Believing In A Pair Of Unicorns

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Chicago White Sox's Tim Anderson (7) and Avisail Garcia celebrate after their baseball game against the Kansas City Royals Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. The Chicago White Sox won 5-3. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

It’s easy to get excited about all the new toys on or coming soon to the Southside. Moncada was the #1 prospect in baseball due to an impressive collection of physical gifts and baseball skills. Kopech and RLopez can hit triple digits on the radar gun and feature a developing arsenal that has played well in their limited professional careers. Eloy’s performances regularly make his teammates seem like little kids fawning over their hero. Robert is a physical specimen who has dominated play at a very young age.

All of that makes it possible to forget about the pair of potential foundation pieces the Sox already have entrenched at the big league level – Tim Anderson and Avi Garcia. And that would be a mistake, as despite unorthodox make-ups to their games and uneven development, both could absolutely be nice pieces to the contending puzzle on the Southside.

Back in the dark ages of the Sox system, when “prospect” was code for a guy with just enough value to trade for an aging veteran stopgap for the big league club, Tim Anderson was about the only thing of any real excitement on the farm. And Avi Garcia was a touted toolsy youngster who had already produced (in a brief try-out) in the bigs for Detroit before he was the centerpiece of the return for Jake Peavy, who at the time had some legit trade value.

Now both have some real MLB service time under their belts, with mixed, albeit still promising, returns. But any optimism comes from appreciating that these guys might each be something of a unicorn, especially in today’s advanced stat world. You’ve got to believe that neither will ever get on base much nor hit 30 bombs, that both will strike out more than you’d like and never earn a Gold Glove… and yet still will do enough else to be a plus player for a team with a title shot.

That is not something most analytic types would say is a real possibility. If you are going to strike out a lot, it’s hard to hit for a high average. And if you don’t hit for a high average, you better get on base well and/or have some real pop. Or play superlative defense, preferably at a premium position.

Otherwise, even if you have some physical tools, even if you achieve some Major League success, the belief will be that eventually you’ll get figured out or your luck will change, and the all-around contributions won’t be enough to be a positive part of a first division team.

Here’s the thing: just because that all might be true when weighing the numbers and laying out expected returns, it doesn’t mean it’s an absolute truth. Sometimes guys buck the trends and consistently deliver without a make-up that says they should. And it’s decidedly possible that either TA or Avi, or both, will be that type of guy.

I think Anderson has a much better shot at it, even if his two seasons have been inconsistent and pretty mediocre overall. That’s because he’s at a critical position in SS, and while he’s struggled at times defensively, TA has also shown the athleticism and skills to at least be a solid gloveman. So it wouldn’t shock if Anderson turned out to be a pretty good defender – remember he’s still relatively early in his baseball development, having come to the game later than most.

He also has a lower bar to get over to establish himself as a capable or even plus contributor offensively. Even with his struggles, TA has shown legit pop, already able to put up 15-20 homers and 55-60 extra base hits. Even today that’s impressive for a SS. Despite the tremendous K rate and almost comical inability to take a walk, Anderson has still hit .270 over his first 1000+ ABs… again, perfectly serviceable for a middle infielder. Even more so given that Anderson is a real danger on the base paths. While he’s been more selective than you’d like, you can’t deny the ability of a guy who’s only been thrown out 3 times in 31 career attempts.

Sure, you can scoff at the sub .300 OBA, K numbers that would be concerning even for a 40 HR guy, and general inconsistency. Those are major red flags – that is undeniable. Plenty of analysts question whether Anderson will ever be more than an inconsistent flash of talent on a middling team. They say TA just has too many fundamental issues to ever rise above mediocre.

But while I’m not totally convinced just yet, if I look at him as a unicorn, as a guy who will succeed despite lacking the normal collection of talents, then I can begin to see the outline of a key piece to our future. Not a cornerstone superstar, but a guy who’s helping your championship cause. A guy who very clearly has some major flaws, but will be pretty unique in what else he can piece together to make himself a contributor.

TA has already battled through multiple slumps and bounced back with plus production. Don’t underestimate what that could mean about his make-up. Baseball is a mental game and the inability to come out of a slump has affected a lot of great baseball players (see Sox legend Paul Konerko at multiple junctures in his career). That Anderson has already shown that he can handle the challenge of regaining his form after sustained subpar play tells me this kid has the make-up necessary to develop into a success.

It’s more than that, though. I also see a guy who can hurt you with surprising power, great base-running, and a decent average. I see a defender who can be capable at SS already – he graded out fairly well in 2016 before taking a step back last season. And a defender who has shown the dedication to eventually exploit his extreme athleticism and natural instincts to turn himself into an asset with the glove.

Sure, TA has a way to go still, but I’m not asking for miracles when I see him turning into a fairly consistent and productive player, even given the serious flaws he won’t ever overcome.

With Avi, there’s more of a track record of success, though also more of a track record of failure. And he is facing the higher offensive demands on him as a corner OF. Yet I still think this guy can be part of the eventual solution here (assuming the Sox can work out a reasonable extension beyond 2019).

And that’s coming from a guy who was a major Avi hater going into last year. I didn’t think they should bother with giving him any more ABs, even in a total rebuild. I would have cut bait and taken my shot on someone – anyone – else.

Avi had been given over 1500 plate appearances across 5 seasons for two different teams, and the result was… nothing. Not a single aspect of his game I could hang my hat on to have any optimism. He couldn’t play D, even in the corners. He couldn’t hit, neither showing a good average nor contact rates. Avi didn’t have power, at least not enough for a corner OF. He didn’t walk. He wasn’t particularly fast nor good on the basepaths. There was just no reason to believe he’d suddenly improve in multiple areas enough to be worth anything in the future.

But someone with the Sox thought differently, at least enough to give him some more ABs in Year 1 of the rebuild. Avi took that opportunity and went nuts, batting an absurd .330 after hovering around .250 his previous three seasons. And it wasn’t a particularly streaky year, either. Avi did slow a bit mid-season, eventually going on the DL, but he came back and had himself a strong, consistent second half to go with that All-Star first few months.

Again, that impresses me – anyone can get hot, but how do you respond when you then go cold? Avi got healthy and then got back to raking. You can argue batted ball luck, but it takes more than luck to hit .330 in over 560 plate appearances. Going back to my premise that this guy is a unicorn, I think Avi is responsible for making some of his own luck.

He’s not particularly fast, but he’s not slow either, beating out a lot more grounders than you’d expect from a non-speed type. His aggressive approach does lead to Ks and few walks, but it also leads to a lot of balls in play, and I think there’s something to what Avi does with those.

His various batted ball metrics suggest he’s not doing anything special to earn that batted ball luck, but I think Avi actually just might be. Some guys simply figure out how to get hits, and he might just be one of those.

Despite his long MLB career, remember Avi was just 25 at this time last year. The rule of thumb is that most guys still have real development left up until they’re about 27. So it’s not crazy to think that after showing flashes when he was young (he did hit around .290 over 300 PAs in his first two partial seasons), he finally got things back on track last season.

Now Avi won’t hit .330 every year, but if he hits .300+ with a bit of pop (15-20 HRs, 50-60 extra base hits like last season) and respectable defense (something he improved upon in 2017 as well), that’s a valuable asset. You’d like a few more walks, fewer Ks, and more pop, especially in RF. But the guy was elite last year over 560 plate appearances, using tools that made him a highly touted MLB-ready prospect at one point.

So why can’t Avi at least be consistently pretty good over the next 5 seasons, a nice veteran piece alongside the superstar core of guys like Moncada, Eloy, and Robert? Why can’t he come up short in some crucial areas and yet do just enough elsewhere to contribute? He sure did last year, with plenty of room for regression but still remaining productive.

For now, it’s fun to see both Anderson and Avi off to solid starts, even if it’s only been a week. If either of these guys can deliver a good performance over the whole of 2018, I am absolutely ready to declare that they will be strong assets to our contending team of the future. Even if they’ll always be doing it with an odd mix of skills and very visible flaws.

Brian Pollina is a second generation White Sox fan proudly raising a third generation on the North Side.  When not busy trying to get a Sox Mt. Rushmore of Big Frank, Harold, Uribe, and Don Cooper commissioned, he works in the radio industry.

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