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The White Sox finished 16 games behind the Tigers in the AL Central last season and 12 games shy of the Rays for the wild card. Their farm system was one of the shallowest in baseball coming into the 2011 campaign, so there aren’t any immediate reinforcements to propel the ChiSox back into contention. A wholesale rebuilding process this offseason seemed inevitable.

General manager Kenny Williams did little to dispel that expectation when he traded Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays for lefty pitching prospect Nestor Molina. Though Santos is controllable at a reasonable salary through 2017, as a reliever, he was not going to be as valuable to the White Sox’s future as a potential mid-rotation starter, which Molina projects to become. The rebuilding process was still on track.

Then, last night, news broke that the White Sox had agreed to a five-year, $65 million extension with John Danks. In a vacuum, it’s a fine deal for both sides. It gives the 26-year-old Danks some financial security, while leaving open the possibility of another lucrative deal after his age-31 season. It gives the White Sox a solid number-three starter, in his prime, at a reasonable price.

The problem is that this deal throws a wrench into the rebuilding effort. Danks was one of the White Sox few truly valuable trade commodities, a player who could have brought back a couple of nice prospects from a contender in need of rotation depth.

Unless Jerry Reinsdorf is planning to open his checkbook for a free-agent binge in the near future, the ChiSox are unlikely to be in the pennant chase until at least 2014. The Tigers trump them in big-league talent; the Royals and Indians have superior farm systems. Danks does not change the former, but as a trade chip, he offered Williams an opportunity to put a dent in the latter.

By committing $65 million to Danks, the White Sox have effectively scrapped their fire sale for an attempt to contend while rebuilding. That might be fine, if they hadn’t sent the exact opposite signal with the Santos trade two weeks ago. In Keith Law’s words, they appear to be lost.

 From the Jake Peavy trade, to the Alex Rios waiver claim, to the Danks extension, Kenny Williams has shown a greater flair for bold moves than any GM in the league. Unfortunately, without a coherent plan, there’s a fine line between boldness and absurdity. The White Sox had better choose a direction soon, because they’re now on the verge of crossing it.