The White Sox were suddenly and shockingly a topic du jour of the baseball world Monday, less than a week after their counterparts to the north had captured a momentous World Series title in thrilling fashion. However the attention is for an entirely ignonimous honor, which could probably discerned from the opening barbs of Joel Sherman’s column in the New York Post:
“In the best of times, the White Sox were the second baseball team in the Second City.
These days it feels like they are as relevant as Morse code.”
This is perhaps an unsettling way to begin a discussion of what is in the White Sox best interests, but it mirrored what Dave Cameron published in FanGraphs on the same day: if the beleaguered, perennial also-ran Sox are sellers this offseason, they would have the best trade chip on the market in the affordable, controlled through 2019, top-five pitcher in the league–Chris Sale. Furthermore, if they moved Sale, they would have a Sale-sized hole in the 2017 starting rotation they could not hope to immediately fill with their trade returns, with win-now pieces like Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera on the last year of the deals, and ageing and declining assets like Jose Abreu and David Robertson that they would be better off losing if they were not going to immediately use.
The conclusion that all of those pieces were worth moving might further lead to the decision that it would simply be best to tear it all down, at which point the Sox would also wield the second-best trade market on the asset, Jose Quintana, as well as a cost-controlled top-30 reliever in the league, Nate Jones, for good measure. Adam Eaton, a 27-year-old whose value is wrapped up in on-base ability, speed and corner outfield defense, would be another chip to consider as very valuable at the moment, and maybe not at his best by the next time the Sox heads would be above water
In this massive theoretical deluge, the Sox would find themselves in possession of an unprecedented prospect bounty and head start toward building their next competitive team. During one of these 273 trades or so, they could probably find a way to dump James Shields on someone too, should the interest arise.
That would certainly be a new and compelling reality, and the clarity of direction and focus would understandably be a breath of fresh air from waiting in vain for Sale and Quintana to get enough help to drag this franchise over the hump. Any full-bore teardown rebuild is a grueling experience, but this one would come with a great start, which in the end is the most telling part of it all.
The White Sox are a noteworthy case deserving of national attention, because teams with core pieces this strong, this plentiful and this inexpensive, simply aren’t in the business of conducting fire sales; they’re too busy competing and winning. To conclude that they are incapable of doing the same with this group would be a staggering concession, and while baseball decisions should not be dictated by personal egos, it would be a disquieting mark on the resume of a leadership group that would presumably be tasked with building and supplementing the next core of this franchise.
It would also be borne of a false choice.
Sale and Quintana, the supposed leaders of this group, were in their first years as starters in 2012, when they nearly led the husk of an aging position player group to an unlikely playoff bid in a weakened AL Central. Jones had his rookie campaign that year too, while we’re introducing characters. From there, they embarked upon two years of floundering/rebuilding, the second of which saw the debuts of Eaton and Abreu.
After that, we have the last two seasons where the Sox have ostensibly attempted to compete with this group that constitute the trying-and-failing period that is so frustrating, there is supposedly no realistic option but to conduct the full-scale rebuild that has become the home turf for the steely-eyed pragmatists among us. Signing Robertson, Cabrera and Adam LaRoche, trading for Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie, were their big actions over this period, which are ideally listed all together in one clump to maximize the perception of a spending bonanza, even if all this did was drag the Sox emptied out payroll back to 15th in baseball.
In reality, the Sox went to war with teams that were identified as overly flawed before they even so much as began camp, and went forward with inadvisable notions like starting the 2015 season with John Danks and Hector Noesi in the rotation, leaving second base to a menagerie of unprepared rookies, and as was a feature in both 2015 and this past year: placing undue faith in Avisail Garcia. This past year, their foreseeable pratfalls were a catching platoon of declining veterans, and holding out for unlikley rebounds from Jimmy Rollins, Austin Jackson, as well as LaRoche. These ultimately disastrous risks they took were across the board financially conservative options, while team ran a payroll that hovered around the league median.
Franchises are not built through free agency, and the determination of the league’s top teams cannot be conducted by just sorting by the top payrolls. If we did not know this already, these platitudes would be well-ingrained by how frequently they are repeated so as to dismiss calls to increase spending as petulant and under-informed. But the Sox cannot credibly claim exhaustion, that they have tried and failed to compete with these core–which is apparently the envy of baseball if Thursday’s readings are to be believed–while refusing to spend competitively with the top teams in the league (or even approach the top-third) even during a historically deep free agent class last offseason. They were willing to as recently as five years ago, for an older and less uniquely talented group, but took away the wrong lesson from that setback, if they assumed a younger core would allow them to bypass the costs of contention completely.
Capable bats were available last winter, and they decided to pass on them to watch their offense die on the vine once more. Some good solutions are out there again this year to fix the few gaps in their strong core, even if they will cost a bit more, and yet hitting the reset button sounds more realistic.
The calls for a rebuild are not necessarily wrong, nor even misguided, but they reflect a deeper cynicism for this Sox leadership group’s ability or willingness to convert a promising core into a winning ballclub, and the causes for that cynicism can only be pushed away for but so long by reshuffling the deck.
Lead Image Credit: Patrick Gorski // USA Today Sports Images