Recently, I wrote about a handful of potential cheap trade targets I thought the Sox should seriously consider this offseason. This post is dedicated to the cheap free-agent targets. I am focusing my attention towards the cheap because a) the bigger names like Nick Castellanos, Marcus Semien, and Max Scherzer are obvious and b) considering Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s decades-long track record of limited payrolls, I’m not overly optimistic the Sox will even attempt to acquire high profile players, nevertheless actually sign them. Certainly, the Sox have signed some bigger name free agents recently like All-Star closer Liam Hendriks; however, by the nature of his position, a closer at the top of his game is still worth much less in the marketplace than any other position.
In reality, I fully expect the Sox to actually sign players analogous to what Adam Eaton was last year – players with obvious defects or flaws that make them willing to sign a one-year deal for $10 million or less. I think all of these players fit this bill and could both realistically sign for that little while still filling a hole for the Pale Hose. Please note the obvious caveat that my market evaluation of these players is just an educated guess. I am also leaving off relievers from this list because the Sox, like every team in baseball, should be looking to acquire bullpen help and you can get relatively good relievers for cheap every offseason.
Anyways, below is my list of cheap free agent targets I believe the White Sox should consider acquiring this offseason.
Nelson Cruz (DH)
Nelson Cruz would be the quintessential White Sox signing in the vein of Manny Ramirez, Ken Griffey Jr., or Edwin Encarnación – sluggers on their way out, but willing to spend time on the South Side in order to remain in The Game. The difference between Cruz and those other players is that Cruz would be coming off of a very good season and has shown little sign of slowing down. Maybe the soon to be 42 year old will finally fall off of a cliff if he becomes a White Sox, but I think the risk would be worth it. In 2021, while playing for both the Twins and the Rays, Nelson Cruz slashed .265/.334/.497 with 32 home runs, good for a 122 wRC+, and was worth 2.0 fWAR despite being a full-time DH.
The Sox have a glut of sluggers who can’t play defense, but few with the seemingly guaranteed bat that Cruz has. I’d rather have the sure thing of Cruz right now and have guys like Andrew Vaughn or Gavin Sheets be depth than risk Vaughn or Sheets being able to immediately replicate the numbers Cruz has proven to be able to put up, even in the latter stages of his career. In a recent article, my colleague Nik Guar pointed out his concern about Gavin Sheets being able to replicate his 2021 performance over 600+ at-bats. Further, having Nelson Cruz on the South Side means a guarantee he won’t continue to hit home runs against us and burn us like he always seems to do.
Last year, Nelson Cruz signed a one-year, $13 million contract with the Minnesota Twins, but did so late in the offseason in February. I may be too optimistic that the Sox would be able to acquire him for $10 million or less, but if he’s willing to sign what Rick Hahn has to offer/is willing to pay, I’d love to see him in a Sox uniform.
Michael Conforto (OF)
Last year, for the New York Mets, Michael Conforto slashed .232/.344/.384 with 14 home runs, good for a 106 wRC+. Those numbers are fine for a fourth outfielder, but they probably will prevent him from getting the massive contract he’s looking for. As such, it’s not hard to imagine Conforto taking a one-year, “let me prove it” deal, and if he goes that route, let him prove it on the South Side. In 2020, Conforto blasted 9 home runs in 233 at-bats, and in 2019, he hit 33 home runs in 648 at-bats. His power seemed to have vanished in 2021 and that may scare away teams unwilling to give the 28-year-old outfielder a massive multi-year deal, but I wouldn’t mind having Conforto playing right field for the Sox for a year while he regains his power stroke.
Eduardo Escobar (2B/3B)
The last time Eduardo Escobar signed a contract was in 2019 and it was for three years. But considering he’ll be 33 coming into the 2022 season and considering the glut of top-tier middle infielder talent that will be in the marketplace, I can see Escobar signing one-year deals for this year and the remainder of his career. Further, despite his decently productive offensive season at the plate, slashing .253/.314/.472 with 28 HRs, good for a wRC+ of 107, he did also spend some time battling nagging injuries.
As I mentioned in my trade target article, I’m not sure what the Sox’s plan is for second base if they decide to go the cheap route (which I just naturally assume they will until proven otherwise), so if they do go that way, there’s not a whole lot of players that will be both inexpensive AND productive. However, Escobar is one of those players and I wouldn’t be terribly upset if Rick Hahn finally got his man.
César Hernández (2B)
Hernández did not leave a good taste in Sox fans’ mouths ever since he was acquired midseason from Cleveland. He slashed .232/.309/.299 with only 3 home runs, good for a paltry 70 wRC+ with shaky defense in the regular season during his brief tenure with the White Sox (and was not much better in the postseason). But that being said, baseball players tend to perform to their average over a larger sample, and Hernández is a career .270 hitter with a career .345 OBP. That’s certainly nothing incredible, but it’s better than his mid to low-level compatriots like Joe Panik, Donovan Solano, and Jed Lowrie (other cheap free agent middle infielders). Reports indicate that the Sox will decline his $6 million option for 2022 which I find surprising because that’s not a lot of money for the expected value I think he’d still be able to provide. However, there’s still the opportunity to re-sign Hernández for even less.
James Paxton (LHP)
Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, and Dylan Cease are all locks to make the rotation in 2022, and I am acting under the assumption Michael Kopech will make the transition to being a starter as well. That’s four good, but all right-handed, pitchers. Maybe the fifth spot goes to Dallas Keuchel or Carlos Rodón, but if neither are on the team because they leave via trade or free agency, respectively, it wouldn’t hurt to acquire a cheap southpaw. Health is obviously a major factor with Paxton not only right now but throughout his career. However, if that risk comes with a very low price tag, then I would argue that’s a risk worth taking. A cheap one-year deal could also be beneficial to Paxton so he gets the chance to prove he’s healthy and can still perform at a high level. In 2019, for the Yankees, Paxton started 29 games with a 3.82 ERA and a 3.75 FIP. If the Sox organization and team doctors think they can get anywhere close to that production, then signing Paxton becomes an easy decision.
Noah Syndergaard (RHP)
Signed one-year, $21 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels
I know I just made an argument for the Sox to sign a lefty arm, but I think the man they call Thor can come so cheaply and provide instant dividends, that it would be worth it to have a rotation of all righties. Syndergaard had Tommy John surgery in March of 2020, coincidentally a few days before Boston’s Chris Sale did, but Thor didn’t get the opportunity to showcase his stuff again for a playoff competitor as Sale did. If Syndergaard is healthy come Opening Day 2022, and there’s no reason to think he shouldn’t be fully rehabbed by then, I actually see little downside in giving the hopefully former Met a second chance in Chicago. If he’s anywhere close to his 2015 – 2018 self, then the Sox become World Series favorites. If he’s still working his way back from injury, then I’m still confident he will be a reliable fifth starter that was better than what Dallas Keuchel was in 2021.
Manny Piña (C)
Signed two-year, $8 million deal with the Atlanta Braves
In 2021, Zack Collins was the worst defensive catcher in the league, and for a guy supposedly able to hit righties, he ended the year with a 101 wRC+ against them. Seby Zavala ended the season with more home runs than Collins (5 to 4), but clearly is an offensive liability and also, ultimately, not THAT good defensively either (as it turns out, being better than Zack Collins defensively is not that strong of a resumé booster.) Contrary to what I’m sure a segment of the fan base thinks, the Sox don’t need to acquire someone as good as James McCann was for the Pale Hose, but they do need a backup catcher nonetheless.
There are a handful of replacements who ultimately would be fine if Rick Hahn signed them like Yan Gomes or Stephen Vogt, and maybe to a lesser degree guys like Kurt Suzuki, but none of them inspire that much confidence either. That’s part of the reason I’m high on the long-time Brewers catcher. Unlike the aforementioned players I named, Piña was at least above the 50th percentile in pitch framing per Baseball Savant in 2021 (he was in the 67th percentile) and he hit 13 home runs in 208 plate appearances. Manny Piña is also basically the same age as me, so even coming off of the year he had, I can’t imagine he’ll be in terribly high demand. Piña just completed his one-year/ $1.65M contract, so him coming to the Sox on a one-year/ $3-4M deal makes all too much sense.
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