During the offseason, Chicago White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn was a very busy man, making lots of acquisitions for a team that won only 73 games in 2014. This was a 10-game improvement over 2013, which demonstrates the magnitude of the rebuilding job Hahn had. He traded for Jeff Samardzija and acquired Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, and David Robertson in free agency. This fueled irrational hope in people who should have known better, and the stage was set for a great year of Chicago baseball--competitive teams on both sides of town!
At some point, hype and hoopla need to translate into results, and during the first half, that translation didn't occur. At the All-Star break, they were 41-45, and coming out of the break went 1-5 in their first six games, making them 42-50. That's the definition of a seller at the trade deadline.
But a funny thing happened. They swept four games from a bad Indians team, the first time since 2007 they had swept a team in a four-game series. They won two games against the (equally bad) Red Sox, with a real shot at sweeping them. Suddenly, they moved from last in the AL Central and with only three teams behind them in the Wild Card race to 3.5 games back for the last playoff slot. This isn't 1997, the year of the famous White Flag trade; this is 2015, in the era when teams are never out of the playoff race, not when there are five spots up for grabs.
Assume that the White Sox are buyers in the next couple of days--what do they need? It's a pretty short list--second base, shortstop, third base, catcher, two or three relief pitchers, and possibly another starter. Yes, it appears I'm suggesting that approximately one-third of the lineup be switched out, and I haven't even mentioned underwhelming seasons from Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia, or LaRoche. With few waiting in the minors who can be brought up for immediate help, the only place the Sox will get these pieces is from somewhere else.
How exactly will the Sox gain one of these players, let alone my ridiculous total of eight? They have one piece they're willing to move in Jeff Samardzija, several who are untouchable in the way that lepers are (Alexei Ramirez, Adam LaRoche), and three who could generate a return but would leave holes just as large in their wake in Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Jose Abreu.
Trade deadline deals are often those where a star is exchanged for prospects, the Tulowitzki deal being an extreme exception where veterans of any stature are exchanged. Recall the Jake Peavy deal in 2013, with Peavy going to Boston, Jose Iglesias going to the Tigers and Avisail Garcia coming to the Sox. The veteran netted players who were just beginning their big-league careers. Scott Kazmir went from Oakland to the Astros for prospects Daniel Mengden and Jacob Nottingham, neither of whom is considered an elite prospect. Samardzija is better than Kazmir, but he's also a two-month rental, and it's hard to believe he will generate much more value than the Kazmir deal.
Saying a team is a buyer puts a brave face on the franchise and fits well into Executive Vice President Kenny Williams' philosophy of going for it every year, but that model doesn't appear to work any more. Currently, there are two proven paths to sustained success--the Cardinals, who scout, draft, and develop players as well as any team, good enough that they can lose major players like Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday and not miss a beat. The other is to be bad for a sustained period and accumulate high draft picks. The Rays started this, the Royals are the current example, and the Astros and Cubs are the next teams up to see if it works, and for both those teams, the early results are promising.
What doesn't appear to work is the constant signing of free agents on the wrong side of 30 for too many years and too much money. At the time of the Adam Dunn signing, I was all for it, having absolutely no clue he would be as horrible as he was--it was such a fitting and strange end to his career that the Athletics made the playoffs last year and he didn't get in the one game they played. He then retired, ensuring high placement on the most games played without making the playoffs list (which will forever be owned by former Cubs).
Time for a dash of reality--this table shows the number of teams who were 48-50 or worse after 98 games, and how many made the playoffs:
|2 Tms (1903-1968)||483||0|
|4 Tms (1969-1993)||227||3|
|8 Tms (1995-2011)||293||5|
|10 Tms (2012-)||40||1
Every time I share this information, the Twitter wags react in full force--"So you're telling me there's a chance!" After taking five minutes to recover from the laughter this line from 21 years ago generates, I just shake my head. Who were these amazing teams?
|1989 Blue Jays||48-50||89-73|
One of them doesn't count because the Royals made the 1981 playoffs due to the adoption of a split-season format after a strike interrupted the season for about 50 games. Several others didn't have enough wins to qualify this year, since the current #5 team, the Twins, are 52-47, which projects out to around 87 wins by the end of the year. So remove the teams with fewer than 88 wins, and eight teams turns into three, two if we look only at the Wild Card Era and beyond--two out of 333. "Never tell me the odds!" said Han Solo--when they're that bad, aye, aye, captain.
What about last year's Royals? Yes, it was right around this time they went on an extended hot streak, going 22-5 beginning on July 22nd. That's pretty good, and was pretty astounding to most of baseball at the time. They managed to earn a wild card spot, and most everyone forgets they were losing until the bottom of the eighth inning. I'm willing to admit something is possible, but the Royals also didn't make any significant transactions during last year's trade deadline. "Once In A Lifetime" by the Talking Heads is one of my favorite songs of all-time, but is an awful strategic dictum.
I'll admit this year is different. The Twins are completely outperforming expectations and could be poised for a fall. The Tigers are an open question with the loss of Miguel Cabrera, and other than the Royals, there is no dominant team in the AL, although the Angels are beginning to get hot. However, it's not enough--the White Sox can declare themselves buyers all they want, but until they have pieces other teams want that they're willing to part with, they'll be closer to the Maxwell Street Market than Nordstrom's.
To reach 87 wins, the Sox need to finish the year 39-25, a .609 clip. Teams that play at levels like that tend not to be 48-50 after 98 games, so no matter what, there's probably too much ground that needs to be made up, ground that was squandered in April and May that can't be recovered. As such, if the offers for Jeff Samardzija are underwhelming, wait to sign him in the offseason or take the sandwich pick and continue to try to draft decent talent. It will take time, but if done correctly can lead to sustained success. This is a far more preferable path than mortgaging the team for a potential one-and-done experience.
Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.