MLB: Minnesota Twins at Chicago White Sox

The Perils of a Rebuild

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

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20 comments on “The Perils of a Rebuild”


I don’t think a single postseason appearance moves the needle for this outfit at this point and I think that’s the best you could hope for if you kept this core together and tried to cobble together a contender around it. They need a Thomas, Ventura, McDowell, etc type core to reinvigorate things.

Nick Schaefer

Amusingly, the example of Thomas-Ventura-McDowell only made the playoffs once (twice if you count ’94).


True, but under today’s playoff system they would have made it in 90, 91, 93, (94)

Nick Schaefer

A fair rebuttal–but I disagree with your fundamental premise that you need an elite, Hall of Fame caliber bat to make the playoffs. Moreover, if Sale ages gracefully he is going to be a Hall of Famer.

Mike Musary

In 1991 Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, and Jack McDowell combined for 16.2 Wins Above Replacement Player. In 1992 it was 18.7 WARP and in 1993 it was 14.8 WARP.

In 2014 Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, and Jose Quintana combined for 16.2 WARP. In 2015, Sale, Quintana, and Adam Eaton combined for 15.0 WARP and in 2016 Eaton, Sale, and Quintana combined for 17.8 WARP.

So perhaps the issue isn’t the quality of the core, the White Sox three best players are every bit as good now as they were in the early 90’s, but the front office’s inability/unwillingness to surround this core with the supplemental parts that ANY core needs to be successful.


The front office seems VERY willing with supplemental parts. They made a concerted effort after 2015 to acquire Rollins, Jackson, Lawrie, and Navarro.

The problem is they all sucked. And they sucked worse than the hole-fillers they already had in Charlotte (and lower, in the case of Narvaez).

If Jackson and Lawrie hadn’t got hurt, they likely would have finished 10 games under .500 instead of 6. Including defense (and you should) Avi Garcia actually performed better than Jackson and Schuck, Saladino and Sanchez played better than Lawrie and Rollins.

The last decade of results indicate that Williams/Hahn are incapable of building around a core. In that sense, to rebuild or not to rebuild really isn’t the question. I’m just hoping Hostetler continues with better drafts than his predecessors.


My thing is this core isn’t young enough to build around. I think the best course is to deal them this offseason

Nick Schaefer

You are arguing that the problem with this team is that Sale and Quintana aren’t good enough / young enough, instead of the problem being the boatload of horrible players I enumerated. I suggest you reconsider your position.


Of course the horrible players are the problem. I just don’t see how that problem is fixed without tearing up the core. I’m holding Hahn to his objective of “sustained success.”


I’m not sure about “tearing up the core” either, but they should definitely be looking to trade anyone on the roster over the age of 28. That means keeping Sale/Quintana/Rodon/Eaton/Anderson but shopping Abreu/Melky/Frazier/Robertson/Jones/Jennings. Odds are you won’t trade them all, but they should reap a larger quantity of younger above-average players.

But my free advice is probably worth what you paid for it.

Eric Geary

The core is good enough, but that is what is so tantalizing.

In my mind, the true problem is talent evaluation and hitting development. The Sox haven’t produced an internal bat in many, many years. They keep taking risks on “athletic, but raw” talent in the draft, and yet, they can never overcome their raw abilities.


Hostetler seems to have stopped with the “Kenny Williams clones – athletic but raw” picks in the first 3 rounds.


I know I’m late to respond to this article, but still wanted to throw in my two cents. I think rebuild is the best option for the Sox. Yes. the Sox have cheap superstars, but their value will never be higher on the trade market. The problem with going for it again is there are just too many holes to fill. Potentially 3B becomes a hole again if Frazier is not resigned. Then there’s C, 2B, CF, LF (Melky gone after ’17). I realize you don’t necessarily need excellency from the 4 or 5 spot in the rotation, but right now it will be Gonzalez and Shields. Shields is done and Gonzalez is unlikely to make it through a full season. The bullpen has question marks and the farm system is better but there little help for the immediate future, other than Fulmer. No postition players on the horizon now that Anderson is up and solidified at SS. And, as great as Anderson was, he magnifies one of the Sox biggest offensive issues, OBP. I just feel trading the core pieces for multiple controllable young players and continuing to build the farm system is the best option.

Nick Schaefer

What happens in 3-5 years when those controllable young players are good but need significant free agents to put them over the top? Haven’t you just kicked the can down the road at that point?


Well, you’re then assuming the farm system is still poor, I’m not. I realize that’s my opinion but I am optimistic regarding the farm system. They are investing more resources and Nick Hostetler is taking a different approach to the draft. The ’16 draft was excellent (at least as it appears at the moment). The minor leagues are stronger in the lower levels, but nothing significant is ready to help this core. With preferring the rebuild option, I’m banking on (maybe foolishly) on better development within. Of course, it will take free agents to supplement the new core, but isn’t that what this is about? The Cubs did that, the Astros to a degree and in a year or two, the Braves and Brewers will as well. This free agent class is awful, which is another strike against adding to this team. You would be filling holes with other holes potentially opening up after ’17. I do think if they added for next year, they could contend for a WC, but is that the way to go? The goal should be for sustained success, and for me, that’s only down through a rebuild.

BTW, I am a lifelong Connecticut resident and White Sox fan. Definitely a unique combination!

Nick Schaefer

I disagree that the 2016 draft was particularly strong, as the reasonable upside you’re looking at is adding a pretty good 1B/DH and a couple of good relievers.

I also disagree that the Astros used free agents to supplement their core. Doug Fister and Scott Feldman hardly count as meaningful investment in the team.

And while it’s fine to talk about competing for sustained success, they are currently positioned to compete for at least 2017 and sacrificed the future to do so (e.g. Robertson, Melky draft picks). There is nothing stopping you from playing the hand you currently have, and if you fall out of it in 2017 to sell at the deadline anyway.

I’m not sure to whom you’re referring with regard to the lower levels of the farm system being stronger. Are you that sold on like, Alec Hansen already? That’s enough for you to punt on multiple years of cheap Sale-Quintana-Eaton? Really? Even if you sell there’s a low probability you wind up with a good, cheap core like you have now, so you’re basically rolling the dice that you will be maybe as well-situated as you are now. That’s a pretty lame reward for committing to 95+ loss seasons for several years.

And yes, the ’17 FA class is underwhelming, which is part of why I was yelling to anybody who would listen that their chance to strike was last winter. The thing is, this team doesn’t need huge FAs at this point (although that would help). They just need to actually evaluate players correctly and add mid-to-low level FAs to patch the black holes remaining on the roster.

Other than my family, I think I knew one other White Sox fan in Connecticut. How did you come by your fandom?


I think there is a chance Alec Hansen is the steal of the ’16 draft. I know it’s only one season of lower level games, but scouts seem to be impressed with the changes he has made. There are also some scouts that think Burdi could be a starter, not sure what the Sox have planned for him tho. I’ve heard good things about Jameson Fisher as well. I’m not implying greatness for these guys, but the point being better scouting and drafting is beginning to happen.

I get the significance of having a solid core like Sale, Quintana and Eaton, but it’s worthless if you can not surround them with better pieces. The longer you wait to trade Sale, the less value he has. They have been ‘going for it’ for three years and to use Rick Hahn’s term, they are mired in mediocrity.

Yes, last year would have been the year to strike in the FA class for a Fowler or Zobrist. I have no interest in signing Encarnacion or Bautista. Nor should they get involved with Wieters or Reddick. The first two are too old and are likely to break down, the other two are mediocre. Could they trade for worthwhile pieces? Sure, but do they really have the depth to do that? I don’t think so.

Rebuilding is not a preference as much as it is the best option. Also, if the trades are down correctly (a big if, I know) they could be relevant again within a couple of years. The Sox are unique in the sense they have significant chips to trade to rebuild quickly. For me, that would be when you strike in FA, after obtaining guys with 5, 6 or 7 years of control.

My parents would vacation in Sarasota, FL almost every winter and it was within a short distance of the White Sox spring training (Payne Park and then Ed Smith). I loved the access Spring Training allows and fell in love with the team and been with them ever since. How did you become a fan?

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