The date is November 25, 2005 and as I’m driving down Indianapolis Boulevard in Highland, IN a breaking news alert comes on 670 The Score. The White Sox, not even a month removed from their first World Series title in 88 years, have acquired Jim Thome from the Philadelphia Phillies. The euphoria hasn’t even faded from the greatest sports moment of my life and seemingly the good times will keep on rolling. That great feeling would dissipate in a moment as I continued to listen to the update and it was revealed that in order to acquire the left-handed masher the Sox have long coveted, they would have to part with Aaron Rowand. Rowand was the gritty center fielder who held down the most important outfield position and made countless spectacular plays and in many ways was the emotional leader of the championship squad. Who knew his departure during this joyous time would create a black hole the Sox have not been able to fill since? In fact, since the trade of Rowand, Sox center fielders have amassed lowest total fWAR (Fangraphs.com’s version of WAR) of any team in baseball at a paltry 25.2 fWAR. Only three players during that time were worth a cumulative 2 fWAR, those players being Adam Eaton, Alejandro De Aza, and Alex Rios. That’s it! No other player that has manned center field for the Sox has been able to produce at least 2 fWAR.
While attending a recent Sox game and conversing with the fine folks in Section 108 (give them a follow @fromthe108), we took up the topic of how the Sox could fix this black hole going into 2019. I don’t know about you, but I need the Adam Engel experience to come to an end. I know everyone believes that the long-term answer lies somewhere in the Luis troika of center fielders (Robert, Basabe, Gonzalez), but the problem is none of these options will be available until 2020 at the earliest and there are still many hurdles to overcome for each. Robert since signing with the Sox last May has had several nagging injuries and has only amassed 201 PAs with only 87 of these being stateside. That’s a problem for a team that invested over $50 million dollars (including penalties) to acquire Robert with the belief that he would be patrolling center field at 35th/Shields by 2020.
Basabe, bounced back from an injury riddled 2017 season season to put up a 144 wRC+ in Winston-Salem earning him a recent promotion to AA Birmingham. However, he’s off to a slow start with the Barons, putting up a 69 wRC+ in only 88 PAs. Basabe will need more seasoning at the higher levels of the minor leagues before determining if he will be a viable everyday outfielder.
Gonzalez, the Sox third round draft selection in 2017, had to begin his 2018 season in Kannapolis due to the Sox outfield logjam. Gonzalez proved to be too advanced for the level,m putting up a 139 wRC+ before being promoted to Winston-Salem in mid June. Since getting to the Dash, Gonzalez has kept hitting putting up a 129 wRC+.
While all three options mentioned above could prove to provide long-term stability to the center field position, it really is essential that the Sox upgrade the position in 2019. If this team has serious aspirations about winning the AL Central in 2020, I believe that team’s center fielder will need to be acquired from outside the organization. Ideally, you would acquire a center fielder that could shift to a corner in a few years when, hopefully, a member of the Luis’ takes the position. So who are the some of the options the Sox should target?
Jones turns 33 on August first and his days as a viable option in center field look to be behind him. Never one for taking walks, Jones hasn’t put up an OBP over .330 since 2012. He is providing consistent power however, hitting at least 25 home runs every year since 2011. Age has caused his defense to take a turn for the worse. Starting in 2016, Jones has had at least -10 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in each season and is at an astounding -18 DRS as we sit here in July.
Pollock turns 31 in December, so he is still conceivably in his prime and would be a great option to fill this void and shift to a corner in a few years. When healthy, Pollock has proven to be a solid defensive center fielder providing tremendous value with the glove. He has had a positive DRS every season since 2013, with his high water mark being 14 DRS in 2015. Despite missing substantial time already this season, Pollock has already amassed 5 DRS. Pollock isn’t a glove only center fielder, as he has put up a solid 117 wRC+ during his time in the big leagues. In only 194 PAs here in 2018, Pollock has slashed .287/.351/.592 with 12 home runs. Clearly, this is a player that you want in your lineup and manning center field for you. The biggest red flag with Pollock is his inability to stay healthy. He has only been able to log 150 games once in his big league career, and this will give some teams cause for concern when considering whether or not to offer the talented center fielder a nine figure contract this winter.
A preferred option of The Loop Sports contributor James Fox, Marte is the 29 year old center fielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Marte began his career as a truly elite left fielder in the Steel City where his all-around game earned him praise and was widely considered to be the best all-around left fielder in the game. For his career Marte has put up a 117 wRC+, but his calling card was really his superb corner outfield defense. In 2015, he had an absurd 24 DRS helping the Pirates to their third consecutive postseason. Beginning in 2017, the Pirates decided to take the superb corner defense and shift him to center field due to the aging concerns of former MVP Andrew McCutchen. Marte’s center field experience was cut short in 2017 due to an 80 game suspension for performance enhancing drugs. Upon his return, he was shifted back to his familiar left field spot. With McCutchen traded to the Giants this past winter, Marte was again deployed to center field for the Pirates. To this point in 2018, he has -1 DRS so the stellar corner outfield play hasn’t necessarily translated to center field. Would a move to a smaller outfield at 35th/Shields help Marte emerge as an elite center fielder? The biggest obstacle here for the Sox would be the acquisition cost. Marte is signed thru 2021 (final two years being options), so the Pirates will not be selling him at a discount. There was rampant speculation that the Sox found the Pirates difficult to negotiate with during the Jose Quintana sweepstakes of 2016. So the question remains, how much prospect capital would the Sox have to part with in order to acquire Marte given his stellar performance and affordable, cost-controlled contract?
I was on the Joc Pederson bandwagon this past winter as I felt he would be a great change of scenery candidate that seemingly fell out of place with the Dodgers, despite performing well during the World Series. Pederson has continued his hot hitting from the Fall Classic here in 2018 slashing .245/.325/.518 with 13 home runs and putting up a very solid 126 wRC+. Pederson hasn’t shown the ability to man center field defensively the last few seasons in LA, so there are questions as to whether he is already relegated to a corner spot. He had -12 DRS in 2017 and already has a -5 DRS this season, but similar to Marte one has to wonder if a move away from spacious Dodger Stadium would help his defense. At only 26 and with two years of arbitration contract control before hitting free agency, Pederson also will not come cheap. Given the outfield inconsistency that has plagued the Dodgers in recent years and the uncertainty surrounding top prospect Alex Verdugo who could serve as a trade chip this season, it is unclear whether the Dodgers would be willing to part with Pederson at this time.
Kiermaier is the best defensive center fielder that will be profiled in this piece. In fact, outside of Byron Buxton, Kiermaier is the arguably the best defensive center fielder in baseball. The 28 year old Kiermaier is a two time Gold Glove winner for the Rays and has been a human highlight reel down in Tampa. Kiermaier has been slowed by injuries the last two seasons as he has only played 31 games in 2018, while failing to play less than 100 games last season. Despite the limited playing time, Kiermaier still had 22 DRS last season giving him three consecutive seasons with over 20 DRS, peaking at a video-game-like 42 in 2015! Kiermaier’s offensive production hasn’t equaled his defensive prowess as he has a career 103 wRC+. When healthy, Kiermaier has proven to be a league average hitter, but the elite level defense has made him a 3-4 fWAR over the last four seasons. He is signed to a team friendly deal through 2022 (with an option year in 2023), so we know the Rays will be looking for a king’s ransom before considering parting with the defensive wizard.
The 25 year old Conforto is a product of much consternation among Mets front office personnel and fans. His time with the Metropolitans has been marred with tremendous inconsistency going from postseason hero in 2015 to a minor league demotion the following year. The strange outfield logjam the Mets have created with Conforto, Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce, and the emergence of Brandon Nimmo is truly emblematic of this franchise as they struggle to figure out where they are going. For his career, Conforto has put up a 118 wRC+ in over 1300 career plate appearances in Queens. His smooth left-handed stroke would be an ideal fit for the ballpark at 35th/Shields. Defensively, Conforto to this point has performed better according to advanced metrics in a corner verses in center. He has a -8 DRS thus far in 2018, but similar to Marte and Pederson mentioned above, would moving to a home ballpark that isn’t as cavernous as his current one make Conforto at least serviceable in center? Conforto comes with 3 years of arbitration eligibility and given the Mets position of franchise instability at the moment, one has to wonder what the acquisition cost would be. If Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard are moved to signal, at least a minor rebuild, the Mets would seemingly be in the market for prospect talent of which the Sox have plenty.
Given what we have seen patrolling center field at 35th/Shields beginning in 2006, I firmly believe the Sox must make the position a priority this coming winter. There are some fantastic options available and we haven’t even touched on some highly touted prospects that may be falling out of favor with the current clubs, like Clint Frazier or Bradley Zimmer. Ultimately, Rick Hahn and Co. will have to decide what path to take and what acquisition cost they are most comfortable with to improve the position. Will Hahn convince Jerry Reinsdorf to open his wallet for a free agent like A.J. Pollock for potentially nine figures or will the Sox move some prospect inventory to make a trade for a player mentioned above. In a trade scenario, one would think teams would look to secure players like: Alec Hansen, Dylan Cease, or Dane Dunning as a headliner with complimentary pieces potentially being Blake Rutherford, Luis Alexander Basabe or Micker Adolfo. One thing is for certain, if the Sox want to be a playoff team in 2020, their center fielder isn’t currently on the roster.
Follow Steve Paradzinski on Twitter–Feature Photo Credit: Sox on 35th