The White Sox need a DH. Boy, do they need a DH.
No American League team produced a lower OPS from the DH spot than the White Sox did in 2019, when their collection of players there combined for a .647 mark. Considering this is a position that allows teams to jack up the offensive production of their lineup, that type of output was, let’s say, less than ideal.
That stemmed, of course, from the failed Yonder Alonso experiment, as the former All Star came in and slumped hard in his three months in a White Sox uniform. His .178/.275/.301 slash line led to his release in early July, and the rest of the season was spent with fill-ins at the position. It should say everything about the effectiveness of those fill-ins that White Sox catchers spent more time DH-ing than those up-from-the-minors options.
It all worked out fine for Jose Abreu, who has made no secret of his dislike for being a DH. He’ll do it, team player that he is, but certainly the planned first base/DH tandem of him and Alonso, something that was supposed to keep Abreu off his feet, didn’t happen. But you still have to wonder if Abreu’s future — assuming the free agent to-be returns to the White Sox this winter — involves more and more DH-ing. Not that he’s causing any problems, defensively, at first base, and Rick Hahn’s front office certainly isn’t looking for another hole to fill this offseason, but Abreu will turn 33 in January and any new contract would figure to be more than just one year long.
Plus, the White Sox have Andrew Vaughn developing in the minor leagues. But even if the 2019 first-round pick follows a path through the minors similar to 2018 first-round pick Nick Madrigal, he likely won’t be ready for the majors until 2021 at the earliest. And then there are the questions about his long-term position. Though he swings a powerful bat, there were questions about his defense at first base on draft night. Could it be he that’s destined to be the White Sox long-term DH?
But we’re talking about this offseason and the upcoming 2020 campaign here. Hahn has already listed DH as an item on his offseason to-do list, and all signs point to Abreu being the guy at first base. So let’s take a look at who might fill that hole.
As mentioned when talking about other items on that to-do list, starting pitching and right field, it seems the most realistic route to a White Sox acquisition of significance is the free-agent market. While Hahn pulling off a trade is certainly a possibility, injuries and under-performance throughout the minor league system in 2019 has made it difficult to envision a package of prospects attractive enough to land a big-name addition. With that in mind, we’ll focus on free agents here.
One more thing: A DH can come from anywhere. That doesn’t mean one should, perhaps, with Alonso struggling last season, thrown into being a regular DH after doing so in just seven games in his nine-year big league career. Players and other baseball people frequently talk about how difficult it is to be a designated hitter, so someone with experience at the position might be a wiser way to go. That being said, there are a lot of attractive bats out there that any team would like to have in their lineup, and AL teams are fortunate to have an extra spot in their lineups in which to plug in such a bat — regardless of position.
Before getting to the actual preliminary rankings, there are a couple players worth talking about who would fill the need for a big bat in the middle of the White Sox lineup but who are decidedly not DHs. But given the opportunity to add them, a rearranging of the defensive alignment might be worth it.
Anthony Rendon, age 29
2019 stats: .319/.412/.598, 34 home runs, 126 RBIs
We’ve talked about Rendon plenty before, and for good reason: He’s going to be the best position player on the free-agent market this winter. He’s quietly put up MVP-caliber numbers on a regular basis in recent seasons, and this year marked a career year, with career bests in batting average (.319), on-base percentage (.412), slugging percentage (.598), OPS (1.010), home runs (34), RBIs (best-in-baseball 126), doubles (NL-leading 44) and runs scored (117). Rendon has also had a terrific postseason, with a .308/.400/.481 line going into Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night.
Of course, Rendon plays third base and plays it very well. The White Sox seemingly have the position covered with Yoan Moncada, who was excellent there after moving from second base last spring. But Rendon is one heck of a bat, and if the White Sox feel he’s worth what’s sure to be a massive contract, you’d figure they’d be willing to move some guys around. That would undoubtedly impact the DH spot, as someone would be the odd man out on the infield, be that Moncada, Tim Anderson, Nick Madrigal or even Abreu.
Josh Donaldson, 33
2019 stats: .259/.379/.521, 37 home runs, 94 RBIs
Donaldson took a one-year deal, the richest such deal in baseball history, last winter. It was a gamble, but it looks like it will pay off, as he had a huge year with the Atlanta Braves. After his 2017 and 2018 seasons were limited by injuries, he put up classic Donaldson-esque numbers in 2019 for the NL East champs, playing a full slate of games, returning to his regular power numbers and walking 100 times for the second time in his career.
All the stuff about Rendon’s fit on the White Sox applies to Donaldson, too. He also plays third base and plays it well, meaning the same kind of defensive reshuffling would have to occur if they wanted to bring him aboard. Both players might seem like a square peg in a round hole for the White Sox, but among the team’s biggest needs is a big bat in the middle of the lineup. And if this is the way to get that, then a defensive realignment wouldn’t be the worst thing.
All right, on to the free-agent DH candidates.
1. J.D. Martinez*, 32
2019 stats: .304/.383/.557, 36 home runs, 105 RBIs
Martinez content has not been difficult to find here at NBC Sports Chicago in October, as the White Sox have been pegged as the “most logical” suitors for his services. Of course, Martinez’s free agency isn’t exactly a sure thing, as he’ll have to opt out of the remainder of his current contract with the Boston Red Sox first. The assumption is that he will, but he’d be leaving a guaranteed three years and $62.5 million on the table to seek more money on the open market. And given a potential dearth of suitors — obviously no NL teams need an everyday DH, and only a few AL ones do — perhaps that market won’t be as robust as you’d think for a player of Martinez’s caliber.
If Martinez does reach free agency, the White Sox should have interest, considering the production he’s churned out over the past five seasons. Since the start of the 2015 campaign, Martinez has 184 home runs, 509 RBIs and a .961 OPS. Those numbers reached out-of-this-world status in 2017 (45 homers, 104 RBIs, 1.066 OPS) and 2018 (43 homers, 130 RBIs, 1.031 OPS), with Martinez taking home not one but two Silver Sluggers and finishing fourth in the MVP vote en route to a World Series championship last year.
That kind of production would obviously be a huge addition to a White Sox lineup looking for power and a new DH. But it’s the description of Martinez’s off-the-field contributions that makes him seem the perfect fit for this young team. NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase told us on a recent White Sox Talk Podcast that Martinez served as a mentor of sorts to Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, talking hitting with them and helping them develop into two of the game’s top hitters. Sounds like the perfect addition to a clubhouse featuring Moncada, Anderson, Eloy Jimenez and eventually, Luis Robert.
2. Nicholas Castellanos, 27
2019 stats: .289/.337/.525, 27 home runs, 73 RBIs
I ranked Castellanos as the top free-agent outfielder last week, but it’s not crazy to suggest that DH might be an even better place to put him than right field if the White Sox do have interest in their former division rival. He doesn’t have the best defensive reputation, and last season’s stats back that up. He had minus-nine Defensive Runs Saved in right field. Considering Jimenez still appears to be a work in progress defensively in left field and Robert, while defensively gifted, will be getting his first taste of the majors next season, would it be wise to stick another statistically sub-optimal defensive player in right? Going with a proven defender in right doesn’t preclude a Castellanos addition, though, considering the hole at DH. He’s got limited experience, with 41 games played there in his career.
White Sox fans should be plenty familiar with Castellanos, who spent the majority of the last seven years raking with the Detroit Tigers. He’s particularly fond of hitting against the South Siders, with a .293/.343/.477 line to go along with 13 home runs, 26 doubles and 60 RBIs in 95 career games. In 2018 alone, he drove in 20 runs in 19 games against the White Sox.
Joining the Cubs for the final two months of their ill-fated playoff chase this summer, he hit 16 home runs and 21 doubles and driving in 36 runs in just 51 games. That late-season surge — perhaps aided by getting away from a home ballpark in Detroit he called “a joke” — kicked his pending free agency up a notch as teams search for a bat to stick in the middle of their lineup. Castellanos fits the bill, with 76 home runs, 140 doubles and 263 RBIs over the last three years.
3. Mike Moustakas, 31
2019 stats: .254/.329/.516, 35 home runs, 87 RBIs
Moustakas, another former division rival of the White Sox, plays some good infield defense, so he’s not exactly your stereotypical DH candidate. His experience is limited to 35 career games at the position. But he’s been putting up DH-esque power numbers in recent seasons. After setting the since-broken Kansas City Royals single-season home run record in 2017 with 38 long balls, he blasted 28 more between the Royals and Milwaukee Brewers in 2018, then smacked 35 of them this year in Beer Town. Moustakas’ .845 OPS this season was a career high.
Moustakas is worth some strong consideration when it comes to filling another White Sox need: left-handed power. Hahn said during his end-of-season press conference that ideally the team would go out and add some lefty pop but that handedness wouldn’t get in the way of them adding a player who fits. Moustakas might end up addressing multiple needs.
4. Edwin Encarnacion*, 36
2019 stats: .244/.344/.531, 34 home runs, 86 RBIs
Encarnacion will be 37 years old come Opening Day, not exactly the kind of add you’re looking to make to a young team that’s supposed to be contending for years to come. But then again, Nelson Cruz. The Minnesota Twins made one of the best acquisitions of last winter in Cruz, who ended up blasting 41 homers and leading The Bomba Squad to 100 wins in his age-38 season. If the Twins could inject the needed power into their lineup with an aging Cruz, why couldn’t the White Sox do it with an aging Encarnacion?
Encarnacion split time between the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees in 2019 and ended up with 34 home runs, the eighth consecutive season in which he topped 30 dingers. If the White Sox are concerned about doing the same thing they did with Alonso, plugging a guy with no DH-ing experience into the DH spot, then Encarnacion is the opposite of that move, a DH through and through. The Yankees would need to turn down an option in order for him to hit the free-agent market. Again, he doesn’t scream “long-term answer” at DH, but if the White Sox think that 2020 is a year they can contend for a title, then they could find worse hitters for hire than Encarnacion.
5. Brian Dozier, 32
2019 stats: .238/.340/.430, 20 home runs, 50 RBIs
Dozier’s also in the World Series with the Washington Nationals right now. His first season in the nation’s capital saw limited playing time, with only 482 trips to the plate in his 135 games. That’s way down from his time spent mashing against the White Sox for the division-rival Twins. From 2015 to 2017, Dozier hit 104 home runs and tallied 269 RBIs, putting up an .831 OPS in that span. He’s not doing that anymore, at least he didn’t for the Nationals in 2019, but the .771 OPS he put up was still the third highest of his career.
Dozier has even less DH-ing experience than Alonso did, just two games’ worth, and those came back in 2016. But he can obviously hit, with a 162-game average of 27 homers, 80 RBIs and 33 doubles over the course of his career. Dozier is a second baseman by trade and could be of service to the White Sox there, too, filling in for however long it takes for Madrigal to reach the majors.
6. Howie Kendrick, 36
2019 stats: .344/.395/.572, 17 home runs, 62 RBIs
Kendrick turned 36 midway through the 2019 season, but that number didn’t stop him from putting up all sorts of numbers for the Nationals. Quite simply, he was excellent this year, finishing the campaign with a .344/.395/.572 slash line, career highs by wide margins in all three categories. Playing in only 121 games, he fell short of qualifying status, but only eight qualifiers in baseball turned in a better OPS than Kendrick’s .966 mark.
He’s also been quite good in the postseason, with 15 hits, four doubles, the NLDS-winning homer and 10 RBIs. Playing for an NL team, Kendrick spent most of his time on the infield this season, and he hasn’t played in the AL since leaving the Los Angeles Angels after the 2014 season. He did DH in the first two games of the World Series, if that means anything. After this monster season, you’d figure plenty of teams will give Kendrick a look. As an everyday DH? We’ll see.
7. Justin Smoak, 32
2019 stats: .208/.342/.406, 22 home runs, 61 RBIs
A .208 batting average and his fewest games played since 2014 would be enough to furrow any brow when it comes to the prospect of signing up Smoak. But the dude is just two years removed from a 38-dinger, 90-RBI season in 2017, when he turned in an .808 OPS for the Toronto Blue Jays. No, his contract year did not go especially well, but he’s hit 85 homers in three seasons, or only three fewer than Abreu has since the start of 2017.
For what it’s worth, Smoak is also a Gold Glove finalist at first base in the American League. So maybe DH isn’t the best fit for him — though he started 30 games there last year — or the White Sox could give the ol’ “platoon someone and Abreu at first base and DH” thing a whirl again. Smoak’s also a switch hitter, if that tickles the White Sox fancy for a left-handed swinger.
No market seems to be quite as rich as the starting-pitching market this winter, and this one is no exception, even if it isn’t strictly bound by position. Other options include Hunter Pence, who was elected to start the All-Star Game and had a .910 OPS during his age-36 season. But he didn’t actually start the All-Star Game, due to injury, and he played only 83 games. Ryan Zimmerman is another aging National who’s had some pop in the past, but he only played in 52 games this year — and who knows if he’d even be interested in playing anywhere but D.C., where he’s spent his entire 15-year big league career. It’s unlikely the White Sox would be looking for reunions with the likes of Avisail Garcia or Todd Frazier, who hit 20 and 21 homers, respectively, in 2019.