Alex Rios is not Vernon Wells. People were understandably confused about this for awhile. There were some obvious parallels in their careers: they stood side-by-side in the Blue Jays outfield after signing big extensions, and when both fell flat, the Jays rushed to get rid of them in hopes of clearing up financial obligations and trying something new. But whereas Wells has been one of the worst players in baseball the last three years, Rios' was able to change his trajectory.
The low-point in Rios's career was 2009, the second season of his seven-year $69.835 million contract with the Jays. Though he showed some decline in power in 2008, the following season he completely lost his approach. For months he struggled, and experienced perhaps the lowest day of his major-league career in Toronto that June. In a game versus the Angels, Rios struck out five times, a rare platinum sombrero. Later that night, Rios was videotaped swearing at a man who heckled him for refusing to autograph for a child as he left a Jays' charity event.
"The way you played today Alex, you should feel lucky that someone wants your autograph," the heckler yelled as Rios walked to his car. "You're a bum! You forget where you come from!" Someone snickered in the background, reciting his batting average.
Rios apologized publicly for losing his cool when the video surfaced, but his struggles on the field continued. While there was nothing to indicate that he was a clubhouse cancer or a problem of any kind beyond his play failing to match the size of his contract, the fact that he was hitting only .264/.317/.427 was bad enough for the Blue Jays to put him on waivers in the aftermath of the July 31 trade deadline.
Then-general manager J.P. Ricciardi claimed that the move wasn't personal and all about financial flexibility, though the fact that Rios was on waivers just 16 months after inking a massive contract seemed to point to something larger. The Jays stuck to their story, but their explanation seemed like the kind of pre-packaged hand-waving intended to avoid questions about Rios's ability or makeup.
Still, the Blue Jays found their buyer.
Much in the same way that we'll never know if Ricciardi was telling the truth about his reasons for looking to get rid of Rios, we'll also never know if then-GM Kenny Williams of the White Sox actually meant to acquire him. The Sox certainly didn't need another outfielder; they had Jermaine Dye, Scott Podsednik, DeWayne Wise, and Carlos Quentin, and had even traded another outfielder, Brian Anderson, to the Boston Red Sox before the deadline. Ozzie Guillen seemed shocked to find out that Williams had claimed Rios, and scrambled to tell his outfielders how he planned to utilize them going forward.
What seems most plausible is that Williams claimed Rios in an attempt to block an acquisition by the Tigers, who were leading the AL Central. Williams probably assumed that Ricciardi and the Jays would decide to keep Rios, as typically happens when it turns out that a claiming team has no intention of making a trade. Instead, the Jays took advantage of claims not being revocable and chose to give Rios to the White Sox, forcing them to take on the $59.7 million he was owed for 2010-2014.
And so Rios was the White Sox' accidental outfielder, but there was still a chance that he could help the team catch the Tigers, who had a two-game lead -- except he didn't. Rios' struggles continued, and he hit .199/.229/.301 in 41 games with the Sox, which not only led to a lot of second guessing about his ability, but also about the large sum of money that he was owed over the next four seasons.
Fortunately, things got better. While there's absolutely no disputing that Rios was dramatically overpaid in 2009, and again in 2011, in other seasons there has been little reason to regret acquiring him, accident or not. In 2012, Rios had the best offensive season of his career, and there was no question that he earned his $12 million paycheck. He hit career-high 25 home runs, had a 125 OPS+ (also a career high), and became the first player in franchise history to have two seasons with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases. He stayed healthy, playing 157 games, continuing a streak of staying off of the disabled list that stretched back to 2006. Last season's roster had a lot of surprises, including A.J. Pierzynski and Paul Konerko having career seasons well past their prime, but Rios's comeback, which even earned him some MVP votes, was easily the most unexpected.
Still, critics were concerned that this season would bring trouble for Rios, who seems to struggle in odd-numbered years. Instead, he's been the most productive hitter in the White Sox lineup. He leads the team in OPS+ and is second in hits, home runs, and stolen bases. His defense has been sharp and he's played in 74 of their 75 games. Just as it did before, Rios' performance is dictating his future as the deadline looms, but instead of being viewed as a bust shackled to a massive contract, Rios is one of the most attractive pieces that the White Sox have to offer to buyers this season.
Just 10 days ago, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said that the team wasn't ready to sell, even though they had received plenty of calls. Hahn felt that there was still time for his team to erase the 9.5 game deficit that separated them from the first-place Tigers, but after losing five of their eight games since then, it seems that confidence is gone. The Sox still have many intra-division games left, including 19 games against the Tigers (in an odd quirk of the schedule, the two clubs have yet to meet this season), so while there's a slim chance that they can quickly improve their record in the coming months, Jon Heyman reported yesterday that Hahn is ready to sell and would entertain offers on every on the roster except for Chris Sale and Paul Konerko.
It's hard to fathom how the White Sox have fallen so far so fast; they weren't expected to be able to replicate their production from last season, but a collapse of this magnitude was unexpected. Somehow a team that was fourth in runs scored per game and slugging last season has struggled to put runs on the board and get on base. By just about any offensive metric, including the home runs they've always excelled at, the Sox are one of the bottom-three offenses in the league, a side effect of under-performing veterans, struggling youngsters, and bad luck. They've also been lousy defensively, and the even though the pitching has been the season's sole bright spot, there just hasn't been enough evidence that the roster should remain intact post-deadline.
Jesse Crain (Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports )
Even though they can't seem to figure out how to win as a team, the Sox still have several players that could bring back considerable value at the trading deadline. Despite being on the disabled list with a rib injury (he's expected back soon after the All-Star break), there is a good chance that starting pitcher Jake Peavy fetches a decent return next month. Reliever Jesse Crain, who at one point made 29 consecutive scoreless appearances this season, and closer Addison Reed, who has 21 saves on the season, could be moved to teams that need help in the late innings. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez might catch the attention of some teams since he's hitting .280 with 18 stolen bases and has a reputation for strong defense, and designated hitter/first baseman Adam Dunn is hitting .278/.415/.620 in June and could be enticing to a team like the Orioles, which has gotten little of their designated hitters. A resurgent Gordon Beckham might also draw interest. But Rios is undoubtedly the best all-around player on the team.
Rios is owed $12.5 million in 2014, and there's a $13.5 million team option/$1 million buyout on his contract for 2015. While he might seem a little expensive, he's currently playing well enough to justify being the 15th -highest-paid outfielder in the majors. There are also contenders in need of a reliable outfielder, which increases the likelihood that a team will be willing to take on the expense.
The Giants could use a replacement for Angel Pagan, who is out 12 weeks with a hamstring injury, and would have salary room to carry Rios next season as they remove Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum from the payroll. The Nationals could use a right-handed outfielder both to make up for the absence of Bryce Harper and as Jayson Werth insurance. The Rangers, who are currently toying with putting Jurickson Profar in the outfield, might be looking for a more conventional solution as David Murphy continues to struggle, especially since he and Nelson Cruz are both free agents after the season. And though it seems strange to think of the Pirates as buyers after 19 seasons in the wilderness, they could use more production from right field than Travis Snider, Garrett Jones, Jose Tabata, and others have given them.
It's impossible to predict what the Sox could get in return. Rios also has a six-team no-trade clause, which could inhibit negotiations with some potential buyers. While the specifics seem hazy for now, it seems inevitable that Rios and some of his colleagues are in their final weeks with the White Sox.
Wherever Rios does end up, it will be bittersweet. He's made it very clear that he'd like to stay in Chicago and that it will be sad if the team is dismembered, but at the same time, he'll likely end up on a roster making a push for the postseason, something he's yet to experience in his ten years in the majors. Unlike before, Rios is the type of player that teams want to acquire to tip the scales on the final push towards October.
One thing is for certain: This time, no one is going to claim Alex Rios by accident.