By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Take your eyes away from the flaming garbage that is the White sox at the moment, if you have yet to do so.
Ignore the defensive buffoonery, the maddening struggle to reach base, and the brain-dead behavior once somebody actually, astonishingly gets there, only to be picked off or thrown out. Don’t think about the stalled development of young players, either. And take a deep breath.
Something good is happening, and it’s visible in the hard numbers.
This year’s total payroll after the trades of Jake Peavy, Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain is down to $119 million. For 2014, it drops to $61 million (give or take some arbitration-eligibles), and bottoms out to a mere $37 million committed for the year after that. It’s possible, too, that another deal like that of Adam Dunn or Alex Rios could be in some way off the books via a trade before next season, lessening the load further. That’s real flexibility, which is a clearer asset than ever, now.
And it looks better and better with more multifaceted analysis.
This is not a call for free-agent spending as its own end, in some vain pursuit of temporary not-badness that only delays the eventual construction of a perennial contender for championships. Far from it, in fact. Financial elasticity is becoming a new market inequity in MLB, allowing creative teams more options for accelerated improvement as they take advantage of opponents laden with large, unproductive contracts.
Some of us have been distracted by the disappointing minor-league system, concentrating on the dearth of prospects without looking at the larger picture general manager Rick Hahn must be considering in his current, unenviable position.
It is rare for a rebuilding team to already have the hardest thing to get in baseball: a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. GMs do crazy, risky, expensive things to acquire guys like Chris Sale, and the White Sox not only have him, but they have under control through 2019 for well under market value. Even if he gets hurt, they are protected by both the low-end commitment and the consecutive options in the final two years.
Behind Sale is other, useful starting pitching all theirs for the next few years in John Danks, Jose Quintana and Hector Santiago, even as the rest of the slate is erased.
Here’s where the emptying roster can work hand in hand to help restock the system. When you can afford to take on money in deals, you can get prospects in return. The White Sox have the ability to function as a troubled-asset relief program in the trade market, which can let them charge a premium for the service. They will have to field a team, after all, and they can add expensive veterans in the short term while also receiving prospects close to MLB readiness. Older players at the end of bad deals could outperform expectations, with the Sox incurring no risk if they don’t.
If there really is a free agent of actual value, somebody road-blocked positionally, say, who’s on the right side of 30 and worthy of investment, they will have a chance to make that move as well while still remaining well under any luxury-tax threshold.
And they will be looking at a top pick in the next amateur draft – their booby prize for this season’s face-plant.
Most rebuilds don’t look like this so soon. More often, it takes years to shed all the bad money either through expiration or trades that involve eating huge sums of money just to take a name off the roster. Then the search begins for some way to build a representative pitching staff.
Hahn has a big job to do to restore his team’s title trajectory, to be sure. It’s ugly right now.
But he has the luxury of a No. 1 starter, arms behind that, and the kind of financial freedom that allows for moves to be made with opportunism and foresight, rather than from a defensive position. He has all this information and a hundred times more, and appears to be working toward restructuring the organization without the full competitive concession necessitated elsewhere.
The White Sox are deep in baseball’s dark wilderness, but for the first time in a while we may be able to see the precarious path that leads them out.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.