The Chicago White Sox’ offseason was as busy as any other team, but if you listened to sports radio in mid-March, you would have heard many complain about the moves that weren’t made. There was an outfield hole that appeared to be glaring, and several of the best available free agents were outfielders. Many were upset that General Manager Rick Hahn, and even more so owner Jerry Reinsdorf, did not open up the wallet and lure one of these big fish to the White Sox.
When Austin Jackson was signed late, many accepted it as ho-hum – at least Avisail Garcia would not bring his bad defense to the outfield and Jackson had been a good center fielder in his career. Jackson’s early numbers don’t jump off the page, but the number that does jump is the White Sox being in first place in the AL Central, and Jackson has played a role in that.
The fascinating point is that many of the outfielders that fans pined for during the offseason have numbers that jump off the page far more than Jackson’s do – in the negative direction. When you factor in their salaries (especially in comparison to Jackson’s $5M/one-year contract), the “winners” of these free agents are already wondering if they made a mistake.
Alex Gordon, my preferred free-agent target, signed a four-year contract ($72M, $16M in 2016) despite being 32 before the season began. It’s only been a month, but Gordon is one of the many Kansas City Royals that have been disappointing thus far this season. As of May 11, Gordon has a triple slash line of .234/.344/.355, his average and slugging far down from career highs. He is striking out 32 percent of his at-bats, up from a career total of 21 percent. My main reason for desiring Gordon for the Sox was his defensive prowess, which has been rather average this season, down steeply from the elite level that he showed in 2014.
Justin Upton, perhaps the consensus preferred target of White Sox fans, signed a six-year contract ($132M, $22.1 in 2016). Upton’s first year in the American League has been a disaster. Upton is hitting .220/.259/.315 with a 55 wRC+ and a MLB-high 37.8 percent strikeout rate. His defense has been average as well, while playing left field, same as Gordon.
Many fans had a strong desire for Yoenis Cespedes as well. His offensive numbers have been much better than the previous two (.291/.376/.670) but his defense has been below average. Now, Cespedes would have looked mighty nice in the designated hitter’s spot on this White Sox team. Cespedes would have come with an ego, and it’s questionable as to whether he would have accepted a move to designated hitter. Who knows if the White Sox would have still signed Jackson if they brought in Cespedes, but the outfield would have been nowhere near the level it has been at with Cespedes. His contract is also very player-friendly and it’s easy to see why the White Sox may have been scared off. The player options that the contract has could come back and bite the New York Mets. The other argument is “it’s only money.” The White Sox may have tried as hard on Cespedes as any other team, but for whatever reason, they didn’t want to match the Mets offer.
When you look at these top three options, it’s hard to argue that Hahn did not make the right choice passing on all three of these players (especially if they didn’t fit in the budget he was given). It has to be said, even though Jackson’s numbers have been underwhelming, the shifting of Adam Eaton to right field currently has him playing at an All-Star level. If the White Sox signed any of those three, and didn’t sign Jackson, it’s very likely Eaton would have been the everyday center fielder and not putting up the same type of numbers.
In speaking about those free agents, Jason Heyward, the top outfield free agent hasn’t been brought up yet. It’s believed that Heyward was far out of the White Sox’ spending range but even when you look at his numbers this year, it’s another case of disappointment for the team that eventually landed him, the Chicago Cubs.
As for some of the other cheaper options, more comparable to Jackson, Dexter Fowler may have been the one that got away. The White Sox were rumored to be in on Fowler, even after the debacle with the Baltimore Orioles. The Cubs certainly had a lot to offer, including a familiar clubhouse, but they certainly are not disappointed by the $8 million they are paying Fowler this year. Fowler is putting up superstar numbers (.339/.467/.569) while playing a solid center field.
Denard Span was another option, and he is also hitting well (.339/.467/.569), although while playing fairly horrific center field for the San Francisco Giants.
The White Sox were certainly in on some, or even all, of these candidates as an outfielder was a clear target for the offseason. For whatever reason, Austin Jackson was who they ended up with. It did certainly appear that Jackson was the last player remaining and a lottery ticket with the White Sox having to sign somebody. The first few weeks of the season have proven otherwise. Jackson has improved the outfield defense, possibly well more than any of the other options would have. He has lowered his strikeout rate – 18.7 percent from a 23.4 percent career rate, which may have been a team goal this season (the team has lowered their strikeout rate from 20.3 percent in 2015 to 19.2 this season). Most notably, in performance per dollar, Jackson has been a bargain. In a league that has no salary cap, that has less importance, but the savings may be used to require another asset at this year’s trade deadline.
There was added dread to Gordon and Upton signing with division rivals but six weeks into the season, it’s the White Sox and their less-coveted free agent center fielder who sit atop the AL Central.