The initial (over)reaction to the Chicago White Sox release of a relatively limited player with the known history of Brett Lawrie originates from the somewhat surprising nature of it, that he’s an “I recognize that guy” player, and that the club could have non-tendered him during the offseason and saved themselves the trouble of retaining him and then changing their minds.
However, there are several justifications for the club to have operated in the manner it did with Lawrie serving as a symbol for what an organization takes into consideration when mapping out their plans. Let’s look at the reasoning of a move not just as it pertains to Lawrie and the White Sox, but in general.
Lawrie was set to earn $3.5 million in 2017, his final season under team control before free agency. In context, that’s not a lot of money. However, the White Sox are embarking on a long-overdue rebuild. For teams that are planning for an unknown future, there are categories into which players are placed:
- There are the stars who are judged as to whether they will be useful once the background characters are ready to make significant contributions and if it is worth it to retain them or trade them for a large package of youngsters.
- There are the young, unknown players set to be assessed and given opportunities to be part of that future.
- Then there are the middling players like Lawrie who are useful on a good team as long as they’re not too heavily relied upon, but not integral nor indispensable.
Given the timing of the release, once Lawrie clears waivers – and he will – the White Sox are responsible for $570,000 of that $3.5 million. With the hamstring injury that shelved him for the final two months-plus of the 2016 season and that he’s still suffering from its lingering effects and has not played yet in 2017 spring training, it made no sense to move forward with him considering the twin realities between player and team. The money is better spent elsewhere or saved entirely.
This is not a decision based on cheapness, but one of frugality. There’s a difference. If a club releases the aforementioned “known” player in spring training who, if healthy, has moderate value, the dollars are a factor for every team including those that spend in the upper tier of baseball like the White Sox, at the top tier like the Los Angeles Dodgers, or the lower end like the Tampa Bay Rays.
His playing time was not guaranteed.
Veteran Todd Frazier is a third baseman. The White Sox have Matt Davidson, whose minor league numbers show that he at least deserves an extended look. Yoan Moncada, the centerpiece of the Chris Sale trade, has played some third base, but is primarily a second baseman.
In short, was there a benefit to keeping Lawrie?
Lawrie is intense and plays the game with an edge. In the past, he’s gone over the edge. There have never been known complaints about his attitude, but as he heads for free agency for a rebuilding team, there was no guarantee that he was going to get to play even if he was 100 percent healthy.
Players across the board whether perceived as “all about team” or “all about the me” have it in the backs of their mind that they want to get paid. For them to get paid, they have to play regularly.
Similarly, it’s a precarious situation for new manager Rick Renteria. Renteria is widely acknowledged a players’ manager, but he can still be sabotaged by circumstances as he was in his first chance at a big league managing job with the crosstown Cubs.
When a veteran player who has his own interests on the front burner, there could easily be an undercurrent of resentment that can infest a clubhouse and negatively impact young, impressionable players. As the video clip above indicates, Lawrie can explode. Even the most mild-mannered player can express his displeasure with numerous people – like the manager – caught in the crossfire.
This does not indicate that a player who is at least passively considering his future is to be reflexively labeled a “bad” guy, but that it could cause an issue when he’s sitting in favor of the unproven because the team knows what he is and needs to know what the other guys are.
Injuries and performance
Were Lawrie healthy, the White Sox could have held onto him and waited until midseason to see what they could get for him in a trade. If they were hell bent on playing Davidson, Moncada, et, al., they could have simply waited until the last few days of spring training, checked with teams who were weathering injuries on the infield, and moved him for a prospect.
But he’s not.
Teams who release a player at this juncture are doing so for a reason. Lawrie is precisely the player the White Sox thought they were getting when they acquired him from the Oakland Athletics for two low-level prospects. He’ll hit a few homers, play a solid second and third base, strike out a lot, post a low on-base percentage, and be a complementary piece. The problem for the White Sox is they they need frontline players, not complementary pieces. It took years for them to come to the acceptance phase of that reality and after annually spending, filling in and continuing to use the same antiquated playbook they did a decade ago when general manager Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen won the 2005 World Series with a cast of reclamation projects, attitude issues and castoffs, they finally started to rebuild in earnest acquiring massive packages of prospects in trades of Sale and Adam Eaton. They’re doing so with the data-centric Rick Hahn making the decisions. The previous blueprint would likely have meant keeping Lawrie.
The earlier he’s free to look for other opportunities, the better it is for him to find one. And he will find one. It certainly won’t be for the $3.5 million guarantee he had with the White Sox, but once he shows he’s healthy, he can get a million-dollar base salary with a multitude of incentives to reach and perhaps surpass that original dollar amount.
Players in Lawrie’s category of not reaching All-Star status, but being of some use will frequently ask the club to allow them to move on if there’s not a legitimate opportunity and clubs will respond by granting that request provided it’s not a player they can trade for value. Players know which teams are willing to be agreeable in this manner and which are unabashedly business-centric with the players functioning as little more than faceless chattel. The White Sox had multiple dustups with players over the past year over silly off-field issues and any amount of goodwill they can engender will only help them.
This decision might have seemed unusual, but it’s not. It’s going to happen again and with Lawrie as an example of why it’s done, the questions are not as necessary when it happens.