CHICAGO, IL - Adam Dunn of the Chicago White Sox tosses his bat after striking out during the eighth inning against the Kansas City Royals at U. S. Cellular Field. (Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
The Chicago White Sox decided early in the offseason that they were going to rebuild to some extent. Was that a good idea?
As someone charged with writing about 30 different baseball teams, there has to be one of them that I know the least about. I couldn't give you an exact order of "most knowledgeable" to "least knowledgeable" that ranges from #2 to #30, but there has to be an order. If I had to guess, I'd say that I know the least about the Chicago White Sox off the top of my head.
I know that their GM is Kenny Williams, and that he constructed a team last year that had both Alex Rios and Juan Pierre on it -- two players who should have had a three-percent chance of ever leaving the team that gave them their abominable contracts. It was like Williams was rummaging through the free box at the church bazaar and found a box labeled "weapons-grade syphilis", which he then tucked quietly under his arm, hoping nobody would notice what a great deal he got.
I know they've had strong pitching for a while now. The last time they finished with an ERA+ over the league average was 2007, and even then just barely. They've been adept at developing, trading away, trading for, and signing starting pitchers for most of the past decade.
I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that the farm system is in some awful shape right now. The good folks at Baseball America were holding their breath that the White Sox didn't sign Andy Marte to a minor-league deal before they could get their list of top-ten White Sox prospects out.
But apart from that, what are the White Sox? Are they rebuilding? Going for it? Set up for the short-term, or trying for the long-term? Contending for the AL Central or one of the two wild cards, or trying to stave off the Royals and Twins for last place?
I have no idea. And I'm not sure the White Sox have an idea, either.
The White Sox traded closer Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays in early December, and that started the rebuilding process. Santos was young and unbelievably cheap -- he's signed for at least $9 million over the next three years, and the Blue Jays now hold three team options on him -- but a rebuilding team needs a premium closer like a '79 Vega needs a Blu-Ray player in the back seat. Focus on the important things first, then think about getting a closer when everything else is fixed. I get it. Not a bad idea. So off Santos went.
Then they traded Carlos Quentin for a couple of minor-league pitchers that the San Diego Padres grew in a Petri dish. It made sense for a rebuilding team to trade a soon-to-be free agent for a couple of prospects whose stars dimmed just a bit when they struggled during mid-season promotions last year. Good buy-low, sell-high move for a rebuilding team.
Then they let Mark Buehrle go because they were rebuilding. He's a fixture, an icon. White Sox fans will wear Buehrle jerseys to games for the next ten years, even if he pitches for a different team that entire time. But the White Sox figured, heck, ain't no place for a fella like that on a rebuilding team.
Rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding. See how many times I wrote rebuilding up there? It's what the White Sox are doing. Take it from the man with the keys to the roster:
"It's the start of rebuilding now," said Williams
Yep. No doubt about it. Rebuilding. Which brings us to a point that might or might not have been overlooked: What an absolutely awful time to rebuild.
The AL Central isn't exactly a mess, but it's not a strong division. The Tigers are clearly the class of the division, but they aren't the 1998 Yankees. They're an injury or a couple of poor player-seasons away from being the worst of the good teams. The Twins finally look to be tail-spinning after a decade of success, and the Indians are caught between a full rebuild and a contending push. The Kansas City Royals are the subject of this sentence. It's not like the White Sox knew they'd be in the same spot as Mets or Orioles this year.
Another complication: The White Sox didn't exactly have the kinds of assets that other teams trip over themselves to acquire. They didn't have a Gio Gonzalez or Michael Pineda to start a feeding frenzy -- at least no one they were willing to trade. Alexei Ramirez could have started a bidding war, but the team declared he was staying put. Gavin Floyd might have brought (and could still bring) an interesting package of prospects back. John Danks, too. But he's still there. So it's been something like a half-rebuild.
And a half-rebuild is probably the worst place for the White Sox right now. They were almost .500 last year with an offense that had some easy fixes. Adam Dunn isn't going to be that bad again -- dig that 4-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio this spring -- so that's an area that should be much, much better. Juan Pierre was exiled. Alex Rios tinkled on the same burial ground as Vernon Wells and has the same every-other-year overpaid curse, but even if he doesn't improve, the team could have sat him for Alejandro De Aza.
But they went for the kinda-sorta rebuild. Trading Quentin wasn't the worst idea in the world, considering they had Dayan Viciedo and De Aza waiting in the wings, and it's never a crazy idea to trade closer for prospect(s). What'll hurt them more is that they didn't actively improve the active roster. Paul Konerko is good now. A.J. Pierzynski is good now. The rotation is above-average across the board now. Those are things they'll always be able to count on. A little money and finagling for short-term help in the trade market would have done them good.
It's not like the White Sox were ever going to get a baleful of prospects to turn them into a young superpower. They got a couple of nice prospects who took them all the way from the 30th-ranked farm system in baseball to the 30th-ranked farm system in baseball. It was a bizarre time to rebuild, and it was a strange roster with which to do the half-rebuild. Because there's still talent on this team. Heck, there's still enough talent on this team to contend this year. Even without Buehrle, they might still have one of the better rotations in the league. That's a heckuva start to any roster.
The lineup has some holes -- thinking that you might be able to add up the OPSs for Gordon Beckham and Brent Morel and get something below Miguel Cabrera this year -- but if Dunn bounces back and/or Viciedo breaks out, it's not a completely wretched lineup. If Jake Peavy can make 25 starts and Chris Sale can make a successful conversion from the bullpen, this would be a fantastic rotation. And there have been teams in the history of baseball that have made championship runs with a similar pitching-first dynamic.
It's not a bad White Sox team. If you pretend they made all sorts of free-agent signings in the offseason to build this roster, you might be impressed with what they accomplished. But considering they had a fair number of pieces already in place, it was a very curious time to start the half-rebuild.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
Brent Morel deserves to start over the internal options the White Sox have, but I don't think another year in AAA would have hurt his development. He's raw, and he'll probably be one of the weakest links in a lineup that already had a couple. A stopgap third baseman would have done wonders for the lineup.
But here's a fun fact: Morel walked seven times in his first 341 plate appearances last year before walking 15 times in 103 September PA. He hit .224/.340/.553 with eight home runs despite a .186 batting average on balls in play. Small sample, but still encouraging.
Adam Dunn was so, so, so, so, so bad last year. Just … so bad. It was like Lars von Trier took over as director of the broadcasts when Dunn batted. So depressing. So, so bad. He can't be that bad again, just because it's hard for anyone in the history of major-league baseball to be that bad, and we're including guys like Neifi Perez and Alfredo Griffin in that category. But I'm not sure if he can actually be good again. Spring stats don't mean anything, but I'm willing to buy that Dunn's do mean something, if only for his confidence.
I'm thinking this team is less than three games out by the trade deadline, and then they'll have to think about how far they want to take the semi-rebuild.