NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Two years ago, Rick Hahn and the White Sox upended both the Winter Meetings and the MLB landscape with a pair of moves over 24 hours that announced the team’s intention to contend right then and there. By signing closer Dave Robertson and trading for starter Jeff Samardzija, Hahn had made it clear that Chicago—which was coming off a 73-win season—was tired of mucking about in the American League Central basement.
Fast forward to Tuesday, where Hahn and the White Sox had once again become the talk of Winter Meetings, but in an entirely different direction. Where the last two Decembers had been months marked by aggressive addition—not just Samardzija and Robertson, but also Melky Cabrera in 2014 and Todd Frazier in ‘15—this one will be remembered for Hahn removing his roster’s cornerstone in the five-player trade that sent ace Chris Sale to Boston. The team that tried to create a contender on the fly two years ago is now settling in for what will likely be a long and difficult rebuild.
“Given where we were as an organization entering the off-season, we knew we were going to have to make some painful decisions,” Hahn said in his press conference after the Sale trade became official. “Today was the first step in what will likely be a very extended process.”
There’s no questioning Chicago’s direction now that Sale is gone. The former first-round pick was the White Sox’ unquestioned ace over the last five seasons, amassing a 3.04 ERA and 27.6 Wins Above Replacement in 1,015 2/3 innings; among all MLB pitchers with at least that many innings in that span, only Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw have posted lower ERAs, and only Kershaw and Max Scherzer have accumulated more WAR. But despite Sale’s presence and the many machinations of Hahn and the Chicago front office, the White Sox never could escape their below-.500 purgatory. The 2014 shopping spree led to a 76–86 record; last year, they finished with 78 wins.
What undid those White Sox teams? A mediocre offense, for starters: Chicago averaged just 3.84 runs per game in 2015 and 4.23 last year, both bottom half of baseball. Samardzija was a bust in his lone season on the South Side, posting the worst ERA (4.96) and ERA+ (79) of his career as a starter. Robertson was excellent in his first season as Chicago’s closer, but his peripherals went haywire last year (his walk rate skyrocketed to 4.6 per nine as his strikeout rate dipped). Sale himself took a step backward last season, losing velocity and posting his lowest strikeout rate in three seasons, as did Cuban import Jose Abreu, whose offense—particularly his power—has regressed since his Rookie of the Year-winning 2014 season.
The presence of Abreu and Sale is what gave Hahn the confidence to make his big moves in 2014 and ’15. With those two players plus dynamic centerfielder Adam Eaton and young southpaw Jose Quintana already in the fold, Chicago could argue that it already boasted the kind of core that functioned as a shortcut to contention. The next step was to fill in the roster around them; wins would surely follow.
“In the past few years, we’ve been aggressive in trying to patch some of those holes, and unfortunately they haven’t played out the way we anticipated,” Hahn said.
Instead, the White Sox will follow the path of a number of teams throughout the league—the Astros, Brewers, Padres and their own cross-town rivals, the Cubs—and tear things down to start from scratch. That the Astros and Cubs have quickly gone from nothing to contention (and, in the case of Chicago, a championship that surely didn’t escape Hahn’s eye) can only bolster his hopes that this is the right way forward for a franchise that, over the last three seasons, has seemed stuck in neutral.
“This path doesn’t fit with how we’ve acted over the last several years,” Hahn said. “We’ve been in more of a ‘win now and patch and play type of situation…. [But] the last thing you want is to be caught in between. You don’t want to be a club that’s not good enough.”
So what’s the next step? One thing is clear: With Sale gone, there can be no half measures. To deal away Sale—the franchise’s best player who is just 27 years old and has three years of affordable team control left (just $38 million in total salary commitments, including two team options)—is to acknowledge that the current core will not be part of the next contending White Sox team. As such, there is no reason for Hahn to hold back. Abreu, Cabrera, Quintana, Eaton, Frazier, Robertson … all will likely find themselves on the trade block this week and throughout the off-season, and all should be moved where possible if the return is right.
“We’re ready to do more deals today if the right opportunities present themselves. But we’re not going to force the issue,” Hahn said. “We are going to have to follow the market and the value of those players and what makes the most sense.”
In exchange, the White Sox will have to soldier through what will be an utterly forgettable 2017 (and likely ’18) season with their eyes fixed firmly on the future. The focus will be on the cadre of 25-and-under players the team has now assembled: lefty Carlos Rodon; first-round righthander Carson Fulmer; top shortstop prospect Tim Anderson; catcher Zack Collins; and centerfielder Charlie Tilson. To that group, the White Sox will add the impressive haul from the Sale deal: No. 1 prospect Yoan Moncada, hard-throwing righthander Michael Kopech and infielder Luis Alexander Basabe.
Moncada is the big get. Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year for 2016, the 21-year-old Cuban infielder was given an astounding $31.5 million signing bonus and immediately delivered, rocketing through the minors and making his major league debut last August. Although his stay in Boston was brief and uneventful, he has all the tools to emerge as an MVP candidate for years. Kopech and Basabe, meanwhile, were both in the top 10 of the Red Sox’ system, with Kopech a high-riser based off his blazing fastball (average of 98 mph) and strong offspeed offerings.
“These are the type of impact players that we need to continue to acquire and build up to get our system to the point where we are able to have that extended run of success,” Hahn said. “There is a level of excitement of what this could potentially look like down the road.”
Still, this is the same team that was given the enviable head start of Sale and Quintana and Abreu and turned it into multiple 70-win seasons. That advantage is gone, and the franchise will be presented with a massive test in turning all the unrefined talent that is the likes of Moncada and Kopech and the rest of their top prospects into a contending team—something Hahn and company couldn’t do despite all their winter tinkering the last two seasons.
But if that way forward is a daunting one, Hahn is right in that it’s at least a new direction with some upside. Whether the package for Sale was the best the White Sox could have gotten—the team was also talking with the Nationals, who were rumored to have offered top prospects Lucas Giolito and Victor Robles—will take time to figure out. But it’s a start, and one that, after two seasons of banging his head into a wall and trying to break through it, Hahn will try to find another way through it—or perhaps around.
It will hurt, and it will be bleak at times, and this winter and next likely will not see the White Sox earning off-season accolades for their blockbuster deals and signings. The hope is that the rebuild can pay off in the way it did for the North Side squad that hoisted a World Series trophy just four years after losing 101 games. The reality is that there are no guarantees except for the knowledge that it won’t be easy.
“We don’t view this as a quick fix,” Hahn said. “But we think that the long-term benefit is going to be worth whatever potential short-term hardship may arise from it.”