As mentioned a few days ago, the correct answer to “Manny Machado or Bryce Harper?” is “either.”
But one reason I’m drawn to Harper is that his acquisition makes center field upgrades more or less an afterthought. Harper doesn’t solve that position directly, at least not unless the White Sox want another Nick Swisher or Alex Rios situation. However, such a tremendous splash in right almost turns Adam Engel into a reasonable Plan B in center, if not a semi-acceptable primary idea.
Harper’s defense was abysmal in right field in 2018, which is likely attributable to a combination of a knee injury and a shortage of conviction on makeable plays. There’s probably a rebound in store for him, but one can’t count on it going back all the way to average and staying there.
If you pencil in acceptable-at-best defense in right for Harper …
… then reserve that label for Eloy Jimenez in left during the second half of April …
… all of a sudden, Engel is sitting in a decent position without doing a damned thing. Even the worst house can gain value when it’s sitting on the best block, and Engel can hang around when his lone strength might be able to counteract the starkest weaknesses.
Alas, the White Sox can’t count on landing Harper, which makes this needle a tough one to thread. Should gentrification never strike the White Sox outfield, the Sox would then have to figure out how to salvage the position, because the incumbent situation doesn’t stand on its own.
Besides Engel, Leury Garcia is the only player who can challenge Engel’s claim to center field, and we saw how that worked out last season. Garcia couldn’t make a run at the job for various reasons — Rick Renteria wanting to maintain Garcia’s infield skills, Garcia’s power taking a step back, and, of course, the injuries. The latter two suggest that even if Renteria wanted to make Garcia the most-time center fielder, Garcia couldn’t hold up as a credible option.
Behind Garcia are even less desirable options. Charlie Tilson couldn’t capitalize on his first extended run in the outfield, failing to merit a September call-up. Ryan Cordell did, but he went 4-for-37 with zero walks and 15 strikeouts in his first month in the majors. Tito Polo, who was acquired from the Yankees to fill this gap in the timeline for center fielder auditions, washed out of the system and recently signed a minor-league deal with Seattle.
That leaves a significant space between Engel, Garcia and Luis Basabe, who is the most advanced prospect but still should probably start the season in Birmingham. Doing nothing to address the gap would be a failure, but the Sox might not want to pursue all options until Harper finds a home.
This limbo state spurned a whole lot of diversity in the Offseason Plan Project. Engel won the plurality, but he was nowhere close to a majority, barely clearing a quarter of the 83 returns. Those who support Sox Machine on Patreon can read the Offseason Plan Project’s cheat sheet, but here’s the leaderboard for starting center fielder:
1. Adam Engel, 21 plans
2. A.J. Pollock, 10 plans
3. Leury Garcia, 4 plans
4(t). Six players, 3 plans
10(t). Seven players, 2 plans
17(t). Sixteen players, 1 plan
There’s such diversity in approaches because the open market offers no simple fixes. Pollock is by far the best center fielder available in free agency, but the combination of his health history and the qualifying offer have dragged down the speed of his market. Andrew McCutchen signed with Philadelphia as a corner outfielder, and Adam Jones and Denard Span had to accept position changes as well. As far as it goes for guys who could stand in center field multiple times a week, it’s basically Jon Jay and Cameron Maybin and that’s it.
So planners had to get creative, whether it was acquiring contractual misfires (Dexter Fowler, Jacoby Ellsbury), shooting for stars (Kevin Kiermaier, Starling Marte), angling for blocked prospects (Alex Verdugo, Andrew Toles, Raimel Tapia) or excess young outfielders (Manuel Margot, Keon Broxton, Travis Jankowski).
The most versatile track is the one where the Sox acquire an out-of-options casualty in February or March. That includes Tapia, along with guys like Aaron Altherr and Dalton Pompey. None of these players have shown themselves able to hold a starting job, but the Sox have the luxury to give such players a month of real time in the majors. All they have to do is stand taller than a guy who drew six walks against 95 strikeouts over the last four months of the season.
(Another name: Michael A. Taylor, who has an option left. He struggled to make contact in limited playing time last year, so he could be in the same boat.)
If the Sox go this route, it’ll be difficult to watch it unfold. I mean that in the technical sense, not the emotional sense. When the corners are Jimenez and Daniel Palka rather than Jimenez and Harper, one can still make the same defense-first argument for Engel. But this one comes with a rebuttal that settling in right led to settling in center, and the only time it stops looking like settling is the very moment the Sox find anybody else.