The trade deadline is less than a week away, and Kenny Williams doesn’t know if the White Sox will be buyers or sellers. Now, I’m certain (kinda) that’s just posturing by Williams, there’s no benefit for him to publicly tip his hand to other teams, but when you’re a fan of a franchise where your star player is taking a knife to a bunch of jerseys and he somehow comes across as the sanest individual involved in the commotion, well, anything’s possible.
Alas, if we assume Williams and GM Rick Hahn are, in fact, in sync, the only thing we can reasonably expect is for the team to avoid any acquisitions that only benefit the team in 2016, which is a good idea given how bleak the White Sox current playoff odds are; PECOTA has them at 6.3 percent. The one line that Hahn dropped that really scared me was that he wouldn’t rule any other course of action out, including a full-scale rebuild, and the full-scale rebuild is something the White Sox should definitely not do.
The full-scale rebuild has been made popular across the league with the success of the Cubs and Astros, and being in Chicago, comparing the White Sox to the Cubs is inevitable. The idea may also be appealing to White Sox fans simply because it is *a* direction and even the franchise’s most die-hard fans (and star player?) are tiring of the aim-for-83-wins-and-hope-you-get-lucky approach. While it is true that the Cubs did go into a complete scorched earth rebuild, in reality a White Sox rebuild would be nothing like what the Cubs did! If the White Sox went into a full rebuild it would be a much more dangerous play.
When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over the lovable rebuilders, the Cubs best pitcher was, uh, Matt Garza who was worth a whopping 3.5 WARP the prior (2011) season. That’s fine and all, but Chris Sale is a guy who’s routinely been worth nearly twice that in every single season he’s been a starting pitcher!! The Cubs best offensive player in 2011 was Aramis Ramirez, who immediately left via free agency and was not a tradeable asset, and the only other position player that looked like he would be a strong talent to build around was Starlin Castro, and you know what? The Cubs ended up keeping Castro around through the 2015 season because they did think he was a guy they could have built around.
This Cubs team did not have the rock solid foundation the White Sox have right now when Theo and Jed took over. They had maybe one surefire long-term asset when they began their bottoming out and they had a team core that was essentially nonexistent. This is in stark contrast to the White Sox excellent current core of Sale, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton, and Carlos Rodon, all of whom are under contract for at least three more years, at bargain rates no less, and all of whom are 27-years-old or younger. You could even include Jose Abreu in the White Sox core, though his struggles with the bat this year have been very concerning. Still, Abreu’s price tag moving forward isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, an albatross on the White Sox’ payroll. The situations entering a rebuild are completely different for the White Sox and Cubs, and the organizations’ responses to their different predicaments were also very, very different.
The Cubs, understood exactly what they had following the 2011 season. They didn’t have much to build around, so they attempted to stockpile as many young players as they could in the hopes that they would strike gold…and strike gold they did. They turned Andrew Cashner into Anthony Rizzo and then Scott Feldman into Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. These two moves worked out better than anyone could have imagined, and suddenly the Cubs had a budding core. Adding to this core, the Cubs were also able to hit on two top four draft picks in a row in 2013 and 2014 when they took Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber back to back. Adding the final piece to their core, in what was perhaps the only true example of the Cubs sending away a major league tested, talented player who would have significant value in a future year, the Cubs were able to trade Jeff Samardzija to Oakland for top shortstop prospect Addison Russell.
The Cubs now had a very good core to build around, and that’s exactly what the team did. In 2015, they made a couple of very savvy trades during the winter bringing in Dexter Fowler (for the low, low cost of Luis Valbuena) and framing ace Miguel Montero for a couple of their non-essential minor league trade assets. The Cubs also understood that they were entering an era of playoff competition, even though that may not have meant 2015, so they opened up their checkbooks and gave Jon Lester a six-year contract worth more than $150 million (more than twice as large as the White Sox largest contract ever). They also brought back Jason Hammel, whom they traded to Oakland the previous July along with Samardzija, on a two-year deal to get another veteran starter for the roster.
As what seems like a recurring theme for the Cubs, their team outperformed expectations in 2015 and they ended up in the playoffs. The season went incredibly well for them as they saw the ascension of Kyle Hendricks into an above-average major league starter, Hector Rondon, Strop, and Justin Grimm were all very solid out of the bullpen, and the young players on offense were proving that they could hit major league pitching. Then the Cubs went all-in the 2016 off-season.
The Cubs now knew they were a playoff team, but instead of just being content with that, they continued to surround their core with great players. They signed Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey to very lucrative free agent contracts. Then, almost as direct beneficiaries from the White Sox unwillingness to spend money, they were able to re-sign Fowler for below market value. The Cubs’ payroll skyrocketed to a number north of $170 million for the 2016 season, no doubt signaling that they were completely committed to winning.
Returning to my salient point, the Cubs total teardown was done in order to get a core as good as what the White Sox have right now. Once the Cubs had a core that good, then every effort was made to augment and attempt to win with *that* core. On paper, the Cubs didn’t need Heyward, Zobrist, Lackey, and Fowler to compete this year, but they understood that not every move they made was going to turn into gold. The Cubs insulated themselves against the possibility of one of their big acquisitions falling flat, and they were exactly right to do so. Somehow, Heyward’s bat completely tanked, but because the Cubs surrounded the team with a ton of talent, they’ve been able to stomach their $20 million-a-year outfielder turning into J.B. Shuck (h/t @WriteSox) and the loss of Schwarber for the entire season because of an ACL injury.
Meanwhile, again in stark contrast, the White Sox continue to surround their core with few talented players and, unfortunately, a large number of black holes. The White Sox operate as a team with no margin for error, but any reasonable organization would understand there’s inevitably going to be something that goes wrong for your team (apparently the year 2005 was an exception). Because the White Sox operate this way, they can’t afford things like losing Austin Jackson and Alex Avila for extended periods of time. That’s insane, especially when you consider that most contending organizations wouldn’t even employ these guys as starters to begin with.The White Sox shouldn’t need to rebuild right now, instead they need to actually attempt to put good players around their already excellent core.
If the White Sox tear down with this group, they’re admitting they can’t win with one of the best and most affordable cores in major league baseball. Tearing this core down would also be trusting an organization to identify and develop young talent in a way that they’ve never proven they can do before. Quite honestly, if the White Sox were to trade Sale and get a player back that was 80 percent of what Sale is right now, that would be out-performing realistic expectations for what value that trade package would produce. It’s a gigantic risk to move bonafide star players like this; just ask the A’s about Josh Donaldson or the Marlins about Miguel Cabrera. Moving truly elite players almost never produces any players with similar value, and in a game with a finite limit of players, the best way to build a winning team is through talent. One six-WAR player is exponentially more valuable than three two-WAR players. Chopping up Sale and Quintana to attempt to get the same caliber of players is a fool’s errand, players like this are just too rare.
While all of the risk involved makes me so hesitant to rebuild, the one thing that makes me desperately not want the White Sox to completely rebuild is the fact that they refused to spend money above and beyond their below league median payroll to augment an already awesome core. The White Sox wouldn’t commit any long term money this year even though they have almost no guaranteed contracts after the 2017 season and they had the benefit of a protected first-round draft pick. Given this precedent, why should anyone believe that they’ll be willing to spend gigantic amounts of money a few years down the road when they’d ideally have a new core to build around? Why is 2019 going to be any different than 2016? New ownership? Please.
It’s sad to think about, but being “mired in mediocrity” now and actually hoping the White Sox’ ‘half measure and pray’ plan works is actually better than being god awful for the next few years and then returning to the mediocrity we’re all so familiar with. The Sox are in a bad spot now, but going into a full rebuild is likely to make things significantly worse, and no one wants that.
Lead Image Credit: Caylor Arnold // USA Today Sports Images