The White Sox are in the midst of a full rebuild, where wins and losses are not really as important as acquiring as many possible assets for future success and seeing which of those players will be pieces down the road. Sometimes those assets come with a high pedigree and prospect tags, like Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, and Michael Kopech. Other times, you take a flyer on someone and it works out very well for you. Daniel Palka may very well be someone to fall into the latter category.
The White Sox claimed Palka off waivers from the Minnesota Twins in November, and this under the radar move is looking like one of the better ones of the Sox off-season.
Palka is a 26-year-old, now with his third organization. After being a third-round pick of the D-Backs back in 2013, Palka spent six years and 555 games in the minor leagues before making his major league debut with the White Sox in late April.
Palka was never a top-rated prospect, although he turned in some big power seasons in the minors, hitting 22, 29, and 34 homers from 2014-2016, while working his way towards the majors.
Since joining the Sox, Palka has done nothing but hit. He has six homers, eight doubles, and three triples, while driving in 22 runs in 36 games. His .520 slugging percentage matches that of Jose Abreu and his .818 OPS is third on the team amongst players with at least 100 at bats.
And Palka hits the ball HARD. Statcast has him at fourth in the majors in average exit velocity of 95.7 mph, trailing only Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, and Matt Olson. Fangraphs says 43.2% of his batted balls are hit hard, which would put him in the top 30 amongst qualified hitters.
All this comes from the left side of the plate, an added bonus for the Sox, who have been pretty right handed heavy from the power department lately.
Now the news isn’t all good on Palka. His strikeout and walk rates are below league average, and as a result, he’s sitting on a sub-.300 on base percentage (.298). He is also, to be brutally honest, an awful defender. In 183.1 innings (20.3 games), Palka has a -3.2 UZR and -7 defensive runs saved according to fangraphs. As a result, he is still a 0.0 WAR player, despite the impressive offensive numbers.
So, what do you do with Palka to maximize his value? Well the obvious answer is to DH him, keep him off the field entirely, and just let him crush baseballs at 115+ mph like he has been doing. Not a bad idea, and probably what the long term solution would be if Palka shows he worth keeping around. However, the Sox currently have too many DH-types, and not enough outfielders, or at least healthy ones.
Matt Davidson has gotten the bulk of the time at DH this year, and has rewarded the Sox with 11 homers, a .475 slugging percentage, and a .832 OPS. When not DH-ing, Davidson has played either third base or first base. But that means taking either Jose Abreu (nope) or Yolmer Sanchez out of the lineup. Sanchez has been a solid offensive contributor (.725 OPS and 27 RBI) as well as a pretty good fielder at third base.
Maybe Palka becomes part of a platoon split at DH long term. The problem with that is that so far, Palka has actually hit left-handers better than right-handers. Now granted it is in about a quarter of the at-bats, but Palka has a .935 OPS versus lefties and a .787 OPS versus righties.
Obviously, this could turn out to be a good problem to have. But for now, I think the Sox need to find ways to get Palka as many at bats as possible and find out whether he is just having a really good month, or is someone that could possibly be a piece on a future Sox team that plans to contend. If that means sticking him in the field and living with the results, no matter how ugly they may be, so be it. As we said, the wins and losses aren’t really the important thing right now.
At some point, Avi Garcia is going to return from injury and Eloy Jimenez is going to come to the majors. When that happens, there will be fewer opportunities for Palka in general, and almost none in the field. The Sox should give him the chances now, and then see if he forces his way into the conversation long term. Until then, it sure has been fun to watch him hit the ball as hard as he has been, and if he keeps it up, the Sox may have found a nice little diamond in the rough.