White Sox Are Stuck In The Middle

The White Sox cleared payroll this weekend, trading Carlos Quentin and Jason Frasor to the Padres and the Blue Jays, respectively. As Eno Sarris predicted a month ago, Chicago didn’t get spectacular returns for either player. But the question still remains — why aren’t the White Sox tearing it all down and starting over? The answer might be because they can’t.

Long before the White Sox signed John Danks to a contract extension, the team had several veterans locked up not only through 2012, but into 2013 as well:

Jake Peavy: ’12: $17M, ’13: $22M or $4M buyout
Adam Dunn: ’12: $14M, ’13:$15M, ’14:$15M
Alex Rios: ’12: $12M, ’13: $12.5M, ’14:$12.5M, ’15:$13.5M or $1M buyout
Paul Konerko: ’12: $12M, ’13: $13.5M
Gavin Floyd: ’12: $7M, ’13: $9.5M club option
A.J. Pierzynski: ’12: $6M
Matt Thornton: ’12: $5.5M, ’13: $5.5M, ’14: $6M or $1M buyout
Alexei Ramirez: ’12:$5M, ’13:$7M, ’14:$9.5M, ’15:$10M, ’16:$10M club option
Jesse Crain: ’12: $4.5M, ’13: $4.5M
Will Ohman: ’12: $2.5M
Dayan Viciedo: ’12: $2.5M

Throw in Danks’ salary, and that’s $96 million committed to 12 players for next season. Assuming Floyd’s relatively modest option is picked up and Peavy’s gargantuan one is declined, the are committed to $85.75 million for eight players in 2013 (including the $4 million for Peavy’s buyout). That’s a good chunk of change. What complicates matters further is that many of the contracts are undesirable. Could the White Sox move Crain and Thornton? Sure, but at those prices they probably wouldn’t get much unless they ate most of the salary, something they have not yet done in their dealings this winter. Peavy, Ohman and Pierzynski only have one year left on their deals, so they likely wouldn’t fetch much, either. Rios and Dunn are probably impossible to trade, which leaves Ramirez, Konerko, Danks and Floyd.

It seems unlikely that the White Sox would trade Danks so quickly after signing him to an extension; then again that’s how they did Sergio Santos, so I guess there’s a precedent there. Still, Chicago hasn’t made it known publicly that they’re interested in dealing him. They need Viciedo in right field now that Quentin is a Friar, and Ramirez has only been the team’s best player the past two seasons. This leaves only Konerko and Floyd as players who could fetch a reasonable bounty and that the team might be able to survive without. Floyd, in particular, is interesting, especially now that the team has acquired new rotation candidates in Nestor Molina, Simon Castro and Pedro Hernandez. But even if the Sox trade Floyd, they might still be stuck with their other high-priced veterans.

Playing with what they have certainly isn’t appealing. The pitching staff was good last year — the team’s pitching WAR was second-best in the major leagues, and their staff FIP (3.66, sixth overall) and xFIP (3.69, fifth) were both exemplary. But with three of the top seven pitchers from last season (Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson and Santos) gone, Chicago will be hard-pressed to duplicate that quality. Zach Stewart and Addison Reed could help stem the tide, but they’re greenhorns, as is Chris Sale in his new role as a starter.

The offense on the other hand, will have a hard time pulling its weight — even more so now that Quentin has been traded. The White Sox team 89 wRC+ tied for 23rd last year, and even an optimistic projection would put them league-average, at best. Even if Dunn and Rios bounce back, the team should see regression from both Alejandro De Aza and Brent Lillibridge — and perhaps some from Konerko as well, though I’ve stopped trying to predict when Konerko (with his .362, .415 and .383 wOBA’s the past three seasons) will stop hitting. In that sense, it becomes a little easier to understand why the White Sox would be interested in Yeonis Cespedes, even though the move could greatly increase bloating on an already bloated roster. Yes, Cespedes is risky, but the bar in center field is low and the Sox might be stuck for the next couple of years. If they could sign Cespedes to a short-term deal, the move might make sense (assuming they’re willing to bench Rios).

The White Sox are in an incredibly unenviable spot. They’re not a good team, they have a lot of money committed to veterans and the team might not be able to significantly restock their farm system even if they do trade or sell them all. It’s not a one-year thing either, as the Sox have a lot of money already tied up for the 2013 season. Things could finally bottom out in 2014, but it might not happen then either if they trade the savings they got from the Quentin and Frasor deals and tie it up in another big commitment with Cespedes. This team will have to bottom out at some point, but with so much money already committed for 2012, it might be worth seeing if the offense rebounds enough to keep them in contention in a shallow American League Central. It’s a risky proposition, but when you’re stuck in the middle, there’s no easy way out.

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Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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$7MM of Konerko’s 2013 salary is deferred as $1MM installments from 2014-2020.