Wednesday, April 1, 2015

White Sox hope to avoid messy succession plan at second base

If you looked at the spring training stats a couple weeks ago and mentally began projecting White Sox prospect Micah Johnson for the second base job, you were among the many who thought the speedster had seized the role.

It's easy to forget that Johnson didn't begin the spring as the favorite. That would have been Carlos Sanchez, another Sox prospect who received a call-up last summer after Gordon Beckham was traded.

Something funny has happened since Johnson's hot start: Sanchez has caught up to him.

Johnson: .321/.368/.453
Sanchez: .371/.436/.371

All the caveats about spring training stats and small sample sizes apply. And we know neither guy is going to hit well above .300 all year. That's why we shouldn't be so excited for Johnson's first two weeks of spring, and why we should remember why Sanchez was favored to start the season as the second baseman.

Sanchez didn't blow anyone's doors off last year when he was called up (.250/.269/.300 in 104 PAs), but was doing good work in AAA (.293/.349/.412). That represented a solid bounce-back year for the 22-year-old when he had hit only .241/.293/.296 after being rushed to that level the season before. Sanchez has certainly shown adaptability.

Beyond optimism that Sanchez can improve the bat work he displayed in his audition, scouts agree he's much more polished defensively than Johnson, something the Sox might wish to carry with them into the season with some other defensive question marks around the diamond.

Then there's the matter of what Johnson doesn't have working in his favor.

The first is that he's not on the team's 40-man roster already. Picking Johnson over Sanchez could mean making another hard choice somewhere else.

There's the matter of Johnson's health. He did not get a call-up last year because he ended the season injured.

There's Johnson's lack of performance and experience at AAA. His overall minor league line of .294/.351/.401 is a combination of his robust AA performance (.329/.414/.466) and a forgettable one in Charlotte (.275/.314/.370 in just over 300 PAs).

Sliding a prospect into a starting role with that resume isn't something the Sox have been historically keen to do. The last time they started a season with a traditional rookie position player (traditional as in not an older Cuban) with fewer than 400 AAA plate appearances, it was Mike Caruso.

In that span if you go to fewer than 500 AAA plate appearances for a rookie given a job to start the year, you only get Brian Anderson and Chris Getz, and both hit better than Johnson has thus far at AAA.

The potential in Johnson's bat and his ability to improve on defense certainly gives him more upside than Sanchez, but realistically, all Sanchez had to do was keep the competition close to emerge with the job. And maybe he will by the end of the week.

Whichever player the Sox choose, they'd better be ready to stick by that decision.

It's easy to envision a scenario where Sanchez starts the season, and hits horribly through April and May. The Sox have had enough, but instead of proving he can hit and stay healthy, Johnson is struggling or injured at Charlotte. Then Beckham is back to start?

That's probably a better Plan C for second base than the Sox have had in a decade. It's still a far cry from where they want to be. In that worst-case scenario, no answers have been found about any players, or the future of the position.

Plan A, be it the safe decision with Sanchez or the more electrifying option of Johnson, needs to be seen through to the end. Whichever young player the Sox pick, they might need to settle for less than the ideal of watching that guy hit the ground running. It might mean living with some growing pains and resisting the temptation to return the devil they know (Beckham) to his starting role.

1 comment:

  1. Classic tortoise-and-the-hare scenario. Johnson raced out of the gate and impressed everyone early, but the steady progress of Sanchez might win the race.

    It's a tough call. It's hard to pass on the electrifying upside Johnson presents, but I'm already concerned about the infield defense. An infield of Abreu-Johnson-Ramirez-Gillaspie is simply not that good defensively, especially since you have to assume Ramirez is going to start to show his age a little bit.

    Not that Abreu-Sanchez-Ramirez-Gillaspie is a great defensive infield, but it's clearly better. And it may be the better choice for this particular team, since the Sox have declared themselves to be in win-now mode for this year.