For the last few years, Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams have been steadily rebuilding the White Sox base of talent, and along the way, they’ve acquired a few cornerstone players that are the envy of every other franchise in baseball. Chris Sale continues to get better by the year, and is probably the best pitcher in the American League at this point. Jose Abreu was a monster from the minute he arrived in the big leagues. Jose Quintana went from minor league free agent to rotation stalwart. The team’s struggles allowed them to be in a position to draft Carlos Rodon, who got to the big leagues less than a year after being drafted, and they just selected Carson Fulmer, another polished college pitcher who Kiley McDaniel believes could get to the big leagues very quickly as well. There are the makings of a very good team here.
Unfortunately for the White Sox, having a few star players just isn’t enough, and even with Sale dominating every fifth day, the 2015 season has been a disaster on the south side of Chicago. After pulling within two games of .500 after an early-June sweep of the Astros, the team has now lost nine of their last 11 games, including a 13-2 drubbing at the hand of the Twins yesterday. As they enter play today, they stand at 30-39, the second worst record in the American League, and even that overstates their performance to date; by BaseRuns, their expected record is 24-45.
Six weeks ago, I noted that the White Sox faced a “looming decision”, as the team’s poor start would test their conviction that this really was a roster built to contend in the short-term; since then, the White Sox have played roughly .500 ball by getting some clutch hits and stranding runners, but they haven’t really done anything to show that this is a team capable of running down the legitimate contenders in the American League this year. At this point, it’s pretty clear that the White Sox should probably be sellers in July.
But the more I look at the White Sox roster, the more I think that they probably shouldn’t just stop at moving Jeff Samardzija before he hits free agency. It might really be time for the White Sox to blow up their roster.
Sale, Abreu, and Quintana are a great starting point, and Rodon and Fulmer might join that core sooner than later, but when you look at the rest of the team, there’s almost literally nothing else of long-term value here. Adam Eaton still looks like he could be a league average player if he pulls out of his current funk, but that’s probably the optimistic outcome at this point. David Robertson is still an elite closer, but elite closers don’t move the needle much for non-contending teams, and they have the shelf life of a near-ready avocado. And after those two, pretty much everyone else on the roster needs to be replaced.
Signing Melky Cabrera looks like a disaster at this point, as he’s morphed into end-of-career Ichiro without the speed. Avisail Garcia still stinks, and there’s nothing here to make one think he’s not just Dayan Viciedo 2.0. Alexei Ramirez and Adam LaRoche look old, and even if you bet on second half improvements, both look like below average players going forward. The team doesn’t have a catcher, a second baseman, or a third baseman that should be starting in the big leagues. John Danks remains awful, holding his spot in the rotation solely because of his contract and the team’s lack of pitching depth.
There’s no real way for the White Sox to just tweak this roster and turn it into a contender. Yeah, they could move Jeff Samardzija for something, but as a middle-of-the-rotation guy heading into free agency, he isn’t going to bring back a huge return. The team could trade Robertson in order to clear his contract from the books, but if they make another team take the $40 plus million left on his deal, they’re not going to also get a significant talent return back as well. And if they don’t move Robertson’s contract, it isn’t clear that they’ll have much money to spend to try and fill all the holes that need to be filled this winter.
Right now, the team has roughly $83 million committed in 2016 salary to just nine players: $14 million to Danks, $14 million to Cabrera, $13 million to LaRoche, $11 million to Robertson, $10 million to Abreu, $9 million to Sale, $5 million to Duke, $4 million to Quintana, and $3 million to Eaton. They ran a $120 million payroll this year, so even if that bumps a little bit, that leaves them something like $40 million to fill out the final 16 spots on the roster. That’s doable if you have a lot of young cost-controlled talent who can produce value while making something close to the league minimum, but aside from Rodon, the White Sox don’t have guys like that.
So, realistically, the team will have to somehow find a starting catcher, second baseman, third baseman, shortstop, right fielder, and two starting pitchers, and that’s assuming they keep LaRoche and Cabrera in place, neither of whom should be expected to produce at a particularly high level, so the new guys have to pick up their slack as well. To be a legitimate contender, the White Sox are looking at needing to buy something like +20 WAR from seven positions at an average price of $2 million per win; the market rate for wins was roughly $8 million apiece last winter, so, yeah, good luck with that.
It’s easy to look at Sale, Abreu, Quintana, and Rodon and see a contender, but when that’s all you have, in reality, you have a team that would be lucky to crack .500. And that’s all the White Sox have right now. They have some star players in their prime and a supporting cast incapable of helping get those guys to the postseason, so it’s time to at least consider using those star players to build a more balanced team in the future.
I noted a few weeks ago that this trade deadline had the potential to be an extreme seller’s market, as there just aren’t a lot of teams looking to unload impact talent, and the guys who are available come with either contract or health questions. In Sale, Abreu, and Quintana, the White Sox have three players who are a buyer’s dream; young, effective, healthy, and cheap both now and in the future. If the White Sox decided to make everyone on their roster available, they’d immediately have the three best trade chips of any seller in the marketplace, and that wouldn’t even include Samardzija or Robertson, both of whom will also be of interest to contenders.
Yes, trading the only good players the team has would likely be a huge blow to the team’s revenues, and if you take those guys off this team, you’re left with an unwatchable product in the short-term. But in each case, it’s likely that the White Sox stars are currently at their peak value, and it’s hard to imagine there will ever be another time where the team will have as much leverage as a seller as they would this July. And these are the kinds of pieces that you don’t just have to move for future prospects; if you’re trading Chris Sale or Jose Abreu, you can demand the kinds of young big league talent that the team is desperately lacking.
What could the team ask for Sale, a +5 to +6 WAR player who is only owed about $50 million over the next four seasons? Realistically, those four years are worth something closer to $125 to $150 million — and that’s not including the in-season trade markup that applies to every July trade — so if you’re Rick Hahn, you can tell Andrew Friedman that it’s going to cost them Corey Seager and Julio Urias, plus they have to take John Danks as well. If the Cubs want to move Sale across town, great, all it will cost them is Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara, plus they have to absorb Melky Cabrera in the deal as well.
You’re not going to get as much for Abreu or Quintana, but you get lower-rent versions of these types of deals, turning one very good player into two or three pieces who could play for the 2016 White Sox. And if Rick Hahn played his cards right, getting talent back for Jeff Samardzija and David Robertson too, the White Sox might enter 2016 with a dozen interesting young players and $75 million to spend to bring in some new veterans this winter. If you’re really against waiting until 2017 to be competitive again, maybe you reinvest the savings in a David Price or a Johnny Cueto, though it’d probably be better to spread it around with short-term deals and save the big splash for when the team is definitely ready to compete.
For the rest of 2015 and likely 2016, the results will be a terrible team that is tough to watch, but this is already a pretty lousy product, only this one is headed in the wrong direction. The White Sox can hang on to Sale, Abreu, and Quintana, hoping that they can pull off a few miracles the next few winters in order to build up a talent base capable of helping those guys compete, but they’ll have to cross their fingers that those guys are still star players in 2017 or 2018, and nothing else goes wrong between now and then.
It’s the plan I expect the White Sox probably will take, but I’m not sure it will get them to contention any faster, and it’s certainly fraught with more risk. The White Sox have three great assets, but baseball teams don’t win because they have a few star players. You won’t be able to replace the star power of Sale or Abreu, but star power isn’t getting the White Sox anywhere; maybe it’s time to try having more than a half dozen Major League players on the roster.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.