Filling the South Side’s crater in right field

Running down a dream: The White Sox begin their second year of serious Joc pursuit this offseason. (Wikipedia)

Paltry production has been prevalent in the outfield at Guaranteed Rate Field in general over the past few years, but the crater  in right field specifically has become a larger issue. The White Sox were 29th in baseball in right field production last season, according to FanGraphs. The hodgepodge of Leury García, Charlie Tilson, Ryan Cordell, Jon Jay and Daniel Palka combined for a total of -1.3 fWAR in 2019. The only positive contributor was García, with an fWAR of 1.3, and he posted a putrid wRC+ of 83 in more than 600 plate appearances.

Rick Hahn has discussed the outfield vacancy ad nauseum and it’s a near-certainty that someone else will be on display for the fine folks in Section 108 next year. Luis Robert is a Top 5 prospect in the sport and profiles in center field. He should spend the majority of the 2020 baseball season in Chicago. Besides him, though, the once-promising group of outfield depth in the White Sox’s minors have suffered from setbacks and poor performance.

Micker Adolfo, Luis Basabe and Blake Rutherford are all on the 40-man roster but aren’t ready to play games in Chicago. Luis González and Steele Walker are other options, but not on the 40-man. Adam Engel could carry his steady glove back into a reserve role on the South Side and Eloy Jiménez will be a fixture in left.

The rest of the outfield is an empty canvas screaming to be colored.

Dollars to spend

Nicholas Castellanos and Marcell Ozuna are the top names available on the open market, and the White Sox could have some level of interest in both players. The market for Ozuna has been quiet in the early going, and his derby is a bit of an unknown at this point. The 29-year-old received a qualifying offer from the St. Louis Cardinals after posting a 110 wRC+ in 2019. He provides above-average power after launching 29 balls over the fence last year and 148 total over the course of his young career.

But the White Sox need to fill their hole in right field, and one potential issue with Ozuna is the fact that he hasn’t played the position recently. With the Cardinals, he’s been strictly in left as we recently surmised. One thing that the Dominican does have going for him is his history with new hitting coach Frank Menechino. The White Sox’s recently appointed swing master oversaw Ozuna’s 5.0 fWAR season in Miami, when he posted a 143 wRc+.

Interest in Castellanos was reported back at the start of November. Jon Morosi of MLB Network chimed in and echoed similar sentiments, in addition to Bob Nightengale of USA Today. The White Sox would prefer to add lineup balance in the form of a left-handed hitter, but it’s imperative to not be slaves to handedness in this regard. The 27-year-old former first-rounder can really hit. Castellanos is also quite familiar with the AL Central after spending the majority of his career in Detroit with the Tigers.

The 6´4´´, 200-pounder was a different player after a deadline trade to the Cubs, and the performance may have caused some value inflation. Castellanos is regarded as a subpar defender in an outfield corner and he’s also a client of superagent Scott Boras. After hitting 27 homers in 2019, Castellanos has racked up 120 in his career. He was death to southpaws last year, posting a wRC+ of 190, and has destroyed lefties in general during his career. In 2019, Castellanos slugged .525 with a 121 wRc+ and .357 wOBA. His .236 ISO was stellar after posting a 130 wRC+ with a .363 wOBA in 2018.

Yasiel Puig, Kole Calhoun and Corey Dickerson are tertiary options on the market who are readily available as well. Puig is cantankerous at times and full of shenanigans, but he’s Cuban and really fun. The 28-year-old hit 24 home runs in 2019 but was a league average offensive player (101 wRC+) for the Reds and Cleveland. He posted a 123 wRC+ in 2018. He’d likely be a backup plan at best for the 2020 White Sox.

Calhoun and Dickerson are both lefties with some power, and would offer lineup balance for the Sox. Calhoun is 32 years old, plays above-average defense and hit 33 homers in 2019. He also struck out a ton, selling out for his most productive power season to date. The former Halo posted a 108 wRC+ with a staggering .236 ISO and performed admirably vs. right-handed pitching. Dickerson is 30 years old and only hit 12 homers in 2019, but posted a 127 wRC+. He reached base a ton, with a .367 wOBA and smashed righties to the tune of a 136 wRC+.

Dickerson and Calhoun are solid players, but the White Sox are likely looking for more.

Trade winds are blowing

The elephant in the room this offseason is Boston Red Sox star Mookie Betts. The Carmines are in a tough spot with their budget, and new president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom may be obligated to trade his star player. The 27-year-old outfielder is one of the very best players in the sport and he’s looking to cash in on a free agent contract in excess of $300 million next off-season. Betts has accumulated 37.2 fWAR in six big league seasons while compiling 17 fWAR over his last two years. It would be a surprise to see the White Sox meet the perceived asking price for him at this juncture.

Another former All-Star on the trade market is Starling Marte of the Pittsburgh Pirates. With Ben Cherington looking to put his stamp on the organization, it’s highly likely that Marte moves to a new organization at some point. The 31-year-old center fielder has two years left on his contract and has an arm strong enough to play in a corner. Starling put up 3.0 fWAR with a 119 wRC+ and 23 homers in 2019. He doesn’t walk a lot and he hits from the right side. He doesn’t solve the White Sox’s left-handed problem, but he’d be a solid acquisition nonetheless.

Charlie Blackmon and Shin Soo-Choo are two more veteran names on the trade market. The White Sox have been linked to Blackmon in the past. His contract is abhorrent, but some of it could be paid down by Colorado. The 33-year-old has declining defensive ability, and his splits away from Coors Field are quite troubling. The Rockies outfielder hit .314/.364/.576 with 32 home runs. Blackmon posted a 2.0 fWAR with a 125 wRC+ and .387 wOBA. Choo is a platoon player at this stage, but a very good one. The 37-year-old posted a 127 wRC+ vs righties last year.

Two young lefties who might be growing out of favor with their current clubs could be available as well. Gregory Polanco hasn’t lived up to the hype in Pittsburgh, and the new management team could look to move the 28-year-old right fielder. Polanco slumped through 167 plate appearances last year but he posted a 123 wRC+ in 2018. He has struggled against lefties throughout his career, though, and selling low may not be the best idea for the Pirates at this time. Texas Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara is another player who has been linked to the White Sox in the past. The 24-year-old hits from the left side and has three years of contract control remaining. Mazara’s overall 2019 numbers aren’t promising, but he did post a 110 wRC+ vs righties.

Likely outcomes

The decision-makers for the Chicago White Sox will embark to San Diego this weekend for next week’s Winter Meetings. Pitching will likely remain a priority for the Pale Hose after narrowly missing on preferred target Zack Wheeler. The market is moving a little quicker this year, though, and the outfield hole could be filled at any time. Nick Castellanos has an uncertain market right now, but he could be an option to sign next week. Trade talks will likely continue as well.

Jerry DiPoto has begun his annual reshaping of the Seattle Mariners, and outfielder Mitch Haniger could be a White Sox target after being bandied in trade proposals in recent seasons. DiPoto has downplayed the rumors in regards to Haniger and is reportedly reluctant to sell low on the 28-year-old. The outfielder missed most of last season with a ruptured testicle and related back issues following the procedure. He did display mostly league average offensive production with 15 bombs last year in 63 games, however.

In limited time in 2019, Haniger’s .244 ISO was stellar and he possesses big raw power. The 6´2´´, 215-pounder posted a 137 wRC+ with a .367 wOBA in 2018. He compiled 4.5 fWAR after hitting 26 home runs while displaying a 10% walk rate. The Mariners have a collection of young outfielders who are approaching the majors and something will have to give soon enough. DiPoto loves making deals, and Haniger could be on the move next week.

According to Nightengale, the White Sox have again inquired with the Los Angeles Dodgers on the availability of outfielder Joc Pederson. The 27-year-old outfielder was a trade target last year as well before talks were halted due to twitter and Joc remained in La La Land. Pederson would be a great fit for the White Sox’s roster. He’s a solid defender in right field and he possesses immense power potential from the left side.

The 6´2´´, 220-pounder is in his final year of arbitration and he hit .249/.339/.538 with the Dodgers last season. Pederson murders righties to the tune of a 137 wRC+ and would be a force in the middle of the Chicago lineup. He posted a 127 wRC+ with a .362 wOBA and accumulated 3.0 fWAR in 2019 as well. It’s unknown how serious the talks have become, or what Andrew Friedman and his staff would even be looking for in return for the slugger at this point.

The White Sox will have a new right fielder in 2020. The bigger questions are where that player comes from and how much it costs to acquire him. The front office could rub elbows with Boras and keep Castellanos in the Second City. They could make a trade for one of the readily-available bats on the market. They could even go off the board entirely and break that story on the team’s official twitter.

The good thing for the organization, though, is that a plethora of solid options exist and anything will likely be an upgrade.

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Joc of all trades: Pederson a perfect fit for Chicago’s right field woes

Rock n’ Joc: Reviving a trade for this fella could solve a lot of problems for the White Sox. (Rawlings)

The MLB Hot Stove usually takes a slow-roll, kindling approach before exploding –– especially when it comes to the last few winters. The 2020 offseason was presumed to be no different, until the Chicago White Sox dumped $123 million worth of gasoline onto the stove top, bringing Yasmani Grandal, a premium two-way catcher into the fold, and extending hometown star José Abreu.

These early moves put the accelerant on a publicly-stated desire by the front office to address holes at DH, C, RF, and in the starting rotation. Chicago’s dotted transaction history to begin the offseason places even more of an onus on smoothing out the rough edges of a roster that suddenly looks on track to do some damage in 2020.

SSHP’s own James Fox has already written about the next logical step in the process: Securing a front-end starter in the form of free agent Zack Wheeler.

Dipping into free agency and deploying cash have been the avenues of choice in player acquisition thus far, but Rick Hahn and Co. have been transparent in that the trade market is a viable route as well when it comes to certain upgrades.

That may not ring truer than in the context of right field, where the free agent inventory isn’t exactly thin, but is riddled with case-by-case complications, especially when it comes to finding a fit lacking warts.

There’s Nicholas Castellanos, who would surely be a spark in the lineup — but his glove in right is sure to douse some of those contributions in terms of overall net gains. Plus, his price tag is such that similar funds in the Brinks Truck could be wheeled elsewhere, if you catch my drift –– particularly if it’s an either-or scenario budget-wise.

Kole Calhoun is a reasonable enough stopgap, but given that DH is starting to look like a timeshare between Grandal, Abreu, James McCann, and Zack Collins, that’s not a significant enough addition for a right field position that now needs to feature more of a consistent lineup cog. After all, Chicago right fielders combined for a dismal .220/.227/.288 line in 2019, serving as their most glaring roster blemish.

Marcell Ozuna could provide some pop, but he’s far removed from his spectacular 2017 campaign with the Miami Marlins, in which he pounded 37 home runs and featured a slugging percentage 100 points better than his career average. At the right price, he’s a potential free agent fit, with some upside to go along with a very playable floor in the high ~700 OPS and two-WAR range.

But that would mean paying for more than you might actually get, eating the draft compensation consequences, and not spreading dollars elsewhere across the diamond, like the pitcher’s bump.

Then there’s Avisaíl García, who is simply not returning to the White Sox. They had the opportunity to retain him for $6-$8 million last offseason but chose to non-tender him instead. That says everything about their current interest. He’s a passable corner outfielder with steady tools, but low defensive value. And despite a potent frame and occasional bursts, García not been a benefactor of the juiced-ball era’s power dividends.

Same applies for Yasiel Puig, who is just not meant to wear black and white. For whatever reason, this oft-rumored and volatile target hasn’t found a place on the South Side, despite the ever-present Cuban-connection narrative and positional need. The White Sox are placing a premium on clubhouse culture, and there seems to have been and likely continues to be a mismatch here.

Corey Dickerson typically mashes when healthy while also sporting non-sinking defense. Despite an injury-riddled 2019, he’d be the go-to option in the free agent market and may very well be what the White Sox pursue.

But can Chicago do better on the trade circuit?

There’s no Christian Yelich-style deal to be had this offseason, and there’s a strong case for why Chicago’s not even at the point where trading from the upper echelon of their prospect pool for a single prized fixture would even make sense.

Funneling multiple upside assets into one premium proven player comes at that “final piece” stage, which is at least a year or two down the line. It dooesn’t help that right fielders like Cody Bellinger, Max Kepler, and Austin Meadows aren’t available, anyway.

Mookie Betts is available, but now that’s a move more than a year down the line, seeing as front office actors don’t even consider rentals until they’ve paid off their rebuilt suburban mortgage and suddenly want to live in a high-rise on Parade Ave. in Championship City for a year.

However, there is one player who won’t cost an “arm and a bat” plus Hahn’s first-born, whose performance is just a tick below the top-tier.

That would be Joc Pederson, who sits below the Bellingers of the world but was still better than just about two-thirds of the league’s right fielders with a 3.0 fWAR in 2019 –– an output that also outpaces every available free agent at any outfield position not named Brett Gardner (who can’t be expected to end up anywhere other than back in New York pinstripes).

Pederson himself has had an interesting MLB career, going from the 15th-best prospect in baseball in 2014 while flaunting a 30/30 ceiling, to a 2015 full-season stint that saw him parlay initial explosiveness into an All-Star selection, only to sputter out as the season dragged on.

The depth and versatility of the Los Angeles Dodgers outfield has always made them a matchup smorgasbord, which limited Pederson’s playing time at various moments due to his poor splits against left-handed pitching. Such curated and maximized deployment resulted in an .847 OPS with 25 bombs in 2016.

An injury-riddled 2017 was rock bottom of sorts, where Pederson turned in a .212/.331/.407 line with just 11 home runs.

He got back to the 25-home run threshold in 2018 with an .843 OPS and slugging percentage above .500, but it still didn’t make him a lock to be a Dodgers stalwart moving forward.

Entering his age 27 season, he started to look like the odd man out in an increasingly crowded Dodgers outfield that included Chris Taylor, Bellinger, the newly signed AJ Pollock,  emerging top prospect Alex Verdugo, and rumored aspirations of splashing on Bryce Harper.

Chicago read the tea leaves and immediately got on the phone lines despite still apparently pursuing Harper themselves, which turned out to be overplayed in its own right. Here was the first scoop from FanSided’s Jason Kinander:

Legend has it that this trade was actually pretty darn close to being filed for print. But deals are susceptible to “leaks,” and those leaks can seemingly manifest into floodgates of competition from other clubs. In the case of the Pederson deal, the flood rose L.A.’s price tag for Pederson beyond Chicago’s comfort zone –– something Hahn essentially alluded to at an NBC Chicago Summer podcast interview at Reggie’s Chicago, despite his usual couched language.

Yet, when the dust settled, not only wasn’t Pederson traded to Chicago, he wasn’t traded at all, so who’s to say why the I’s and T’s could never be officially dotted. Maybe it’s still possible to get “cold feet” in LA despite the beachy weather.

As history would have it, Pederson would go on to produce arguably the best year of his career in 2019, with a .249/.339/.538 slash line and a career-high 36 home runs to go along with his highest fWAR since 2016. Not to mention top career marks in HR/FB ratio backed by a career-high hardest-hit rate (45.2% per FanGraphs).

What’s interesting, though, is that the crowded outfield of 2019 hasn’t really changed in the context of 2020. Bellinger, Verdugo, and Pollock are the tailor-made starting outfield and there’s still Taylor and Matt Beaty to take reps out there as well. Instead of Harper potentially on the horizon like last offseason, the Dodgers are exploring another prize in Mookie Betts via trade –– which in theory could involve Pederson. Yet ultimately, the script is very similar to last winter where smoke was almost met with fire.

It almost goes without saying that Pederson checks a lot of boxes for the White Sox.

He’s got the defensive chops to play right field, as he has played center for a good portion of his career and has the arm to handle a corner. He brings true left-handed power to a lineup that desperately lacks it even after the addition of Grandal.

Pederson’s contract situation fits like a glove. He’s got one season left of team control, and would come at an arb rate in the $8-$10 million range. That’s the perfect bridge to an internal option, in case one of Micker Adolfo, Luis Alexander Basabe, Blake Rutherford, Luis Gonzalez, or Steele Walker emerge as a true everyday outfield option to pair with Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert for the long haul.

At just 28, Pederson could excel beyond what he’s presently shown and even become a worthy extension candidate if the farm goes through a drought and other options look undesirable. It’s entirely possible that Pederson takes advantage of the bandbox that is Sox Park, goes off for 40 home runs, and realizes enough of an OBP and defensive value to be a keeper beyond 2020.

The main pitfall is Pederson’s near unplayable splits against lefties, but assuming superutility player Leury García is back for 2020, his career .285/.311 AVG./OBP. splits could cover Pederson semi-competently. That said, a true fourth outfielder and better platoon fit than Adam Engel could be pursued to complement Pederson if a trade with L.A. actually comes to fruition.

So here we are, yet again, with another Dodgers outfielder surfacing, swimming, and downright bobbing around in the sea that is the White Sox rumor mill. It has to happen at some point, right? Books could be written from all the prior trade conjecture surrounding Matt Kemp, Pederson, Puig, and yes, even Andre Ethier at one point, with regard to Chicago’s predilection for a Hollywood outfielder. Even Verdugo was a popular name during Quintana-Dodgers rumors.

So what will it take for a player to finally book their flight from LAX to O’Hare? Kinander gives us some insight into the potential cost, with perspective into last offseason’s deal structure at least:

It’s safe to say the interest in Carson Fulmer is dead. Bryce Bush destroyed rookie ball in his draft year, but was absolutely abysmal last season in A-Ball, with a .201/.285/.346 slash line and K-rate north of 30.

Aaron Bummer was coming off a mixed 2018 campaign when the Dodgers apparently had interest. The good metrics were a 2.40 FIP and 9.9 K/9 while the bad were a 4.26 ERA, 1.579 WHIP, and a 11.4 H/9 metric that gave pause. While Pederson had a career year in 2019, Bummer did so as well. He posted a 2.13 ERA across 67.2 innings, with a 3.41 FIP, sub-one WHIP, and limited hits to just 5.7 per nine.

He’s far from just a lefty specialist, limiting RHB to a .234/.337/.332 career mark. Bummer’s transformation came from increased fastball velocity, the introduction of a cutter, as well as positive regression from previous bad luck. There’s a far more detailed explanation here.

Still, the 82.3% strand rate and .228 BABIP are almost the inverse of the bad luck from 2018 and somewhat unsustainably positive, which means Bummer’s true self might be somewhere in between 2018 and 2019 — but the full package is still a non-specialized, nearly lights-out reliever.

There’s a lot of volatility in relievers, but there’s also five years worth of cheap control in Bummer as well. That seems steep for one year of Pederson, but if the White Sox wanted to guarantee it would get done, then this is a one-for-one that would make ink dry on LA’s end at least.

Maybe at that point, just paying for Dickerson and keeping Bummer makes more sense, but there’s still the chance that net-net in 2019, Pederson outpaces that tandem in wins if a replacement level arm could be plugged in for Bummer.

But between Caleb Frare and Jace Fry, the White Sox are very thin on reliable lefty pen options, and neither the free agent market nor their system provide much in the way of immediate help. At that point, trading five years of a potentially plus-reliever for what could be a one-year stopgap starts to seem ill-advised.

The White Sox could then look to a prospect-only package here, given the leverage of Pederson truly being an odd man out in LA, but he won’t just be given away for nothing.

Something like RHP Jonathan Stiever (No. 7 White Sox prospect per MLB) and RHP Codi Heuer (No. 19) would likely be enough to get it done.

If there was very little competition in Pederson’s trade market, Stiever could be swapped for LHP Konnor Pilkington (No. 16 prospect) and a pot-sweetener like OF Luis Meises. But that’s about the line before a Dickerson deal starts to make more sense, unless Chicago likes Pederson enough to at least consider this the beginning of a longer-term relationship.

Adding Pederson to the existing offensive corps would undoubtedly give the White Sox a playoff lineup –– at least offensively. But Stiever is a legit prospect and one that Chicago is very high on, so parting with him could be the first real sting of this impending transition to the promised land.

This is not the type of trade a rebuilding team makes, but all indications are that the White Sox no longer wish to be a rebuilding team.

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