The Chicago White Sox have arguably the toughest act to follow in sports. With the crosstown rival Cubs finally reaching the Promised Land—and in spectacular, Game 7 extra-inning fashion—last year, the middling Sox found themselves wondering how to keep their market’s attention.
In Chicago’s April issue, Rian Watt warned against taking the North Siders’ tank-to-win strategy. The Sox were too late to try and join a growing group of intentionally stripped-down teams, he wrote, and new restrictions on international free agent spending meant bad teams wouldn't get much additional spending power anyway.
But after a summer of blockbuster deals for young talent and a strong-ish end to the season, it’s starting to look like the strategy had, indeed, worked. The Sox may have finished this year with the second-worst record in the American League (a dismal 67-95) , but that was by design. Their swift teardown and rebuild is right on schedule.
Let’s run the tape back to last offseason. The Sox, coming off a 78-84 2016, had already (kind of) started their rebuild by trading ace pitcher Chris Sale to Boston and centerfielder Adam Eaton to Washington for a handful of very promising young players: pitchers Reynaldo Lopez, Dane Dunning, Michael Kopech and Lucas Giolito and infielder Yoan Moncada. But, elite or otherwise, a handful of prospects do not a complete rebuild make, especially for a minor league system consistently ranked in the bottom third of the league.
At that point, nobody knew what the Sox’s endgame was, really. The team was still holding onto Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu, and Todd Frazier to anchor the middle of their batting order, as well as a soon-to-be great Avisail Garcia. Teams have performed well with less, to be sure (see the second Wild Card-winning Minnesota Twins this year). But the team was still decidedly not a contender. Position player depth was exceedingly thin, the rotation after Jose Quintana was chock full of mediocrity, and the bullpen? Other than a few names, eh.
As Watt alluded to in April, teams constructed like this, across all professional sports, tend to struggle. Organizations are lulled into a false sense of security by the big names on their rosters, and they fail to see the forest through the trees (see the Detroit Tigers—the only team to out-lose the Sox in the American League this year).
The Sox actually started 2017 playing pretty well before the bottom fell out in May. That was for the best. With the team realistically out of playoff contention early, general manager Rick Hahn poured gasoline on the fire in a big way, sending Quintana about a dozen Red Line stops north to the Cubs for a king’s ransom of prospects weeks before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline: Eloy Jimenez, a 20-year-old outfielder with Babe Ruthian power and 21-year-old Dylan Cease, a hard-throwing strikeout machine. Over the next few months, as the losses piled up, the Sox bid Frazier, Cabrera, and relievers David Robertson, Anthony Swarzak and Dan Jennings adieu.
Between December and August, the Sox acquired 19 minor league players in exchange for ten Major Leaguers. Of those 19, Baseball America (widely regarded as the leading authority in evaluating young talent) put eight in its top 100 prospects list in July. Moncada is ranked first and Jimenez is ranked fifth. Keep in mind that in a 30-team league, having even a handful in the top 100 is an accomplishment.
On the flip side, there is a tendency to overvalue prospects before they can prove their mettle at the highest level of the game. And there are still plenty of questions left at the Major League level, too; namely, what the team will do with Garcia and Abreu, two sluggers with high trade value. Both have expressed a strong interest in staying with the Sox and seeing this rebuild to completion.
It could happen sooner than you might think. The Tribune’s Chris Kuc reported last weekend that many in the Sox clubhouse see contending next season as a distinct possibility. With the two-Wild Card format, that might not be such a crazy proposition. After all, in September, with an expanded roster full of prospects, the Sox put together their best month of an otherwise unremarkable season, going 15-14.