By Adam Hoge-
U.S. CELLULAR FIELD (CBS) It’s been a long time since the White Sox were irrelevant.
Despite only four postseason appearances since 1990, the Sox have finished in first or second place in their division in 16 of 23 seasons. Sure, the White Sox aren’t one of the most popular teams in baseball and they don’t garner a whole lot of national attention, but for the most part, Chicago’s South Side franchise has mattered for the bulk of the current generation.
Older White Sox fans certainly went through their fair share of losing, but there’s a big percentage of White Sox fans who aren’t used to their team not mattering by June. Even with only four postseason appearances, most fans have gotten used to their team still being in the hunt for a playoff berth in late August/early September.
Unfortunately, that appears to have caught up with the White Sox.
Kenny Williams deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Sox competitive during the majority of his tenure as general manager, but eventually, when you’re “all in” every year, you’re going to get in trouble. For years, Williams won most of his trades and made clever, key signings to keep the Sox competitive. And one time, when the bulk of a good, but not great lineup came together to have career years, the result was the franchise’s first World Series title since 1917.
It was good formula for a team that always has an uphill battle in a two-team market that tends to lean to the North.
And that raises the question as to if the White Sox fan base can stomach a complete and total rebuild that could take five years. If fans aren’t filling up U.S. Cellular Field for a winning ball club, what will happen when the White Sox get bad — really bad — in order to get good?
More importantly, can the owner stomach it? Jerry Reinsdorf is now 77 years old and the White Sox admitted in a May statement that Reinsdorf “recognizes that he may be in the fourth quarter, but as he said, he’s playing for triple overtime.”
Reinsdorf has always been willing to open the checkbook and would likely do it again if triple overtime comes toward the end of a rebuild, but that doesn’t mean a new ownership group would if Reinsdorf’s sons were to sell the team during the middle of such a rebuild. It’s a hypothetical situation, but one that absolutely matters as the White Sox make enormous decisions this month that will greatly determine the longterm outlook for the franchise.
And it’s why I’m in a “believe it when I see it” mindset when it comes to an actual White Sox rebuild.
But while I’m skeptical that it will happen, I fully believe it needs to.
Kenny Williams’ approach worked, but it also left him with a small margin for error. And unfortunately, his draft track record as GM was mostly error. Do these No. 1 draft picks sound familiar? Kris Honel, Royce Ring, Brian Anderson, Josh Fields, Lance Broadway, Kyle McCulloch, Aaron Poreda, Gordon Beckham, Jared Mitchell, Chris Sale, Keenyn Walker and Courtney Hawkins.
Only two of those guys are currently on the White Sox and only one of them (Sale) can be called a smashing success. Of course, the verdict on Walker and Hawkins is still out there.
To his credit, Williams somehow convinced other teams to take some of those names to fill in other voids on his team, but in recent years, the return back has led to minimal — and often injured — results.
The warning signs have been out there. The White Sox finished under .500 in three of the last six seasons, something they hadn’t done since finishing under .500 in three straight seasons from 1997-99. And now those warning signs have turned into a complete disaster: a bad team with a lot of outs and very little offense.
All three of those recent sub-.500 teams bounced back with competitive seasons the following year, but this team is different and I’m sure the White Sox front office realizes it. Those teams had veterans with something left and young players with upside remaining. The young players left on the 2013 White Sox have minimal value and Paul Konerko, sadly, looks finished.
And there’s no help coming from Charlotte, largely due to poor drafting.
Here’s the sad, but realistic truth: the White Sox aren’t going to be serious contenders in the next few years no matter what. They might as well start rebuilding so they have a chance to be one in the more distant future.
The last time the White Sox did a total rebuild was 1987. In the following four drafts, the organization used its first pick on Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas and Alex Fernandez. That led to a serious run at a World Series in 1993 and what could have been another serious run in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Eventually, that success tailed off, largely because the White Sox’s drafting tailed off after the 1990 pick of Fernandez.
It’s a reality in all of the four major sports leagues: sustained success comes through good drafting.
Ultimately, White Sox fans should be grateful for the work Kenny Willaims did in keeping the team relevant and winning a World Series, which matters above all else. Unfortunately, it wasn’t built to last. And when it was over, the Sox only had two postseason berths in a 12-year run with Williams in charge.
My feeling is that Williams knew what was coming. Last summer, even with his team in first place, he admitted that he wasn’t enjoying his job. Not surprisingly, when the season was over, he handed the GM reigns over to Rick Hahn. Some fans might consider that leaving Hahn his mess. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but it’s also likely Williams knew Hahn was better suited to withstand cleaning it up because there’s no way he would have been able to handle all the losing that comes with a rebuild.
A rebuild that absolutely needs to happen.
Adam is as senior writer and columnist for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Chicago Bears and Chicago Blackhawks. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHoge and read more of his columns here.