Kenny Williams built his baseball team the wrong way. Baseball writers over the generations have settled upon the “right way” to play baseball. While the criteria have been known to fluctuate depending on whether the player in question gives a good interview, generally speaking the “right way” involves hustling, hitting for average, playing hurt, and ending up with a dirty uniform more often than not.
Like or not, the sabermetric movement seems to have settled on it’s own “right way” orthodoxy, though its focus is on front offices rather than on the players themselves. Broadly speaking, the “right way” to build a team involves investing in the farm system, avoiding big free agent contracts, prioritizing skills and production over more dubious conceptions of talent, and generally doing whatever Billy Beane seems to be up to at the moment. In addition, it means hiring a coaching staff that will at least make an attempt to understand what the front office is up to, has a vague notion of the importance of outs, and communicates well with the media.
Kenny Williams did not do these things. The White Sox under Williams used first round picks on toolsy outfielders and relievers. They liberally traded away prospects (Chris Young, Gio Gonzalez, Daniel Hudson, Brandon McCarthy, four former first round picks for an injured Jake Peavy… off the top of my head) for short-term gains to the major league club. They hired a manager with tenuous connections to sanity. They shelled out for immobile sluggers on the downslope of their careers (Jim Thome, Adam Dunn). They picked up Alex Rios’s albatross contract. Not that all (or any) of these moves were bad, just that they fell into a pattern that precluded Williams from consideration as one of Fangraphs’ favorite GMs, and prioritized the present over the future.
When Williams was
fired promoted after the 2012 season, it seemed the team was in for a long rebuilding process. The team's winning percentage had oscillated around .500 since the team’s World Series victory in 2005, and the farm system was perpetually abysmal.
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I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to compare the White Sox post-2012 to the Cubs post-2009. It was a decent, aging club without much in the pipeline. The Cubs under new owner Tom Ricketts opted to let the things degenerate for a few years before tearing the team down to a tankerific dumpster fire. The Sox, on the other hand, have aggressively acquired young, major league-ready talent in the year-plus since Rick Hahn was promoted as Williams’ replacement.
They signed Jose Abreu, whose upside is in the neighborhood of “best hitter in the world” to a contract that pays him as an average-ish player. They acquired Adam Eaton, a young center fielder with good speed and on-base skills to go along with some pop for a back-end of the rotation type in Hector Santiago. They turned Proven Closer Addison Reed into major league-ready third base prospect Matt Davidson. Jake Peavy was shipped off for Avisail Garcia, a corner outfielder whose numbers have been unimpressive, but whom many scouts think could be a solid regular. Meanwhile, the much-maligned farm system has produced a legitimate ace in Chris Sale, as well as a mid-rotation type in Jose Quintana, and potentially another in Erik Johnson.
That’s not to say that the White Sox are contenders as presently constructed. Shorstop Alexei Ramirez is on the downside of his career. Second Baseman Gordon Beckham will probably never be very good. Adam Dunn is careening towards uselessness, and Paul Konerko may already be there. A year from now, this article may look very silly. If Abreu can’t hit major league pitching, Eaton’s talent level proves closer to his 2013 performance than 2012, and Davidson busts, it likely will. At the moment, though, the 2014 White Sox look to be infinitely more watchable than their North Side counterparts (at least if you keep the volume down). Given that the Cubs have been at this rebuilding thing for longer for quite a bit longer (at least, they should have been), that’s a pretty impressive achievement.