The Seventh Seal is not a particularly ideal film to put on when writing a contract reaction piece. Most expressly because it’s hard to write and read subtitles at the same time, but also because nothing baseball-related, and certainly not the machinations of the happy-go-lucky White Sox warrants the Gravitas with a capital ‘G’ thrown around by Ingmar Bergman discussing how humanity reacts when their belief system crumbles around them.
But as the White Sox are reported to have agreed to a six-year, $68 million contract with plodding Cuban slugger Jose Dariel Abreu, it’s a struggle to place an outwardly risky-looking contract into the framing of inevitability, of how it can only be judged in terms of the opportunities available, and in those terms it must be seen positively. There were indeed other things the White Sox could have done to grapple with the yawning chasm that exists at 1B/DH with or without Paul Konerko, but the alternatives offer such rigid and known limitations, it would be akin to doing nothing, or doing the same thing, expecting a different result.
“I live now in a world of phantoms, a prisoner of my own dreams.”
The Seventh Seal’s protagonist, Antonius Block, has spent 10 years witnessing the horror, death and pointless destruction of the crusades while the homestead was torn apart by the Black Plague. There are no spoils of war to rejoice in nor a peaceful countryside to return to. Death has come for him and there is no escape. Ready for his own destruction but wishing to accomplish something before he bows out, he elects to stall by challenging Death to a game of chess.
Through a combination of securing the pitfalls of veteran decline for immediate rewards that never came and neglect of the farm system and destruction of their international talent pool that has now come home to roost, even after practices have been corrected, the White Sox are desperate for offense. Despite possessing a pitching staff every bit deserving of rescue, Andy Wilkins is their top first base prospect, and free agency offer a wide variety of over-30, non-elite talent with their accompanying wounds from years of service: Mike Napoli‘s degenerative hip, Corey Hart‘s surgically repaired knee, Kendrys Morales‘ mangled leg and discouraging build. James Loney is the picture of health, but also went back to being James Loney after the first half of 2013.
These are all marginal improvements, temporary fixes that promise to evolve into problems before long, the very problems they seek to replace. The White Sox offense is not close enough to competitive standards to enjoy the benefits of slight improvement at 1B/DH over the next one or two seasons. They need someone with more transformative potential. Or failing that, someone with more potential to be an offensive improvement over the longer timeframe they will likely need to form a contender.
Jose Dariel Abreu is 26. His stats are likely misleading, but in the good way.
Abreu’s in news, so here’s his Davenport Translation (biggest sample): .321/.446/.660. DT for Cespedes .271/.338/.489 (real: 265/.324/.472)
— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) October 17, 2013
“My whole life has been nothing but futile wandering, a great deal of words without meaning…But I want to use my reprieve for one last meaningful deed.”
By conventional wisdom, the White Sox should be rebuilding; investing in international scouting, drafting aggressively, trading off players whose age and contract situation makes them unlikely to be valuable contributors to their next playoff run. In fulfilling that third point, they had reduced their payroll to under $50 million before calculating in arbitration and pre-arbitration salaries, largely by making a point to secure complete salary relief in the Alex Rios and Jake Peavy trades.
Rick Hahn has pledged for some of that money to go toward revamping the scouting department, which can include foreign training academies and has also mentioned a desire to spend an amount worthy of the Sox No. 3 slot in the coming draft. But that alone does not account for the wide gap between the White Sox pre-Abreu budget and their now-typical nine-figure payroll.
There is no added bonus for drafting and developing a larger portion of the roster, or maintaining a low payroll in non-playoff seasons. If the White Sox are doing the necessary work of rebuilding their infrastructure and still have funds for improving their current roster, there is merit in them doing so. Especially since it represents a rare opportunity to add a player in his prime. Especially since their trades of Jake Peavy and Alex Rios lack purpose if there was no specific plan for the funds made available in mind.
“This is my hand. I can move it. Blood pulses through my veins. The sun is still high in the sky, and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with death.”
Abreu is a tremendous risk as a player. Despite his tremendous production in Cuba, his scouting reports are filled with doubts about his ability to handle and turn on top-level velocity on the inner-portion of the plate, or his ability to lay off sliders away. These are problems that may yet render Avisail Garcia and Dayan Viciedo major league disappointments, and if Abreu cannot dominate with his bat, he has no other skills with which to offer the Sox solace over six seasons.
But these elite power bats with inscrutable plate approaches and glowing scouting reports are not just made available to the highest bidder. They get signed to extensions. And the process of securing can’t-miss prospects who can win accolades and titles while collecting constrained salaries is long, heavy with suffering and challenges the White Sox development system to perform. It’s wise for the Sox to seek ways to skip steps, and Cuban nationals emigrating during their mid-20’s offer a unique opportunity to avoid some of the cost of free agents and duck out of the time requirements of developing prospects.
Fear the risk. Consider the alternative.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan