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I'm hearing increasing calls for a Sox rebuild this offseason. "Blow it up" seems to be the consensus of opinion as the South Side contingent heads into the last two weeks of the season with faint hopes of finishing .500.
But I'm not so sure for a few reasons.
The term "rebuild" has been aptly applied to the Cubs ever since the fall of 2011 with the arrival of Theo Epstein, who described the strategy the day he moved from Boston. He traded established players for young prospects while piling up 286 losses in his first three seasons, with the silver lining being high draft picks. Those losses are all but forgotten by most Cub fans amid the euphoria of 2016.
Let's figure that the Sox finish with 79 wins or thereabouts, which is frustrating and disappointing even though - brace yourselves - Robin Ventura's club has ticked up in victories the last three seasons after losing 99 games in 2013.
Looking back to last season, of the 10 post-season qualifiers, three of them, the Cubs, Astros and Mets, finished under .500 the season before.
Cleveland and Boston appear headed for division titles this season after finishing 81-80 and 78-84, respectively, in 2015. Detroit and Seattle remain in the wild card race even though the Tigers won just 74 games and the Mariners 76 just one year ago.
The point is that a number of teams with similar records to where the Sox will finish this season rally to become playoff contenders the following season with a few free agent signings but without trading their best players.
Occasionally the improvement is startling, such as in Houston where the Astros lost 106, 107, and 111 games the seasons of 2011-13 as they adjusted to the post-Bagwell/Biggio era. After beating the Yankees in the wild card game last year, the Astros dropped a close 3-2 division series to the Royals, who, of course, became World Series champions.
Because of the alarming number of losses, the Astros used their high draft choices for players like Carlos Correa and George Springer, who joined Latin American free agent Jose Altuve and others to quickly become competitive. However, the Astros, despite being above .500 this season, need to make up three games in the wild card race at this time in order to play in October. So the "rebuild," if you want to call it that, has had somewhat mixed results.
Remember when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2013 after finishing 69-93 and dead last in their division the year before? The personnel didn't change a whole lot, but the manager did; after Bobby Valentine's one disastrous season, John Farrell was hired to right the ship. (File that thought until a few paragraphs more.)
Consider the Central Division foe Tigers. In 2003 they lost 119 games, the most in American League history. (The 1962 Mets set the all-time record with 120.) Three seasons later they won the World Series.
So how did that happen without a rebuild or blowup? By 2005, under manager Alan Trammell, a Tiger for his entire 20-year career, Detroit went 71-91, giving Trammell's teams an average of 100 losses over a three-year period.
Instead of making wholesale changes in the roster, Trammell was fired, and Jim Leyland took over. Guys like Ivan Rodriguez, Placido Polanco, Brandon Inge, Magglio Ordonez, Chris Shelton, and Carlos Guillen remained in the starting lineup. Rookie Justin Verlander blossomed into a 17-game winner, and the free agent signings of Kenny Rogers (17 wins) and veteran closer Todd Jones (37 saves) shored up the pitching staff as the team won 95 games.
The Tigers' situation was somewhat analogous to the present-day White Sox in the sense that each team's manager was a popular former player for the franchise. But a change was needed, and Leyland, who won two pennants in his eight years in Detroit, turned out to be an elixir, much like Joe Maddon on the North Side. Maybe a manager of Leyland's caliber isn't waiting in the wings to guide the White Sox in 2017, but it's clearly time to find out if someone other than Robin Ventura can do better.
If the White Sox were enduring 95 to 100 losses, the argument for a complete makeover would be much stronger. However, as mediocre and lackluster as this team plays, the thought of peddling Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Melky Cabrera or anyone else not named Adam Eaton or Tim Anderson doesn't make a lot of sense. There should be ways to squeeze out another eight to ten victories without starting over.
Besides, things could be much worse. White Sox fans are hungry for October baseball and justifiably so. The Sox have entered post-season play only three times this century. But nine teams have qualified just once or twice.
Like the Sox, the Marlins won a World Series (2003), but that is the one and only time they've advanced to the post-season in the 2000s. The Rockies, a 24-year-old franchise, have finished over .500 just seven times and have won as many as 90 games only twice ever. See, we don't have it so bad.
Kansas City is another franchise that posted just one winning season between 1995 and 2012. Eighteen seasons. Seventeen under .500. The Sox aren't close to being that inept.
However, those losing seasons resulted in high draft choices, and the Royals chose wisely with first-rounders Alex Gordon (2005), Mike Moustakas (2007), and Eric Hosmer (2008). Catcher Salvador Perez was signed as a free agent in 2006, and pitcher Zach Greinke was traded to Milwaukee for Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar. Pitchers James Shields (he used to be good) and Wade Davis were added in a trade for the 2013 season, and, finally, the Royals were winners.
After all those losing seasons, I suppose you could say that the Royals rebuilt. However, let's be clear that it isn't enough to draft talent in the early rounds. It's what you do and how you teach that talent once they enter your system. The Royals' success the past two seasons hasn't been built around robust home run hitting and Cy Young winners but rather situational hitting, speed and keen base running, defense, and an especially effective bullpen.
Talking about a bullpen, in addition to a managerial change, this should be the next objective if the Sox are to move forward in 2017.
Consider that the team has lost 23 games this season when leading after six innings, the point at which the bullpen usually takes over. Compare that to the Indians, who have blown just nine games in the final three innings this season. The Royals' bullpen failed to protect sixth-inning leads just 10 times last year and a mere six in 2014. That is the difference between a division winner and a fourth-place team.
If the Sox had blown, say, 15 games instead of 23 in the final three innings this season, they'd be 80-69 instead of 72-77, and seriously contending for a wild card berth.
General manager Rick Hahn a few weeks ago said that fans would know very soon after the season ends the direction the team is taking. Since post-season play extends to the end of October, is it foolish to interpret his remarks as anything other than a prediction that Ventura will be fired?
If that is indeed the case, then Hahn can go about the business of building a better bullpen, one which inherits leads after Sale, Quintana, Carlos Rodon, and maybe Miguel Gonzalez or a rejuvenated James Shields or rookie Carson Fulmer do their jobs.
There are other holes to fill, like behind the plate, but manager and bullpen are the places to start.
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Posted on Jan 19, 2018