As White Sox fans wait out the quiet period between the end of the World Series and our team inevitably signing multiple superstars, most of us are probably doing everything we can to put the 2018 season in the rearview mirror. It was a year filled with stupefyingly bad baseball at the major league level and a mix of disappointment/injury in the minors.
One exception? A lightly-regarded January waiver claim from the San Diego Padres by the name of José Rondón, who surprisingly crushed 24 homers between Charlotte and Chicago.
Despite his generally productive year amongst a sea of Charlie Tilsonery and Nicky Delmonicism, Sox Machine readers listed Rondón as a starter on exactly
zero offseason plans one late-arriving offseason plan and only mentioned him at all on about 1/3 of the entries (I confess that I’m part of the 2/3 majority). But the White Sox front office is surely giving him more consideration, as Rondón is out of options so a decision will have to be made about his future with the organization by the end of Spring Training.
The problem is that it’s hard to guess what that future looks like, since Rondón’s production at the plate didn’t at all resemble his minor league track record. On the year, he hit 41 points lower than his career minor league average. His 24 spicy ding dongs more than tripled his previous career high. And he struck out 24% of the time in AAA and 28% of the time in the majors despite never topping 18% in any other season.
Scouts have generally predicted Rondón would turn into a viable major leaguer, but Statcast indicates that the power surge is likely fluky — his average exit velocity was 405th out of 480 players with at least 50 batted balls, though his barrel rate was a much more encouraging 50th. So what exactly do the Sox have on their hands, a future contributor or a fluke?
One player that comes to mind when looking at Rondón’s minor league stats and scouting reports is Marwin Gonzalez. Gonzalez never hit more than 4 home runs in the minors, before developing league-average power in his mid-20’s. Similar to Rondón, he came up as a sure-handed middle infielder with some contact skills. (Even more similar to Rondón, he’s 6’1″, about 200 lbs, and from Venezuela.) But Gonzalez has developed into an impressive super-utility player who was key to Houston’s 2017 World Series run and who’s likely to earn $40+ million this winter.
It’s admittedly farfetched to toss out a 4-win player as a Rondón comp just because they’re both Venezuelan and couldn’t hit for most of their careers. But that’s not the point. We’ve talked a lot about how rebuilding teams need contributions from unexpected places in order to become contenders — aka guys exactly like Marwin Gonzalez. Unfortunately, the Sox’s efforts to find guys like that have been largely unsuccessful so far; the best we’ve seen are Delmonico-like mirages and Daniel Palka-like one trick ponies. But in Rondón they found a player A) for free, B) who produced in 2018, and C) can credibly play the toughest position on the field. That’s a solid starter kit for “diamond in the rough.”
There’s a lot of winter left to go, but assuming the White Sox don’t plug every one of their many holes Rondón deserves a shot to see whether he’s the next Delmonico or the next Gonzalez. And I almost mean that literally — with a largely entrenched infield, the White Sox should consider putting Rondón in leftfield to see if he can hack it any better than Delmonico, at least until Eloy Jimenez comes up. Then they can shift him all around the lineup and see if enough power sticks or enough contact returns to make him a Gonzalez-lite. Assuming Harper and Machado think better of spending the next few years on the South Side, the Sox will have plenty of reps to go around. And there are undoubtedly better uses for those reps than more looks at Matt Davidson or Leury Garcia or any number of players.
What is Jose Rondón? The White Sox should probably find out.