Wednesday, April 17, 2024

White Sox Outfield Breakdown: The Battle For The Final Roster Spots

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They say competition breeds excellence. While you may be hard-pressed to find many sources of excellence on the White Sox roster there will be no shortage of competition during Spring Training.  

Chris Getz spent his first offseason as the White Sox general manager adding a handful of players to minor league deals in the hopes of bolstering the team’s depth. Some of the biggest battles for roster spots will be determined by those signings. Most of them are veteran players hungry to stay in the show. One thing is clear. Getz has given manager Pedro Grifol much more flexibility.

As things currently stand the battle for the final few outfield spots figures to be a dogfight. With pitchers and catchers reporting to camp on Wednesday here is a breakdown of the outfielders on the roster.

Breaking Down The Battle

With Andrew Benintendi and Luis Robert Jr. locked into left field and center field already, the only outfield spots available are in right field or off the bench.       

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Last season the White Sox had six players who could play the outfield on their Opening Day roster. That group included Romy Gonzalez, (who was listed as an infielder), Eloy Jimenez (who figures to serve as the primary designated hitter), and Gavin Sheets, (who is a first baseman by trade).  

As things currently stand the White Sox are projected to hold onto three bench players. One spot will likely go to a utility infielder such as Romy Gonzalez, or newly signed Mike Moustakas. That leaves two spots up for grabs. 

There are six outfielders on the White Sox 40-man roster and four outfielders listed as non-roster invitees to camp. When Benintendi and Robert are taken out of the equation that leaves three spots left for eight outfielders, this will likely be the tightest competition in camp. 

Projected Starter In Right Field 

The White Sox already have Gavin Sheets and Oscar Colas available in-house. However, it is clear that Getz wasn’t thrilled with the notion of either of them being the starting right fielder which is why he added a pair of left-handed bats via trade in Zach DeLoach and Dominic Fletcher. Those trades came after he had already inked Rafael Ortega, Mark Peyton Brett Phillips, and Kevin Pillar to minor-league deals. 

Fletcher is the early favorite to win the starting job in right field. 

The 26-year-old also made his MLB debut for the Diamondbacks last season, appearing in 28 games. In 102 plate appearances, he hit .301 with two home runs, 14 RBIs, and 115 OPS+. Fletcher fell victim to being on a Diamondbacks team loaded with outfield talent, which limited his opportunities. 

But he made the most of his time in the minor leagues. Of the 450 Triple-A hitters with at least 100 batted balls, Fletcher was one of five with a 10 percent barrel rate and sub-20 percent whiff rate last season.

Fletcher has shown the ability to hit for average throughout his career. His first professional season was with a stacked outfield class on the Kane County Cougars. Fletcher shined hitting .318 in 55 games before earning a promotion to Double-A. In 2021 he hit 15 home runs and drove in 56 RBIs while posting a .759 OPS. He was promoted to Triple-A 32 games into the following season and continued to produce at the plate. In 2022 he hit .312 between the two levels while driving in a career-high 72 RBIs.

On the defensive end, he is primarily a center fielder but can play the corner outfield positions. He has a strong arm averaging 87.8 mph on his throws from the outfield last season. That would have placed him in the top 71st percentile amongst qualified MLB outfielders. He saw 109.1 innings of action in center field for the Diamondbacks last season and only committed one error. 

Scouts describe him as a center fielder with strong reads off the bat and solid routes in the outfield that he pairs with an arm strong enough to handle right field.

Zach DeLoach appears to be his biggest competition. The former second-round pick out of Texas A&M hit 23 home runs and slashed .286/.387/.481 in Triple-A Tacoma last season with 88 RBIs and 55 extra-base hits. 

The concern with DeLoach is his plate discipline. He has gone down on strikes over 100 times in each of the last three seasons. Last year he struck out a whopping 173 times. On the defensive end, he can play all three outfield positions. The bulk of his time has been in right field where he has logged 2011.2 innings. During that stretch, he owns a .977 fielding percentage. 

At the age of 25, he should be MLB-ready and will have a chance to compete for a starting job out of camp, an opportunity he probably would not have in the Mariners organization. 

Even if DeLoach or Fletcher wins the job, the White Sox may opt to use a platoon system in right field depending on the matchup. DeLoach or Fletcher could also replace Sheets as a left-handed bat off the bench. 

Battle For The Fourth Outfield Spot

Before the White Sox added DeLoach and Fletcher a case could be made that Kevin Pillar was in line to be the everyday starter in right field. He will still have an opportunity to compete for the job, however, it is now much more likely he will earn a spot as the team’s fourth outfielder or play in a platoon role. 

Pillar is fresh off a rough season where he slashed .228/.248/.416 with 9 home runs and 32 RBI in 206 plate appearances during his lone season with the Atlanta Braves. The 35-year-old mainly served as a fourth outfielder off the bench appearing in half of their games. 

While Pillar isn’t the defender he once was, he can still be a friend of White Sox pitchers. Last season he had an OAA of 3 in left field. His arm strength placed also him in the MLB’s top 75th percentile.Getz has made it clear that improving the team’s defense was a priority this offseason. Because of this, Pillar appears to have the inside track position. 

Gavin Sheets has already proven to be a below-average defender. The 27-year-old posted a Fielding Run Value of -6 which ranked in the MLB’s 13th percentile. He also had an  Outs Above Average of -2. Not all of this is Sheets’ fault. The organization asked him to learn a new position on the fly. Given the White Sox recent additions, Sheets won’t have as much pressure on him to play the outfield. He could serve as lefty bat off the bench with an occasional appearance at first base or DH. But for him to make the roster he is going to need to pick up his offensive production.

While Sheets does give the White Sox another left-handed bat a case could be made that Pillar is a more productive hitter. The 11-year veteran owns a career slash line of .257/.294/.409. His best offensive season came in 2019 when he hit a career-high 21 homers, and 88 RBIs and finished 22nd in the MVP voting. Last season he had an abysmal 2.9% walk rate and had the second-highest strikeout rate of his career. However, Sheets also had a down year. He ranked in the bottom three percent in the league in  Expected Batting Average (.210), Weighted On-Base Average (.261), and Expected Weighted On-Base Average (.267). 

The next best option in the organization is Oscar Colas, who proved he was not ready to be a major leaguer last season. Colas lacked plate discipline, striking out in 27 percent of his MLB plate appearances. There were also rumblings about attitude issues.  Chris Getz has already said that the organization expects Colas to start the 2024 campaign in Triple-A Charlotte. His recent moves to bury him in the depth chart also suggest he may not get many opportunities at the MLB level with the White Sox. 

Pillar could wind up serving as a platoon option depending on the pitching matchup. In the last five seasons, Pillar has a .272/.298/.494 slash line against southpaws. Last season he batted .250 against lefties but was limited to .202 against right-handers. 

Even with those struggles, his .202 average was only slightly worse than Sheets’ .212 average against right-handers. This is a major concern considering the White Sox don’t trust Sheets against left-handers. In 20 plate appearances against righties  Sheets was reduced to a .053 batting average and .103 OPS. 

Long Shots To Make The Team

Rafel Ortega and Brett Phillips face an uphill battle to crack a roster spot, but they are still in play for an outfield role. 

Getz signed Ortega on January 5th. Four days later he told reporters that the starting right fielder had yet to be established. It will be interesting to see where Ortega fits in their plans and a lot of that could be determined by his Cactus League performance. Throughout his six-year career, Ortega has logged 436.1 innings in right field which includes 44 starts. 

Ortega owns a career .247/.324/.352  slash line with 22 home runs 109 RBIs and an OPS+ of 86. His best season came in 2021 with the Chicago Cubs. Ortega hit .291 on the North Side with a .823 OPS and a 121 OPS+. He also set career highs in home runs (11), hits (86) and stolen bases (12). 

Last year he played in 47 games for the Mets, hitting .219/.324/.272. While his numbers don’t jump off the page he has shown good plate discipline throughout his career. Ortega owns a career 9.8% walk rate which is above the MLB average. In 2022 he posted an 11.9% walk rate which ranked inside the MLB’s top ten percent. 

The 32-year-old can play all three outfield positions. The majority of his work has come in center field where he has played 1183 innings in 179 games. He also has 124 games of experience in left field. 

He has the arm strength to be an everyday right fielder.  According to Baseball Savant, he ranked in the MLB’s 92nd percentile in arm strength in 2022. The rest of his defensive metrics are average. In 2016 he made the third most errors amongst all American League left fielders, but ranked 4th in assist that same year. 

From an offensive Brain Goodwin’s 2021 season with the White Sox was very similar to Ortega’s overall body of work. In all likelihood, he will not be the Opening Day right fielder (but never say never since Romy Gonzalez started in right field in 2023) but will have a chance to slot in as the team’s fourth outfielder off the bench given his versatility and experience. 

If Brett Phillips is going to make the team it will need to be because of his work with the glove. The 29-year-old owns a career wRC+ of 71 which is well below the MLB average. His .187 batting average in 854 at-bats is also a bit of an eyesore. However, he does have an above-average glove. In his past seven MLB seasons, Phillips has 41 Defensive Runs Saved, 32 Outs Above Average, and a 24.5 Ultimate Zone Rating. 

Mark Payton is also in play but seeing that he only appeared in 40 MLB games since 2020, he figures to be more of a minor-league depth option.

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Smoky Burgess
Smoky Burgess
Feb 16, 2024 10:41 pm

New GM is building a group that fights – never could happen with Anderson on the team (the face of the Sox who hardly ever hustled but always looked cool). Now we will have at least most of the guys fighting to play. Later they might enjoy baseball, but that needs to come later – hard nose culture now please. Run to first base please. And far less silly talk from the broadcast booth so I don’t have to mute the whole game anymore please.

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