The Chicago White Sox have had an active winter so far. It’s hard to say, and much too trivial to bother sussing out, whether they’ve had the most impactful, most interesting or best winter of any MLB team, but there’s no doubt they’ve had an active one. White Sox GM Rick Hahn added Adam LaRoche early in free agency, then traded for Jeff Samardzija and signed David Robertson at last week’s Winter Meetings. As Saturday night steamed ahead into Sunday morning, Hahn put another name on that list of former All-Stars acquired. Melky Cabrera has agreed to a three-year deal with Chicago, one that appears to be worth $43.5 million.
My first reaction is that this is quite a bargain for Cabrera. A tumor in his lower back caused increasing pain and hampered him in 2013, but in the other three of the last four seasons, Cabrera has been a comfortably above-average Major League outfielder. Even the dreariest evaluations of his play peg him as a two- or three-win player over that span, which would make him more than worth that money. A three-year term is somewhat stunning, coming during a run on hitters that has seen Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Victor Martinez secure four-year commitments. Unlike Cruz and Martinez (34 and 36 years of age, respectively), Cabrera just turned 30 in August, and his injury history is no more alarming (plus, a year further in his rearview mirror) than that of Markakis. The White Sox will only give up a third-round draft pick, because their first-round pick is protected and they already gave away a pick to sign Robertson, which explains why they would come in with a higher bid than most teams, but the figure itself feels drastically low. LaRoche’s two-year, $25-million contract is affordable, too. The White Sox are getting better much more cheaply than teams often do, when going this route.
Cabrera couldn’t suit Chicago’s needs better. Only four teams got worse performances from their left fielders than the Sox did in 2014, so positionally, he’s as bracing as any player Hahn could have added at this point. The Sox also struck out at the American League’s second-highest rate, and didn’t walk as much as a team must if that strikeout rate is to be worked around:
Cabrera, meanwhile, struck out only 10.8 percent of the time, the lowest rate of his career, and he did so despite the rapidly rising league-wide strikeout rate. He found an approach that allowed him to control the strike zone better than ever in 2014, swinging less and fouling off fewer pitches when he made contact:
On top of that, Cabrera is a switch-hitter with a small platoon split; has hit better on the road than at home over the course of his career; and uses a rocket arm to maintain acceptable defense in left field, though his range is below-average. He’s an all-around asset, and a much-needed patch for the top of the White Sox order.
What sticks out to me in this move, though, is the way Hahn and Co. keep snatching up all of the hitters they can hold, even as it stretches the roster at the edges. With highly-paid, non-versatile players at first base, in left field and as the designated hitter, the Sox have a less modular roster than many teams who prize positional value more than they do. This is part of the White Sox way. When they set out to address team needs, they look at a board that goes:
- Leadoff Man
- Second Hitter
- Cleanup Man
- First Baseman
- Second Baseman
- Third Baseman
- Left Fielder
- Center Fielder
- Right Fielder
- Designated Hitter
It’s not that the Sox have no concept of positional value, defensive value or flexibility. It’s just that they look to build a position-player core from the bats up. The last time they had a truly splashy offseason, it was because they signed Adam Dunn to bat alongside Paul Konerko in the middle of their order. I believe that that strategy has never been more viable than it is right now, Hitters are hitters, and hitters’ value is flatter than it’s ever been. That’s not to say Cabrera’s, LaRoche’s and Abreu’s values are undamaged by playing comparatively non-valuable positions, but the penalty is smaller than it once was. Now that there are teams who lack good hitters altogether, guys who produce with the bat have value, whether they play a position where such players are excruciatingly rare or not.
Unfortunately, despite their aggression, the Sox still have some filling in to do. The bottom half of that batting order remains tenuous. Despite Robertson’s addition, the bullpen remains an area of need and weakness. On the other hand, the additions of Samardzija, Cabrera, Robertson and LaRoche (listed, in my opinion, from most impact to least) have been achieved without giving up any of the team’s best prospects. (Indeed, Baseball America listed only one player the club ended up trading among the top 10 in the farm system.) If Hahn wants to add Philadelphia’s Chase Utley or Houston’s Jason Castro (or both! Live a little, Rick.), he has the capital to do so. Getting Cabrera, a free agent whose salary won’t freeze the team up terribly, is another step toward contending in the always-winnable AL Central in 2015.Next post: ’14 Flashback: Recollections of the Giants and Royals’ Pennant Seasons (Part 5)
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