Since the banner acquisition of Todd Frazier in mid-December, the White Sox offseason has consisted of Matt Albers and Paralysis. White Sox fans — myself included — have invested this time into driving ourselves mad with speculation as grand hopes were downgraded to practical solutions and subsequently on to bargaining, anger, and acceptance. Indeed, some are now coping by reassuring themselves that maybe Avisail Garcia isn't that bad after all.
It’s not crazy to suggest that Garcia will be better this season than last, but that’s mostly because it is pretty hard to be as comprehensively wretched as his 2015 campaign. As soon as Garcia was acquired, I was extremely suspicious, given his complete inability to control the strike zone (a result of a dubious approach) and his lack of in-game power. I persuaded myself that his combination of floor and ceiling were enticing because I thought he would be a plus-defender in a corner, given a pairing of solid speed and a good arm. But, since it turns out he is abysmal in the field, the scenarios wherein Garcia becomes a usable starter are fictional.
Some individuals, however, believe that the White Sox should not sacrifice a draft pick to upgrade right field. Some are worried that Dexter Fowler will cost too much. Some people would prefer to see a solution come via trade. A lot of people seem to think all three of those things.
I believe they are all wrong:
- Dexter Fowler is underrated. Even in 2016 where everyone has seen Moneyball and is pretty OK with the idea that looking at hits and walks is better than looking at just hits, Fowler is going to get overlooked. The only thing he does really well is get on base, but he doesn’t really have any weaknesses and criticisms of his defense are vastly overstated. The Cubs tweaked his positioning last year, correcting his biggest issue (he was playing too shallow) and otherwise knocks on his glove come from cherry-picking bad seasons by UZR. However, even according to the creator of UZR, single season samples of UZR are, in fact, worthless. So when someone whose judgment I trust, like Mau Rubio of 2080 Baseball, says Fowler is an average defender in center field, I’m not going to freak out about arbitrary endpoints on his defensive metrics. And even the biggest Fowler critic would have a hard time demonstrating that he wouldn't be a massive upgrade on Garcia's glove. Fowler would improve the White Sox in literally every facet of the game at their weakest position.
- People are ignoring context. “But Fowler is going to be expensive and he won’t be worth what he costs.” Maybe he won't be "worth" exactly what he commands in free agency. The problem is, the goal of baseball is to win as many games as possible, not to get the most WAR/$ out of every spot on the diamond. Free agents never yield optimal efficiency in terms of money — pre-FA players under team control do, because that’s how the system works. The White Sox have surplus value in Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Carlos Rodon, Adam Eaton, Todd Frazier, Brett Lawrie, Jose Abreu and most of their bullpen. Every single year that you do not optimize your chances of winning with that group, they become more expensive (and for most of them, less effective). Any value you gain by stalling and hoping to find a cheaper solution than Fowler is going to be gobbled up tenfold by erosion of skills, increased player salaries and opportunity cost. Maybe Fowler will cost a few more million a year than you’d like. That’s better than flushing $20+ million in surplus value on Chris Sale alone down the toilet.
- People are seriously ignoring context. How much a player is worth to a team varies depending on the situation. Trading Corey Dickerson for Jake McGee isn’t a terrible idea if you’re a contender with a horrible bullpen and extra bodies in the outfield. It is a terrible idea if you’re a last place team like Colorado. Most people seem to get this. Every win above 81 is worth way more than every win below 81. That’s because moving from say, 85 to 86 wins could be the difference between a wild card appearance and not, whereas moving from 77 to 78 wins does nothing for you except maybe costing you draft positioning.* So, yeah, the White Sox might pay more for Fowler than anybody else — causing people to invoke the Winner’s Curse principle — but that’s really OK! That’s because Fowler is more valuable to the White Sox than any other team. The White Sox had the worst full time right fielder in the majors last year, and are in a position where every single win could be massively significant, given that they are currently projected to finish essentially in a dead heat with Detroit and Kansas City. The Rockies and Reds shouldn’t sign Fowler, that would be dumb. But the White Sox aren’t signing Fowler in a vacuum — he would be a piece that could push them from an 81-win projection to an 84-85-win projection, and make them the best team in the AL Central coming into the season. Maybe the best argument for doing it is that your biggest rival really hopes you don't! Also, the main reason you don’t want to add “bad” contracts is because it would prevent the team from making better moves later. The thing is, a Fowler deal shouldn’t do that at all. Adding $12-15 million a year over the next four years would still put the White Sox pretty much where they’ve been payroll-wise for years (despite increased revenues), and this is the exact scenario where you want to have that money to spend. If a building is burning down you pour water on it, you don’t save the water for later in case there’s a fire sometime down the road.
- The No. 28 draft pick is great, but people are overestimating its value. By definition, most people only hear about back-end first round picks when they succeed, because the ones that don’t work out crash and burn before they ever reach the majors. And the overwhelming majority of back-half first round picks flame out so you wind up with a distorted confirmation bias effect on the general public. This has always been true, and for a more detailed/mathematical presentation of this concept, read here. Moreover, this should be even more true since 2012 when hard slots were introduced to the draft and teams like the Yankees and Tigers couldn’t just sit at the end of the first round and buy top ten talents for massive, over-slot bonuses. Granted, the No. 28 pick would increase the total amount of money the White Sox could spend on all of their picks, and there’s value there — but not as much as the opportunity cost of entering 2016 with replacement level players in right field *and* DH when you have a team that otherwise could make the playoffs. Another corollary here is that if you don’t sign Fowler, you look to upgrade via trade — and then you wind up giving up even more talent than you would gain from the 28th pick! Spencer Adams, Tim Anderson, Carson Fulmer … heck, even Tyler Danish and Trey Michalczewski are probably better outcomes than one can reasonably expect to find at the 28th pick. And if you want to add an outfielder as good as Fowler, you’re definitely giving up something like that. So, yeah, I don’t want to throw away the 28th pick, but I don’t want to trade something more valuable for the sake of saving the pick. “I don’t want to spend $100 cash … I’ll put $200 on my credit card!” Noooope.
*Note: As an aside, I don’t think that this principle applies in all scenarios. I do think there is a cost to fans for having to watch a team win fewer than 70 games as opposed to being somewhat respectable. Tanking is pretty gross, but that’s an extreme and doesn’t fall within the ambit of what I’m discussing here.
I’m not opposed to the White Sox finding other solutions than Dexter Fowler. I’m really not. I just don’t see an avenue to doing that without them surrendering far more talent than a draft pick would cost, and given that the White Sox still have a lower payroll than they did in 2011, and given that they don’t have any bad money committed past 2017, I don’t see how that's preferable to a 30-year old, extremely athletic free agent.
In short — Fowler costs you almost nothing, and drastically improves the odds of the White Sox making the playoffs for the first time since George W. Bush was in office.