I wouldn’t have considered it much of a question before the White Sox started spring training. But Pedro Grifol’s talk of Leury García early in camp raised eyebrows, and in the time since, Hanser Alberto has raked during Cactus League play.
Grifol’s comments might have been nothing more than coach speak, sure, but saying the team’s longest tenured player needs to compete for and win a job is not something that typically happens, particularly considering the financial commitment the White Sox made to García ahead of last season. There’s an $11 million price tag on the two remaining seasons of that commitment, and it’s not the standard operating procedure of any big league club to just wave goodbye to that kind of dough.
Here’s what Grifol had to say in the early days of camp:
“I’ve seen Leury play for a while. Leury’s a talented player. … For the most part, everybody’s competing here, other than obviously our main guys. This is spring training, I get it, but there is some competition.”
Those comments were made as part of a line of questioning about Romy Gonzalez, who that day was bumped down the depth chart at second base thanks to the team’s signing of Elvis Andrus. Gonzalez was described as someone who could play a utility-type role by Rick Hahn, and everyone went, “Hey, wait a minute, isn’t that what García does?”
García has been the subject of plenty of fan consternation over the years, though his lack of starter-level production has always come with the caveat that he’s not supposed to be a starter-level player – no matter what Tony La Russa says – and that he’s often been pressed into duty the team did not intend for him to assume, thanks mostly to significant injuries to other players.
García’s positional versatility and ability to spell a variety of everyday guys are valuable, no doubt about it. But his offensive production just hasn’t been there, for the most part, with a career on-base percentage south of .300 and a .500 OPS in 2022 that was his lowest since 2015.
Things aren’t going much better this spring, García batting just .200 in a small number of trips to the plate. He has walked twice, doubled twice and homered, as well as stolen a base.
All this in the face of Alberto, a veteran infielder who has historically mashed left-handed pitching during his career and has earned rave reviews from Grifol and others for his presence in the clubhouse, having a scorching spring at the plate. Alberto has a bonkers 1.395 OPS, with five extra-base hits and only one strikeout in a similarly limited number of plate appearances.
Of course, it was Grifol who explained that stats won’t mean much in his decision-making when it comes to judging a player’s spring and whether or not they’ve earned a job.
“I think the last thing we’re going to look at are stats. That will be last on the list. I don’t even think I’ll look at that,” he said. “We’re going to look for energy, effort, details, fundamentals. Controlling an at-bat, swinging at good pitches, not chasing. Attacking the strike zone, PFPs. All the stuff we’ve been working on. That’s how the evaluation process goes.”
That doesn’t make anything easy for us prognosticators.
There is recent precedent for this type of conundrum, the White Sox trotting Dallas Keuchel out for eight starts early last season after his career-worst 2021 campaign before cutting him loose at the end of May. Keuchel boasted an $18 million salary for the 2022 season.
In that situation, though, the White Sox still very much needed Keuchel, with Lance Lynn out for the season’s first two months recovering from spring knee surgery. Johnny Cueto’s emergence off a minor league deal made Keuchel expendable once Lynn returned.
You could argue that García is expendable right now. There’s just those $11 million potentially getting in the way.
Alberto can seemingly do what García does and do it with much more offensive reliability. He appeared at all four infield positions and in right field in only 73 games for the Dodgers last season. He’s got a career .790 OPS against lefties. And Grifol’s repeated gushing makes plenty of sense when you realize Alberto spent a whole season with Grifol when he suited up in 100-plus games for the Royals in 2021.
Familiarity is not the end all be all, but it’s a positive and could be enough to edge out García in the manager’s mind. The White Sox have already signed Andrew Benintendi to the richest free-agent deal in club history with Grifol pounding the table for him, not that he was the only proponent, of course. And Billy Hamilton, another former Royal, could end up with the team’s fourth-outfielder job, he owning familiarity with both Grifol and the White Sox from his South Side stint in 2021.
Alberto, too, is on a minor league deal, just like Cueto was, and a financial justification could be made. Cueto pitched well enough in 2022 to warrant an $18 million expenditure on a starting pitcher, the amount of money the White Sox paid Keuchel. Considering the White Sox got a new starting second baseman in Andrus for just $3 million, you could argue that between Andrus, García and Alberto, the team is paying a combined $8.5 million for its second baseman and backup infielder – even if García doesn’t make the team.
See, you can talk yourself into anything!
García, of course, has been a South Side fixture for years, boasting a White Sox tenure that predated and outlasted that of José Abreu, who went down as a franchise icon before heading to the Astros this winter. García’s clubhouse presence is a positive one, too, and regardless of how fans react to his play, he’s always been one to do his work with a big smile.
But the White Sox being almost entirely healthy to this point and a veteran presence who can win a competition for García’s role could finally squeeze the utility man out of a job. The White Sox could still go the Keuchel route and give García a month-or-two-long shot before deciding to move on, but where does that leave them with a player Grifol obviously desires in Alberto?
With Oscar Colás playing well enough to not make the right-field battle much of a battle and Grifol plotting a closer-by-committee approach in Liam Hendriks’ absence, the biggest remaining question of White Sox spring training might be this: Will the team’s longest tenured player make the Opening Day roster?
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