Last season's winter meetings headlines were hijacked by an unlikely source.
The Chicago White Sox, an American League franchise found in a nine-year deep post-championship malaise, needed a spark. General manager Rick Hahn engineered a couple of loud signings:
1) Jeff Samardzija came from Oakland to fill out a 1-2 starting punch with Chris Sale
2) Melky Cabrera came as a former batting champion to fill out an outfield that already had the grindy Adam Eaton and hot prospect Avisail Garcia
3) Adam LaRoche would be the additional power source to supplant ABs at first and at DH
4) Zach Duke would come in for relief, and David Robertson would round out a closer's spot that had haunted the Sox since Bobby Jenks' top years (don't give me lectures on Addison Reed)
Carlos Rodon was a top pitching prospect ready to bolster the Sox rotation. With Quintana, the White Sox would have a formidable 1-4. Combine the White Sox pitching with their young phenom All-Star first baseman Jose Abreu, and it looked as if the Sox could be heavy competitors in the AL Central. The Royals had lost talent, the Tigers had holes, and the Twins/Indians were still trying to find their way back.
2015 didn't come out as planned...by a long shot.
Abreu had a slight drop-off, Avisail Garcia was not the spark they wanted, LaRoche looked clueless at the plate, Ramirez dropped off...and even though it didn't seem possible...Gordon Beckham got worse.
On the mound, Samardzija had one of the worst years by a starting pitcher in recent MLB memory, Sale had a drop-off, and sending John Danks to the hill every five days wound up...stunningly...backfiring.
The issue with the 2015 team wasn't going to be the bullpen like 2014...because the Sox couldn't GET to the bullpen. David Robertson wasn't lights out by any means, but he certainly wasn't a dumpster fire.
While most had the White Sox contending for the AL Central crown in 2015, the team wound up failing miserably. The White Sox finished with a record of 76-86; 19 games behind the Royals.
White Sox fans spent years waiting for players like Tyler Flowers and Gordon Beckham to be more consistent. The flashes of talent; sometimes even seasons of talent were there...but the consistency was not.
Between middling returns on prospects, free agent signings not blossoming like wanted, and a hijacked 2015 signing market, the White Sox needed to make a decision on which direction their organization will go.
Some decisions are easier than others
A three year plan sounds nice. It sounded nice enough to Chicago White Sox President of Baseball Operations Kenny Williams that he proposed a 'three-year plan' to the media last year. The message was clear: 'We are not surrendering, we are not rebuilding...we will find talent to surround our key guys, and we will build a winner.'
This is where it's tough for Kenny Williams and the White Sox. There are two directions one can take:
- Trade off your major assets; Abreu and Sale and start a massive rebuild
- Continue to attain players that will help solidify your team. Having talents like Abreu and Sale are generational...you can't waste them.
I'm not sure which one of the two is correct, but I'm pretty sure you have to choose one or the other.
As of December 13th, 2015, Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn have chosen neither.
But, seriously, who can you blame? The two aren't on good speaking terms, and just this previous month Williams blurted out ridiculously:
“As I sit here today, we have had a number of conversations, even as late as this morning, and Rick hasn’t presented to us a definitive direction based on his talks that he wants to travel down… Until he puts on the table what he wants to do, it’s premature for me to comment one way or another on any player or path or anything else because of our process.”
That should really boost morale in the office.
Williams is stating through the media that there's actually a choice to be made...when in fact, there isn't a choice.
The Chicago White Sox are a mid-market team playing in the third largest city in the United States. They have a payroll that is right down the middle for most MLB franchises. This base is good enough to keep the Sox functioning through lean years...but not through awful ones.
While the White Sox are a flagship American League franchise with a devoted fanbase, they are not able to weather the storm that will come with massive losing.
The Chicago White Sox, who live in a constant advertising campaign, can't throw away summers like other major league franchises. The pride amongst White Sox ownership and their fans is way too high to let it happen.
And that's really sad.
The White Sox have a farm system that's rated dead in the middle. They have a payroll that's weighted dead in the middle. They have attendance and viewership that lurks in the bottom half of MLB...but they won't do a damn thing to change those things.
If they traded away top talent to improve their farm system it would be an admission of sorts: It would be Williams and Hahn admitting that they were wrong. They would essentially be stating, 'we're sorry we spent all of that money last year. We actually suck...so, we're just gonna burn the house down and try all over.'
The White Sox attendance (we know, you've heard it before, bear with us), which is already horrific, would hit lows not seen since the late 80's. The White Sox viewership and attendance has dropped considerably since 2006. Here it is, year by year since '06 out of 15 AL teams:
3rd, 5th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 7th, 9th, 10th, 13th, and 13th.
It's not going to get better.
The White Sox will continue to find just enough to compete. They will find a couple free agents to plug holes, and they will bet the ranch that one of their top prospects in the minors pans out. That's the plan.
Right now, those new players are Brett Lawrie, Dioner Navarro, and Alex Avila. Oh, how did I forget Tommy Kahnle. That should plug up that 19 game gap.
This team reminds many of another group we saw back in the early 90's...back then everything was switched...
Let's turn back the clock to 1991:
The White Sox have the premier farm system in all of baseball. Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Jack McDowell, and many more keep coming through the pipeline as the White Sox are at the start of five straight winning seasons. They have so much talent, that they don't even have to trade the young players they already have in town! They're able to acquire veterans like Ellis Burks and Tim Raines; the strength of the farm system gives them the ability to make these moves.
On the other side of town, the Cubs had these generational talents: Greg Maddux and Ryne Sandberg. Both would be hall of fame players. Throw Andre Dawson in there, too (towards the end of his career). The Cubs had a middling farm system that wasn't producing a ton of great players, but they were able to get Mark Grace recently out of their system. They thought just a couple of years ago that they had young talent to surround them for years...but...it didn't happen. Jerome Walton wound up struggling mightily at the plate. Lloyd McClendon couldn't hit after '89. Dwight Smith never regained his touch as an every day player. After these failures, the Cubs needed to trade away their talent to build their system...but they couldn't. Instead, they hung on to their stars too long. They did patchwork in order to have a 'functioning' major league team.
They were rewarded with 75-77 wins every year. They wouldn't reach the playoffs again until 1998 when a large man had a career/record-breaking year.
The White Sox should not strive to be the early 90's Cubs.
The worst thing the White Sox organization could do is try to compete with the Cubs. They can't. Nor should they try. Why they even want to try has always baffled me considering they are in opposing leagues...they simply do not compete against one another for any playoff spots.
The Sox need to be smart. They need to start thinking about five years down the road, instead of five months down the road. They need to take a serious look at these 'generational talents' like Abreu and Sale and ask themselves 'DO WE HAVE THE RESOURCES TO BUILD A CHAMPION AROUND THESE PLAYERS?'
If the answer to that question is 'no', then they must be moved. They MUST be moved.
These are the years that make and break careers for GMs. Not when your team loses a heartbreaker in the playoffs, or even after losing 100 games...it's when your team needs to make an organizational decision that will define who they are for the next five years.
Whatever decision the White Sox make, they can not 'tip-toe through the tulips'. It has to be real. And it has to be thorough. You can't decide to be one organization one day, and then choose to be another whenever you feel like it.
For Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn, the decision needs to come fast. None of us can tell what they're trying to do as an organization.
And that's a shame. Because their fans deserve better.