A Quick Preview of Free Agent Bats


Though more fortunate franchises are currently scrapping it out for the chance to play in the World Series, the White Sox are already well into the offseason.  As Matt discussed a few days ago, Rick Hahn and company are already poking around free agent Curtis Granderson. On the one hand, the franchise has not been a big player in free agency historically, on the other, they are almost never in the position they currently occupy.

As revenues across MLB have increased for years, the White Sox have parlayed that and their 2005 World Series victories into some fairly substantial payrolls:

(courtesy of Cot’s Contracts)

Heading into the offseason, the White Sox’ pre-arbitration payroll obligations for 2014 sit at just over $48 million. Some small considerations begin to inflate that number when you assume that Gordon Beckham will earn between $3-4 million in arbitration, their #3 overall draft pick should have a slot value of approximately $6 million, and Rick Hahn has floated a $5 million estimate for their international free agent budget.

Even with those considerations, the White Sox have between $35-55 million more to play with if they’re willing to keep floating the same budget as they have for almost a decade. Further incentives exist to make big moves in free agency. The new CBA, with hard slotting, basically means the only way to leverage money into a competitive advantage is spending more on free agents. Further, the White Sox’ #3 overall pick is protected, even if they sign a free agent who declined a qualifying offer. And, lastly, they need someone, anyone who can hit a baseball and there aren’t many internal options as far as that goes.

The problem is – and why I was so upset that the White Sox prioritized dumping salary instead of maxing out the returns on talent with Jake Peavy and Alex Rios – the free agents available just aren’t as plentiful or as good as they used to be. Teams are prioritizing cost certainty, extending their players before they hit the open market. It isn’t always a good move – a quick look at the North Side is a great example of that – but it still means that players are older or not as good as they were when they become available as free agents.

Looking at the list of available free agents at Cot’s Contracts, there are a certain number of interesting bats available. Obviously Robinson Cano is the cream of the crop simply as a matter of production on the field. The problem is, second basemen historically age very poorly and Cano is looking for huge years and huge dollars.

Brian McCann provides a plus bat from the left side at positions of desperate need – 1B/C – for the White Sox. There are a number of cons to signing McCann, however. For one, even though he will only be entering his age-30 season next year, he has been in the majors since a very young age, and has a ton of mileage on him behind the plate. He has also seen an erosion of his on-base skills in the past two seasons. Lastly, and least important, his Fun Police shtick is really unappealing, getting into fights with any player in the majors who seems to want to enjoy themselves.

McCann’s Huge Jerk routine is pretty lame. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

Shin-Soo Choo is a familiar face for the White Sox. Choo will turn 32 halfway through next season, and is almost certainly not a real CF, but he does almost everything well, hitting for contact, getting on base, and flashing plenty of power. The problem is he is aging out of his peak – and although it comes from the better half of the plate to do it on, Choo’s platoon splits were terrifying this season. OPSing a majestic 1.011 against RHP, that was offset by a .612 mark against southpaws.  This is slightly worse than his career split (.932 v. .680), but it isn’t something that improves as players age into their mid-30s.

Carlos Beltran is reminding us that elite, well-rounded talents can age more gracefully than most mortals. He turns 37 in the spring and his knees are made out of scar tissue and duct tape, but he is padding his resume as the best postseason hitter of all time as we speak. If the White Sox are interested in competing in 2014 – which they have given mixed soundbites about – then perhaps a 1 or 2-year, high dollar offer to Beltran makes sense. It’s very high risk, but in the extremely likely case that they don’t want to expose themselves to long-term risk in some of these other names, Beltran could help in the short term.

Jacoby Ellsbury is a bit unusual. He won’t be 31 until next September, has an elite season under his belt, and is really, really good at stealing bases (52/56 success rate this year). The problem is he is brittle, posting Games Played totals of 18, 158, 74, and 134 from 2010-2013, and he has only shown plus power in one season of his whole career. He’s athletic and hits for contact, but Ellsbury will likely command big dollars this offseason, and my fear is that nagging injuries will erode his talent more quickly than the signing organization can get their money’s worth.

Other potentially interesting scenarios:

Ben Zobrist currently has team options for 2014 and 2015 for $7 and $7.5 million respectively. Normally that would be a no brainer for a team to pick up, but with Zobrist aging into his mid-30s, and the Rays perpetually starved for funds, they may explore picking up his 2014 option and shopping him on the trade market.

Patchwork, buy-low candidates are guys like Corey Hart and Nelson Cruz, although they clearly have a lot of warts. Eric Chavez and Mike Napoli are both potentially useful to an extent, and are floating around.

A lot can change in the coming weeks, and personally the signing I’m most interested in the White Sox making is Cuban import Jose Abreu. But given this landscape, and the huge amount of money with not much to spend it on, it makes sense that the White Sox may try to sign Curtis Granderson coming off of a down year.