Chicago’s $60 million question: will Alex Rios bounce back?

Selected with the 19th overall pick in the 1999 draft, outfielder Alex Rios emerged as an all-around threat for the Toronto Blue Jays. The gangly 6-5 righty batter combined power, speed and range, garnering a six-year, $64 million contract extension in April of 2008, with a $13.5 million club option for the 2015 season. Rios’ well-rounded skill-set and whopping new deal figured to make him a fixture in the Jays’ outfield for years to come.

Within a year and a half, however, Toronto’s frustration with Rios and its other burdensome financial commitments (hello, Vernon Wells) compelled the club to let Rios go to the Chicago White Sox on a waiver claim. In snagging Rios, the Pale Hose took on what was left of his $5.9 million salary for the 2009 season, as well as a total of nearly $60 million from 2010-2014 (contract information from Cots Baseball Contracts):

2010: $9.7 M
2011: $12 M
2012: $12 M
2013: $12.5 M
2014: $12.5 M
2015: 13.5 M club option ($1 M buyout)

Chicago White Sox vs Detroit Tigers.

While he was wallowing in mediocrity prior to the waiver claim, Rios face planted upon reaching the South Side. He finished the season with a macabre -0.1 Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs. Making the worst first impression possible, Rios has been the subject of much derision.

The knee-jerk reaction is to say, “well, Kenny Williams blew it. Look at all that cash they owe him now.” But is that really the case? Will Rios be an anchor on Chicago’s payroll for years to come? Let’s try to find out.

Last year, Rios’ park and league-adjusted offensive performance was 15 percent worse than average (85 wRC+). Granted, he did get into some bad habits: Rios drew a walk in just 5.8 percent of his plate appearances (his lowest mark since 2005), and he hit more ground balls (43 percent, compared to about 38 percent from 2006-2008). The extra-worm burners help explain why Rios’ Isolated Power dipped to .148, his worst figure since 2005.

His career wRC+ is 105, though, and Rios posted a 120 wRC+ from 2006-2008. Rios’ batting average on balls in play was .277 in 2009, compared to a .323 career average and a .322 expected BABIP (xBABIP). Even if you’re skeptical that Rios can reclaim that ’06-08 form, he seems likely to regress back toward his career averages. CHONE projects him to have a 106 wRC+ in 2010, as does Marcel. Those systems forecast that Rios will be about five runs above average with the bat next season.

In addition to his slumbering lumber, Rios also rated poorly in the field in 2009. His UZR/150 figure was -7.1 in right field, and -3.7 in center field. However, taking just one year of defensive data is never a good idea. We have years of information that suggest Rios is a plus defender: his career UZR/150 in right field is +13.1, and +8.2 in the middle garden.

Jeff Zimmerman of Beyond the Boxscore released 2010 UZR projections in November. He took four years of UZR data, weighing then 5/4/3/2 regressed to 125 games and applying a slight aging factor (more details here). Rios will patrol center field next season, where he projects as +4 runs with the leather.

Factoring in position and replacement level adjustments, Rios figures to be a 3+ win player in 2010. If you accept the $4.5M/WAR figure, that performance would be worth $13-14 million on the free agent market.

Rios turns 29 years old this month, so it seems highly unlikely that he suddenly lost the ability that allowed him to post an average of 3.4 WAR per season from 2004 to 2008. Let’s say Rios is a three-win player in 2010 and 2011, then declines a half-win per year thereafter (2.5 WAR in ’12, 2 WAR in ’13, 1.5 WAR in ’14). In that scenario, Rios would provide something like $54 million in value, while making around $60 million (and that’s without considering any sort of salary inflation over that time period).

Overall, the White Sox figure to get what they paid for. Alex Rios might not be a bargain, but he’s not a toxic asset, either.

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Rios and Carlos Quentin are the keys to the White Sox season.  The rotation looks good, the bullpen servicable with Putz, Thornton and Jenks.  The defense is probably better with Dye and Podsednik out of the picture.  The offense is a few up and comers (Ramirez, Beckham) a few on the decline (Konerko, Pierzynski, Jones) and a few spare parts (Teahan, Kotsay, Pierre).  Big production from Rios and Quentin makes the rest of the offense productive.  If those two bomb, you are looking to get big numbers from guys who are not really likely to give it to you.

Russell Dixon Sr
Russell Dixon Sr

I feel the Sox made a great investment. They became faster and more defensive. I still wished that they had kept Jermaine Dye on the bench. I live in Minnesota and they are doing the reversal by picking up players like Thome which will slow the team down and make them like the old Sox. I wish Kenny had listen to Ozzie and let them run more, also bring back first base coach Tim Raines.