From a team’s perspective, there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal. Any low-risk, high-reward attempt by a team to make themselves better in the short term is worthwhile even when the signing team won 72 games the year before and even when the signing player is entering his age 37 season. It’s especially true in the case of the White Sox signing Edwin Encarnación to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $12 million with an equivalent club option for 2021.
Encarnación is coming off a 34-homer season in which he slashed .244/.344/.531 for a 129 wRC+. Had he been on the White Sox in 2019, he would have led the team in homers and ISO while ranking third in wRC+. Encarnación’s best years are behind him, but 2019 was the eighth year in a row where the slugger posted a wRC+ of 115 or higher, and in seven of those eight years, Encarnación qualified for the batting title. 2019 was the only year he failed to do so, and that was because he was hit by a pitch that broke his wrist. That particular injury can be especially troublesome for a power hitter, but Encarnación still hit four homers in 35 plate appearances after coming back from the IL.
There’s no doubt that Encarnación makes the White Sox a better team for 2020, and the White Sox already had an argument as the most-improved team of the offseason. They didn’t land Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, or Anthony Rendon, but Chicago has still brought in or retained Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, and José Abreu, the 7th, 14th, and 16th best free agents by MLB Trade Rumors’ estimations. They’ve also signed the under-appreciated Gio González and made a trade for Nomar Mazara who is a competent fourth outfielder.
One area the White Sox desperately needed improvement in was at designated hitter. As a group, White Sox DH’s slashed .197/.275/.342 for a majors-worst 64 wRC+. Since 2000, only the 2018 Tigers and 2014 Cleveland squad had worse designated hitters. White Sox DH’s hit only a little bit better than Jacob deGrom, who slashed .200/.244/.323 for a 52 wRC+.
It wouldn’t have been hard to improve on such a feckless group. The White Sox already looked to be loads better at designated hitter even if they planned on swapping between Yasmani Grandal, James McCann, José Abreu, and possibly Eloy Jiménez. With EE, Chicago looks like they’ll go from being one of the league’s worst at the position to one of the league’s best.
Where the White Sox haven’t improved is on defense. Chicago ranked 25th in the majors in defensive runs saved at -49, and that was even with Gold Glover Yolmer Sánchez whom the White Sox non-tendered. Grandal will help the reinforced pitching staff behind the plate, but those pitchers won’t get much help on balls in play.
Even if they are a collection of clank-mitts, the White Sox will hit next year. Steamer projects Tim Anderson to be the White Sox’ eighth best hitter by wOBA next year, and Anderson had a 130 wRC+ in 2019. The White Sox have definitely gotten better, but they still haven’t closed the gap on Minnesota or Cleveland.
AL Central, FanGraphs’ WAR projection (approximate win equivalent):— Devan Fink (@DevanFink) December 26, 2019
1. Indians — 41.5 (89.1)
2. Twins — 40.6 (88.2)
3. White Sox* — 35.9 (83.5)
4. Royals — 22.9 (70.5)
5. Tigers — 22.8 (70.4)
With Encarnación, expect the projection to improve by ~1-2 wins.
Still, that’s close enough where random variance (and general lack of competition) could see them gunning for a Wild Card spot or even the division. Of course, random variance could see them slide the opposite way, so any prediction that sees the Sox in the playoffs comes with a heavy dose of wishful thinking.
The White Sox also don’t appear to be done. We won’t know until deep into the season whether this offseason will bear fruit in 2020, but when bad teams and super teams alike are all too willing to stand pat, this amount of trying is a refreshing change.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.