The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.
With the postseason in swing and a little bit still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.
We’re moving on to right field.
What happened in 2019
In a word, disappointment. The guys who were supposed to man the position at the big league level barely did.
Daniel Palka went from a 27-homer rookie season to 0-for-his-first-32 and then to Triple-A Charlotte after picking up his first hit of the season. He briefly returned for an 0-for-10 stint in the middle of the summer and then went 8-for-his-last-39 as a September call-up. Even if his defense in the outfield was a huge question mark heading into the season, his bat wasn’t supposed to be. But after his breakout rookie year, he fizzled and ended up being a non-factor in 2019.
The same status befell Jon Jay, one of the team’s veteran offseason additions who was, at the very least, supposed to bring a strong presence to the clubhouse and better on-base skills to the lineup. But an injury suffered in spring training kept him from even entering a major league game until late June. He played in 47 games, with an underwhelming .267/.311/.315 slash line, before hitting the injured list again at the end of August, undergoing season-ending surgery on his hip.
All that led to a rotating cast of right fielders, few of whom produced in any significant way at the plate. Ryan Cordell and his .221/.290/.355 slash line played by far the most games out there, 72. Leury Garcia’s trip around the outfield included 45 games in right. Jay played 33 out there, Charlie Tilson played 30 and Palka played 23.
And so at season’s end, it was unsurprising to see some horrific numbers from the position: a .220/.277/.288 slash line, numbers that ranked 23rd, 29th and 30th, respectively, among baseball’s 30 teams.
As bad as that was, though, the even more concerning developments for the long-term fortunes of the team took place at the minor league level. The White Sox future in right field was always less certain than elsewhere on the field, but until this season that was because of the sheer volume of possibilities to emerge from a promising second tier of prospects.
Nearly all those outfield prospects — save Luis Robert, of course, who’s ticketed for center field — fell victim to an organization-wide rash of injuries and under-performance, leaving few promising options left standing:
— Luis Basabe broke his hamate bone in spring training and slashed .246/.324/.336 at Double-A Birmingham.
— Blake Rutherford slashed .265/.319/.365 at Birmingham, big dips in all three averages from his strong 2018 campaign at Class A Winston-Salem.
— Micker Adolfo had Tommy John surgery in 2018, only to have another season-ending surgery in 2019, this one arthroscopic surgery on his elbow.
— Luis Gonzalez went from a batting average north of .300, an on-base percentage north of .360 and a slugging percentage around .500 in 2018 to a .247/.316/.359 line at Birmingham in 2019.
The only one to emerge relatively unscathed was Steele Walker, who slashed .284/.361/.451 with 36 doubles in 120 games split between Class A squads in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. But success in A-ball won’t put Walker on a track to help the big league team anytime soon, leaving the cupboard relatively bare in right field for the time being.
What will happen this offseason
So it’s no shock that Rick Hahn has right field as one of the biggest items on his lengthy offseason to-do list.
The White Sox will almost certainly have an outside addition starting in right field when the 2020 season begins. The question now is just who it will be.
As that sampling of the fortunes of the second-tier prospects in the organization illustrates, it might be difficult for the White Sox to pull off a trade for a truly impact player at any position this winter, right field included. That leaves free agency as a more realistic option, and there are definitely some interesting names set to be a part of that market.
Nicholas Castellanos, Yasiel Puig and Marcell Ozuna make up kind of a “big three” in that department. All three would be big-time adds to the middle of the White Sox lineup. Castellanos was obviously excellent with the Cubs in the second half of the season after being acquired from the Detroit Tigers, with whom he made a habit of crushing White Sox pitching. Puig’s numbers were also good following his intra-state trade to the Cleveland Indians, slashing .297/.377/.423 in 49 games there. Ozuna had a down year by his standards, but his excellent performance in the NLDS is part of the reason the St. Louis Cardinals are still playing October baseball.
All three of those players have another thing in common besides their pending free agency, and that’s their right-handedness. The White Sox lineup of the present and future is almost exclusively right-handed, meaning Hahn might take the opportunity this winter to balance that out a bit by adding a left-handed bat. He talked about it at his end-of-season press conference, expressing a desire to do so while also saying getting good players regardless of where they stand at home plate is a bigger priority.
“Ideally, you'd like to balance that out and that would require adding some left-handed power,” Hahn said. “We don't want to get too hung up strictly on handedness in the end and sign an inferior, say, left-handed hitter when a better right-handed hitter is available and fits. But it's a consideration, and in an ideal world we would balance it out.”
If Hahn sees the hole in right field as his best opportunity to add that left-handed hitting, the best free-agent options available who fit such a description are Kole Calhoun, who hit 33 home runs for the Los Angeles Angels this season, and Corey Dickerson, who slugged .565 splitting time between the two Pennsylvania teams. Neither player really revs the engines like Castellanos, Puig or Ozuna would, but that shouldn’t override their potential usefulness. Either would probably look like a pretty solid addition if Hahn were to fill the hole at designated hitter with a star like J.D. Martinez.
And then there’s the trade market, which could also bear fruit if Hahn’s able to cobble together an attractive package. That list of candidates is a mile long, and we went through a number of possibilities on the latest White Sox Talk Podcast.
The bottom line is that this offseason will almost surely feature the White Sox acquiring a brand-new everyday right fielder.
What to expect for 2020 and beyond
It’s hard to figure out what to expect next season before we know who the White Sox right fielder will be. You’d have to expect significant offensive improvement at the position as a whole simply because there’s nowhere to go but up.
If Hahn makes a splash in right by adding someone on the Castellanos/Puig/Ozuna level, even if it’s not one of those three guys, that would figure to be a longer-term solution. But a shorter-term fix is possible, too, with an eye kept on the minors to see who among that list of prospects could have an entirely plausible bounce-back campaign that thrusts their name back into those long-term projections.
In other words, the future in right field remains the mystery it’s been all along.