The White Sox are extremists

The White Sox are extremists
"My process?" Williams chuckled, "I'LL SHOW YOU MY PROCESS!" before taking a vial of blood hanging around his neck labeled 'RV23' and pouring it into what looked to be the fuel cell of a homemade battery // Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune

As the team-employed beat writer for the White Sox website, taking the actions of the franchise and expressing it into rational and understandable terms is very much a part of Scott Merkin’s job.  As such, picking through his piece attempting to justify the approach of the White Sox toward their farm system under Kenny Williams is more of a device to examine the state of the organization than criticize the work itself.

Also, it reflects that there ain’t much happening.

The gist of the article is that the White Sox farm system being generally regarded as an abomination is the result of their focus being solely honed on the Major League team.  Therefore, the place of the organization in farm system standings is irrelevant, as its only purpose is serving as trade fodder and graduating major league contributors, pretty much as soon as possible.

It’s a strawman argument for the White Sox that they’re more concerned about big-league performance than minor league rankings, because every team is, even the ones with self-imposed payroll constraints, but the point is clear enough.  The White Sox don’t want to be the A’s, or even the Royals, where they have to spend multiple years assembling their young talent while packing it in on the major league level.  That’s fine, dudes.

It’s just that…

“Under general manager Ken Williams, the White Sox have pursued a “live for the moment” approach that has had them in contention in every season of his tenure, including a World Series title in 2005, with the ’07 season the lone exception.

But the run of continued success has come at the expense of the farm system, which largely has been utilized to acquire players to keep the team on its winning path at the big league level. Those who expertly study such things consistently rank the White Sox at or near the bottom in overall ratings of farm system ratings. And the truth of the matter is that the South Siders are not deep in young talent.

The question is, how much does this lack of depth matter in the White Sox pursuit of the ultimate goal — World Series titles?”

…being mentioned as competitors for the AL Central crown past the month of July is a pretty soft definition for “competing.”  There’s been one playoff bid in the last five years, no 90-win seasons, and three sub-.500 seasons.  For a General Manager who “prefers to go for more certainty when spending for a title”, that’s a pretty cruddy percentage while absorbing the consistently top-10 salary such an approach demands.

If that seems like an unfair focus on Kenny Williams’ worst period–well, first, recent data is the most significant–it’s because that’s what any justification of the White Sox minor league system is actually focused on.  Being ranked dead last in baseball like the White Sox farm system undoubtedly will be for this year isn’t uncharted territory (for example, 2008), but to suggest that it’s inherent to Kenny Williams is fudging the earlier portion of his tenure.

Baseball America Organizational Rankings for the White Sox:

2006: 14

2005: 12

2004: 20

2003: 15

2002: 9

2001: 1

That’s no error.  In Kenny Williams’ first year, he was handed what was arguably the best farm system in baseball.  If asked about that, Kenny might mention that the 5 top-100 prospects that system boasted were Jon Rauch, Joe Borchard, Joe Crede, Matt Ginter, and Dan Wright, and that while they all reached the majors, he might have done better to trade them all the time the list came out.

That aside, the amount to which the farm system burned as the South Side product reaped the benefits seems to have been muted.  In particular, the two strongest teams of Williams’ era (’05 and ’06) thrived with a legitimately average stockpile of talent waiting to take its place.

Since then, the White Sox haven’t escaped the bottom 8 of the rankings, with diminished concern expressed about it because they were busy “competing”.  Assuming long-term talent debts for short-term gain that didn’t arrive in full, and seemingly willing to do so until a lack of reinforcements from the farm made the Major League team nonviable too.

As Merkin is bringing it all home about the ideal scenario the White Sox are seeking, he offers this axiom:

“The best alternative is to find a balance between using your own players to both fill gaps in the lineup and acquire players from other organizations who can make impact.”

By that respect, the last 5 years have been a failure.  By purging prospects with vigor and skimping on draft spending, the White Sox have skewed themselves at the far end of the spectrum in the debate as to whether to build from within, or pay for proven talent.  While there’s certainly a market inefficiency to exploit given how much teams over-value prospects now, this year alone has shown that the White Sox don’t have the limitless payroll to cover the cost that the mistakes that come with such an approach has.  Hell, even the Yankees don’t think they can operate that way anymore.

Perhaps the most recent off-season could be seen as a reason for hope.  The only time Williams zigged when he was suppose to zag was the Danks extension, which is pretty easy to postulate as being the result of crappy trade offers brought on by a market flooded with cheaper options.  That and Danks will be the second-youngest member of the 2012 rotation.

Otherwise, Williams targeted a dire absence of minor league pitching depth, conceded to rely on progression from his in-house talent for many of unsettled lineup spots, and seemed to blink and turn around when a top-end payroll for a below-average team with no farm system stared him in the face.  There’s no outpouring of adoration for any of the returns, but it’s a competent and realistic GM who made the Santos, Quentin, and Frasor trades.

And it’s a nice contrast from an extreme organizational approach that’s sought to shirk the enhanced focus on minor league development that the rest of the league embraced that brought things to this point.

Or maybe that was just Dunn and Rios.


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  • Today's dig at "journalism" is whether the writer for the house site is a journalist. Same for such things as those on the Bears Network produced programs.

    On the other hand, what seems to be the complication of the Merkin piece is that while Kenny used to use the minor leagues as trade fodder, apparently now he is using the major league roster as trade fodder for the minors. Unless they have the minor league coaching staff to get these players up to speed quick, it is going to be several years before the Sox get out of Royals territory.

    Also, he doesn't say anything about de Aza or Tank.

  • In reply to jack:

    It's hard for me to begrudge Merkin without knowing what his restrictions are. I'm sure they're not insignificant.

    This year's fire sale would signal an admission that the old ways are unsustainable. Which is something.

  • I like myth busting. And as usual James excels in his ability to both edify and amuse.

    My concern with Kenny's "competent and realistic" approach is that what may seem a diversion is too much business as usual: trading for young pitching projects. I understand the temptation to play to an organizational strength, which has been to resurrect lively young arms from prospect purgatory. But Kenny has failed again to address at all the dire absence of minor league HITTING depth.

    Williams and co. have failed to effectively scout and/or sign and/or bring along young hitting talent. Decent fielding was the only thing that kept Beckham and Morel from being replacement level in 2011. And there is something to be said (and it should be expletive-laden) for the fact that the Sox best positional "prospects" last season, De Aza and Viciedo, were a 27 year old waiver claim and an amateur free agent signing getting paid $2.25mil. As a consequence of this incompetence, the Sox have had to invest heavily in positional players in order to "compete," which has meant paying market value (Konerko) or mildly (Pierre, A.J.) to wildly (Dunn, Rios) overpaying for veterans.

    Quentin was the exception that proved the rule (see Margalus "The Lesson of Carlos Quentin"). Kenny traded for a former prospect who was supposed to be AAA depth but forced his way onto the roster after organizational wonderkid Jerry Owens' flame out. The irony of the most recent Quentin trade makes me think: Hey Kenny, thanks for all of the Simon Castros, but why not chance more Carlos Quentins?

    While plugging holes for position players through trades for veterans and free agent signings has produced intermittent results, in 3 of the last 5 seasons it has produced offenses that have finished in the bottom third of MLB in terms of runs created.

    Until the organization changes something about their approach to building an offense, the Sox seem doomed to remain 1/2 of a competitive baseball team. And a regime change seems required to address this inadequacy.

  • In reply to Ham N Egger:

    As usual, thanks for the very kind words.

    I would stipulate that you could easily make the argument that the minor league pitch corps was worse off than the supply of hitters. They're excessively meager in both regards, and it's probably flipped now, but Williams did address the greater concern. The organization's typical strength is transforming struggling high-ceiling guys into effective contributors, so now there's a bit more (or, one more) of those.

    They're also a bit more bullish--and how can they not be--on their own guys, and probably think at least one of the Walker-Thompson-Mitchell whiffing outfielders trio is going to make it. Maybe they'll all make it, and be the sweetest .200/.300/.400 outfield with plus defense at every position of all time.

    I would note:

    -The last thing I'd want to do is discourage the Sox from international free agents
    -The system might be too weak to land a Carlos Quentin. At the time, Chris Carter was regarded as an extremely high-ceiling bat, and Carlos Quentin was a potential impact player closer to the pros but with a depressed value due to health concerns. Carter seems to be flaming out, and in return the Sox got a high-quality power bat....with health concerns.

    But yes, now the White Sox can probably stand to focus on the lack of anyone who profiles to be an above-average major league hitter, let alone a guy who can hit and play the field. I think Kenny saw a weak market for his guys and decided he'd get the most value out of arms they could transform, but he needs to find some pop in the draft in the worst way.

  • In reply to James Fegan:

    This is not the first time that I've been thwarted by a counterargument easily made.

    How about Jaff Decker or James Darnell or Jonathan Galvez for Quentin? Can't the Sox at least pretend they care about addressing their offensive woes, their lack of home-grown talent, and lament doling out piles of cash to hired veterans who waft putridity?

    I don't know as much about the depths of the Jays system. I don't mind the Santos for Molina trade, but isn't there some shot-in-the-dark 19 year old third baseman, five and a half feet tall with a weight problem, raking in A-ball somewhere in the Toronto system, who they might have moved for Frasor? On second thought, a quick scan of the Jays organization reveals that Chicago-born Sal Fasano is currently the manager of the AA Fisher Cats. I would have taken him for Ventura's staff, assuming he still wears that glorious mustache.

    Ugh, I've lost my mind again. Thanks for addressing my comment so thoroughly.

  • In reply to Ham N Egger:

    I get what you're saying. Pitching was the greater concern at the minor league level coming into the off-season, so Kenny--predictably--overdid it, and now the situation is flipped.

    I'm certainly not bullish on Mitchell, Thompson, and Walker at the moment, but them combined with Smith and Saladino might make the Sox focus a bit more on higher-level bats. They have their share of projects already, and haven't shown the same proficiency in being able to fix them. Perhaps they feel they'd be better off fashioning their arms into valuable commodities before shipping them out for something.

    Just wishcasting, though.


    Looks like the stache has gone places.

  • In reply to James Fegan:

    Oh good lord. It's as if that furry extremity exists independently of Sal Fasano's face; like it has a will of its own. Seriously, I suspect that the mustache operates outside of Sal Fasano's consciousness. It orders its own meals, refuses to fly coach, likes to sleep with the nightlight on, etc.

  • In reply to Ham N Egger:

    Having a self-actualized other on your face is probably pretty distracting at the plate....hence the career 26.3 K%

  • In reply to James Fegan:

    Just to clarify on Sal's journey...
    He began his minor league coaching career with Toronto's single A Lansing Lugnuts. He was then promoted to AA New Hampshire and in his first year (last season) the Fisher Cats won the Eastern League title. He was also named the Eastern League Manager of the Year.
    Expect to see Sal back in the Big Show's just a matter of time.

  • In reply to Acme Hardball:

    Wow, sure sounds like it. They always says catchers are the best skippers, and a good number of baseball cliches are actually true.

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