Coming into this season, there was a lot of doubt around Avisail Garcia, both among fans and within the White Sox front office. The team made plays for at least a couple big name outfielders as potential replacements, and did end up picking up Austin Jackson out of the bargain bin at the last minute. But with Adam LaRoche‘s dramatic exit, there was still a regular lineup slot open for Garcia. Spring Training showed glimpses of hope, as the 24-year old flashed a modified approach at the plate and actually pulled the ball in the air a few times.
Now as the season opens, in the very early going, the results have been disappointing: .160/.250/.280, and he’s been mostly a DH because he’s a liability in the outfield. Probably more important than the numbers (after all we’re only talking about 7 games here) is that he’s had the same lost look at the plate, flailing away at pitches nowhere near the strike zone. Yesterday had a perfect example, where after a Twins pitcher walked a batter then hit one, Garcia waved at a first-pitch slider. Seven games is too early to make any decisions, but if this continues for a month or more, it is probably time for the front office to finally admit that Garcia just isn’t going to “figure it out”.
And if that happens? They may relegate him to the bench, or option him to AAA (he does still have one option remaining), or even cut bait entirely. Not many teams will want to trade away MLB-level or near MLB-ready players in May, so finding help would be difficult. Which begs the question: what are the internal options to replace that roster spot? Who is likely to actually be ready to contribute some value in the short term, if it’s not someone already on the 25-man roster (i.e. Jerry Sands)?
Here are the handful of players and prospects who are major league-ready or close enough to it, that they have a reasonable chance to contribute non-negative value if they take Garcia’s roster slot. CAVEAT: We may cite some stats from the minors so far, but it is VERY early in those seasons so don’t read too much into them.
What’s good about Ishikawa? He hits left-handed and has a career .727 OPS against right-handed pitching, which fits well in a lineup that lacks that option at the moment (Garcia, Sands and Shuck all hit LHP better than RHP, despite Shuck’s left-handedness at the plate). He’s a competent defensive first baseman, which the team could use to back up Jose Abreu. He has 488 games of major league experience. He has some experience in the outfield, but only 17 games – so he shouldn’t be relied on for more than occasional use there. Though the team is basically carrying 6 outfielders at the moment so that’s not really a major concern.
What’s not as good? He’s 32 years old and his hitting numbers dropped off in 2015, so he may be in decline (though it’s hard to say in the relatively small sample size). He doesn’t bring much power to change a game, and has no speed to use in pinch running duties. He may also not be an ideal a fit for a bench role because he’s historically been worse as a pinch-hitter than as a player starting a game. Even in his best seasons, he has not been a prolific hitter.
So far in Charlotte he’s hitting quite well (.899 OPS), but it’s five games and he’s already proven he can hit just fine in AAA.
Understanding Jason Coats‘ potential value is less about what stands out in terms of tools, and more about a lack of glaring deficiencies. He’s sort of the anti-White Sox outfield prospect in that regard. He’s consistently hit for average in the minors (.280 career) and makes good contact (K/PA rates in the 13-17% range), and putting the ball in play consistently is an improvement over Garcia. His 15 or more home runs in each of the past three years say he’s got at least some power, though he isn’t getting much leverage and the power is mostly bat-speed-driven so don’t expect quite those levels in the majors. He’s good defensively on the corners with an average or better arm, which overall is another improvement. He’s got a little speed and high baseball IQ, so he could certainly be an effective pinch runner if needed.
What are the drawbacks on Coats? For one thing, he’s the only player on this list who hasn’t seen the majors yet, so the learning curve will need to be taken into account. For another, the only true weakness he’s shown as a pro is an aggressive approach at the plate that leads to low walk numbers. The lack of walks is not only a concern by itself, it’s also indicative of vulnerability to high quality pitching that could be exposed more in the big leagues. Finally, he’s tended to hit lefties better than righties in the minors, so he’s not as ideal in terms of side-role.
In the first five games of the season, Coats leads the Knights with a .455 average and a pair of doubles, but he’s yet to draw a walk.
By now, most Sox fans are well aware of the story on Matt Davidson, so we won’t belabor the history. What are the positives? He’s got substantial raw and game power, hitting at least 20 home runs each of the last two seasons. His defense has improved to the point where he’s at least playable at third base, and probably could cover first (he’s played 69 games there in the minors, though very few in the past couple years), so he’s at least a reasonable backup for both roles in Chicago. He also had a very nice spring, not just statistically, but also in showing a more compact swing and better approach at the plate. And if the adjustments allow him to make substantially better contact, then the power plays up further. Combined with consistently solid walk rates, there is potential in his bat.
On the other hand, it’s awfully dicey to rely on a good Cactus League showing to assume he’s fixed his issues. He has struggled to hit .200 and struck out in more than 30% of his plate appearances over two years in AAA Charlotte, with very little improvement to show for it. He’s also only been a third baseman in his career, a position already well-covered in Chicago, so he’s really only a DH and perhaps an occasional backup on the infield corners. There’s no speed here either, and it might be difficult to ask a hitter with such clear approach issues at the plate to work much as a pinch hitter.
So far back in Charlotte (for his fourth tour in AAA), he’s hitting .190 with 9 K in 22 PA.
Given we are discussing the replacement of an OF/DH/1B type slot (covering Garcia and LaRoche), this may seem like an odd choice. But there are plenty of reasons why it may make sense, especially since the team has 5 outfielders outside of Garcia. Sanchez spent most of 2015 with the White Sox, so he’s not someone who will have a steep learning curve. He has proven he’s already mastered AAA, and his career pattern as he moves up a level would indicate he’s likely to hit better in 2016 than he did in 2015 in the bigs. There’s enough speed there to be practical as a pinch runner, and he does provide you some defensive flexibility in the infield if needed.
On the negative side, he’s in no way a prototypical DH and would need to prove he can hit a lot better in the majors to be in that role. His splits were pretty even last year in the majors, but he was better as a RHB against LHP in the minors that year, so there may not be any real differential value for the given team weakness. He doesn’t play outfield or first base to speak of, so he’s not addressing the gap created if Garcia isn’t on the roster.
Sanchez seems to be hitting just fine in AAA so far, but in his case that’s not really a concern one way or the other right now.
Many White Sox fans may not be familiar with Fields, who was signed this past offseason as further outfield depth. What Fields brings primarily in value is a combination of strong defense and plus speed, both of which certainly would be upgrades over what Garcia offers. He does technically have MLB experience… for one game. He did hit RHP better than LHP last year, marginally, but it was the opposite and more pronounced the year prior.
Here’s the thing – Fields has a .223 career average in AAA (200 games), striking out in over 27% of his plate appearances. And there doesn’t appear to be substantial power. He doesn’t profile well as a DH, though you could run Fields into the outfield if Melky Cabrera were will to be a DH full time.
Fields has a .231/.412/.231 line in his first four games, striking out in 8 of his 17 PA.
The Ones Not Considered
There are some names you may be wondering about that I didn’t include here. Jacob May is an outfielder and a Top 10 prospect – but he hadn’t seen AAA until this year and missed a big chunk of his one AA season recovering from a concussion. He’s just not nearly ready. Tim Anderson is also pretty clearly not ready yet, plus putting him at DH seems like a poor development decision. Danny Hayes is a LHH 1B who plays good defense, but his bat is marginal as it is and he’s just arrived in AAA. Not ready either.
This doesn’t even touch on the fact that all three should really be playing full time in AAA for their development, so that they can provide better value when they are truly ready to contribute.
If the club is looking to replace some or all of Avisail Garcia’s play in the majors in the short term (April, May or June let’s say), there seem to be a pretty clear two realistic options, and then a “let’s do something weird” side bet. None of the others make any sense at this point, and frankly even the realistic options aren’t exactly tantalizing.
Another caveat: If this conversation happens later in the season, say August, then you have a whole different equation. All of those players get to show their wares in AAA, and players like Davidson or May could become real options if their development curves go well. So this is purely looking at the short term.
Plan A would probably be Travis Ishikawa. He’s a platoon bat against RHP, and his career numbers in that regard should easily beat out 2015/2016 Garcia. He doesn’t play the outfield much but really doesn’t need to with Shuck and Sands on the team and Ishikawa does give you a defensive backup to Abreu which the team doesn’t really have right now. He’s not going to be anything special, but he’s an upgrade if Garcia doesn’t improve.
Plan B would be Jason Coats. He gives you a substantial defensive upgrade on the corners over Garcia or Cabrera (if the latter slides more to DH, which is probably ideal in that scenario), and gives you a little speed. He’s also got a good chance of out-hitting what Avisail has provided thus far, but even if he is the same hitter his flexibility in use is already a small win. Again not likely to be a huge bump, but there’s a decent chance of grabbing a win in the replacement.
The “weird” idea – Carlos Sanchez. He isn’t really replacing Garcia per se, but more creating small value elsewhere while giving Sands and Shuck more chance to take Garcia’s role. This is also a nod to the fact that while the team could make use of another outfielder in this slot, it doesn’t necessarily have to be done that way.
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