For the second-straight year, the White Sox look like the victim of the second Wild Card spot. Only one more team in the American League has been making the playoffs every year since 2012, but the threshold for where teams can appear within striking distance of the last slot has been lowered an order of magnitude, and the realization that you’re not making it is delayed.
4.5 games out of the playoffs seems reasonably in range, but a look at the standings that lingers for, maybe, eight more seconds, shows the White Sox are well behind a Cleveland Indians team generally regarded as superior (especially by PECOTA), behind every AL Central contender, and possessing awful head-to-head marks against each of them. They are closer to a Wild Card spot, but faith in that path requires hope that they can catch the Red Sox or the Blue Jays, two teams 11 games over .500 with vastly superior run differentials, and the budgets to secure meaningful upgrades over the next two weeks. Immediately behind them are the Houston Astros, who have mostly erased an awful start to the season, where they endured a rough first half from reigning Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, and will soon unleash Alex Bregman upon the world.
The Sox would need to significantly outplay all these teams, not to mention the Tigers and Royals, who are still filling up space in that path too.
Famously, the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays went from below .500 at the break to winning the AL East by leveraging their prospect depth for huge sea change trade acquisitions. The White Sox, who have basically just ceded two of their lineup slots to replacement players for a month while they waited for the great potential of 35-year-old Justin Morneau‘s return from elbow surgery, and 29-year-old Austin Jackson returning from knee surgery, and will probably need their No. 1 prospect (Tim Anderson) and No. 2 prospect (Carson Fulmer) for immediate 25-man roster help, don’t figure to have the same kind of major play up their sleeve.
As such, they look a lot like a seller, but they aren’t really positioned to do that in any casual way. Teams could use Todd Frazier, or Melky Cabrera, or Brett Lawrie, or if he actually hits before the waiver deadline rolls around, Morneau. But the lack of depth in the Sox system would just necessitate reloading their lineup with veterans next year to take the place of most anyone they moved. With Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu all in their late-20s, they have run out of years to have this core run in place while they build a team around them, and in the case of Abreu, who has delivered over a half-season of being a completely ordinary hitter with a physical frame that was never going to age well, they may have just ran out of time for him to be a core piece altogether.
So, again, what is this Sox team? A total teardown of even the franchise core is unprecedented, and the current front office would probably have to wonder if they would be kept around to execute it. The 2015 Texas Rangers route, where they keep adding to their team for next year (and maybe the division leader completely collapses) is an option that is easier to envision. But either path would take a clarity and assertion that’s been missing from the Sox the last two years, as they have made impressive short-term moves, but stopped glaringly short of filling out a complete roster to contend.
By next season, the Sox will have likely moved on from the idea of entrusting Avisail Garcia to hit like a right fielder, let alone a DH. They will probably not leave their center field slot to a career fourth outfielder, like they have for the last month, and likely will have addressed in some way the big points that have put this current team at the back of the contending field with long odds (13.6 percent, to be specific) to overtake it. But until they stop being caught unprepared when their fringey prospects or aging veterans flop in a starting role, or are willing to expand their budget to absorb big contracts in trade or free agency, or do something as craven but purposeful as a hard rebuild, it will be hard to understand what they are doing.
Staring at the possibility of an eight-straight playoff-free season, with a middling, average age roster, and a mediocre farm system, doesn’t speak to any kind of direction. No one can be the best every year, or dominate in free agency, the draft and the international market all at the same time, but the time has longed passed for the Sox to find a direction to lean in, especially since ‘win in 2016′ didn’t even get their full effort.
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