Do you want Kenny Williams scouring the free agent market?

Do you want Kenny Williams scouring the free agent market?
Two guys with bad things in common // Scott Strazzante, Chicago Tribune

Kenny Williams said “we’re going to let the kids play”, and predictably it caused some panic.

First of all, “What kids?”.

Second, it represented a sizable departure from the typical White Sox mode of roster-building.

While it’s definitely a bad series of events that brought the South Siders to this stage, exactly how bad is it that they will be reduced to internal options and trading their current positional redundancies to fill roles?  I’ve decided to haphazardly consult the transaction record to find out.

Because the only big money re-sign candidate the White Sox have would seem to be is Mark Buehrle, whose status may exist outside of typical budget constraints, I wanted to focus my research entirely on outside free agent signings, and how the Sox fared in their initial contracts.  That means the first deal they signed, not how they performed after extensions, or being re-signed.  In terms of the 2012 season, this is the component of roster-building that’s being eliminated.

I took the salary paid (according to Baseball Reference) and the Wins Above Replacement (according to FanGraphs) earned for as long as each player was under their initial deal, going back to the off-season before 2005, because I wouldn’t want deprive Kenny of his best run.

Now, I should talk at length how this is inherently flawed.  In free agency, you’re almost inherently paying market value for every player, so there are few bargains, while every failure is destined to make a GM look awful.  The free agent market offers the rare opportunity to fill holes with proven, above-average talent, so it’s unfair to just spit out a WAR-to-dollar ratio and call a GM incompetent.

Specifically for the White Sox, we’re going to see WAR grade them harshly for paying market value for relievers, and it’s known that the Dunn disaster is going to skew everything very sharply.  Also, this entire exercise ignores trades where the Sox take on salary, something they will obviously not be doing (for both budget reasons and having no prospects to spare), but Kenny has certainly done in the past.

We also need to eliminate a lot of the signings right off the bat.  Players who were signed to minor league deals for the minimum and stayed in the MiLB (the Fredi Dolsi’s of the world) are functionally irrelevant, and for the most part I didn’t even mark them down as I went through the transaction registers.

Additionally, players signed for the league minimum with equally minimal major league impact don’t really factor into what we’re looking for.  Out of hand, I excluded Dallas McPherson, Jeff Gray, Brian Bruney, Josh Kinney, Shane Lindsay, Erick Threets, Jimmy Gobble, Ryan Bukvich, Mike Myers, Jeff Nelson.  Also Gregory Infante, because his value can’t really be assessed at the moment.

Even these cuts leave us with a large amount of contributors who were essentially scrap-pile pulls.  While Kenny Williams and the Sox front office deserves its due for Philip Humber, Andruw Jones, and D.J. Carrasco, these aren’t the expenditures that will be eliminated under the new approach.  Is the Sox budget really going to prevent them from bringing in the next Jayson Nix?  Doubtful.  Even Bobby Jenks, who turned into a big-cost item, is definitely a move that goes down in a cash-strapped 2012.

For the cutoff line, I set it at Bartolo Colon’s 1 year/$1MM deal.  He was rotational filler, but also a reach for a big name when the Sox will probably have to settle for someone lower profile if they’re in the same situation this off-season.  This classifies Darin Erstad’s 1 year/$750K signing as the type of ‘off the scrap-heap’ deal they’ll still pull off in a re-tooling year.  He’s the most expensive player to be removed from my list.

So, all deals with an initial salary of $1MM and above we’ll look at to judge the White Sox success with large free agent expenditures.  That sounds pretty ignorant of inflation, but the sample is small enough to monitor that issue on a case-by-case basis.  In fact, it’s small enough that the total is probably even meaningless.

Click here to see the breakdown

That’s 16 deals, for a shade over $121MM, for 30 WAR.  $4MM per win since 2005 on is pretty darn fine I’d say, give that the market price is only $5MM or so now.

Of course, there are huge caveats.  Alexei Ramirez constitutes over 40% of the production personally, the 2005 trifecta of hits with Iguchi, alongside cheap rebound years from Dye and Pierzynski, has predictably not been duplicated.  And if we go from 2009 on, that’s over $54MM for 2.8 WAR.

That’s about this season’s production from Carlos Quentin, for 54 million dollars…for the last three years.  It can be said safely that Kenny is on a cold streak with his high-stakes moves.

Of course, Ramirez is a very, very big hit, and Viciedo will make his contract worthwhile with just a mediocre season at the big league level in 2012.  Very rarely when going through the transaction register for the Sox do you see the words “amateur free agent”, but when it appears, it’s generally been a boon.  Even Gregory Infante could still offer surplus value.

This isn’t to say the White Sox should avoid big-ticket free agents, because to some degree they can’t, and I’m certainly not theorizing that Kenny Williams is suddenly incompetent at judging veteran talent.

However, for those concerned that a temporary spending freeze constitutes the team packing it in for 2012 should understand that the team hasn’t been getting their value from this avenue of recent anyway.  Aim small, miss small.


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