The Chicago Cubs won the World Series and I sit here jealous of the team and its fans. The World Series was tough for me to watch not because I don’t like the Cubs (they’re a pretty fun team to watch) nor because some Cubs fans can be unbearable (every fanbase has meatballs, the Cubs just have a large fan base, so there’s going to be more meatballs) but because the White Sox have been so pathetic the past decade that being reminded of the ultimate joy that comes along with your favorite sports team winning a championship was a tad bit painful. However, there is one thing that drives me absolutely crazy about the Cubs: the lazy narrative that a team stuck in mediocrity should absolutely tear it all down and rebuild, because the end result will be some type of dynasty built on a bunch of “can’t miss” prospects.
The White Sox implication here is obvious: the Sox are not winning right now with their overall mediocre team, so the pragmatic course is to trade their brightest stars for packages of young players in the hopes that 2019 (or some date even farther in the future) will bring better days to the South Side. I’ve said this before and will stress it again: the 2016 White Sox and the 2011 Cubs (the year prior to Theo Epstein’s arrival) are not the same team and are not in the same situations as organizations, and we should dispel the idea that the Cubs’ path of the past few years is something the White Sox should emulate. Completely rebuilding a team from the ground up is a risky gambit in any scenario, something Nick Schaefer wrote about here, but it’s a risky move with less incentive for a White Sox team that already has a really good group of core players anchoring the roster.
Patrick Nolan of South Side Sox wrote an excellent piece on the current composition of the White Sox’ “core”. The White Sox four best players in terms of surplus value by WARP, Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton, and Carlos Rodon, essentially gave the White Sox 18.92 WARP above and beyond what those guys cost the team in monetary value. This was good enough for fifth best in MLB last season, which is undoubtedly excellent.
Expanding upon his analysis, I looked into the Cubs roster from 2011 because I was curious about the surplus value of the Cubs’ four best players after that season. I amended his assumption and decided the value of a win in 2011 was closer to $6 million instead of $7 million (which is probably an overly conservative estimate as this 2014 Fangraphs article labeled the cost of a win at roughly $6 million and moving back further in time would only lower this). The Cubs top four players in terms of surplus value were Starlin Castro (4.31 Surplus WARP), Geovany Soto (2.76 Surplus WARP), Matt Garza (2.46 Surplus WARP), and Sean Marshall (1.84 Surplus WARP) who combined for a total of 11.37 Surplus WARP, well below the White Sox 2016 total.
In addition, the only player in this group that the Cubs had cost controlled for more than two more seasons was Castro, which is in stark contrast to the current White Sox, who have Sale controlled for three more seasons, Quintana for four, and Eaton and Rodon for five, not to mention all of these players will be 28 or younger in the 2017 season. On top of this, the Cubs’ rebuild didn’t even feature a trade of their best asset, Castro, until his surplus value and team control were greatly reduced. They saw their best asset as something to build around, not something to trade for more future uncertainty.
The 2011 Cubs also had a lot of dead weight on the back end of their roster and very few players beyond the top four who made significant, positive contributions to the team’s surplus value, so it’s not as if that Cubs team had a ton of depth to help offset their complete lack of star power. That team did only win 71 games, after all. Because of the lack of star power, surplus value, and depth, all told, it was an easy call for Theo and the new Cubs brass to tear the whole thing down because there really wasn’t much of anything to tear down.
The Cubs weren’t mired in mediocrity, they were about to be Entrenched in Awfulness™ with everything trending downward. This is an important difference between the two teams. If you wanted to tear apart the 2011 Cubs core, you’d essentially be tearing apart a 1982 Ford POS truck with a wheel missing, while in the case of the White Sox core, you’d be ripping up a pretty well-run Cadillac that even included a spare tire.
The whole point of the Cubs big rebuild was to assemble a core like the White Sox for their organization. This is the hardest part of a rebuild because it involves finding very good players that are also inexpensive. The Cubs were really awful for a couple of years and did really well on several draft picks and they ended up with some of the best, most valuable players in the majors this past season. Luckily for the 2017 White Sox, they have already accomplished the most difficult part of a rebuild, their core is going to be awesome (and cheap) again next year. They don’t need to find several, rare, incredibly good players as those guys already exist on the roster. All the White Sox have to do to compete in 2017 (and this same thing was even more true 12 months ago) is fill out the roster with players that are better than Dioner Navarro.
The White Sox inability/unwillingness to supplement their team’s core is another important difference between the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox if you’re strongly considering the rebuilding path. When the Cubs had finally amassed the elusive “excellent team core,” they went out and signed Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey to lucrative contracts to help reinforce the team’s chances for ultimate success. And then, on top of that, the team went out and signed Dexter Fowler, when they didn’t even have a desperate need for him just because they understood that talented roster depth is an incredibly important thing! This pushed the Cubs total payroll over $170 million on opening day in 2016, which was sixth in the majors. The Cubs even pushed that payroll higher during the season, acquiring a few pieces for their bullpen and rotation.
Meanwhile, the White Sox flopped around like a fish out of water and ended up with their most lucrative free agent contract being the one year, $5 million deal they handed out to Austin Jackson. The White Sox, with a prime opportunity to go all in, went about as all in as I do when I stick my foot in the water of a cold hotel pool. In the most predictable fashion, things went belly-up mid-season and the White Sox slid under the low bar of 80 wins in the 2016 season for the fourth year in a row.
Armed with the knowledge that the White Sox are unwilling to increase their payroll above the league median, rebuilding now does nothing for the team in the future except push their window of mediocre baseball back a few years, unless, of course, the White Sox get incredibly lucky with the players they are getting in return. If you’ve been paying any attention to the White Sox in the last decade, you should know by now that luck-based plans are not a smart way to run an organization. There’s a reason why “exceptions to the rule” don’t come around very often: they simply aren’t likely. If the White Sox trade away their best players in 2017, the team will likely end up hardly watchable in the very near future and the future beyond that wouldn’t realistically look much better.
To quote Mr. Nolan: “With knowledge that the White Sox’ four best major league assets from 2016 were among the best in the game, it’s probably not reasonable to expect a rebuild to produce a better quartet than Sale, Quintana, Eaton, and Rodon.” That’s the unfortunate reality the White Sox find themselves in. Teams won’t be offering the type of deals that would allow them to get a more valuable “core” of players, which is why trading Sale is so difficult for the White Sox as they’d likely be selling their best assets for less than they are actually worth. The Red Sox aren’t going to be surrendering both Yoan Moncada and Andrew Benintendi for Sale, so deals that are overly favorable to the White Sox just won’t happen, and those are the only type of trades that should motivate a team to trade a controllable seven-win pitcher
Rebuilding would likely get the White Sox a larger base of inexpensive major league average baseball players, which would indeed help the White Sox address the massive black holes they continue to play on a regular basis. However, it would also cut down on the star power on the roster, and in the end, the Sox arrive at the same status quo. One seven-win pitcher and one sub-replacement position player is theoretically equal to one three-win pitcher and one three-win position player, but having the seven-win pitcher is actually better, because there should be plenty of reasonable replacements available that are much better than a sub-replacement player.
The fact of the matter is that there are plenty of options available for the White Sox, they just cost the team money. Even with all of the tearing down the Cubs did, even with five consecutive years of top-10 draft picks, they still had to reach into their pocketbooks in order to put the finishing touches on their World Series championship. The Cubs probably don’t win without Lester or Lackey or Fowler. At some point, in all likelihood, the White Sox will have to make their payroll uncomfortably (for them, not for any other team in a major market) high if they want a reasonable shot at a championship, this is true for most teams, as that’s just how a competitive cycle works. There are certainly examples contrarian to this, but again I caution against attempting to be the exception to the rule, rather than following the rule.
Nothing fundamentally changes for the White Sox, unless they adjust how they attack their upswings in the competitive cycle. If they didn’t support their best chance at a winner in 2016, why would they go out of their way in 2020 to do the same? Furthermore, if they are willing to change their strategy, why are they waiting for 2020 to do so when they probably won’t have one of the five best pitchers in the game of baseball then? They had a window of opportunity to bring in talented free agents last season and they chose not to. It was a very bad decision. They’ll have that opportunity again this winter and I hope they don’t miss it.
Lead Image Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki // USA Today Sports Images