By Cee Angi-
(CBS) There are 16 games left in the season for the White Sox, and since they were mathematically eliminated from making the postseason last week, October seems like it’s not coming fast enough.
No one would dare sugarcoat the abysmal performance of the 2013 White Sox, and when Rick Hahn spoke to the media earlier this week, he described the season as “gut-wretching” and noted that he now has more gray hairs than he did back in April.
If there’s one silver lining to the team’s early collapse, it’s that the organization has had a couple extra months to refine a blueprint for next season. How this winter is handled will be the difference-maker in the Sox’ immediate future. Chances are Rick ends up with a few more grays up top before April gets here.
The retooling process—which seems to be the preferred buzzword, as it doesn’t seem to conjure up as much panic as rebuild–is already underway, and the trades of Alex Rios, Jake Peavy, Matt Thornton, and Jesse Crain did a fine job of not only clearing dollars from the payroll, but also at bringing back young talent, especially the two Garcias, Avisail and Leury. Avisail, the Garcia with the higher upside, could be a fixture in right field for years to come; in 110 plate appearances with the White Sox, he’s hitting .317/.355/.433. Leury, who the Sox got as part of the Rios trade and is known for speed and defense, could make a good utility man, but may never be a starter unless he improves at the plate.
The trade deadline was just step one in a multi-tiered process, and the part that we can’t know yet is how the White Sox plan to behave this offseason. Hahn offered some hints this week in a semi-candid conversation with the media. While he didn’t offer much in the way of specifics, he reiterated what many have already assumed would be part of the plan: Identify the keepers out of the current pitching staff, entertain trades, and participate in the free-agent market. Nothing in that plan is too revelatory, but there’s a limit on how much can be accomplished in one offseason given how the team is constrained by talent and finances, not to mention how competitive (and expensive) the market for free agents has become. The Sox have their work cut out for them, but there’s a chance that the team looks dramatically different when spring training starts.
The pitching staff is one of the team’s greatest assets, but it will be one of the trickiest parts for the organization to sort through. The pitchers would fetch the most value in terms of trades, but if they move the wrong pitchers, the team might take a step backward to take a step forward. The Sox’ pitchers are already the fifth-youngest in the majors, and even more young talent is now arriving in the form of Andre Rienzo, Erik Johnson, and Charlie Leesman, all of whom may be ready for major-league roles next season. Because of the surplus of arms, the Sox can consider trading a pitcher or two, but aside from Sale, who the organization clearly won’t trade unless the return is astronomical, they probably won’t get much value in return. Their two most tradable pitchers are Addison Reed and Hector Santiago, and while they should almost certainly trade Reed while his value is high given the variability of bullpen arms over time, the versatility of Santiago, who can start and work as a swingman, fills a critical role on the roster that’s hard to replicate.
Of the position players who could be traded, there are only three that might net a return, albeit a small one. Adam Dunn, Alexei Ramirez, and Gordon Beckham could fill spots for other teams, but they each present their own unique dilemma for potential buyers. Dunn is an enigma: One of the worst defensive players of all time, he should be a designated hitter. Unfortunately, his splits are dramatically better when he’s playing in the field (he’s hitting .261/.375/.514 when playing first this season, but .180/.266/.369 as DH). Ramirez still has good range and hot streaks at the plate, but he has two more years left on his contract and he’s owed $19.5 million dollars, not counting an additional $10 million if a team decides to pick up his option for 2016. Beckham has shown some improvements this season, having one of the best seasons of his career, but any potential buyer would be taking on the risk that his hitting struggles return.
The Sox have little in the way of additional minor-league talent that will either invigorate the 2014 roster or draw interest from other teams, which complicates the prospect of making bigger deals, since they are trying to retain and groom the produce from the farm, not sell it, but with their current prospects, it’s not clear that many of these players will ever see consistent playing time in the majors. There’s hope that Marcus Semien, who has one of the best walk rates in the organization, could eventually see some time at third, and that Rienzo, Leesman, and Johnson can fill pitching voids, but guys like Miguel Gonzalez, Angel Sanchez, and Daniel Webb will probably make their way back to the minors when the season is over and stay there.
Because of these issues, trade routes seem more like dead ends for the Sox than they do roads to championships. That’s why clearing nearly $75 million in payroll was important this season: It allows them to target free agents. The Sox are in dire need of upgrades at center field, catcher, and third base, and the question isn’t whether or not the Sox try for free agents, but what sort of talent and budget they are seeking. During a retooling, some teams opt for lower-tier talent and veterans to work as stop gaps while other players grow organically, but given the confidence that the organization has in the pitching staff, there’s a good chance that they are aggressive on high-end free agents to speed up the process.
The White Sox have not been huge spenders on the free agent market—their top three in the last three years are Dunn, Crain, and Jeff Keppinger—and while it may seem prudent for owner Jerry Reinsdorf to lock up the windfall of saving in payroll, the truth is that he wants to win and if Kenny Williams and Hahn convince him that they’ve found the right players to meet long-term goals, he’s going to sign the checks, just like he did for Dunn when they decided they needed another bat to compete prior to the 2011 season.
Retooling doesn’t have to mean hitting rock bottom before getting better, not when you have this kind of pitching depth, so if there’s a chance to get Jacoby Ellsbury or Curtis Granderson for the outfield or Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Brian McCann behind the plate, the Sox will at least explore how to make that happen. Whether or not they can attract that sort of player to a rebuilding – excuse me, retooling — roster is another story, but the Sox will have to offer long-term deals if they go this route; they’ll likely have to overpay to attract players to a team that is on the rebound, and then have to deal with the fact that they may be on the downslope of their career by time the team is competitive.
Whatever approach they take is fraught with risk. Deduct the wrong pitchers to add offense and they could end up worse than when they started. Sign an older free agent to stabilize the lineup and there’s a chance they could be stuck with an expensive has-been by the time they are competitive again. And no matter what they do, it’s going to be years before the farm system is ready to make an impact. Before it’s all over, Hahn may not only have grey hairs, but he might start losing them. It took years of neglect for the Sox to get to this place, and digging them out is not going to be simple.
Cee Angi is a freelance sportswriter, whose work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, The Platoon Advantage, The Classical, and is currently one of SB Nation’s featured columnists covering Major League Baseball. Follow her on Twitter @CeeAngi and read more of her CBS Chicago blog entries here.