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March 21, 2017

Looking Back on Tomorrow

Chicago White Sox

by Collin Whitchurch and Nick Schaefer

Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.

PECOTA White Sox Projections
Record: 76-86
Runs Scored: 708
Runs Allowed: 758
AVG/OBP/SLG (TAv): .253/.307/.402 (.252)
Total WARP: 17.9 (9.9 pitching, 8.0 non-pitching)

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

The White Sox's winter was a lot of things, but above all it was an admission of defeat. It was the organization saying, after years of grasping for wins and for a small hope of contention, that maybe this wasn’t the best way to go about it.

The success or failure of the 2017 edition of the White Sox won’t be judged by wins or losses, but by continuing along the path they started with the winter’s trading of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton. Barring all of the new prospects arriving and hitting their 90th percentile projections (e.g. Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Yoan Moncada are all basically stars immediately), Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu, and others are going to be following Sale and Eaton out the door. It’s a matter of when, not if.

And yet, 2017 will be memorable for being a clear shift from one era of the franchise to the next. From 2000-2008, the White Sox managed to be quite successful, averaging more than 86 wins per season, finishing below .500 only once, with three playoff appearances, and of course one World Series victory. Kenny Williams demonstrated that in an era when free agent starting pitchers were a poor investment, he could acquire solid no. 2 and no. 3 starters in trades, usually for prospects. Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Javier Vazquez, and Jose Contreras all joined the homegrown Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland, usually for prospects who did not pan out.

Williams also augmented his roster with mid-level or bargain-bin free agents like Tadahito Iguchi, A.J. Pierzynski, and Jermaine Dye. But that became harder and harder to sustain. Which brings us out of the World Series/Kenny Williams period to 2009-2016, when it became The Drought. The White Sox kept trying to repeat the same formula which had largely worked, building around a solid rotation and patching holes with cheap additions. Unfortunately, the stopgaps got cheaper and cheaper, and worse and worse—from solid role players like Iguchi to vortexes of depression like Jerry Sands.

Budget limitations seemed stuck in the pre-drought era as well, with no White Sox payroll exceeding that of the 2011 club despite revenues exploding league-wide since then. And so, despite the low-cost excellence of Sale, Quintana, Eaton, and Abreu the White Sox couldn’t overcome the back half of their rosters and have now failed to make the playoffs since that 2008 squad squeaked in—the third longest active drought in the league.

For the most part, even for those who were following more closely than would be healthy, the seasons blend together but for the more remarkable failures. The year Adam Dunn inexplicably forgot how to play baseball to a stunning degree was 2011. The year they blew a division lead in humiliating fashion was 2012. The year when the clubhouse melted down over the omnipresence of a 14-year-old boy and the team’s best player eviscerating some throwback jerseys was 2016.

Since 2008, only the 2012 team really made the playoff race interesting. There were some fantastic individual performances, paired with more than enough inadequacy to cancel it out. So, other than some superficial changes, the plan was largely the same and it yielded the same sub par results. For better or for worse, the White Sox are trying a new plan, and what’s startling about that is just how long it has been since they have changed course.

Sure, before now there have been seasons in which the White Sox lost a ton of games like a rebuilding team—2007, 2011, 2013—but none of those years were intended to be rebuilding years. As alluded to above, the 2011 team represents the most they’ve ever invested in payroll and they were definitely going for it. "It" just ... imploded. The White Sox certainly thought they were contenders heading into 2013, having just lost the division by three games the year before and bringing back most of the same roster. Again it just ... imploded. And whatever selling the 2013 White Sox did was tepid, as Alex Rios and Jake Peavy were traded, but the team would only consider deals with teams that would pay all or most of their salaries, diminishing what they would receive in talent.

Between skimping on drafting, a Latin America program run by a con man, and refusing to ever rebuild to any degree other than what was forced upon them, the White Sox have relentlessly attempted to white-knuckle every team just over the line and into the playoffs, with increasingly poor results. The scope of the change in plan is to finally break away from the organization’s core philosophy that has ruled since the late 90s. For the first time in decades, the plan is built around the hope that the youth now spread out across the minor-league affiliates will one day find success in Chicago.

There’s Moncada, the toolsy, athletic second baseman with power and speed who is surely destined for multiple All-Star appearances and MVP contention.There’s Giolito, the mammoth right-hander with a tempting curveball. There’s Lopez and Michael Kopech, the flame-throwing arms who are hopefully starters but, at worst, a lights out bullpen tandem—or perhaps a cartoonishly potent bullpen if they join Carson Fulmer, Zach Burdi, and Alec Hansen back there. And there’s Zach Collins, who hits moonshots and is maybe not a catcher but let’s see if he can catch because it’d be really cool if he can catch.

That’s the hope, anyway.

Not all of these guys will be hits. Some may wind up traded again down the road if and when the White Sox see another opportunity at contention. But the point of all of this, what will really make this year memorable, is that the path toward contention has changed. After years of trying the same thing over and over again with no success, this year’s White Sox are like Sisyphus finally getting sick of pushing that damn boulder up the hill, getting a jackhammer, and turning that sucker into rubble.

The other point of this is to see it through to culmination. There’s no guarantee that the White Sox, and maybe more specifically their 81-year-old owner Jerry Reinsdorf, won’t cut bait on this long-term makeover at the first whiff of success and speed things up in a detrimental fashion. If the White Sox see this through in trades of Quintana, Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and others—and they’ve given no indication they’ll do anything to the contrary—this year will be remembered for that, regardless of what kind of success they find in the future as a result.

But if this is truly the start of the team turning the table from era to era, from mediocrity to actually building toward something meaningful, this season will be remembered as the opening move in that journey. And while all plans are, in some way, predicated on hope, this year marks a very substantial change in the nature of that hope. Years from now we can continue to debate whether it was a good idea or not, but regardless of how it works out it's difficult to imagine that this year does not mark a sea change for the franchise.

Collin Whitchurch and Nick Schaefer are the co-editors-in-chief of BP South Side.

Collin Whitchurch is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Collin's other articles. You can contact Collin by clicking here

Related Content:  Chicago White Sox,  2017 Previews

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<< Previous Article
Short Relief: Fielding... (03/21)
<< Previous Column
Looking Back on Tomorr... (03/20)
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Looking Back on Tomorr... (03/21)
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Rubbing Mud: Lift Your... (03/21)

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