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The Chicago White Sox' road to redemption

The White Sox are signing free agents at a furious pace -- why are they taking this path, and what are the chances it will pay off?

Rick Hahn, White Sox GM
Rick Hahn, White Sox GM
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It's been an extremely busy offseason for the White Sox as they've signed Adam LaRoche, David Robertson and Melky Cabrera to free agent deals, acquired Jeff Samardzija in a trade with the Athletics, and made other additions as well. General Manager Rick Hahn promised to be active, and he had a lot of work to do on a team that's won fewer than seventy-five games two years in a row and desperately needs a winning team to put fans in the seats.

Many have written on what the Sox are doing, such as Beyond the Box Score Associate Editor Neil Weinberg below, Laurence Holmes of 670 The Score (the White Sox flagship radio station), and Sports Illustrated's Jay Jaffe, but I'm more interested in the reasons that required such a flurry of activity.

After Cabrera's signing was announced, Brett Lyons, a producer for both The Score and Comcast SportsNet Chicago (the TV network for the majority of Sox games) tweeted this:

Contrast this lineup with what was trotted out at the beginning of 2014:

Pos 2015 2014
C Tyler Flowers Tyler Flowers
1B Jose Abreu Jose Abreu
2B Micah Johnson Gordon Beckham
SS Alexei Ramirez Alexei Ramirez
3B Conor Gillaspie Conor Gillaspie
LF Melky Cabrera Dayan Viciedo
CF Adam Eaton Adam Eaton
RF Avisail Garcia Avisail Garcia
DH Adam LaRoche Adam Dunn
SP Chris Sale Chris Sale
SP Jose Quintana Jose Quintana
SP Jeff Samardzija
SP John Danks John Danks

The beginning of 2014 didn't look good, and I'll freely admit I didn't understand what the Sox were doing. They were an old and expensive team with little in their farm system to look forward to.

The path to success is a very clear one -- build through the draft, develop talent that can be kept under team control, identify special players and lock them up through their initial free agent years, and use targeted free agents to plug holes. Teams like the Cardinals, Royals and Rays have had varying levels of success using this path, and the Astros and Cubs will soon find out if their plans will bear fruit.

Former White Sox GM Kenny Williams most assuredly did not take this path -- he viewed young talent as chips to be traded for veterans who could help the team immediately. These were the first round picks during Williams' 2001-2012 tenure:

Player Year Pick
Kris Honel* 2001 16
Wyatt Allen* 2001 39
Royce Ring 2002 18
Brian Anderson 2003 15
Josh Fields 2004 18
Tyler Lumsden* 2004 34
Gio Gonzalez* 2004 38
Lance Broadway 2005 15
Kyle McCulloch 2006 29
Aaron Poreda 2007 25
Gordon Beckham 2008 8
Jared Mitchell 2009 23
Josh Phegley* 2009 38
Chris Sale 2010 13
Keenyn Walker* 2011 47
Courtney Hawkins 2012 13
Keon Barnum* 2012 48
*  compensatory pick

Adapted from data at Baseball-Reference

This Google Docs spreadsheet gives additional information showing how the Sox and other teams fared in the draft during this period, and it tells a disappointing story -- in terms of Baseball-Reference cumulative Wins Above Replacement during this time span, the Sox were 22nd in terms of first round picks (due mostly to Chris Sale, who certainly is one of the best pitchers in baseball today), 29th for picks in the first ten rounds and 28th for all picks. In a sense, give Kenny Williams some credit -- he was making trades with players that wouldn't amount to much anyway.

The MLB draft is the biggest crap shoot in sports. There are surprises and busts every year, but a brief look at the spreadsheet clearly shows that the more successful teams are pretty good at the draft. No matter how it's measured, the White Sox fell far short, and it finally hurt them in the last couple of years.

White Sox fans don't want to hear this, but their 73-89 record last season was a ten-game improvement over 2013. It takes time to dig out from a hole years in the making, which is why the Sox are spending big money on free agents as the minor league talent is being replenished. Micah Johnson will be given every opportunity to win the job at second in spring training, Matt Davidson at third might be able to provide more power than Conor Gillaspie, and 2014 first round pick Carlos Rodon could be with the team very soon. Once this steady influx of talent begins (which is no given), the reliance on pricy free agents can be diminished.

This chart shows their attendance and wins since 1980:

White Sox Attendance and Wins

In my former life as a pharma sales rep, a company president stated he was willing to take risks but didn't take gambles (we happened to be in Las Vegas). Calculated risks determine that benefits will outweigh the downside, whereas gambles are hoping 38-year-old players will have seasons they haven't had in five years or so. The Sox are taking risks, but by no means are they huge gambles. None of their additions is poised for huge drop-offs in performance, and they are significant improvements over what was there previously.

The White Sox have a chance if everything goes their way, but there are no guarantees. They've made great strides from where they were at the beginning of Rick Hahn's tenure, an old and expensive team with few prospects in their farm system. They may be ready to contend, they may not -- but they're on their way and should be putting a far better team on the field when 2015 begins.

. . .

All data from Baseball-Reference. Any mistakes in amalgamation and processing are the author's. This Tableau data viz allows you to look at baseball draft data in a number of ways for every team going back to the institution of the draft in 1965.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.