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After having gotten swept by Philadelphia, the White Sox record now stands at 27-35, and they barely have a 1-in-1000 shot of making the playoffs. Let me be honest for a second. If I had picked any other team to go 72-90 this season, and everyone thought I was an idiot for having done so, and that team in fact played down to my expectations, I would be doing a lot of gloating about that prediction. But since that team is the White Sox, a franchise that I have a great deal of affection for, it’s been at best a bittersweet pill.

So rather than dwelling on what has happened this year, let’s instead turn toward the future, and see what the White Sox need to do to return to their contending ways in 2008. To do so, we’ll revitalize the Tufte Takes On… series from last year.

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You’ll notice a couple of upgrades to our framework. Firstly, I’ve expanded from four to five grades of player classifications, to come up with something that better corresponds to the stars and scrubs chart on a player’s PECOTA card. That is not to say that these grades are strictly PECOTA-based; I’m accounting for performance this season as well as my own intangible feelings about how a player is likely to develop. I have also expanded the number of players that I’m including in the analysis, accounting for all players on the 40-man roster as well as a wider selection of prospects. Finally, you’ll notice that the charts themselves have been given a makeover based on some helpful reader feedback. I hope that the new look will speak for itself. Onward.

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The White Sox have their two best bats concentrated at the same position, and both Jim Thome and Paul Konerko are under their control for several more seasons. The Konerko deal could look marginal by 2010, but he’s stayed very healthy for the past year and a half, and the White Sox were smart enough to sign that deal before the 40-50 percent market inflation from this past winter, so he qualifies as an asset both on the field and in the balance sheet.

The rest of the infield is filled with league-average players. Putting Juan Uribe in yellow rather than orange is possibly generous, but his plus defense nets him the benefit of the doubt. Tadahito Iguchi is also right on the yellow-orange boundary. If forced to pick between the two, I’d probably rather pick up Uribe’s option and let Iguchi walk, because it’s easier to find a budget second base option than a budget shortstop. But that depends a lot on the organization’s due diligence on Uribe, including whether his off-field distractions are beginning to affect his performance. The smart money is that neither will be in a White Sox uniform next year.

As for the prospects listed here, Josh Fields should provide a carbon copy of Joe Crede‘s bat, but perhaps not as much with the glove. He’s already 24, so I see him as someone who is going to have a good five- to seven-year run as a regular, but probably not more than that. Catcher Francisco Hernandez, first baseman Christopher Carter, and second baseman John Shelby Jr. are all having solid years down on the farm and have earned an appearance here. Shelby, with his big league bloodlines, is perhaps the safest bet to earn a major league pension, but also the least-likely to become a star. Carter and Hernandez have more upside.

In the “best of the rest” category, Micah Schnurstein almost made the chart, as he’s mashing to a .309/.382/.626 tune down at Winston-Salem. However, that’s after he’s been demoted a level and is now playing first base rather than third, so that performance needs to be taken with a grain of salt. All in all, the key takeaway is that the Sox are thin on middle infield talent throughout the organization, and are going to need to buy offense at those positions rather than build it themselves.

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If the White Sox do decide to punt on the rest of this season, one of the things they ought to do is give Brian Anderson another trial in the big leagues. If Anderson can hack it at the plate, then you treat Ryan Sweeney as one of your corners and perhaps there’s less urgency to re-sign Dye or another slugger. Still, after the somewhat public criticism that he took this spring, one wonders whether Brian Anderson is to Ozzie Guillen as Corey Patterson was to Dusty Baker.

Truth be told, however, even if Anderson puts another option on the table, the White Sox need to sign at least one power bat if they want to field a championship-caliber lineup. One of the real strengths of this organization is in its major league scouting, so if you can’t re-sign the real Jermaine Dye, perhaps you go out and find the next one, getting some trade return on Dye in the process. At the very least, the collective offensive slump that the White Sox have been mired in this year ought to remind them that they can’t afford to screw around with the likes of Darin Erstad and Scott Podsednik in full-time roles.

The other complication–although you can file this under “good problem to have”–is that if the White Sox don’t decide to non-tender Joe Crede, then Josh Fields is temporarily without a position. An outfield of Fields in left, Sweeney in center, and Dye or his free agent equivalent in right would be a definite upgrade over this year’s configuration. In fact, this permutation ought to be compelling enough that it should dismiss any thoughts the White Sox might have about releasing Crede. Crede is one of the more popular players down on the South Side, and while it’s going to be nearly impossible to trade him until he proves he’s recovered from his injury, he still carries something of a clutch label, and is the sort of player that another team is likely to overpay for if that’s how the White Sox want to play it in 2008. So I think you head into next season planning on using Fields as an everyday outfielder, and revise as necessary.

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We can say this much for Kenny Williams: whatever you think about his overall gameplan this winter, he knows what he’s doing when it comes to scouting pitchers. John Danks has stepped right into the big league rotation, and if he can sort out some of his problems with the longball, he becomes a #2 caliber starter for the next half-dozen seasons. Gio Gonzalez has been lights-out at Birmingham–88 strikeouts in 69 innings and a 1.43 groundball-to-flyball ratio–and probably has to be considered one of the five best left-handed pitching prospects in the game. Without Danks and Gonzalez on the long-term depth chart, the Sox would really be building their 2010 team almost from scratch; instead they have a couple of significant assets to work from.

The four veteran starters are a bit unusual in that their contracts are staggered to terminate one year apart from one another. One should probably assume that Mark Buehrle is a goner. As effective as he has been for much of his tenure in Chicago, teams simply refuse to understand that finesse pitchers do not age as well as their power counterparts. If Buerhle’s market price is 80-90 percent of that paid to Barry Zito, the Sox have a million better ways to spend that money. Considering Buerhle’s public dalliances with the St. Louis Cardinals, and the over/under line on how long he stays with the White Sox probably falls somewhere in July, rather than sometime in the offseason.

As for the rest of the starters–I’m a Javier Vazquez apologist and a Jose Contreras pessimist. And I’m not buying into the Charlie Haeger knuckleball hype. Unusual development patterns or no, you just don’t take a 64-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 0.64 groundball-to-flyball ratio at Triple-A and transform that into something adequate at the big league level without some significant modifications to your approach. On the other hand, the White Sox recent selection of Aaron Poreda looks like a winner, and I’m a little bit encouraged that Gavin Floyd could have a two- or three-year run as an adequate fourth starter.

The bullpen is a strength, however much consternation it’s caused Ozzie and company lately. Bobby Jenks is a stud, having completed the transformation from thrower to pitcher, and there are enough live arms under the team’s long-term control that the rest of the pen should sort itself out. There’s no need for the Sox to spend some of their bankroll on a relief arm.

The 2008 Chicago White Sox?

2B Luis Castillo (free agent)
RF Kosuke Fukudome (free agent)
1B Paul Konerko
DH Jim Thome
3B Joe Crede
CF Ryan Sweeney
LF Josh Fields
C  A.J. Pierzynski
SS Brent Lillibridge (acquired for Mark Buehrle)

P  Jon Garland
P  Javier Vazquez
P  Jose Contreras
P  John Danks
P  Chad Billingsley (acquired for Jermaine Dye) or Gio Gonzalez
CL Bobby Jenks

Here is one riff on a 90-win team that the White Sox could field next year without tearing a hole in Jerry Reinsdorf’s budget. In fact, it would be relatively cost-neutral. The Sox are paying out $22.9 million this season to Mark Buerhle, Jermaine Dye, Juan Uribe, and Tadahito Iguchi, and all of those players would be goners under this scenario. That should be enough to sign one top-tier and one middle-tier free agent to help the offense. The keys are that the Sox must be willing to start leveraging internal resources like Fields and Sweeney, and they must get a return on Buehrle and Dye while the getting is good.

A more subtle point is that the Sox’ free agent targets this winter should be in the corner outfield spots rather than center. The Sox have no shortage of players who can handle center–Sweeney is our preferred solution, but if he flops, they still have Brian Anderson, Luis Terrerro, and possibly even Scott Podsednik, who I’d keep around since he makes an excellent fourth outfielder.

Fukudome’s name has not been particularly associated with the White Sox, but he makes more sense than some of the others that have been. Aaron Rowand seems to be a popular choice in media circles, but his bat is likely to be overpriced after a revival season in Philadelphia, and his glove is superfluous on this roster. Adam Dunn gets inevitable traction in the blogosphere, but presents the opposite problem; he needs a team that has an open slot at first base or designated hitter. Milton Bradley is intriguing, but he’s really just an angrier version of Rowand, and the White Sox need to set the bar a little higher in terms of getting an impact bat. That means Fukudome, even if he’s going to have quite a bit of money thrown at him.

The interesting question is whether the White Sox took a look at the inflation in the free agent market, and designated 2007 as a rebuilding year all along. Whatever their intentions, the Sox will head into next year with a fair number of reasons for optimism. There are really no bad contracts on this roster, and the farm system is looking much better than it did a year earlier thanks to the reacquisition of Gonzalez and the breakout seasons of players like Hernandez and Carter. In fact, 2007 could prove to be a blessing in disguise if they take the opportunity to acquire a couple of other young players in exchange for Buerhle and Dye. You’d rather fall out of the race in June than in September.

At the same time, it’s important that Kenny Williams not treat 2008 as a rebuilding year. White Sox attendance has always been extremely sensitive to team quality, and some fans are going to be turned off when they see that Buehrle and Dye are sent packing. The Sox will probably be indulged one year of disappointing performance, but another one and you’re creating a lot of downward momentum. Moreover, the Sox have a half-dozen thirtysomethings signed to long-term contracts, so it’s not like the roster can be gutted entirely. So that means that Kenny Williams’ best characteristic–his aggressiveness–needs to win out over his stubbornness. A radical makeover is not required, but the Sox need to take a careful look at 2007 and recognize that much of it is of their own making.

Thank you for reading

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