‘Mired in Mediocrity’ gave way to Ricky’s Boys and the White Sox Rebuild. With most prospects at least a year away, is contending a possibility for 2019? It might not be as far away as popular belief might suggest.
It doesn’t get much worse than losing 100 games in a major league season. The White Sox achieved this despite a winning record for the month of August that included a 14-6 stretch. If they had played .500 ball during that 20-game stretch – which still would have represented 117 points higher than their .383 winning percentage for the year – they would have lost 104 games.
The team’s heralded youngster Yoan Moncada struggled to the degree he just missed tying the team record for strikeouts by five and breaking the all-time major league record by seven. The team’s other top prospect, pitcher Michael Kopech, blew out his ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery.
Welington Castillo’s PED suspension, numerous injuries to Jose Abreu, Avisail Garcia and Nicky Delmonico, and the horrible freak injury poor Danny Farquhar suffered that nearly ended his life, almost in the White Sox dugout, paints a depressingly dark picture of the 2018 season.
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How in the world could 2019 be any worse? Spoiler alert: it can’t, and it won’t.
In the weakest division in baseball, the American League Central, the Sox have an opportunity. Compete. As a franchise in the baseball business this offseason, the Sox have an opportunity. Compete. As a procurer of talent and recruiter of playing, coaching, scouting, and business talent, the Sox have an opportunity. C’mon, say it with me. Shout it out loud.
I know, I’m crazy. The team is rebuilding, why in the world would they choose to compete? Because it wouldn’t take that much. The current team payroll is in the $60 million range, which in major league terms is peanuts. The Sox play in the weakest division in baseball, in which the incumbent division winner and the dominant team is reportedly considering trading it’s best player (Cleveland’s Corey Kluber).
Some strategic investments by the Sox along with continued development of their young major league players and farm team prospects and any luck at all might well make them a contender in 2019 and provide a very solid framework for 2020. The more solid that 2020 framework, the less pressure for every prospect who gets his shot at the major league level.
Here are six steps that aren’t that far-fetched. Several, frankly, are automatic (No. 1 and No. 6) and going to happen anyway. Moncada potentially changing positions (No. 3) won’t have any costs other than changing costs in terms of the team’s dependencies and strategic pursuits.
- Sign some starting pitchers. Dedicate at least $10-20 million per year for two to three starting pitchers with an expected return of 350 plus innings over two years. The budget commitment is modest, the innings are what this team needs more than any other on-field commodity, and two years should be adequate as Dylan Cease develops, Kopech heals, and the rest of the farm reveals it’s readiness. As for the who, this is less important than the choice to pursue this approach as a business decision.
- Sign a star. Not just a player, but a true star. At least one big one. Consider the spend to have two returns: 1) a major contributor at a position of need, for the most part, this appears to be the outfield; and 2) a marketing plan on cleats as a means to increase team marketability and fan appeal. Ideally, the player profile would be a high contact power hitter since nothing else excites fans to the same degree. Ahem, there are a couple available who would each fit team needs.
- Decide if Moncada is going to move to third base. At least two position approaches are dependencies, the team acquiring someone to play third base and Nick Madrigal’s path to second base. The club really needs to have a point of view here and make a decision sooner rather than later, because if Moncada is going to the hot corner he’ll need as much time at the position as possible and ideally that would include the 2019 season.
- If Moncada moves to third, Yolmer Sanchez returns to play second base and readies to serve in a full-time infield utility role. In that event, the Sox will need a second baseman capable of splitting time with Sanchez or laying full-time if necessary. Sox killer, Brian Dozier, for example, whose unfortunate postseason with the Dodgers might well have made him more affordable than he might like, would be a strategic choice.
- If Moncada stays at second base, sign a third baseman. The club could have gotten Mike Moustakas for an unbelievably cheap amount last offseason, but either didn’t consider the addition or for some reason simply wasn’t interested. They could be now.
- Continue scooping up all the middle and late relief as possible. The Sox need to beef up the bullpen, and over the past couple seasons depth in that capacity has been a differentiator between those teams that make the playoffs and those that fall short due to tired starters. Wouldn’t it be interesting for once if the Sox needed those arms to compete instead of fueling other team’s success such as the New York Yankees and Milwaukee Brewers?
Establishing a framework that can compete at the wild card level and not necessarily the Boston Red Sox level for the next two years allows for development pieces to be inserted when it makes sense and not prematurely or disproportionately. The Sox could also then look at their prospect talent not just as development capital but marketable capital. They already do, but the framework would offer relief on both accounts.
The question is what do the Sox want from 2019? Will they simply stop the clock for another year and wait for all the youngsters whenever contention might occur? Will they sign incremental players as placeholders and look to time contention impact for 2020 and 2021? Will they watch generational free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado go to big market teams or jump in now?
The wild card here is that we know Messrs Rick Hahn, Ken Williams, and Jerry Reinsdorf are competitive. Signing a true star would drive 10,000 season ticket sales in the first week. Playing better baseball higher in the standings would further drive butts in seats. The impact to merchandise sales and potential broadcast revenues I would valuate at 10 percent or greater. What’s all that worth? Don’t kid yourself: to those three guys, it means everything.
The rebuild will require patience – but the Sox are two years in already and the team is going to begin stepping on the proverbial accelerator rather than coasting and observing the scenery in Charlotte, Birmingham, Winston-Salem, Kannapolis, and Great Falls. I think we all might be surprised by a different view this offseason and next summer.