Well, this isn’t a fun question.
Chris Sale provides an easy split-second answer to who the White Sox most likely All-Star representative is, but I ask this because in exploring different patches of the White Sox internet recently, I’ve seen different ideas posited on who the best position player is, each time presented with a sort of “Yeah, I just said that” or “Think about that!” flare.
The leader in the clubhouse. // Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Of course, these suggestions include Gordon Beckham–someone who embodied all things disappointing about the White Sox for quite a while–and Alexei Ramirez–who has embodied all the hijinks of the White Sox defense all season–so they’re immediately followed by quips of “that’s why they’re terrible.”
Which is sort of true. Neither of these guys are All-Stars and neither were snubbed either. As much as the black hole behind the plate–although black hole would have better defense–has been a problem, the relative lack of any significantly above-average contributors is the real ruin of this team. Alex Rios had lost his death grip on the title since before he was traded, but the last time the White Sox were decent, he was flourishing. As fickle as fan opinion of Rios was, a sense that his ability was the greatest held as strong as it could be expected to.
What we’re left with is a question of what’s the best way to define this–the player who has provided the most value, the player who has performed at the highest level, or who figures to be the best going forward? Alexei Ramirez leads the team in WAR according to FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, which is largely the product of their defensive metrics loving his range despite the errors and the fact that WAR is a counting stat and Ramirez plays every second of baseball he’s allowed to.
If we take Baseball Prospectus’ WARP, where their defensive metric is harsh on Ramirez and Beckham but loves what Alejandro De Aza is doing in center, Ramirez loses a win from the 2.5 total he’s projected elsewhere and Alejandro becomes the best player on the team.
And this is why it’s a struggle to make a stand based on defensive metrics.
Ramirez is a shortstop of unparalleled durability with strongly above-average range and throwing, who’s been beset by errors and has brought his batting line to about 15% below league-average (.289/.312/.376, 84 wRC+) with his recent power streak. De Aza (.273/.331/.424, 104 wRC+) and Beckham (.301/.354/.406, 106 wRC+) are both slightly above-average hitters at up-the-middle positions. De Aza, while having the speed to fill the role, is generally seen as a below-average center fielder due to discomfort turning his back to the play, judgement lapses and a weak throwing arm, while Beckham’s defense can’t seem to garner much appreciation outside the city limits.
He was drafted as a shortstop, theoretically making him overqualified for second base and he displays impressive athleticism, but consistently gets poor grades for range and hasn’t attracted larger scouting attention. Playing between a vacuum in Ramirez and statues in Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko that he has to shift over to support, could easily be messing with readings of his zone coverage. Although center field lies ahead of second base on the defensive spectrum, as a population they’re badly out-hitting the keystone position this season, so the value edge would go to Beckham…only he’s been on the DL twice and has only played in 70 games.
Calling Beckham the top performer hands a lot of credit to his 275 plate appearances as his new reality after years of struggles, whereas De Aza has pretty much provided the same quality (albeit in different ways) since Opening Day 2012 until now. If we take 70 game samples in; Adam Dunn has hit .299/.408/.537 in his last 70 games, with a K-rate under 24% during that time and boasting a whole field approach that’s seemingly thrown aside the shackles of the shift. He’s 33, the bat speed could take another dip at any moment, we’ve come not to trust him and he’s still a fairly bad first basemen, but no one is coming close to this level of production, not even if Beckham’s sudden jump in contact rate holds.
Of course, if we’re talking about going forward, then all the focus is on Avisail Garcia, who is supposed to have the tool package to blow all these lesser lights away and has done us the favor of not looking instantly overwhelmed early on (.297/.350/.432). For all the concern about his strike-zone judgement, he hasn’t made himself look bad for chasing too often and has taken walks when they were handed to him, as his swing rates reflect that. What’s more disconcerting is him getting fastballs blown past him on the inside and not getting enough loft on his swing to make his raw power relevant. If the White Sox had recently shown the ability to iron out these issues with a young power hitter, this wouldn’t be the first time in this post Dayan Viciedo was getting mentioned.
Even if it’s by default, even if it finalizes more of a salvage job than a realization of potential, there’s a temptation to simply grant this to Beckham on sentiment. Just to see him playing with confidence after the nightmare of his second half of 2011 is a testament to the resilience in the face of failure some of these guys have. De Aza’s road to “decent” involved bouncing around multiple organizations and fractured limbs, Ramirez had to flee his home country, but Beckham’s struggles have played out before our eyes for over four years and is the type of path we’ll need to observe again for a player actually deserving of this status to emerge, since sentiment is a bad thing to bring up in discussions like these.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan