White Sox Add Two E’s to Their O

The Chicago White Sox have continued their very active offseason, inking DH Edwin Encarnación to a one-year deal worth $12 million with a $1 million signing bonus. The White Sox also have a club option for Encarnación at the same salary for 2021.

There was no Christmas vacation for the White Sox, and Encarnación is just the latest in the team’s series of relatively low-key signings. Reflecting the organization’s desire to be more aggressive in free agency as the team’s rebuild approaches its denouement, Chicago’s been “in” to some degree or another on most of this winter’s top free agents. The crème de la crème signed elsewhere, but the club was able to bring in Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, and Gio Gonzalez, all representing significant upgrades at crucial positions for very reasonable prices.

Encarnación’s the latest variation on this theme. It’s a tough market for both 1B/DH types and players in their late 30s, and he sits in the center of this particular Venn diagram. It would be difficult to sign Encarnación if you had to pre-commit to playing him at first base for 140 games, and the DH opportunities were thin as most AL contenders already have the position set.

EE’s deal looks similar to Nelson Cruz’s with the Twins, which is not a shock considering the similarity between the players. Cruz was coming off a 133 wRC+ season (Encarnación was at 129 in 2019), a still potent slugger with a limited market. Cruz received a one-year, $14.3 million contract with an option, and the Twins had nothing to complain about when it came to his production last year.

Most importantly for a non-elite signing, Encarnación represents a significant upgrade over the status quo ante. While the best version of the White Sox probably had Eloy Jiménez as the designated hitter, their young slugger has stated publicly that he really doesn’t like DHing and the team has shown little inclination to push that particular issue. In any case, there’s a good argument to make that throwing in the towel on Jiménez as a defensive player without him getting a full chance to improve would limit the team’s upside value from him.

With José Abreu similarly not being pushed to DH, the White Sox were left with a situation in which the role would largely be filled with spare catchers such as Zack Collins, James McCann, or Grandal getting days off from crouching behind the plate. Teams tend to be quite wary about using their catchers as designated hitters, trying to avoid a situation in which the starter gets injured and the only other player on the roster with catching experience is the starting DH. I think this concern is generally overblown — having a pitcher hit a time or two because you lost the DH is hardly the end of the world. But not needing to carry three catchers does address what I think is the bigger issue, which is making sure that Collins gets full-time plate appearances. He should now get those in Triple-A.

Preliminary projections for the White Sox now put the team in the 80-87 win range, based on some assumptions. That’s enough to put the White Sox into a position in which not a lot of things need to go right for them to be serious contenders in the division as well as the wild card race. In the places where the team has players that aren’t yet established in the majors, they have many players of significant upside on the way, with names like Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal, and Dylan Cease ready to contribute in the near future. Even Nomar Mazara, a player who I’ve grown pessimistic about after the last year or so, still theoretically has a high ceiling.

None of this offseason’s additions are all that costly, leaving the White Sox nearly $60 million below the first luxury tax threshold. This means that the team ought to still have room to take another stab at free agents after 2020. Bringing in a name or two from a list that could include Mookie Betts, George Springer, Marcus Semien, James Paxton, Marcus Stroman, Masahiro Tanaka, or Jake Odorizzi (among others) may be a simpler task if the White Sox are coming off a season in which they’re an actual contender rather than simply hoping to be one in the future.

ZiPS Projection – Edwin Encarnación
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2020 .240 .336 .491 391 67 94 14 0 28 81 51 102 1 121 0 1.8
2021 .231 .317 .456 364 57 84 13 0 23 68 42 88 1 107 0 0.9





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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mikejuntmember
2 years ago

I know there is a lot of enthusiasm about the White Sox making an effort to compete, and I know they got some truly abominable results from some players last year, but Encarnacion, Mazara and Abreu are each projected to put up like 1.5 war in 550 plate appearances. They don’t really move the needle all that much when you were 20-25 games behind your competition.

Mazara as a bounceback candidate makes a lot of sense for little investment, but Abreu and EE both seem like very limited upside plays that will take PA away from figuring out what else they’ve got. Dreams of the WS contending for a WC spot or a league title seem dependent on Madrigal and Robert both showing up as Tatis-quality ROY candidates in 2020, which seems a bit premature.

Okramember
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

This is an overly pessimistic take. Abreu and EE were not signed as upside plays, but but instead as reliable producers. And they are not blocking anyone. The only young position players that need to be left unblocked are Robert and Madrigal … and they are absolutely unblocked.

The White Sox are instead hopeful for upside from Cease, Kopech, Mazara, Eloy, Robert, and Madrigal. Could even argue that Moncada and Anderson have additional upside potential. This team is basically just as talented as the Twins, and only slightly behind the Indians. As things currently stand the White Sox probably have ~10-20% of winning the division. That’s great progress and great for their fans.

mikejuntmember
2 years ago
Reply to  Okra

The Twins were 28 games better than the White Sox last year (and Cleveland 20)..

The White Sox have made some nice additions, but they have some definite regression candidates (look what Steamer expects Tim Anderson to do, for example, after that BABIP-fueled fever dream season), but it’s hard to squint and see +20 wins there

It is very rare for a rebuilding team to go from 70 wins to 90 wins overnight; a stopover in .500 land is almost inevitable, and if that’s the case, the White Sox are better off giving more PAs to fringey types and seeing if anyone else surprises them or works out than giving 1100 PAs to guys who almost certainly shouldn’t or won’t be starting for a competitive 2022 Chicago White Sox team.

I am kind of confused why everyone thinks that the ALC is such a winnable division when the Twins won over 100 games and Cleveland won 93 even though Kluber and Corrasco missed an enormous amount of time. Cleveland traded Kluber for nothing, but they also won 93 games without him contributing much last year.

Folks are acting like the ALC is going to be a division so weak it’s won by the first team to 88 wins or something, but that isn’t particularly likely (and 88 wins is going to be a very above-average outcome for this CWS roster).

There’s a bunch of talent on the way, but it’s worth taking a peek at projections for Robert and Madrigal: they’re probably not both gonna put up 600 PA and 4+ war in 2020. (Steamer projects Madrigal for a wRC+ under 100!)

I think the lines between ‘entertaining’ and ‘wise’ are frequently blurred because everyone’s so happy to see a team make an effort. It’s good that they’re trying, but a bit of tempering of expectations would be wise.

John Wickmember
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

This isn’t that confusing, you’re just doing it wrong by starting with last year’s win totals as the right bench mark.

Take a look at the depth charts — they show the White Sox just behind the Indians and Twins. Now presumably the Twins have a few moves left in them, with Donaldson the one that would significantly move the needle, while the Indians could go backwards depending on what they do with Lindor, and aren’t likely to add much unless they’re subtracting at the same time.

All of which adds up to the reasonable belief that they’re in sniffing distance, which is the point of these low-risk, short-term signings.

fjtorres
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

People see the ALC as winnable need because they project the Twins off their roster *today* and they think Cleveland will regress from 93, perhaps to the high 80’s.
Doesn’t mean they’re right, but remember, the off-season is when everybody is like the Indians of Major League and 20 game improvements are just an eyeblink away.
It is also the time for selling season tickets: winning December has value at the box office.

cartermember
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

I get the premise, but the Indians also no longer have Kluber, Carrasco is anyone’s guess, and talk of trading Lindor or Clevinger. The Twins staff also looks pretty miserable and they don’t seem to be trying to improve it.

mikejuntmember
2 years ago
Reply to  carter

Carrasco and Kluber barely contributed in 2019, though.

isavage
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

That doesn’t mean they didn’t need them to for THIS year though. Expecting Zach Plesac, Plutko and Civale to all have fantastic ERAs and outperform their FIPs is not something anyone should bank on. Their rotation is Clevinger, Bieber, and a bunch of question marks.

Kevbot034
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Clevinger and Lindor sure did.

mikejuntmember
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

And, currently, both of them are still on the team.

isavage
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

And the Twins were projected to win in the low 80s last season. Would say the White Sox look pretty similar to what the Twins looked like going into last season, good offense, . If you’re projected as a mid-80s win team it doesn’t take that much overperformance to get to mid-90s. Also wouldn’t be surprising to see the Indians or Twins season go up in flames, the Twins pitching currently looks worse than last year and probably every hitter won’t overperform again

sadtrombonemember
2 years ago
Reply to  Okra

The argument that this is going to be a very different team than the one with a 68-win pythagorean record is a fair point. I’d probably put the chances of the division around 15% too, so I more or less agree with your take-home message here. That said, it’s probably not wise to expect that players will dramatically outperform their projections without considering downside risk as well. A lot of things have to go right for them and a lot of things have to not go wrong for them to leapfrog both the teams in front of them.

Richiemember
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Nah, this is a properly pessimistic take. My understanding is that Robert is stretched for center field? If so, the White Sox look to be defensively wretched in the outfield come June (or earlier).

If Eloy really doesn’t want to DH, then yeah, you give him another crack at the outfield. But then either Mazara or Encarnacion doesn’t belong here. I like either pickup by itself. In tandem, it’s bad roster shaping. And while not really expensive, not cheap, either.$12 mill always has its uses. Like, say, taking on salary come August if you are contending, or paying down Abreu’s contract if you aren’t contending come August, and so getting a better prospect haul.

Rational Fan
2 years ago
Reply to  Richie

Well your understanding is 100% wrong as robert is viewed as a + defender in CF.

matt
2 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

If someone views Robert as a ++ defender in CF it’s safe to ignore all his opinions

docgooden85member
2 years ago
Reply to  matt

You added a plus, Matt…

rhdx
2 years ago
Reply to  matt

Yes, I’m sure you spent hours watching film on Robert so that you can assess his play in CF.

Anthony Princeton
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

White Sox DH’s combined for -3.5 fWAR in 2019, while White Sox RF’s combined for -1.3 fWAR. Encarnacion represents a significant upgrade at little cost. Mazara is better than Castellanos against RHP and is also better defensively,. It should also be noted that the AL Central is devoid of good LHP starters. It pretty much begins and ends with Matthew Boyd.

The Twins have 2 starting pitchers, Berrios and Odorizzi then 3 question marks. Pineda will be serving the remainder of his suspension until mid May. The Indians lack an OF and have 2 starting pitchers primed for regression, Plesac and Civale. Two fly ball pitchers that do not strike hitters out and had very low BAPIPs .250 and .255 that is probably not sustainable. Neither the Twins or Indians are as talented or as deep as they were last season. There are still 3 months left in the offseason, but as currently constructed the White Sox will absolutely contend for the AL Central in 2020.

MikeSmember
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

As Anthony Princeton pointed out, White Sox RF and DH’s were worth -4.8 WAR. So if Encarnacion and Mazara put up 3 WAR, that’s an 8 win improvement.

The next weakest spots were 2B and CF which put up about 2.5 WAR total. Madrigal and Robert project for 3.7.

Catcher was fine but McCann was a prime regression candidate. Grandal is a big upgrade there, even if McCann hits again.

All these moves on offense improve the depth which was a huge issue last year. Roughly a third of their PA’s went to below replacement level players. Whenever any of Anderson, Moncada, or Jimenez was hurt the offense REALLY struggled. That shouldn’t be nearly as big an issue this year.

And in the starting rotation, the 30 starts made by Santiago, Covey, Despaigne, Detwiler, Santana, and Banuelos (-1.2 WAR as SP) will be replaced and then some by a combination of Keuchel, Kopech, and a full season of Cease. They also have Gio Gonzalez to replace the departed, roughly league average Ivan Nova, but some of those starts will presumably be taken by the other three guys. Even with an injury, they should have 6 guys on the roster who don’t make you roll their eyes when they start. The worst of them (Cease) had a FIP- of 112 last year. Of the guys who are gone, the best FIP- was Santiago at 122.

The bullpen has holes still, but the White Sox have done an excellent job not just of improving, but upgrading their weakest positions from worst in baseball quality to league average. That is a tremendous improvement. They have roughly replaced the bottom of their roster and negative 3 or 4 total WAR with positive 9 or 10 projected WAR between the FA’s, Robert, and Madrigal.

Fangraphs currently has the roster 2 WAR worse than the Twins and 3.5 WAR worse than the Indians. That is pretty much a tossup for a preseason projection.

Anthony Princeton
2 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

Also Rodon should be back around the ASB to add depth since Kopech and possibly Cease will have innings limitations.

gettwobrute79member
2 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

In short, it makes a huge difference if you turn two positions that are Fs into two C+.

sadtrombonemember
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

I’m pretty skeptical about Abreu beating his projection, and fairly skeptical about Mazara even matching his projection, but Encarnacion is projected for two wins and that’s a pretty big improvement over Collins. I don’t see them as real contenders even with this…they’re still pretty clearly behind both the Twins and Cleveland and if they do win the division they’re way behind anyone coming into the playoffs from the west or east, but if you’re going to spend all that money on guys who aren’t getting better EE seems like a reasonable get.

rhdx
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

He was worth 1.9 WAR at age 32 and is projected for 1.8 WAR at 33. Sure, he could fall short, but what is your actual reason that he can’t be worth 1.8 WAR at 33? His defense has been equally bad his entire career – no downward trend though. Nothing particularly fluky about his performance last year.

sadtrombonemember
2 years ago
Reply to  rhdx

I assume you’re referring to Abreu? I was just looking at his page–he’s projected for 1.9 or 1.8 by Steamer, depending on plate appearances. I think that’s fair. Someone posted him having 1.5 wins above, but that’s probably based on fewer PAs. I think all of those are reasonable outcomes given the PAs–on a rate basis I don’t think there’s any disagreement.

The issues for Abreu–that he might clock in somewhere south of 1.8–are really only based on two outcomes. One is that he gets hurt, something which is entirely plausible but not what we’re really talking about here. The other is that he underperforms his batted ball profile because he’s not exactly a burner, but he’s already more or less dealing with that already so I think that should be “priced in” to the projection. There’s always the risk he becomes a Pujols-esque plodder but I’m more concerned about that in 2021 and 2022 than in 2020.

So yeah, all of that when you add it up I don’t think there’s much disagreement on Abreu here from the projections, at least not from me.

rhdx
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Sorry, yes I was referring to Abreu as you figured. Obviously injury risk increases with age, but he has only ever had one moderate injury in his career and certainly isn’t going to get hurt diving for balls or sliding headfirst into second. I agree that his utter lack of speed could hurt his performance but as long as he continues to hit the ball hard and his GB rate doesn’t spike up, that is risk I am happy to take.

marcotomas
2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

You note that Encarnacion, Mazara, etc. are only projected to be 1.5 WAR players, yet you seem to completely overlook that they are replacing a revolving door of negative value minor leaguers. Sure, going from AAAA fill-ins to solid vets may not provide the same boost as upgrading from a role player to a 6-win superstar. But getting positive value from everyday contributors is a huge step in filling the roster holes that doomed this team last year. When coupled with the upside of their young core, it’s absolutely possible this team makes a run next year.

Is a playoff appearance certain? No. But people acting like the White Sox need to “make up” 20-25 wins gets it wrong. Every team starts at zero to begin the season. And at the moment, Cleveland, Minnesota, and Chicago all look about the same in terms of talent and ceiling, each with their obvious strengths and glaring flaws. It’s anybody’s game…