of disappointing numbers found throughout the White Sox’ lineup, his a .256/.317/.370 slash line and an OPS-plus of 94 that placed him as a below-average major league hitter.
There were positives, surely, and his defensive ability stood out on what was one of the game’s worst teams in the field. Anecdotally, he seemed to shine, his season highlighted by an absolutely spectacular diving catch in the nail-in-the-coffin game against the Guardians. Statistically, he was better than most of his teammates – Moncada and Elvis Andrus were the only ones to best him in the Outs Above Average department — but not nearly as impressive as most big league second basemen, ranking 18th in the sport in Defensive Runs Saved, 24th in Outs Above Average and 26th in Fangraphs’ general defensive rating.
Underwhelming offensively and defensively describes most everyone on the White Sox’ roster this year, so there’s no point in specifically locking in on Harrison. But considering the front office’s pickle in bringing in upgrades elsewhere on the diamond, it’s a case for the team declining Harrison’s option for the 2023 season in an effort to improve the roster on both fronts.
The area there’s probably no improvement to be found, however, is in the clubhouse, and Harrison’s presence there was an immensely positive one. With José Abreu perhaps being allowed to pursue employment elsewhere, there’s already a potentially seismic shake up coming in that regard, and losing Harrison would take away another good clubhouse guy.
“I’m not going to hang my head, me personally, because I know I gave it everything I got. Hopefully everybody in here can say the same thing,” Harrison told CHGO in the season’s final days. “There’s nobody who wanted to win more than us. I’ll speak for myself, I want to win. It’s been a long time.
“There’s nothing for me to hang my head (about), because I know every time I’ve been out there on that field, or even times I wasn’t starting, I gave everything that I got.”
Is that sort of attitude – and the hope it would filter throughout the clubhouse – enough to fork over the $5.5 million it would take to bring Harrison back as the everyday second baseman? That remains to be seen. And it’s probably more a result of how Hahn plans on fitting the other pieces of his 2023 puzzle together more than it is a result of anything Harrison himself did or did not do in 2022.
Certainly, good second basemen are hard to come by. It’s unlikely that any significant number of White Sox fans were still bemoaning Madrigal’s departure as he suffered through another injury-plagued season with the Cubs, appearing in only 59 games and cratering offensively to an OPS-plus of 68 after two above-average, if injury-shortened, seasons on the South Side.
Harrison was the 30th most valuable second baseman in baseball this year, according to fWAR, and it’s hard to say that an overwhelming number of the 29 guys above him scream obvious, slam-dunk upgrade. Not to mention that there’s the matter of acquiring one of the few who do.
Only three of those 29 players are set to become free agents: Kolten Wong, Jean Segura and Jonathan Schoop. All are in their early 30s, and none solve both the offensive and defensive problems the White Sox are looking to correct. Wong was the best of that bunch this season offensively but woeful defensively. Schoop was perhaps the best defensive second baseman in baseball, but he was miserable at the plate. Segura is the de facto Goldilocks here, though right around average offensively and only slightly better than Harrison defensively. It’s quite possible all will net more than $5.5 million in free agency.
Hahn seemed more open to exploring the trade market, even if his “we’re not going to just be able to throw money at the problem” was taken well out of context by White Sox Twitter. While Hahn was saying that free agency won’t be the lone path to solving the team’s myriad issues, it’s also a fact that the payroll is pretty high – especially by White Sox standards, this year’s the largest in club history – as it is. They were the only team that ranked in the top 10 in payroll to miss the postseason.
But at least at second base, availability is a bigger issue than price in finding an upgrade, hardly as easy as it was last winter when you could point at free agents Marcus Semien, Trevor Story, Javy Báez and Eduardo Escobar as free-agent targets. It’s impossible to predict who might be available via trade. It’s easier to see that the White Sox could have a hard time removing most anyone from their current Jenga tower of a roster.
Internally, the options do not strike as thrilling. Past Harrison, depth at second base lies in Leury García, who just finished 2022 as one of the worst hitters in baseball, and Romy Gonzalez, whose offensive numbers in limited time were a relatively far cry from Harrison’s. Lenyn Sosa, perhaps, should be considered part of that conversation, too, after a strong year in the minors that featured a brief and somewhat forgettable cameo in the bigs.
For his part, Harrison explained that he signed the contract he did with the expectation that he could be on the South Side for two years. Even after what he called a “weird” 2022 season – that’s putting it mildly compared to how many fans would describe it – he believes the group of guys in the clubhouse could still have a chance to do something special.
“The (contract) option is theirs. But I think every time you sign one of those deals, you’re signing knowing this is a place you could potentially see yourself,” Harrison said. “When that path is here and we cross it, we’ll cross it. But when I signed here, it was for a reason. I thought we had a good chance. It didn’t happen this year, but we’ll see what the future holds.”
Now it’s just a wonder whether he’ll continue to be a part of that group or whether Hahn will take one of his potentially few opportunities to go find an upgrade.