Back at the very start of the offseason, I wrote an article for JABO (RIP) advocating that the White Sox do something they swore they wouldn’t: blow up their core of Jose Abreu, Jose Quintana, Chris Sale, David Robertson, and Adam Eaton, and try to get a head start on the rest of the muddled American League in building a winning team a few years down the line. My argument, in short: they just weren’t good enough. As much a shame as it would seem to sell off great players like Sale and Abreu without bringing them to the playoffs first, the team around them—the entire organization around them, truthfully—just wasn’t good enough for the team to contend in 2016, barring an offseason I could not foresee. Instead of trading long-term assets for short-term ones in a pursuit I didn’t think they could fulfill, I recommended moving the other direction, so as to shake the frustrating cycle of mediocrity that so often grips this particular franchise.
They didn’t do that, of course. They went, somewhat, in the opposite direction, trading for Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier, (foolishly) swapping catcher Tyler Flowers out for the duo of Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro, and taking advantage of the brutal free-agent market for non-premium talent by swooping in late to sign Mat Latos, Jimmy Rollins, and Austin Jackson. It wasn’t quite the coup I wanted to see, if they were going to reject my suggestion: they missed out on all of the many solid outfielders who might have provided a major upgrade, and never seemed to find anything better to do at shortstop with the money they saved by declining Alexei Ramirez’s option.
Still, PECOTA does see them as an 82-win team, and at that number, the second-best club in the AL Central. (In a lot of years, this would be the worst division in baseball. In 2016, it hardly figures to hold a candle to the NL East. So I sure can’t wait for those Braves-Twins matchups in all-but-abandoned Turner Field in August!) They do lag the Indians by some 10 games in PECOTA’s projected standings, but still, it’s something. So my question is: Were they right to try this again? Or should they have heeded my advice?
Obviously, there’s no good way to objectively answer this question. We’ll have a better framework for it, at least, when the Playoff Odds Report comes out later this month, but for now, it’s a thought exercise, not a scientific measurement of any kind. I would say this: they’ve done just enough in terms of building upside for me to see the virtue in the path they chose. While none of Avila, Navarro, Latos, Rollins, or Jackson feel likely to recapture their former glory, it’s not the case that any of them fully need to. There’s that aforementioned core, plus bounceback candidate Melky Cabrera, plus (much more tenuous) bounceback candidate Adam LaRoche, plus the usable and fairly durable John Danks. There’s the untapped potential in Carlos Rodon (a good bet to pay off soon, if not this year), and in Avisail Garcia (a poor bet in general, but not an unwinnable one).
I try not to look too much at how many things have to break right for a team in order to succeed, when assessing their reasonable expectation of doing so. It’s possible to need very few breaks, but put yourself in a miserable position to expect them. It’s possible, too, to need a lot of breaks, but have the right side of some 60/40 propositions in there, and so to have set yourself up well to expect those breaks to come. The White Sox have become a case study in the latter option, I think, and they’ve also improved their depth with these late pickups. The fifth starter battle looked like it could boil down to Erik Johnson and Jacob Turner. Adding Latos will probably make both of them fallback plans, at least out of the gate. The outfield was going to continue to include both Cabrera and Garcia every day, until Jackson signed. Tyler Saladino, who might yet be the starting shortstop but now no longer needs to be, is probably better suited to a utility role anyway, where his speed can be tactically leveraged in certain games, and where his defensive chops across the infield can help shore up what has so long been a weakness on the South Side.
I’ll say this, too: it didn’t cost as much of the team’s future as I thought it might to get here. Micah Johnson, Frankie Montas, and Trayce Thompson were valuable potential role players for this year’s team, and could have grown into more, but they represent a pretty small price to pay for Todd Frazier. (Also, if you think of Johnson as Rollins, Montas as Latos, and Thompson as Jackson, you can see how the Sox might think they’ve replaced the potential production they would have gotten from those three, for 2016, at a bargain price.) The team got a draft pick when Jeff Samardzija signed in San Francisco, and didn’t lose one by signing a free agent to whom the qualifying offer was attached. Brett Lawrie came very cheaply, too. Few are the doors to the future the team slammed shut by choosing to live in the present in just this fashion.
On the other hand, let’s be honest: Four teams in the AL East are projected for a better record than the White Sox. So are two teams in the AL West. The only path to the playoffs for this team appears to be winning the division, and even (or maybe especially) in this parity-stricken division, I don’t think I view their chances as much better than 20 percent to do that. White Sox fans hate just missing the playoffs. Eighty-two might be the worst number of games a White Sox team can win. Few fan bases are sated so exclusively by playoff appearances—and certainly, no fan bases who experience so relatively few of them are. As things stand here in mid-March, I still think Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams should have taken the bold step of building toward the next 95-win White Sox, instead of hoping for 85.
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