The Chicago White Sox took a major step toward contention on Thursday when they signed Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million contract. This is the largest contract the White Sox have ever signed. The previous record belonged to José Abreu who signed a six-year, $68 million contract as an international free agent prior to 2014.
It’s hard to find any fault from the team’s perspective. Grandal is, at worst, the second-best catcher in baseball as he’s both an elite framer and solidly above average hitter. Since 2015, Grandal leads all catchers in fWAR at 24.9, and in 2019, he only trailed JT Realmuto’s 5.7 fWAR with 5.2 of his own. Grandal is a rare catcher who is elite in both offensive and defensive categories. By FanGraphs’ framing metrics, the only catcher better at turning borderline pitches into strikes was Austin Hedges. At the plate, Grandal also tied for second in the majors in walk rate with Alex Bregman at 17.2 percent.
It’s also hard to find any fault from Grandal’s perspective. Grandal is worth more than $18.5 million a year, but he had to bet on himself to get this much. Last winter, he turned down a four-year, $60 million contract offer from the Mets, and instead accepted a qualifying offer from the Brewers worth $18.25 million for a year. Grandal didn’t let the yoke of the qualifying offer choke his earnings, though. By waiting, he effectively turned a four-year, $60 million contract into a five-year, $91.25 million deal.
It’s something of a surprise that the White Sox went after Grandal. They didn’t get any production from their back-up catchers in 2019. Welington Castillo, Zack Collins, and Seby Zavala combined for -1.5 fWAR while slashing .198/.272/.387. However, with their starter James McCann making the All-Star team with a 2.3 fWAR season, one would think that the White Sox would instead prioritize getting outfield help or a dependable starter before upgrading at catcher. They certainly needed a back-up, but one would think they would go for someone like Travis d’Arnaud, Jason Castro, or Stephen Vogt to fill that role. None of whom would have required a multi-year deal to sign.
Grandal is an obvious upgrade over McCann even if you believe McCann’s 2019 season was for real. McCann was one of the worst framers in baseball. His -9.0 framing runs were only outdone by Omar Narvaez at -10.4. McCann is also unlikely to repeat his 109 wRC+ as his offensive production was boosted by a .359 BABIP.
By Statcast’s measurements, McCann was manufacturing his own luck to a degree. His xwOBA of .321 would put him slightly above average, but with a strikeout rate so high (28.6 percent) and a walk rate so low (6.3 percent) McCann needs that batted-ball luck to survive. Grandal, then, is a much more dependable option. Even if McCann repeats, there’s no such thing as too many good players.
That’s a mentality the White Sox ownership should remember as the winter carries on. Currently, Roster Resource estimates an Opening Day payroll of about $96 million. That’s their highest total of any of the three seasons, but in 2016 they went as high as $129. With a division as winnable as the AL Central, it would be wise to go above that previous crest. A $129 million contract would have put them comfortable below the league average of $138 million last year. Getting an outfielder or two while signing a dependable starter should be enough to make them serious contenders in 2020 and beyond.
There’s enough talent already on the roster. Grandal fills out a solid infield headlined by Yoán Moncada. It took a couple seasons for third baseman to establish himself, Moncada was one of the ten best players in the American League in 2019. Tim Anderson at short may have walked less than McCann, but he hit for average and power. Yolmer Sánchez is an excellent defender at second, and he’ll hold things down until Nick Madrigal makes his debut. José Abreu’s best years might be behind him, but he was still firmly an above-average hitter in 2019 and Steamer projects similar output in 2020.
The outfield is less certain. Eloy Jiménez’s rookie season was highly encouraging and he should only get better, but unless Luis Robert comes up and starts raking, the White Sox don’t have many players beyond him they can depend on.
The rotation has promise outside of Lucas Giolito. Reynaldo López and Dylan Cease have both flashed potential. Michael Kopech should return from Tommy John surgery, and he’s the Schrodinger's Ace of the staff: simultaneously an All-Star and a replacement-level pitcher until he makes his return.
Grandal’s signing with the White Sox obviously means that he won’t be returning to Milwaukee though according to a report from Robert Murray, the Brewers tried to bring him back.
The Brewers made an attempt at re-signing Yasmani Grandal, extending multiple offers during free agency, according to sources. In the end, four years, $73 million was out of their price range. Said one source: “We tried.”— Robert Murray (@ByRobertMurray) November 21, 2019
Again, $18 million a year is an underpay for one of the two best players at an extremely important position. The Brewers weren’t willing to commit that much and for the time being, they’re left with Manny Piña and David Freitas behind the dish. Steamer projects the two for 1.8 and 0.7 fWAR respectively, though both marks would be career-highs for each player. Even if they match their relatively modest projections, that would be a major downgrade from the 5.2 wins they got from Grandal in 2019. If the Brewers want to upgrade, they’ll have to resort to the players the White Sox weren’t willing to settle for.
The time is right for the White Sox to spend. They have a solid core of cost-controlled talent, and money to burn on their payroll. Keeping Abreu and signing Grandal is a great start to their offseason, but they need to finish this winter strong if 2020 will be the year the rebuild finally works.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.