Please check out the Hippeaux's weekly posts at SNY affiliate, It's About The Money.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

What are you up to, Kenny Williams?

The Hot Stove seasons has barely gotten off the ground for the vast majority of teams, but White Sox GM, Kenny Williams, has quietly renovated his franchise this November, with a trade and three veteran free agent signings. Based on the content of these acquisitions, however, White Sox fans have to be wondering: what is he up to?

This past week, in the span of 48 hours, Williams signed two players who have combined for 21 Gold Gloves, easily the most of any active duo. However, both Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel are in the twilight of their careers, as demonstrated by the fact that both spent to majority of 2009 on the Rangers bench. They weren't exactly massively productive in their limited capacity, either. Vizquel managed just a 660 OPS in his 195 plate appearances. Jones had a strong showing during the season's first four months (891 OPS, 17 HR), but he really struggled down the stretch (488 OPS, 0 HR in August and September).

The fact which should not be ignored it that the Rangers had a resurgent season in 2009. Vizquel and Jones were a major part of an improved culture in Texas as apparently popular clubhouse presences. Like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Ken Griffey Jr., they proved that future Hall of Famers (or borderline Hall of Famers, depending on your perspective) bring more to a franchise than just what they do on the field. Omar not only contributed over 400 innings of errorless defense at shortstop, second, and third base, but served as mentor for Elvis Andrus and, to a lesser extent, Michael Young and Ian Kinsler, helping to solidify a previously porous infield. The White Sox, in Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham, have a pair of middle infielders who, like Andrus and Kinsler, have incredible defensive tools, but are still a little rough around the edges. Vizquel will be asked to pass along his considerable wisdom.

Similarly, although Jones acted primarily as a DH in '09, and will probably spend much of his time in that role again in '10, he is one of the greatest defensive outfielders of all time. The White Sox outfield defense has been atrocious the past couple years. Any influence he exerts on Carlos Quentin, Alex Rios, and whomever the White Sox bring in complete their outfield, could only bring improvement.

It would have appeared, based on the decision to part ways with Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome, Dewayne Wise, and Jose Contreras, that Williams was committed to making the White Sox younger in 2010. The acquisition of Vizquel (43) and Jones (33), along with the retention of Mark Kotsay (34) and the trading of Chris Getz (26) and Josh Fields (27), pushes defiantly in the other direction. So, what is the upside?

First of all, cost. Even if Jones reaches all the incentives in his contract, he, Kotsay, and Vizquel will not cost Chicago any more than $4.5 Million in 2010. According to FanGraphs, the trio posted about $6.6 Million worth of production in 2009, so this is likely a pretty safe investment. Even safer when you consider that none is signed past next season.

The White Sox have every incentive to go for it in 2010. They have an aging core and 2011 will bring with it a series of free agent decisions which will likely lead to a complete and total overhaul of the club. After next season Paul Konerko, A. J. Pierzynski, Freddy Garcia, and Mark Teahen will become free agents. The following year they will be joined on the open market by Mark Buehrle, Bobby Jenks, and Alexei Ramirez. While in 2009, Chicago still retained eight players who had won rings with them in 2005, by 2012, the White Sox may bear zero resemblance to that hyper-popular team.

By solidifying his bench early in the offseason, Williams allows himself to concentrate exclusively on the White Sox major needs for the remainder of the winter, namely outfield and designated hitter. He knows exactly what kind of flexibility he has on the remainder of the roster and the payroll and won't have to do any desperate maneuvering late in the spring.

By the time the arbitration period ends, the White Sox will probably have about $85 Million committed to 21 or 22 players on their major-league roster. Over the last four seasons they have maintained a payroll of $100-110 Million. They have plenty of options moving up through the system to provide depth on the pitching staff, so if the White Sox ownership, led by Jerry Reinsdorf, is willing to back him, Williams may be able to commit as much as $25 Million to improving the lineup. If that's the case, then the White Sox could still make a serious run at the cream of the free agent crop (Jason Bay makes some sense for them, as would Chone Figgins) or could continue to covet other team's albatrosses, as they did with Jake Peavy and Alex Rios. Williams has plenty of flexibility, because Konerko, Teahen, or Quentin could easily be moved to DH if the White Sox added a better defensive option at first, third, or in left. Williams also has the luxury of considering whether to go after one BIG fish (Bay, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Holliday, etc.) or two smaller ones, as Jones and Kotsay could act as a decent DH/1B/OF platoon if they were hitting low in the lineup.

Although Willaims approach thusfar certainly betrays a considerably amount of risk, it also suggests that he has a concerted plan and aims to put a very competitive team on the field in the AL Central. Minnesota is struggling to re-sign Joe Mauer and patchwork its decimated rotation. The Tigers are considering blowing up the expensive, underperforming squad which has broken Detroit's heart in each of the past two seasons. The Indians are probably at least a year away from seeing the fruits of the rebuilding campaign which shipped away C. C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez. And, Kansas City, well...the Royals are acting like the most mismanaged franchise in baseball, as usual. Which means the White Sox look to me like the team with the best laid plans for taking their division in 2010.

No comments: