A few days into March and a couple split squad games is as long as the White Sox could sustain the suspense of a position battle at shortstop. Bruce Levine reported Wednesday that Robin Ventura admitted Jimmy Rollins is a near lock to make the White Sox roster, and gave this telling quote to Dan Hayes.
Something physical happening where it doesn't work is pretty much the entirety of the risk of a 37 year-old shortstop, so Robin might be making a much larger hedge than is initially apparent, but otherwise, Rollins playing while Tyler Saladino offers him a respite from full-time wear-and-tear seems like the preferred arrangement.
That's the best way to handle the personnel on hand. Rollins was a productive member of an MLB lineup just a season ago (102 wRC+), and even during his career-worst 2015 (80 wRC+) he was better at the plate than Alexei Ramirez was last year. Giving him the chance to be productive and allowing Saladino to be your typical glove-only backup infielder could be a very comfortable arrangement. Between the frequently-injured Brett Lawrie and Rollins' needs for days off, Saladino won't be at risk of developing any bed sores.
Making the big club means Rollins gets $2 million, which means he'll be making just $2 million less than the biggest free agent signing of the offseason--Dioner Navarro, the likely backup catcher. The level of signings the White Sox engaged in all offseason, (1/4 to Navarro, 1/2.5 for Alex Avila, 1/3 for Mat Latos) are usually shrugged off as negligible expenses for an MLB team; the level at which they seem justifiable for pretty much any upside at all. Case in point, $1.5 million for the seemingly hopeless Jacob Turner was weird, but hardly seen as a problem.
But the path to $2 million for Rollins comes after the seemingly reasonable $10 million option for Alexei Ramirez got bought out, he still wasn't worth retaining when his market sank to one-year, $4 million, and the Sox long-held stance of sticking with Tyler Saladino seemed like an acceptable pill to swallow if it enabled a larger investment in the outfield. But that never came, and a $2 million flyer on Rollins represents a bigger effort to improve shortstop than was exerted on far worse situations with right field and designated hitter.
Avila, Latos and Rollins are all decent low-cost options on their own, with Latos even offering substantial potential to be very good, but in sum, and with the Sox still taking on bad bets for improvements from Avisail Garcia and Adam LaRoche, this is a roster that was pieced together from the discount bin and has all the associated risk.
Rollins is at an age where shortstops cannot be expected to be productive. Avila has seen his strikeout rate tip over 30% the last two years with diminishing power and health. Navarro has huge platoon splits and is not a revered defender. Latos hasn't eclipsed 120 innings in the last two years, was ineffective for much of 2015. Erik Johnson's stuff looks questionable and has never maintained control at the MLB level. Danks is Danks. You could focus on the upside of these spots if the Sox had addressed their two biggest black holes from 2015 with any of the easy fixes available, but they didn't, and now all the "cheap fliers," and "low-cost options" are the "actual upgrades."
We would be remiss to not acknowledge Todd Frazier, a true stud that the Sox had to take on the salary of in a trade that shipped no meaningful contracts off their payroll, and evidence of Rick Hahn's ability to find crafty solutions to secure talent that's on the smaller payroll tier he's apparently forced work with. Frazier can produce like Adrian Beltre, or Evan Longoria at a reduced price, and it's possible Latos can outperform Samardzija at a fraction of the price. Maybe Rollins can produce one more year like a $10 million per season shortstop too, but whether Hahn's wisdom can outrun the macro effect of having to budget shop to fill out the roster will be the test that sways the Sox season...and even then they still might need to address Garcia and LaRoche.