With many needs to address, the White Sox added Todd Frazier, Brett Lawrie, and others during the 2015-16 offseason. However, the Sox again failed to reach a .500 record, which they last achieved in 2012. They’re the next non-contending club up in MLBTR’s Three Needs series.
1. Put loyalty aside and install the best possible front office and manager. Kenny Williams has been a part of Chicago’s front office since current shortstop Tim Anderson was a toddler, and Rick Hahn joined the organization more than 15 years ago. The current arrangement, with Williams serving as Executive Vice President and Hahn as Senior Vice President/General Manager, has been in place for four years. None of those four Sox teams won more games than they lost. Even if we give the front office a pass for doing tempered rebuilds for a couple of years, they still had two failed winters of making win-now pushes. The team’s short- and long-term prospects don’t seem much different than they were four years ago. It’s time for White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to put aside his loyalty to the Williams/Hahn tandem, and determine whether the White Sox would benefit from fresh voices in the front office. If Reinsdorf does decide to dismiss or reassign one or both of Williams and Hahn, he’d do well to more clearly define the balance of power and autonomy of his executives. In August, Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported that Hahn was more in favor of a trade deadline sale than was Reinsdorf, with Hahn later denying any discord.
Manager Robin Ventura has held his position even longer than Hahn, with his fifth season as manager (and his contract) coming to an end. Even if the front office remains unaltered, Ventura may be allowed to leave. First baseman Jose Abreu recently suggested the White Sox lacked the same desire to win as the Royals, which could be the final nail in the coffin for Ventura.
2. Go all-in on an organizational strategy. It appears that Reinsdorf, Williams, and Hahn have already charted a clear offseason course, one Hahn said will be “obvious” after their “first or second transaction.” Those reading the tea leaves generally feel those comments point toward a rebuild. While a true “everything must go” rebuild has rarely been Reinsdorf’s preference, the Sox remain stuck in no man’s land, with just enough talent to win 73-78 games annually. If they believe in the people conducting a full teardown (see point #1), perhaps White Sox fans actually would accept and encourage two or three seasons during which the team has zero chance of contending. If it’s any level of rebuild, the White Sox have to trade Frazier, Melky Cabrera, and Miguel Gonzalez, who are controlled through 2017. It would be logical to unload the well-compensated David Robertson (signed through 2018), and to trade or non-tender Lawrie and Avisail Garcia. James Shields should be released. All of those steps would mark a fairly obvious start to a rebuild, but would fail to bring in any blue-chip talent.
Stopping there while retaining the team’s truly coveted pieces would constitute another half-measure. The White Sox control ace starter Chris Sale through 2019. If 2017 and 2018 are looking bleak, then now’s the time to cash Sale in for a king’s ransom. While wingman Jose Quintana is controlled for one additional year beyond Sale, it makes sense to trade both if they’re trading one. Particularly in a free agent market devoid of starting pitching, Hahn would hold the two best cards. Abreu, controlled through 2019 like Sale, would logically be dealt as well. The team would be building toward a 2020 reboot, with Adam Eaton, Carlos Rodon, and Anderson becoming the new faces of the franchise along with newly acquired young players. A fully rebuilding White Sox team would be best-served to commit at least three more years to Hahn and give him more autonomy, or else hire a new GM.
On the other hand, the White Sox currently have more present talent than your typical rebuilding club, especially in the rotation. Plus, the AL Central doesn’t appear packed with powerhouse teams over the next few years. The danger would be in repeating the 2015-16 offseason, in which the White Sox made some improvements but not enough, and stuck with questionable holdovers in several spots. If Cabrera is retained, he’s better served at designated hitter, in which case the Sox would need to add two outfielders. They also need a catcher, a starting pitcher, and a few relievers. These improvements would have to be made with a subpar cache of prospects for trade bait and a free agent market that matches the team’s needs poorly. And they’d still have to eat $22MM in releasing Shields. I don’t think all of this could or would be done under Williams and Hahn with Reinsdorf’s typical $120MM-range payroll, so something would need to change to make a true “all-in” push viable.
3. If a rebuild is chosen, make the most of playing time opportunities. The Brewers, in full rebuild mode, uncovered Jonathan Villar, Keon Broxton, Junior Guerra, and Zach Davies this year. The White Sox, meanwhile, continue to trot out Garcia as an everyday player. Though he’s only 25, Garcia has now logged over 1,500 plate appearances as a below-average hitter. While I understand every roster needs veterans, a rebuilding Sox club would have no reason to waste playing time on Garcia, Lawrie, Shields, or Cabrera in 2017. Whether or not anyone interesting can be acquired in return for these players, the playing time is valuable for identifying surprising contributors. The Brewers added players with upside who would not have been given a full opportunity on a competitive team, and that could be a blueprint for the White Sox.