Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What is Kenny Williams Up To?

On August 10th of this year, the White Sox acquired outfielder Alex Rios, who had hit .291 with 15 HR and 32 SB the year before, from Toronto for absolutely nothing. They got this bargain by accompanying Rios would be the long-term contract he signed with the Blue Jays, which would pay him $59 million over the next five years.

It was the second big ticket acquisition that GM Kenny Williams had made in a month's time. The first had happened on July 31st at the trade deadline when he had traded prospects for NL Cy Young winner Jake Peavy, who came with a $52 million deal over the next three years. The deals also added approximately $4 million to a payroll that had started the season around $96 million. So it wasn't too shocking that once the White Sox faded from the pennant race they quickly traded away Jim Thome ($13M salary in 2009) and Jose Contreras ($10M). Doing so provided some relief for the previous buying spree.

But as the White Sox look towards 2010 those big salaries are on still going to be on the books, and tying up almost $25 million. Since the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, their total payroll has hovered around $100 million:

Yr - $(M)
2009 - 96.1
2008 - 121.2
2007 - 108.7
2006 - 102.8
2005 - 75.2
2004 - 65.2

As Williams looked at the committed money to contracts and various arbitration awards, $90 million was already spoken for, and there were plenty of holes to fill. For starters, that money didn't include the optional $12 million salary that the White Sox could pay Jermaine Dye. They chose not to, so there was a spot in right field. There had also been a giant sucking sound at second base throughout 2009.

A few weeks later those gaps are filled and three additional veteran backups are on the roster, all at a bargain price of $12 million. First the White Sox acquired Mark Teahan from the Royals, who were going to non-tender him. The White Sox instead signed him to an affordable three-year, $14 million deal and gave him the 3rd base job (and moved Gordon Beckham to second base). Teahan's career OPS is 750 and that's close to the average third baseman in the majors. Plus, it moved Beckham to a position where he can be a difference maker.

Then Williams signed a couple of veteran bench bats, gettting Omar Vizquel and Andruw Jones for a couple million dollars plus some incentive clauses. It's doubtful either will play full time, but it gives manager Ozzie Guillen some options in case shorstop Alexei Ramirez remains clueless or left fielder Carlos Quentin is hurt again.

Yesterday the White Sox filled their other vacancy by acquiring outfielder Juan Pierre from the Dodgers for a couple of pitching prospects. The genius in the deal isn't Pierre's contribution. It's the Dodgers' contribution to Pierre's enormous salary. Of the $18.5 million that are owed him over the next two years, the White Sox only need to pay $8 million of it, and only $3 million this year.

And Pierre is a decent fit. He plays center field well and gives them a leadoff hitter that isn't Scott Podsednick, with whom the White Sox limped through last season. The unfortunate result is that it moves Rios to right field where he isn't nearly as valuable, but at least it really upgrades the outfield defense from what the White Sox had last year. And, looking at the free agent outfielder market, it sure isn't clear that the Sox were going to do any better for the money.

One other move raises the question whether Williams is done. Last week he signed reliever (and former closer) JJ Putz to a $3 million contract. That's significant because the White Sox current closer Bobby Jenks is up for arbitration, and could command a salary of $7-9 million. Trading him would both cut payroll and recoup some prospects from the bevy that the White Sox traded away for Peavy, Teahan and Pierre. So is Putz insurance or a replacement?

As things sit now, the total payroll (assuming Jenks gets about $8 million) is around $102 million. It's not clear if that's high, low or just right. And things look shaky on the farm, with all the young talent the Sox have traded away to extend their competetiveness. But on the field, the White Sox look like a complete team. And if Peavy, Rios and Quenting can bounce back, they should be a formidable opponent in 2010.