White Sox

Healthy international program could be big contributor in White Sox rebuild

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White Sox

Healthy international program could be big contributor in White Sox rebuild

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The White Sox reportedly have strong interest in 19-year-old Cuban outfielder Luis Robert and are perhaps even poised to sign a player who produced a 1.213 OPS last season.

That the organization has reached a point where it would make a significant investment in an extremely talented international prospect is yet another signal about the strength of its Latin American program. Headed by Marco Paddy, the White Sox have endured a transformation from the days of the Dave Wilder scandal to having a minimal presence in Latin America to once again becoming a player on the international market. 

General manager Rick Hahn said much of the credit for the shift belongs to Paddy, a highly-respected, well-connected evaluator with an eye for talent who's in his sixth season with the team. Paddy has not only helped refurbish the team's once-tarnished reputation, but he also has provided ownership with a renewed sense of confidence. Such assurance could be critical for the White Sox to make another big international signing when Robert becomes eligible for free agency either in June or July.

"It wasn't just a matter of us going out and getting somebody and putting him in place internationally," Hahn said. "It was a matter of going out and getting someone we felt was among the best in the game and would bring his expertise and his network to our organization and help essentially re-establish ourselves from zero, which is where we were before he joined us."

"We were not in a great spot before he joined us internationally. He carries a lot of weight down there and gets us access to the right guys and is an excellent evaluator of talent."

As a result of Wilder's dismissal in May 2008, the White Sox had limited credibility in the international community when they hired Paddy away from the Toronto Blue Jays on Nov. 30, 2011. The involvement of Wilder and two scouts in a skimming scandal resulted in a two-month investigation by Major League Baseball and a two-year sentence on federal charges for the team's former player development director in 2013. 

The team's international investments dried up almost immediately. The club's largest signing in the 3 1/2-year gap between Wilder's firing and Paddy's hire was a $125,000 bonus for left-handed pitcher Jefferson Olacio in 2010. Beyond him, most signings were of players valued in the $10-to-30,000 range. 

The team had such a minimal scouting infrastructure that trainers rarely brought their top players to showcases because they didn't believe the White Sox were worth it.

"They had at best a token presence in Latin American up until Marco Paddy took over," Baseball America's Ben Badler said. "They just weren't finding any talent in any of those years.

"He was a very important addition for them. They were pretty much a non-factor and the trainers who have players throughout Latin American (knew) the White Sox were not going to spend money down there — ‘Why should we bother bringing them to the White Sox?'"

Paddy's hiring as Hahn's special assistant in charge of international operations gave the White Sox instant access to players previously unattainable. His resume includes five seasons as Toronto's Director of Latin America Operations (2007-11) and 14 with the Atlanta Braves, including the final three as their international director. 

He also has earned a reputation for finding major league talent. Paddy signed Toronto closer Roberto Osuna as well as pitcher Henderson Alvarez, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, both of whom were included in the trade for Mark Buehrle. The Blue Jays traded outfielder Wuilmer Becerra to acquire R.A. Dickey from the New York Mets and catcher Carlos Perez to the Houston Astros for J.A. Happ. Both were signed by Paddy.

(Photo courtesy of El Nacional)

Within two weeks of his hire by the White Sox, Paddy signed right-handed pitcher Luis Martinez — who last season struck out 141 batters in 137 innings with a 3.81 ERA at Single-A Kannapolis — to a $250,000 bonus. But Paddy had plenty of work ahead to get the White Sox into position of overall respectability.

"It's safe to say it was more just standing still," Paddy said. "It was just there, just stagnant and not a lot movement. It was kind of waiting for someone to take over and lead the way. It was still functioning, but it needed someone to take the reigns and say ‘Ok, we're going to go in this direction.'"

Paddy's improvements include the hire of four scouts, including three full-timers in Venezuela. He also recommended an overhaul of the team's Dominican Republic academy in Boca Chica, which was close to dilapidated. 

"It was really rundown, beat down," said amateur scouting director Nick Hostetler. "It was rough."

Among the items the White Sox added: an additional batting cage, air conditioning units, a computer lab and outdoor agility courses. They also upgrade the players' rooms and kitchen in a total refurbishing of the dorms. But beyond the improved infrastructure, the rest has been up to Paddy and his network of connections.

"Baseball is an industry where everybody knows everybody," he said. "What helped me was the reputation I have in the industry, especially internationally, the relationships I'd built during the time I was with Atlanta and then Toronto. It made it a lot easier for the White Sox to get more attention from (trainers)."

(Photo courtesy of the White Sox)

Paddy said the investment from ownership was the final piece to the program and it has steadily increased with time and trust. An ex-Braves farmhand, Paddy, 52, was instrumental in the team's pursuit and October 2013 signing of Jose Abreu, who was acquired for $68 million. Paddy suggested the White Sox sign the Cuban slugger and executive vice president Kenny Williams recommended it to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf after he attended a workout. Abreu's success after signing a franchise-record deal has only given the White Sox more confidence in Paddy. 

The Abreu deal occurred four months after the team made its biggest international splash under Paddy, signing outfielder Micker Adolfo for a $1.6 million bonus. 

While he hasn't yet exceeded his signing bonus pool with the White Sox, Paddy has continued to sign high-profile international teenagers. Infielder Franklin Reyes received $1.5 million in July 2015, a year after infielders Amado Nunez and Ricky Mota received $900,000 and $750,000, respectively. Catcher Jhoandro Alfaro also signed in July 2014 for $700,000. 

Fernando Tatis Jr. — who was traded to San Diego last summer — signed for $700,000 in July 2015. 

Last July, the White Sox signed three outfielders ranked among Baseball America's top-50 international prospects: Josue Guerrero (33rd overall), Luis Mieses (36) and Anderson Comas (37). Guerrero received $1.1 million, Mieses got $428,000 and Comas earned $450,000. The team also signed righty pitcher Henderson Caraballo for $350,000 and shortstop Lenyn Sosa for $325,000. 

"They're definitely in a better position than they were previously," Badler said. 

Hostetler and Williams raved about the sheer quantity of talented players who had begun to trickle into the system after the team held its instructional camp from mid-September through October. Those players had previously been absent after the club's three-year hiatus from adding international talent and hurt the depth of the club's farm system. 

Though none of Paddy's 15-to-16-year old signees have yet reached the majors, the White Sox expected a five-to-six-year process at the minimum.

"He's starting to influx the system with really good, high ceiling, athletic, middle of the diamond-type guys as well as some power guys," Hostetler said. "My guess is we're looking at the next 18 months, these guys are going to start surfacing and flying up boards and (prospect) rankings."

While Adolfo was the biggest name at the time and Tatis' stock has risen to where he'd potentially be the first overall pick this summer were he available in the amateur draft, Robert could be the biggest of the bunch. Were MLB to be make Robert available before June 15, teams could bid for his services under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement. There's no telling where the bidding could go for the lean, 6-foot-3 outfielder who last season hit .401/.526/.687 in 232 plate appearances in Cuba's Serie Nacional. 

Two years ago, Boston signed current White Sox prospect Yoan Moncada for $31.5 million. By exceeding its bonus pool, the Red Sox had to pay an additional $31.5 million tax. 

Though Baseball America reported that the White Sox are one of the most talked about teams as a landing spot for Robert, those talks could be premature as several key officials have yet to see him in person. 

If Robert doesn't get cleared in time by MLB, he'll be added to the July 2 class and subject to a new set of rules under the recently signed CBA. Under the new system, teams' bonus pools max out near $5 million with most having about $4.75 million to spend. Several big spending teams already can't sign players during the upcoming period because they previously exceeded their max in 2015-16. Baseball America said the White Sox "would have more room than most in their bonus pool" starting July 2.

Whereas the previous CBA only taxed teams, the new one has harsher penalties, including the loss of draft picks and the inability to sign future prospects.

"This (new) system now is more about history, it's about knowing the player, who's willing to invest your entire pool, portions of it, whatever," Paddy said. "If you have history, and we've been fortunate to have history because we do our due diligence, then now you're more prepared to make an investment that may involve the entire amount you have for your signing pool."

Their confidence in Paddy and his staff and the leveled playing field have the White Sox liking their chances under the new CBA. When a similar change took place with signing bonuses in baseball's amateur draft in 2012, the White Sox became far bigger spenders on amateur talent. Since then, the White Sox have spent their entire bonus pool amount each time and even exceeded it to sign first-rounder Carlos Rodon in 2014. With an emphasis on adding young, homegrown talent, the rebuilding White Sox plan to do more of the same in the future.

"Now that there's a little firmer cap internationally it does tend to make it a little bit more perhaps old school and that's a competition among player evaluators — through player evaluation and economic muscle," Hahn said. 

"We've got the utmost faith in Marco and his staff.

"With Marco's reputation and the work he has put in, and the network he has assembled down there, I feel like we have access to all the finest talent and good of a chance as anybody to sign them."

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

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USA TODAY

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

This season, Matt Davidson became the fourth player in MLB history to hit three home runs in a season opener. It definitely raised a few eyebrows, especially after Paul Konerko noted during spring training that a 40-home run season and an All-Star selection isn’t out of the question for the California native. After clobbering nine home runs (seven of them coming at Kauffman Stadium) in his first 21 games, anything seemed possible.

Unfortunately it didn’t quite turn out that way, though he did rack up his second straight 20-homer season. But it’s hard to argue that 2018 wasn’t a success for Davidson — mostly because of the swings he didn’t make.

Everything else aside, Davidson walked as often as Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in 2018.

OK, the more meaningful comparison would be Davidson to himself.

What stands out is his walk rate. One hundred fifty three players had at least 400 plate appearances in both 2017 and 2018. Among them, Davidson had the second-highest increase in walk percentage this past season.

Consider this: In 2017, Davidson and Tim Anderson became (and still are) the only players in MLB history with 160-plus strikeouts and fewer than 20 walks in a season.

Davidson, while logging 20 more at-bats in 2018, had the same number of strikeouts, 165, but he increased his walk total from 19 to 52. Give him credit for that. It’s a tough adjustment to make at the minor league level let alone in the major leagues. The increased walk rate brought his on-base percentage from .260 in 2017 (well below the AL average of .324) to .319 in 2018 (a tick above the AL average of .318) and pushed his overall offensive production from 16 percent below league average (as measured by his 84 weighted runs created plus, or wRC+) to four percent above league average (104 wRC+).

And I haven’t even mentioned the most fun aspect of his 2018 season: He pitched! And he pitched well.

Thirty pitchers took the mound for the White Sox in 2018, all of whom made at least three appearances. And only one of them didn’t allow a run: Davidson.

He topped out at 91.9 MPH and had as many strikeouts, two, as baserunners allowed in his three innings of work. The two batters he struck out, Rougned Odor and Giancarlo Stanton, combined for 56 home runs in 2018. They combined for 89 home runs (and an MVP award) in 2017.

In his career, Stanton had a combined 16 plate appearances and zero strikeouts against Barry Zito, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka and Edwin Díaz. He struck out in his one plate appearance against Davidson.

Davidson is one of just three players with 20 or more home runs and at least three mound appearances in a season in MLB history:

— Babe Ruth (1919): 29 home runs, 17 games on the mound
— Davidson (2018): 20 home runs, three games on the mound
— Shohei Ohtani (2018): 22 home runs, 10 games on the mound

Facts are facts. Davidson is actually serious about expanding his role on the mound.

“To be honest, I would love to maybe explore that idea,” he said in July. “Pitching was a dream. As a young kid, everybody wants to hit that walk-off homer, right? I was the guy striking that guy out. That’s how I first loved the game. My favorite player was Randy Johnson and doing that.

“So, it’s something I would be interested in. I don’t know if the game would necessarily allow that or something like that. It’s something that is really close to my heart is pitching.”

Whether or not it ever happens, Davidson’s 2018 was all about finding ways to increase his value. For the White Sox, that’s a good problem to have.

With Astros eliminated, let's rank their free agents by possibility of coming to White Sox

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USA TODAY

With Astros eliminated, let's rank their free agents by possibility of coming to White Sox

The Houston Astros will not win back-to-back world championships this October.

Eliminated by the Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the recently concluded ALCS, the rebuilt Astros still remain the model for rebuilding teams like the White Sox. But with their first post-championship season ending without another ring on the fingers of homegrown stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, among others, the most pertinent topic involving the Astros when it comes to the White Sox is Astros players now hitting the free-agent market.

There's a number of them, and some are very, very good. The White Sox figure to be more active this winter then they were last offseason, with Rick Hahn already saying the team will be making pitching additions, a no-brainer with Michael Kopech slated to miss the entire 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. And Hahn has said the White Sox will be "opportunistic" when it comes to other types of additions, as well.

So could any of these soon-to-be former Astros land on the South Side? Maybe. Here they are, ranked by such a possibility.

1. Charlie Morton

The White Sox need starting pitchers. Kopech's out until 2020, and James Shields, should the team opt not to bring him back on a new contract, will be a free-agent departure. That's two holes that need filling, and Morton could fill one of them. I know what you're thinking, "Dallas Keuchel is also a free agent, why isn't he No. 1 on this list, you fool?" More on him in a bit. Right now, we're talking about Charlie Morton.

Morton is hardly the most rebuild-friendly pitching option out there at 35 years old. But Morton's been very good for the Astros over the past two seasons, making 55 starts, striking out 364 guys and posting a 3.36 ERA. His fastball velocity is as high as it's been in his 11-year big league career and he's coming off two straight playoff runs, so maybe he could teach these young White Sox a thing or two about playing winning baseball — he did close out Game 7 of the World Series last fall.

The biggest problem might be that he's not too far removed from different results when he played with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when his numbers weren't nearly as good as they got when he went to Houston. Would another change of scenery mean a different kind of performance?

What kind of contract Morton will get on the market remains to be seen, obviously, but it's kind of a mystery at this point, as he's coming off a couple great years but is getting up there in age when it comes to multi-year deals. He could be a fit for the White Sox should they want just a one- or two-year option while they wait for Kopech to return to full strength and for Dylan Cease to make his way to the major leagues. But should this recent success continue, he could be a valuable option on a White Sox team making the transition from rebuilding to contending, too.

2. Marwin Gonzalez

The White Sox have a bit of a quandary in that they are still waiting to find out what they've got in a lot of their young players. With so many prospects and even young players at the major league level yet to fully finish their development, it's tough to say where the holes on future White Sox teams will be. And that's made all the more difficult by the rash of injuries sustained by White Sox prospects in 2018.

A good way to plan for future unknowns is to have a guy you can plug in just about anywhere, and that's what Gonzalez is. During the 2018 regular season, Gonzalez played everywhere on the field besides pitcher and catcher: 73 games in left field, 39 games at shortstop, 32 games at second base, 24 games at first base, three games at third base, two games in center field and one game in right field. He played one game at designated hitter, too, in case you were wondering. He appeared at six different positions in 2017, when he finished in the top 20 in AL MVP voting. That versatility should make him a hot commodity this offseason.

The question marks come from Gonzalez's bat, which was excellent in 2017 but not nearly as good in 2018. After slashing .303/.377/.530 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs for the world-champion Astros in 2017, he got more playing time in 2018 and his numbers dropped to a .247/.324/.409 slash line, 16 homers and 68 RBIs for the AL runners up. So which batch of results would you get if you signed Gonzalez? That's the question facing teams this offseason. (To help assuage fears, however, Gonzalez just wrapped a solid postseason in which he batted .333 with a pair of homers, a pair of doubles and nine RBIs, not to mention a .389 on-base percentage.)

But for a team with as much unwritten future as the White Sox have, wouldn't it be nice to have a plan for every eventuality — and to have it all in the form of one guy? While Manny Machado and Bryce Harper grab all the free-agent headlines this winter, perhaps the White Sox could slip in and convince Gonzalez to help another transition from rebuilding to contending. He was a part of two 100-loss teams in 2012 and 2013 and along for the ride to the top of baseball's mountain. That's some good experience to have.

3. Dallas Keuchel

Now we arrive at Keuchel. Would the soon-to-be 31-year-old former Cy Young winner be a good fit for the rebuilding White Sox? Absolutely he would. Signing him to a long-term deal would not only solve a pitching problem in 2019 but it would provide a safety net should Kopech, Cease or whoever go through the to-be-expected growing pains that young players go through in their first tastes of the major leagues. He would be an anchor of future rotations with plenty of young arms around him.

Signing Keuchel — who has a combined 3.39 ERA and 278 strikeouts over the last two seasons — would be similar to the Cubs' signing of Jon Lester, a proven veteran climbing aboard a team heading toward a bright future, and his experience and talent could help them reach that future faster. Like Gonzalez, he experienced back-to-back 100-loss seasons in 2012 and 2013 and also got a World Series ring as the Astros completed their journey from the bottom to the top.

But being a good fit is only half the battle for the White Sox. A lot of other teams, including good ones capable of pitching a win-now roster, are going to be vying for Keuchel's services this winter. And while he might not be the No. 1 starting pitcher on the free-agent market — that's expected to be Clayton Kershaw, if he opts out of his current contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers — he's going to be no lower than the No. 3 starting pitcher on the free-agent market. Most of the contending clubs in the game are likely to have starting pitching on their shopping list, teams that can pitch present-day success and the ability to win a championship in 2019 against the White Sox promise of planned success down the road. And then there's the financials on top of that. Hahn has said the White Sox will have the financial flexibility to do what they need to do, but will it be enough to outbid baseball's biggest spenders?

Keuchel would obviously be a good fit for the White Sox. But the competition is going to be really stiff.

4. Tony Sipp

Sipp, a 35-year-old reliever who White Sox fans might remember from his days as a Cleveland Indian, was excellent for the Astros this season, posting a 1.86 ERA and striking out 42 guys in 38.2 innings during the regular season.

But while the White Sox could use bullpen help — their 4.49 relief ERA ranked 23rd out of 30 major league teams — that performance kind of elevates Sipp from the level of sign-and-flip guys they've acquired in recent seasons. Sipp might not be under the radar enough for the White Sox to take a flier, get a good few months and trade him away for a prospect.

Spending the kind of money Sipp might command on a 35-year-old reliever in a season where you're not expected to compete might not make for a good match.

5. Brian McCann

Yeah, the White Sox don't need Brian McCann.