It takes a conscious effort to write good things about non-pitchers on the White Sox these days. I will try to do so by examining a pair of players that are hopefully a sign that the White Sox front office is getting a little bit better at solving the problems it has made for itself. I will do this in two parts, starting with center field.
Since 2005, we have seen the White Sox struggle with dead spots in the lineup; a position on the diamond where the White Sox have been unwilling or unable to find someone who can provide, at the very least, competence. Throughout that time, the White Sox have made decisions favoring short-term performance over long-term sustainability. Every year they have been going for it, never rebuilding. These two features in tandem – slots in the lineup without any contribution on offense, and a team that is mortgaging the future for the present – leads us to where we are today: an old team, without a very good farm system, and a whole lot of holes on offense.
I promised you optimism. If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably a White Sox fan, which means you must have a high tolerance for depressing nonsense, so bear with me. In the offseason following 2005, the White Sox traded Aaron Rowand (and others) to Philly for Jim Thome. This move worked out quite well, and Jim Thome was excellent in his time with the White Sox. Since then, however, we have seen the White Sox scramble to make moves to cover the hole Rowand’s departure created in center.
They thought they could just develop one of their first round picks into a major league regular – something teams do on offense from time to time, although you wouldn’t know it if you just watched the White Sox. Brian Anderson could field the position fine, but his bat was simply unplayable. Anderson and the White Sox both agreed on this eventually, parted ways, and Anderson has tried to become a pitcher instead.
Next, the White Sox tried some sort of hideous amalgam of Jerry Owens, Darin Erstad, and Rob Mackowiak. Kenny Williams traded Damaso Marte for Mackowiak, and although Macko got on base at a decent clip, clearly none of these things are serviceable CF solutions for a team with a high payroll that is trying to get back to the playoffs following two 90+ win seasons. Mackowiak would chip in in center in 2006, but by 2007 the White Sox realized that he could only really field in a corner outfield spot, and his bat didn’t play well enough there either. 2007 was another failure, so they tried again to get a CF.
They traded for Nick Swisher, and I know White Sox fans don’t want to think about this any longer than they have to. He had the worst year of his career with the White Sox, mostly bad luck, and Ozzie Guillen didn’t like him or something, so they immediately turned around and flipped him to the Yankees for pile of old gym socks and some hubcaps. When Swisher wasn’t in CF, the 2008 solution was a hodge podge of Brian Anderson (again), the ancient Ken Griffey Jr. (which was kind of fun, as he helped win Game 163 and kind of hit okay), and this was when we first started being plagued by the presence of DeWayne Wise.
In 2009 the White Sox tried Brian Anderson again, and after he hit for an OPS in the low .600s, they gave up and made the expensive waiver claim on Alex Rios, who hit even worse. In 2010, Rios’ one hot month held up his overall line for the year, making him an above average center fielder – something the team hadn’t had since 2005. Think about it and look at the list of moves above. Nick Swisher was the only player above who even at the time resembled something like a solution at CF, and he was stretched there defensively.
The White Sox wound up desperately scrambling around with broken parts until they just wound up throwing a ton of money at Rios. Really, they only got one year out of Rios in CF that would be worth anything. Throughout this process, they also traded Chris Young to Arizona, and while Javier Vazquez was actually pretty good for the White Sox, it’s funny to track the history of this position and see that they threw away a functional MLB CF in that time frame. Oh, and they also traded Ryan Sweeney, who would have been a perfectly acceptable CF in a way that they could not acquire elsewhere during that window as well.
2011, Rios forgot how to hit again and also forgot how to field in center. Meanwhile, Alejandro de Aza – a minor league free agent – was quietly hitting quite well in Charlotte. Even as the season slowly collapsed, the White Sox refused to promote him until it was far too late out of weird loyalty to a few expensive veterans of varying true talent level and of abysmal performance that season.
Ae Aza isn’t really anything special. He’s a solid center fielder defensively, prone to the occasional gaffe, who is solid at the plate. But, he’s cheap, and doesn’t function as an anchor dragging the offense down to the point of non-competitiveness. This is a rare thing in recent memory for the White Sox, as we are increasingly approaching a decade of offensive decay. Being able to find guys who can be league average – or just, hold up the position so that it doesn’t murder the rest of the team – is something the White Sox have struggled mightily with.
You shouldn’t have to take big expensive risks, trade a lot of prospects, or just settle for sub-replacement detritus for your everyday position players. I hope that De Aza (along with another player whom you will read about in part two) are a sign that the White Sox are slowly learning this lesson. There are still tons of decisions being made – even under Rick Hahn, “new management,” – that indicate there are lessons the White Sox desperately need to learn and refuse to do. But maybe, however long it has taken, the White Sox are figuring out a way to accomplish this particular necessary function of an organization. The way the White Sox offense is going, they’re going to need to find lots of solutions like De Aza over the next few years and quickly – players that are cheaply available that can simply hold down a major league roster spot.