As a general matter, I become extremely suspicious when the White Sox are, inevitably, compared to the Cubs. More often than not, it is done to force a narrative rather than to provide any meaningful analysis as to what is occurring on the field. Of late, the comparisons have proliferated but, mercifully, they have at least been pertinent. The Cubs committed hard to a rebuild and emerged on the other side to win 97 games in 2015 and 103 this year. The White Sox have been, so the story goes, stuck in purgatory as a result of failing to commit to a direction for many years now, and the world still awaits clarity on whether that will change any time soon.
None of this is necessarily inaccurate. And yet, this sample size of one team, the Cubs, seems to have persuaded many that a hard rebuild is not only the best course of action, it is the only reasonable course of action. Part of the beauty of baseball is that there is no one right way to do things. The Rangers and Giants have consistently reloaded over the years, watching their cores on offense and defense morph significantly without any prolonged dips in success. The 2005 White Sox were somehow remembered as a small ball team even though they hit 200 home runs. The Royals went to back-to-back World Series, winning one, despite having pretty terrible starting pitching. The Baltimore Orioles have been ignoring what everyone says they should do and have made the playoffs three of the last five years. One Red Sox team won a World Series with a personality of being loose goofballs and another got a bunch of guys fired because they were perceived as loose goofballs. There is no one right way. Someone should write a book about this…
Here’s one problem with using the Cubs as an argument in favor of a hard rebuild: money. Yes, the Cubs traded off everything they could and stockpiled through the draft and Latin America and did so in impressive fashion. And then when they realized they were close to competing they spent a ton of money. For even as skillfully as they loaded up on bats, they were struggling to generate arms from within. So they signed Jon Lester for six years and $155 million–more than twice the size of the biggest White Sox contract in history–and when they realized they didn’t have anybody on hand to fill out the back of their rotation in a competitive year, they spent another $52 million on John Lackey and Jason Hammel. They also signed Ben Zobrist, Dexter Fowler, and Jason Heyward this offseason as well.*
*It is also worth noting that they signed substantial free agents for second base, corner outfield, and center field despite having multiple well-regarded prospects pretty much ready at all three positions. Worth remembering for when someone tells you the White Sox should try to save $5 million by DFA-ing Brett Lawrie because Tyler Saladino had a good year.**
**Another argument made for the case to DFA Lawrie crowd is that he is brittle, yet Saladino ended the year unavailable because of a herniated disc in his back that affected his right side.
The lesson here is not that you need to do a hard rebuild every time you hit a playoff drought. The reason to do a hard reset is to generate a cost-controlled, cheap, good core. You clear salaries that won’t be helpful to you by the time you’re good again, and while being bad accumulate high draft picks. Once that core is in place you spend money to bolster the weaknesses remaining on your roster. That is literally what the Cubs did. The White Sox already have Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Tim Anderson, and Carlos Rodon under contract for 2017 for a combined total of $36 million. That group combined for 25.6 WARP and there is reason to believe they will collectively improve on that mark next year. There are not many teams in the playoffs with that sort of cost-effectiveness at the heart of their roster.
This piece is entitled “The Perils of a Rebuild.” The Cubs are perilous only in the sense that even though they are an example of a successful rebuild, their rebuild still required a lot of spending. An inability or unwillingness to spend has been one of the major impediments to the White Sox succeeding with this group, and there is no reason to believe that they will be more willing to spend in the future relative to the league than they are now. Before you disagree, realize that the White Sox gave 1,487 PAs to Dioner Navarro, J.B. Shuck, Avisail Garcia, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Sanchez, Jerry Sands, Leury Garcia, and Jason Coats this year. Avisail had an OPS+ of 91 while primarily playing DH. The rest all had an OPS+ between 52 and 77. The 77 is Coats. The 52 is Shuck, who was the primary center fielder on the team. That’s more PAs than Eaton and Abreu got combined. For the umpteenth time in the Kenny Williams-Rick Hahn Era, the White Sox have been absolutely throttled by the Gibraltar-sized anchor that is the back half of their roster, while other teams thrive by successfully acquiring stopgaps, spending enough to cover their holes in a meaningful way, and generating talent from within their organization.
But, regardless of how you feel about the current state of the White Sox, I also ask you to consider the Houston Astros. Like the White Sox, for years they refused to accept that a rebuild was probably a good idea, winning between 73 and 86 games from 2006-2010. Then, in a pretty dramatic volte face, they tanked harder than anybody could remember, losing 100+ games three years in a row. They emerged out of that in 2014 with some really interesting pieces, winning 70, with Jose Altuve and George Springer looking like particularly promising players to build around–indeed, so much so that Sports Illustrated declared them the 2017 World Series champions in advance. In 2015, they arrived, making SI’s bold proclamation look prescient, winning 86 games and making the Wild Card game, which they won. Carlos Correa seemed to be emblematic of the value of a rebuild, as the No. 1 overall pick burst onto the scene to win a Rookie of the Year Award, and Lance McCullers–another prize of having the surplus draft pool money that comes with having the No. 1 pick–chipped in 125 quality innings in the rotation.
Granted, in hindsight, many of the other key players on that ’15 Astros team had hardly anything to do with a rebuild. Their No. 1 and No. 2 starters were Dallas Keuchel, a 7th round pick in 2009, and Collin McHugh who was added off waivers.
Still–hey, here they were–in the winter of 2015-16, coming off of a successful season built on young, cheap stars acquired in their rebuild, went the narrative. And after all, after all those years collecting revenue sharing while they ran out payrolls as low as $29 million in 2013, surely they had socked away lots of money to spend to supplement this Team On The Rise.
But they didn’t. Despite the plethora of free agents this winter, they came away with Doug Fister and that’s about it. Then they won 84 games and missed the playoffs.
The Astros could very well still spend money this winter, although there is less quality to spend it on, and even if they don’t, they could still come back next year and make Sports Illustrated’s prediction come true (or at least make the playoffs again). They did also score Alex Bregman as part of their tanking, which looks promising.
But shouldn’t this team have more than they do after that scorched earth, agonizing three years where the only noteworthy things they did were lose hundreds of games and do stuff like this? What if this is the ceiling of this Astros team if the front office doesn’t spend more money? Should the response be that this Correa-Altuve-Springer core is not good enough, like the pro-rebuild fans say of the White Sox’ current group?
I disagree. I think the most important things you can do are evaluate players well and spend money effectively when it is appropriate. The Astros let J.D. Martinez, Robbie Grossman, and Jonathan Villar go for free, and drafted Mark Appel over Kris Bryant. They didn’t sign any meaningful free agents to shore up the weaknesses on the roster. So even though they’ve done some things right, it’s now looking very possible that their evaluation is not good enough to make up for their thriftiness.
So yes–if you are selective about the lessons you learn from the Cubs, you can pound your fist on the table and demand that the White Sox sell off everything because you’re sick of the status quo. But I would caution those who believe the path of the hard rebuild is the path to guaranteed success. Sometimes the path of the hard rebuild is just being really bad and then winding up not much better off on the other end. Sometimes ownership just pockets all those savings instead of re-investing them in the team when it’s good again. Sometimes the problem is that your front office makes too many mistakes and ownership won’t provide the money to make up for it.
You rebuild to acquire cheap superstars. You don’t do it when you already have them.
Lead Image Credit: Patrick Gorski // USA Today Sports Images