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White Sox off to a good start this offseason, but they shouldn’t stop now

CHICAGO — You have to commend the Chicago White Sox. In a time of uncertainty, they haven’t sat back and rested on their 2020 laurels. After making the playoffs for the first time since 2008, they’ve kept the hot stove buzzing with a pair of moves this week, trading for starter Lance Lynn and bringing back a former member of the team in outfielder Adam Eaton.

Eaton, in particular, feels like a sweet move considering he was traded to the Washington Nationals in a deal that netted ace Lucas Giolito back in 2016. Now the White Sox have him back. Both Eaton and Lynn fill holes, but the Sox admit they chose flexibility over higher-end talent available on the market.

“If we spend the entirety of what we have to spend on one position, obviously other needs aren’t addressed,” general manager Rick Hahn said in a videoconference Thursday.

In other words, with the budget the White Sox have set for themselves, the team couldn’t sign top free agents such as Trevor Bauer or Michael Brantley while also filling other needs, such as closer. Lynn is on the last year of his deal, while Eaton signed for one season. Combined, they’ll make just $16 million.

Flexibility.

There’s nothing wrong with that word, as there are no bad one-year deals. But are the White Sox truly going for it if they aren’t bringing in the best talent available on the market? It all depends on need. Lynn is a fantastic No. 3 starter, if not better. Chicago gave up a young pitcher in Dane Dunning to get Lynn from Texas, which is exactly the type of trade an organization ready to win should be making. The White Sox don’t need Lynn to be Bauer or even Giolito.

“It’s a great trade for them,” one NL executive said. “Lynn brings exactly what they need.”

Eaton might be a different story.

The White Sox were just 21-25 against right-handed pitching last season, while sporting an incredible 14-0 mark when a lefty started against them. True to form, they posted their one playoff win against the Oakland A’s when lefty Jesus Luzardo started but lost the next two games — you guessed it — when a righty took the mound.

A major upgrade from the left side of the batter’s box — arguably Chicago’s biggest need of the offseason — was necessary after Nomar Mazara failed to do the job in right field in 2020 and was non-tendered. Enter the left-handed-hitting Eaton, who wasn’t on many top-50-free-agent boards.

“Eaton was a target of ours for a variety of reasons,” Hahn said. “We wanted to improve our production against right-handed pitching. And we wanted to not compromise defense in the process of doing that. Adam addresses both of those needs.”

The White Sox ranked 24th in on-base percentage against righties last season, so Eaton’s career .360 OBP should come in handy — although it dropped to .285 in the shortened 2020 season. Still, he was a big contributor for the Nationals when they won the World Series in 2019 and can help the Sox in some areas Hahn mentioned.

“We think a healthy, productive Adam Eaton is an everyday right fielder for us,” the GM said.

Eaton is fine — but only if a free agent such as Kyle Schwarber or Joc Pederson comes along with him. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, White Sox lefties hit a home run just once every 37 at-bats in 2020. That ranked 26th in baseball. Hahn was asked if the team needed more power from the left side — near essential for a contender — after signing Eaton, who has a career .416 slugging percentage.

“Not necessarily,” Hahn answered. “We have some internal options. Andrew Vaughn is someone we expect to break in. We want to make sure Andrew gets an opportunity at some point.”

Vaughn was the third overall pick in the 2019 draft, but he hasn’t played above Class A and, of course, wasn’t able to play this past season as the minor leagues were shut down because of the pandemic. But most important, Vaughn bats right-handed. How much better can the White Sox get from that side of the plate after going undefeated against left-handed pitching this season? If anything, they’re bound to come back to earth a little against lefties, but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily also improve their winning percentage against righties. Not without more help.

The Eaton signing is even more curious considering the White Sox were linked to Pederson several times over the past few years. Trade talks for Pederson were potentially close to getting done, according to sources familiar with the situation. But now, when the White Sox could get him just for money, they chose to pass. Ironically, it sounds like money was the obstacle.

“We have flexibility for balance in this offseason as well as in future seasons with this signing,” Hahn said, referencing Eaton. “Yes, we perhaps could have gone straight to the top of the free-agent market. However, if we had done that we would have wound up not doing other things that are important to rounding out a championship roster.”

No team has ever made the World Series with a losing record against right-handed starters. The Sox came pretty close in 2020, but expecting to go far again without improving from the left side seems like a reach. The game is won at the highest level from the left side of the batter’s box as well as the pitching rubber. Hahn essentially agreed: You can never have enough lefties.

Perhaps the White Sox aren’t done wheeling and dealing, but Hahn sounded pleased with their potential production against right-handers. Maybe his own right-handed hitters will take a step forward against pitchers who throw from that side.

“It’s not something we’re going to turn away from if the opportunity presents itself, but I wouldn’t say we feel it’s material lacking at this time and needs to be addressed,” Hahn said.

So what are those other needs on the White Sox’s list? Closer is No. 1 after Alex Colome hit free agency. The team is interested in former A’s stopper Liam Hendriks, according to league sources, and they would need some cash on hand to bid for him. Closers also are often traded at midseason when other teams fall out of the race.

“You see back-end types available, usually closer to the deadline,” Hahn said.

Which brings us back to left-handed hitters. Pederson is still available. So are Brantley and Schwarber. And the White Sox have an opening at designated hitter. If they stand pat with Eaton, they’ll be rolling the dice on offense, as good as the lineup currently is. If there’s more to come, then the Sox could be on their way to a very nice offseason.

“Stay tuned, we’ll see,” Hahn said as he ended his call.

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