Conor Gillaspie: White Sox enigma

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Is Conor Gillaspie the White Sox third baseman of the future, trade bait of the near present, or pleasant surprise?

In early 2013 the Chicago White Sox made a trade that barely caused a ripple, sending minor leaguer Jeff Soptic to the Giants in exchange for Conor Gillaspie. At the time of the trade, Soptic had made it as high as A ball, and Gillaspie had a total of 48 plate appearances in three different seasons with the Giants and a stellar .205 batting average. Sometimes, it seems, trades are made just for the sake of making trades.

Due to injuries to Gordon Beckham and the overall ineffectiveness of Jeff Keppinger, Gillaspie accrued significant playing time in 2013 and was off to a decent start. As the season progressed his numbers dropped, prompting Baseball Prospectus 2014 to write this:

Gillaspie came to Chicago last spring in a minor trade and turned into one of the happiest stories of the White Sox' season, which is somewhat akin to being the most upbeat episode of The Walking Dead.

The Sox did have a horrible 2013 and after the season traded closer Addison Reed to the Diamondbacks for third base prospect Matt Davidson. Davidson was immediately installed by Chicago press and commentators as the starting third baseman, and with the signing of Paul Konerko to a one-year contract, it appeared Gillaspie would be hard-pressed to make the team out of spring training.

Davidson was unimpressive in an extended spring training trial and is off to a slow start at Triple-A Charlotte. Utility infielder Jeff Keppinger is owed $8.5 million through 2015 and so beloved he was released a couple weeks ago (and so good no one has signed him). Through it all Gillaspie didn't just plod on, he's actually shone, batting .355 with an .866 OPS. If he can maintain some semblance of that production, he could end up with a WAR around 3.5-4.0, quite a year.

This FanGraphs chart shows how he ranks among fellow third basemen, right in the middle of the pack due to fewer plate appearances than the leaders. How did he get there? He's cut down on his strikeouts and has a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) that, at .407, is simply unsustainable. Likewise, his line drive percentage is an amazing 32.7 percent. His middle name isn't Icarus, but he's poised to fall back to Earth very soon.

This leads to a dilemma for the White Sox -- what does Rick Hahn do with a young player who is producing and under team control through 2018? Should he trade him and shore up the pitching, particularly the closer the Sox so desperately need? Should he be installed as the third baseman of the future, freeing up Davidson to be moved for something? Should Hahn be patient, wait for the inevitable fall and use some of the other young infield talent like Marcus Semien or Leury Garcia, neither of whom have delivered much so far this year? Is Gillaspie for real, or is he that most tantalizing of creature, the modern-day Siren of a corner infielder, luring Rick Hahn into the rocky shoals of a long-term deal that will turn out poorly?

Listening to 670 The Score in Chicago like I do, all I hear is how everybody on both the Cubs and White Sox should be traded -- Jeff Samardzija, Nate Schierholtz (missed that boat in 2013), Adam Dunn (please, get serious), Edwin Jackson (please!), the list goes on. I shared my thoughts on trades some time back and believe them to reside firmly in the imaginations of columnists, beat reporters and sports talk hosts. Baseball just isn't the Wild West of even 20 years ago, but that doesn't mean trades don't occur. However, I can't envision a closer of any stature being made available for Gillaspie alone -- Glen Perkins, Huston Street, maybe the return of Addison Reed, none of those deals are going to be made straight-up. He might generate a prospect a year or two away from helping the White Sox, and then again, might not.

FanGraphs has a nifty little feature that translates a player's value into dollar value, essentially multiplying their fWAR by around $5.5 million (this year). So far, Gillaspie a value around $4.8 million, a decent return on his $512,000 salary. The Sox are the best proof currently that pitching rules the baseball world these days, with an extremely potent offense to begin the season and a 27-27 record through Tuesday to show for it. Gillaspie's start, along with those of Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton, was excellent -- and ineffective pitching has the White Sox playing .500 ball.

My advice to Rick Hahn is simple -- if he can get anything he perceives as value for Gillaspie, take it, particularly if it's pitching. This is highly unlikely, since everyone is holding on to their talented pitching, and as such, I'd just take Gillaspie and accept what he'll be, possibly a slightly-above average third baseman who can be a placeholder until Matt Davidson is ready. He'll be cheap, probably won't deviate much from his 2013 production, but in a lineup filled with unknowns and what-ifs, he'll be one less question mark. Sometimes that has to be enough.

All data from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. Data are through games of Tuesday, May 27th.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.

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