There might not be a harder to evaluate GM in sports than Kenny Williams. Since 2006, his teams have alternated between winning and losing seasons each year, so his team’s recent performance track record is a mixed bag. At the same time, his farm system is universally considered the worst in baseball, and the team has not drafted well or developed any international talent, and as such, the White Sox have had to rely on aging veterans to keep the team in contention. This is generally not a great roster construction strategy.
However, Williams has the White Sox winning again this year, and it’s due in large part to one aspect of the game that he seems to be exceptionally good at — grabbing good players from other teams at the absolute nadir of their value. Or, to borrow from an old cliche, Kenny Williams seems to be better than anyone else at turning chicken $&*# into chicken salad.
Look at this White Sox roster. Their best position player has been Alex Rios, who has raced up +2.9 WAR and is probably going to finish the year as a 20-20 outfielder. Williams claimed Rios off waivers in 2009, just a year and a half into a 7 year, $70 million extension that Toronto gave him and then immediately regretted. Rios has had his ups and downs in Chicago as well, but he’s currently one of the more productive right fielders in baseball, and Williams got him for nothing more a willingness to take on the remainder of his salary.
He did nearly the same thing with Jake Peavy, who was acquired from the Padres for a pu-pu platter of pitching prospects, the best of whom has turned out to be Clayton Richard. Again, he was able to acquire a talented player without sacrificing talent by absorbing the remainder of a large contract, as Peavy had three years and $52 million left on the extension San Diego had granted him a few years earlier. Peavy’s at +3.4 WAR this year, and his success is one of the main reasons the White Sox are contending.
Then, a month ago, Williams pulled off an even better trick, acquiring Kevin Youkilis from the White Sox for Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart — a couple of bit pieces that the team didn’t need — while getting Boston to pay all but $2 million of the remainder of Youkilis’ contract. In this deal, he filled a gaping hole at third base without surrendering talent or taking on money. He basically just saw an opportunity to get a formerly good player for free and took it.
And now, over the weekend, Williams picked up Liriano from the Twins in the pitching version of the Youkilis deal, only this one may be his best yet. While Liriano was horrible early in the season, he’d already turned back into a good player even before Williams acquired him, posting a 2.7 K/BB ratio over 11 starts since moving back into the rotation on May 30th. Usually, Williams bets on the player returning to prior form after getting to Chicago, but in this case, Liriano has already gotten good again, and yet the White Sox still got him for a couple of marginal prospects and no long term commitment in salary.
Rios, Peavy, Youkilis, and Liriano were all unwanted by their previous employers, and Williams used those situations to add talent to his roster without giving up any in return. These kinds of acquisitions aren’t risk free — Rios was terrible last year while Peavy spent good sized chunks of 2010 and 2011 on the DL — but they are moves that have propelled the White Sox into the top spot in the AL Central despite Williams having fewer chips to deal with than anyone else in baseball.
When we talk about dumpster diving, we usually think about Billy Beane or Andrew Friedman looking for some kind of undervalued asset in the International League and turning them into a useful role player. But, in reality, Kenny Williams might just be the master of the dumpster dive, as he keeps going into other team’s discard piles and coming away with quality players simply by buying low on guys who have track records that suggest better things could be in store going forward.
There’s probably no GM in baseball that operates under the “buy low” mantra more than Williams, and his willingness to take risks on guys who aren’t performing up to their established standards has allowed him to once again put a winning team on the field. It’s an unconventional approach, but right now, Williams looks like something of a genius. In Youkilis and Liriano, he’s made two significant upgrades without giving up any talent or taking on any real money.
No GM is going to do more to help his franchise this summer than what Williams has done for the White Sox. By being aggressive in taking on unwanted talent, Williams really has turned out a delicious batch of chicken salad.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.