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To rebuild or not to rebuild? That is the question.
If the White Sox do rebuild - or whatever you wish to call it - the experience will be a new one for a franchise which has had other sub-.500 stretches that are very reminiscent of the current situation. A fourth consecutive losing season seems likely even after the Sox won two-of-three over the weekend against the Oakland A's, a club even more in limbo than the local contingent. Losing twice in a three-game set earlier in the week in Cleveland resulted in another 3-3 week, not exactly what's needed as the fellows hope to at least break even for the season.
Perhaps the closest the franchise has come to sacrificing the present for the future occurred at the trade deadline in 1989, when fan favorite and 10-year Sox veteran Harold Baines was traded to Texas for infielder Scott Fletcher, minor league pitcher Wilson Alvarez, and a skinny rookie named Sammy Sosa.
That '89 team went on to finish with 92 losses under manager Jeff Torborg, who was in his first season as the Sox skipper. In the previous three campaigns, the team never won more than 77 games.
In today's world, the move to swap Baines for a solid but not outstanding infielder and two unproven prospects might be construed as a sign of rebuilding. However, the losing ceased immediately as the very next season the club rebounded to post a 94-68 ledger, good for second place in the West Division of the American League. Without the expanded playoff format, the Sox went home feeling just fine about their marked improvement.
So how did it happen? Fletcher became the everyday second baseman, teaming with Ozzie Guillen for a sterling double-play combination. Center fielder Lance Johnson, injured for much of the 1989 season, played in almost every game, batted leadoff, got on base, stole a bunch of bases, and patrolled the outfield as well as anyone. With Carlton Fisk behind the plate, the team was strong up the middle. Righthander Jack McDowell won 14 games after bouncing between Comiskey Park and Triple-A the previous season while trying to remain healthy.
Simply put, it was a combination of health, luck, and better play. A rebuild it was not.
Let's also point out that nary an eyebrow would be raised if the contract of manager Robin Ventura is not renewed after this season. In the past, a fresh face in the dugout has accounted for improvement, such as when Chuck Tanner assumed the reins in 1971 after the club lost 106 games the season before. Tanner's first team improved to 79-83 and with the arrival of Dick Allen a year later, the Sox challenged Oakland in the West Division, finishing second with 87 wins.
A young Tony LaRussa got his first managerial job at age 34 during the 1979 season when the under-financed franchise recognized a bargain and the potential of LaRussa, who would go on to win more games than any manager not named Connie Mack or John J. McGraw. Only the South Side Hitmen of 1977 finished above .500 in the years 1975-80. As LaRussa was earning his chops, the team showed steady improvement, winning 99 games and the Division title in 1983.
Hence White Sox history discloses that given an astute choice, changing the team's manager can make a difference. Hahn's managerial decision will be the most intriguing development of the offseason.
Sox fans have every right to debate the wisdom of Hahn's trades and signings since he was named general manager almost four years ago. However, it's folly to suggest that the guy hasn't made an attempt to improve this often aimless franchise. He's had some poor luck and arguably false expectations, but he is not averse to bartering for and signing players if he feels they can improve his ballclub.
Adam Dunn - whom Hahn helped sign for four years at $56 million - had already been in a Sox uniform for two seasons when Hahn became GM, but the Big Donkey is a prime example of plans gone awry. Not only was Dunn one of the most productive power hitters in the National League for 10 seasons, but he also brought over a .250 lifetime batting average. In almost four seasons with the Sox, he hit a slew of home runs, but he also slumped to .202. Who could have predicted that?
Same with Todd Frazier, whom Hahn procured last winter in a three-team deal that cost the Sox Trayce Thompson, Micah Johnson, and pitcher Frankie Montas. While Frazier has hit 31 home runs and leads the team in RBI with 76, he has performed much like Dunn, hitting .212 - compared to .257 in five National League seasons - after collecting three hits Sunday to help Jose Quintana reach 10 victories for the first time in his career.
Frazier also had an on-base percentage of .312 before coming to the White Sox. That number has diminished to .295 this season.
Did Hahn make an intelligent move getting Frazier? We'll have to wait another season to find out. Maybe Frazier will bounce back, and he does provide the best defense at third base since Joe Crede. But he'll need to hit higher than .151 with runners in scoring position and simply get on base more often to make the deal appear worthwhile.
Meanwhile, the trio that Hahn swapped for Frazier has been hampered by injuries in the cases of Thompson and Montas, who actually has moved on to Oakland in a deadline trade a month ago, while Johnson has spent the season in the minors.
Innumerable players have been released to free agency during Hahn's reign. He bid farewell to guys like Gordon Beckham, Tyler Flowers, Alexei Ramirez, and Jeff Samardzija. The Sox miss none of them.
Speaking of Samardzija, in an attempt to improve for 2015, Hahn sent shortstop Marcus Semien, catcher Josh Phegley, pitcher Chris Bassitt and minor-leaguer Rangel Ravelo to Oakland for the Notre Dame product, who had gone 7-13 in 2014, splitting time between the Cubs and the A's. But Samardzija's sparkling ERA of 2.99 ERA in 219-plus innings made the deal look like a reasonable risk. Who knew that Samardzija would often look like James Shields for much of last season? Well, maybe not that bad, but 11-13 and a 4.96 ERA impressed no one.
As for the quartet Hahn exchanged, Phegley very well could be the Sox regular catcher today, although beating out Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila doesn't require a Pudge Rodriguez. Phegley has been hampered by injuries this season, having had knee surgery last month. Bassitt also quickly went to the DL. He's rehabbing from Tommy John surgery that he underwent last May. Ravelo is in Triple-A, slashing .260/.320/.395.
Semien has become the A's regular shortstop and looked flashy at times at The Cell over the weekend. So far this season he's made 16 errors, a noticeable improvement over the 35 he committed last year. And he's belted 23 home runs to go along with his respectable slash of .240/.302/.748.
Hahn no doubt made the deal knowing that the Sox shortstop of the future would be Tim Anderson, who arguably has a larger upside than Semien. It's safe to say that had Semien and Phegley remained with the Sox, the team wouldn't be any better or worse than it is now.
One deal that Hahn made that truly has improved the White Sox came prior to the 2014 season, when he dealt away left-handed pitcher Hector Santiago for Adam Eaton, who has become the team's best player. Santiago continues to pitch at the big league level, having just been traded again from the Angels to the Twins. Hector competes fiercely and owns a 3.88 ERA for six seasons, but he addition of Eaton far outweighs the departure of Santiago.
Perhaps the one deal that Hahn wouldn't mind rescinding involved sending closer Addison Reed, who recorded 40 saves in 2013, to Arizona for third baseman Matt Davidson. Reed continues to pitch effectively in relief for the Mets. The White Sox bullpen sorely needs someone of his caliber.
Meanwhile, Davidson has spent most of his time in the minors trying not to strike out, which he did 191 times at Charlotte last season. However, his five homers and .413 average in spring training did not go unnoticed. Once Davidson got called up to the Sox on June 30th, he recorded a hit and an RBI, but while rounding first base, he hit the bag, breaking his foot. Surgery followed the next day. So White Sox!
With six weeks and 39 games left in this frustrating, disappointing season, auditions for the future will begin in earnest when rosters expand on September 1. It's not exactly the drama that excites anyone.
1. From Pete Scheffler:
At some point Rick Hahn needs to stop signing National League free agents and expecting them to do the same as they did in the American League. I'm sure there are exceptions in baseball, but not on the Sox. The pro scouting department, if there is such a thing on the Sox, is pathetic. Name a free agent who has done better on the Sox then his previous team.
2. From Michael J. Zalewski:
Melky. Eaton, Kind of. That's about it. https://t.co/OErzincLEY— Michael J. Zalewski (@mjzalewski) August 22, 2016
3. From Fahim:
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Good read https://t.co/ZYhLLrMM3q— Fahim (@kfumrani) August 22, 2016