The White Sox signed Andruw Jones to a one-year contract worth $500,000 last week. While the White Sox aren’t done making moves, don’t be surprised to see Jones put together over 300 at-bats.
The White Sox intend for Jones to be a backup player, although I have a hard time thinking Jones was willing to sign somewhere where he might not get significant at-bats. Despite Jones’ terrible showing at the hands of the Dodgers in 2008, his 2009 was to the point where he actually outperformed his last season as a starter: 2007 with the Atlanta Braves.
*Value is taken from the batting value on Jones’ Fangraphs page. It’s a measurement of how valuable he actually was with the bat.
I’m not bringing up this yearly comparison in an attempt to say Jones should be the starting centerfielder for Chicago in 2010 — at least, not immediately . Most of Jones’ value in 2007 was tied up in his defense, so the club was able to weather his clear and abrupt offensive decline.
I am, however, bringing up this comparison to note two things. The first, and the most obvious and talked-about in the past, is that perhaps Jones isn’t completely done after all. Outgoing Rangers’ hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo did wonders with Jones, a year after many wondered if his big-league career was done thanks to poor conditioning. While he’s likely done as a 51-home run player, 2008 looks to be the aberration.
While some of Jones’ increases can be attributed to playing in the home park of the Rangers, given that he’s moving to another hitter’s park in U.S. Cellular Field, it’s not worth worrying about. (If he does decide to mimic 2008, the White Sox can just release him. After all, it’s only $500,000 guaranteed.)
The second point of the comparison is to say that Jones may have positioned himself not only to succeed in 2010, but to market himself as a starting option in free agency next year.
Chicago has a lot of holes to plug this season, and Jones could end up playing a major part in said hole-plugging. For example, their outfield looks to be Carlos Quentin in left, with Alex Rios filling either center or right (and no option to fill the other position). There’s no designated hitter to be had, either. That’s two positions right off the bat where Jones could fill. You could even consider first base a position of availability for Jones if you subscribe to the notion that Paul Konerko could see some time at DH.
Of course, there’s no way Chicago’s not bringing in other contenders to DH or play the outfield. Jones is going to find competition for roles. At the very least, Jones figures to come off the bench as a backup DH and backup fourth outfielder and log some time against left-handers. That’s the low end of his value. The chance for Jones to amass a significant number of at-bats is great when you look at the holes Chicago has to fill. You can bet Chicago looked at his numbers this past year and saw someone who could bring big value to the plate at a low cost.
Given the lack of center field options on the free agent market — even the trade market — it’s unlikely Chicago brings in a centerfielder that is guaranteed to hold the position all year long. Jones can take advantage of any injuries or attrition at that position as well.
Speaking of attrition, Alex Rios could continue running himself out of a job in baseball once his ludicrous contract extension runs out. Andruw Jones would steal time from Rios if the former Blue Jay can’t get off to a hot start. Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen are already not happy about Rios’ production after coming over (.199/.229/.301) and they won’t wait around for Rios to get hot. Jones could stand to benefit from that.
Given enough evaluation time, Jones might actually stand to be Chicago’s best option to play the field — not just offensively, but defensively. While small sample size needs to be taken into account, Jones’ showing in left and right according to UZR/150 in 2009 suggests he’s back to being an elite defender. I’m not suggesting he is one, but the possibility is there for Chicago to decide they like his defense to play center — or at the very least, to play right with Rios shifting to center.
The DH slot will likely be filled by either a revolving door of players (similar to how the Yankees plan to approach the position) or by an aging slugger like Jim Thome, who has expressed interest in returning. If it’s Thome, you can’t count on him to stay healthy. Also, despite Thome’s consistency, he’s at the age where you can’t really count on him to hit, either. I wouldn’t discount Carlos Quention seeing a lot of time at DH with Jones in left, either.
Whatever option at DH Chicago chooses, Jones has a good chance to benefit from the decision.
All these factors come together to suggest that Jones may be seeing a ton of playing time. Well over 300 at-bats. 400 at-bats isn’t out of the question, either — only if he produces.
You can bet Jones liked Chicago for this very reason: an ability to see some serious playing time. If Jones can luck his way into a .250 batting average while keeping his peripherals to the level he performed in 2009, Jones may be sitting pretty the time the next free agent market rolls around for a two year contract to start.