This year’s White Sox preview is a joint effort between Brandon Lee and Eric Oliver.
For the last 26 years, the Chicago White Sox have been operating with a single mantra: “be pretty okay, and maybe things will work out better than we thought.” If the team is “pretty okay,” you’re only a few bounces away from being “pretty good” anyway, but it all stems from being “pretty okay” to begin with.
Tim Marchman wrote in the 2015 Baseball Prospectus Annual chapter on the White Sox that the “Thomas-era” of White Sox baseball was defined by “the way pretty okayness worked as an operating principle:”
All of this ordinariness has some real advantages, though, and the main one is that while they may almost never be really great, the Sox are also almost never really lousy. The run they’re on, in which they’ve been losers two years running, is their first since the three-year stretch from 1997 to 1999, and that doesn’t really count given that two of those teams won 80 games. Properly speaking, this has been the first truly bad Sox team since the four years immediately preceding Frank Thomas’ 1990 debut, in which they lost 90 games three out of four years and sank all the way to the bottom of the league in attendance. That’s pretty okay. There are a whole lot of fans who would take it.
The “Thomas Era,” defined by Marchman as the period of time between Frank Thomas’s call-up and Paul Konerko’s retirement (because Konerko was the last White Sox to play with Thomas) can be broken down into several different parts — and from a team-building standpoint, the era really extends to 2016. Here’s a Helpful Timeline:
Let’s walk through some history, shall we?
TRUE-THOMAS PERIOD – 1990-2003
In the True-Thomas Period, the idea behind being good every year was not only to keep the White Sox relevant to baseball fans in a two-team city, but also to win and maximize a transcendent hitting talent in Frank Thomas. Here, the Sox won the division twice, in 1993 and 2000 (the Sox were also in first place in 1994 before the Strike). The team was able to develop players from within to put around Thomas, including Robin Ventura, Alex Fernandez, Ozzie Guillen, and Ray Durham.
The ending of the Thomas Period is represented in the Belle Epoch, which includes the signing of Albert Belle to what was then the largest per-year contract in baseball, and the White Flag Trade, which saw the Sox deal Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez, and Danny Darwin (6 WAR worth of pitchers that season) to the Giants for six minor leaguers.
Pulling the trigger on the White Flag Trade might not have seemed so strange except that the Sox sat only 3 games behind Cleveland for first place in the division. The whole point of putting together “pretty okay” teams is so that you have a shot every year. They ended up 6 games behind Cleveland to end the season, and there were indicators that the Sox overperformed, as their Pythagorean record was 4 wins worse than their final 80-81 record.
On one level, moves like signing Belle and the White Flag Trade are gutsy – they both involve stepping out of your team’s normal process and taking a pretty huge risk. But in neither case did they pay off: Belle had a down year in 1997 and left after rebounding in 1998; and while the White Flag Trade netted Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry (two key relievers on the 2000 division winning team), none of the players acquired ranked in the Baseball America top 100 from that season, and the Giants were able to recoup three compensation draft picks after Alvarez and Hernandez left in free agency (both signing with the Rays).
This seemed to be a turning point for the Sox that marked the start of a fairly conservative approach for much of the next two decades. The one-year rentals of David Wells and Bartolo Colon notwithstanding, the Sox shied away from big moves.
KONERKO PERIOD – 2004-2012
During the Konerko Period, the idea behind being good every year was to spread the wealth and have a team made up of players who were all at least “pretty okay” themselves, even without a single great player. This period brought the Sox a World Series title in 2005, (a year where Mark Buehrle led the team with 4.8 WAR and Frank Thomas was mostly sidelined by injury in his last season with the club) and another division title in 2008.
As the Sox attempted to be “pretty okay” in the post-World Series days, the “They Played for the White Sox??” epoch brought some fun names through the South Side in a series of That’s So White Sox! transactions: players who were often past their prime, much more notable for accomplishments with other teams, and could be acquired at little or no cost in talent, money, or effort. How about a list? The top 5 That’s So White Sox! transactions. Go:
1. Traded for Ken Griffey, Jr. — The Kid was washed up and near the end of his career when the Sox brought him on. It showed in his .260/.347/.405 slash line, and his tenure came to define a “White Sox move.” It will also be a touchstone on the “congratulating players who were way more famous for playing for other teams” trend when Griffey made the Hall of Fame. All that said, Griffey came up with a big play in the AL Central tiebreaker game.
2. Signed Andruw Jones — Another great Kenny Williams acquisition. Jones put up a decent enough .230/.341./.486 slash line in 107 games. Like Griffey, Jones would play two more years before calling it quits. (Honorable mentions from 2010: Trading for Juan Pierre AND claiming Manny Ramirez off waivers. What a year!)
3. Signed Adam Dunn — Sox fans won’t forget that the Big Donkey played here, but other people might. In the first season of a four-year $56 million contract, he hit .159/.292/.277. His second season he hit .204/.333/.468. His third season he hit .219/.320/.442. Then in his final 106 games with the Sox, Dunn hit .220/.340/.433. In that last season, Dunn made his only career pitching appearance. He lasted one inning, gave up two hits, a walk and an earned run for an ERA of 9.00. Dunn made the roster for the A’s in their Wild Card Game against the Royals in 2014, but alas never got to the plate and retired without appearing in a playoff game.
4. Traded for Jake Peavy — Long a rumored target of the Chicago Cubs, the Sox ultimately landed the former Padre in 2009. Peavy was worth 9.9 WAR and was traded to the Red Sox at the end of the 2013 season solidifying their rotation for a World Series run, and was a part of the first stages of the White Sox sell-off, netting Avisail Garcia (still on the roster) and Frankie Montas (since traded for Todd Frazier) in return.
5. Traded for Kevin Youkilis — Did you remember that the Greek God of Walks played for the White Sox? Youk was part of a June trade from Red Sox to the White Sox and upon arriving in Chicago he put up a .236/.346/.425 line in 344 PA, good for a 108 OPS+.
SALE PERIOD – 2013-2016
The downfall of the Konerko Period ushered in the Sale Period, where the team managed to develop (Sale) and acquire (Quintana, Eaton, Abreu) great players AND sign them to team-friendly contracts. The idea behind being Pretty Okay in this timeframe was to maximize these seasons where their core players are young, productive, and cheap. But thanks to a depleted farm system (ranked dead last by Baseball Prospectus in 2012 and 29th in 2013) and some free agent signings that went the wrong way (David Robertson having a down year, everything related to Adam LaRoche), the Sox fell into their first true rut since before they drafted Frank Thomas in 1989.
The thing about the Stars and Scrubs approach to team building is that the scrubs often let you down. The Sox didn’t invest a lot of time into the “scrubs” portion of their team (as is the nature of Stars and Scrubs, usually), cycling through aging veterans with little production left like Jimmy Rollins, Mat Latos, Justin Morneau, and James Shields. It’s easy to forget (and hard to believe) that the 2016 White Sox were in first place as late as May 27, but severe regression eventually dropped them to fourth place. If “pretty okay” only lasts for a month-and-a-half, it might be time to change how things are done.
HAHN PERIOD – Modern Day
Perhaps the new era is the one where focus shifts to General Manager Rick Hahn, who has been let loose by President of Baseball Operations Kenny Williams. It seemed as though Williams continued pulling the strings after Hahn’s ascension, his fingerprints all over the That’s So White Sox!-style moves that continued the last two seasons, but once the spending spree of pre-2015 yielded little in terms of results, Williams and owner Jerry Reinsdorf gave way and approved the rebuild.
With the “pretty okay” mandate removed from Hahn’s deliverables, his work this offseason began with a farm system overhaul that moved the White Sox to number 3 on the Baseball Prospectus farm rankings heading into 2017, moving up from that 29th place ranking just four years ago. The Sox also landed six players in the BP top 101, up from a single entrant in the 2016 list. It also saw the departure of a couple of the “stars” in Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, hurting the big club’s chances at least in the near term.
The Sale Period has the strongest connection to the current White Sox, if only because of the holdovers: Jose Quintana and Jose Abreu anchor this team as its potential All-Stars and shirsey sellers. Rumors continue to swirl about Quintana being on the trade block, and Abreu’s name pops up every now and then, but also look for the Sox to shop players like Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Melky Cabrera – guys who can bring back a small return as long as their current team pays their salary.
Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito are the farm system headliners, and if the club’s history of being aggressive with major league promotions continues, both could see significant time in the majors this year (though both had brief, if unimpressive, debuts in 2016 with their former teams). Recent White Sox first round picks Chris Sale (now with the Red Sox), Carlos Rodon, and Carson Fulmer all made it to the big leagues within a year of being drafted, though it should be acknowledged that those promotions happened with perhaps the faintest hope of contention. With that off the table, maybe the Sox will be a bit more conservative.
As long as we’re thinking about at the current roster, how about some Picks to Click? Not the traditional White Sox Picks to Click (who will get a hit today) – rather, a couple of people to watch this upcoming season, regardless of position:
Nate Jones: the most important piece of the bullpen is on a ridiculously friendly contract. If he can stay healthy, which is a big if, the only thing stopping Jones from being and remaining dominant is Jones himself. It’s a pleasure watching Jones come out of the pen, and he should be set for another big year. A repeat of last year’s stats, his dominance and contract will make him the most attractive pitcher not named Jose Quintana on the White Sox.
Rick Renteria: New Sox manager Rick Renteria is being wrongly viewed as a stop gap manager. The former Cubs manager had a good year on the Northside before being canned for Joe Maddon. Renteria seems more suited for the role than Robin Ventura, and his Spanish speaking background is a plus for the Sox. His impact will be felt on the current team (no more poor bullpen management please, I’m begging you) but he could play an even more instrumental role in the future.
What is success:
Success for the 2017 White Sox centers around the development of players like Moncada and Giolito in the upper minors, and the continuing sell-off of remaining Major League talent – Quintana for a significant prospect haul, and others including Frazier, Cabrera, and Robertson for minor leaguers who are likely closer to “interesting” than “blue chip.”
Success also isn’t tied to Major League results this season. Being “pretty okay” is likely off the table until 2019 or so. It’s only semantics since the Sox have unintentionally had a string of 70-win seasons, but mark this one down as intentional and don’t take those 300-1 odds: put the 2017 White Sox at 72-90.Next post: The 2017 Cleveland Indians: A Season Preview
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