Are the White Sox going For It? A move like signing Adam LaRoche to a two-year deal might have looked like advanced place-holding with a chance of contention, but signing a reliever (Zach Duke) to a long-term deal (three years!) sends a slightly different message, especially when examined together.
Adding Jeff Samaradzija looks entirely different. Trading a solid prospect like Marcus Semien for an upper-middle class rotation stalwart just one year from free agency suggests the White Sox have designs on something greater than just existing in 2015. Signing a high-priced closer like David Robertson to a long term deal? That’s an act of aggression, a shot across the rest of their division’s bow and signal of intent to all Wild card comers. They didn’t just add a closer, they added one of the better relief pitchers in baseball, a valuable strikeout machine who looks like he can survive when his fastballs wanes.
Adding more good players? That’s a recipe for a good team. But is it enough?
In the American League Central, it might be. The White Sox are going to score runs but if the two best players are on your team are DHs and/or first basemen, maybe hold off on the parade planning. If nothing else, the White Sox are interesting. Adding Samardzija puts the Sox rotation into the upper class in baseball, certainly one of the best in the American League. It gives them depth in a hard-throwing right-hander to compliment their two great lefties. Add Carlos Rodon to the mix and you’ve got something. A lot of something, really.
In Jeff Samardzija, they have something very valuable. Seemingly dangled as trade bait for two consecutive winters, a lot of non-Cubs fans spent a lot of time talking themselves into the former Notre Dame wideout. In 2014, Shark put all those fears to rest, putting together his finest season as a starter, topping 200 innings for the second consecutive season. His strikeout rate per nine innings dropped but only because he was so much more efficient, dropping his walk rate below 5%, among the top 20 qualified starters. He increased his ground ball rate while keeping the ball in the park better than ever.
Moving away from his splitter, Samardzija increasingly uses a dastardly sinker fastball, a patently unfair offering for right-handed batters. Keeping the ball on the ground and limiting base runners is an obvious key for a pitcher calling U.S. Cellular his home park. Eligible for the arbitration for the final time before free agency, Samardzija figures to earn in the neighborhood of $10 million for 2015. Steamer projects another strong season, with 21.3%/6.5% K/BB rates and a FIP in the 3.50 range. He grew up a White Sox fan and has been very durable thus far in his career – that’s a good combination.
David Robertson was perhaps the best relief pitcher on the free agent market, in the midst of a terrific five year run out of the Yankees bullpen. Since 2011, he ranks eighth by ERA-, ninth by FIP-, fourth by WAR, third by RA9 WAR, and 19th in innings. He’s a great pitcher who is no stranger to tough pitching environments or the ninth inning.
Robertson is known for his natural cutter and extreme extension off the pitching rubber, allowing his fastball to play up in terms of velocity. With the former Yankee in tow, Chicago’s bullpen is suddenly very expensive and, unsurprisingly, improved. With their new closer and a good lefty setup option like Duke in place, Chicago can better develop and find roles for their vast array of large, hard-throwing relievers.
It isn’t insightful or interesting to say “the White Sox acquired four players and now they’re a better baseball team.” That much we know. The LaRoche signing gave them first base/DH cover, markedly improving one of their biggest holes last season (the South Side will never forget you, Paulie!) Now they have a better bullpen and another good starting pitcher.
What is interesting about the White Sox is the manner in which they’ve gone about this retool. Trading a worthwhile middle infield prospect for one year of Jeff Samardzija says “win now” but it doesn’t overcommit Chicago to this particular season. They are in the best position to negotiate a long-term extension with Samardzija, just as they’re now privy to a year’s worth of information on the value of such a deal.
Red Sox GM Ben Cherington commented this week about the appeal of acquiring a walk-year stud like Shark without the pressure to extend him.
“I think there’s actually some value in a guy who’s not signed long-term if they fit into the rotation because it allows you the chance to get to know them and see if it could be a fit.”
The ChiSox get a good, long look at Samardzija, as well as watching their own up-and-coming arms as they arrive at the big league level. They also deal from a position of “strength” by shipping out Semien. Previous trade target Alexis Ramirez figures to stay put as Chicago pins their hopes on the development of top SS prospect Tim Anderson.
They have options, in other words. They can continue building for 2015, throw some more money around and try and to out-Royals the Royals. Or they ease into the season, confident their pitching and run prevention will keep them in games that Jose Abreu can then break open. Maybe it doesn’t go to plan and suddenly Samardzija is a tidy trade piece? Maybe he walks and the end of the season and nets a delightful draft pick? Perhaps the commute from South Bend agrees with him and White Sox opt to get his name on a nine-figure contract extension?
Chicago has options. Chicago has depth around the diamond. If they want to truly contend for a playoff spot in the American League, they’re going to need even more better players. They’re going to need a better catcher, a second baseman, and an outfielder capable of quickening pulses on more than his passing resemblance to a superstar.
The one thing the White Sox are not, now, is boring. They can go in a variety of directions with their club, the only one that seems certain is a climb up the standings in the American League Central division.