I've been writing here at SB Nation for a couple of years now, mostly covering the controversial topic du jour and occasionally diverting attention to things like Adam Eaton playing with a giant Connect Four set. Now and again, I stray away from hot takes and, against the better judgment of my editor, I talk about the White Sox. No doubt many see the desire to wade through the mess that is Southside baseball as a lost cause. They are wrong. It's a hard sell, I know, but the Sox should have mass appeal this season: the cockeyed experiment they're conducting is one of the most compelling stories in baseball.
It can be argued that any story about the White Sox that isn't a) extolling the virtues of Chris Sale or b) written with the explicit goal of mocking their failures is a complete waste of time. Even as a partisan, I can understand that. The Sox have barely been relevant or interesting since they won the World Series in 2005, and to be fair, even then not many people found them all that compelling. They've been only intermittently successful since, and have developed a disconcerting habit of winning 80-something games every other year, bouncing from awful to a little bit better in a way that allowed the leadership to rest on their laissez faire laurels and stick with the players they had while sprinkling in occasional low-impact Pierres and Wises.
That willful self-deception is what makes them so interesting. Each time it seemed like a team which was increasingly old, slow, and defensively malformed, not to mention impatient and completely devoid of prospects, was on the brink of disaster, they'd win 85 or 88 or even 90 games and seemingly validate the methods of the men in charge (primarily executive vice-president Kenny Williams, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and, to a lesser extent, Rick Hahn), seemingly convincing them that their plan, though unconventional, was working.Rick Hahn, White Sox general manager, dweller in the valley of shadow. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
The Sox have only reached the playoffs once in the past eight seasons, but last season's 99-loss effort tipped the scales from indifference to irrelevance, disregard to disdain, and seared the scales from even that dysfunctional trio's eyes. Sometimes for things to get better they have to get worse; had last season been less of a dramatic "dumpster fire" (Hahn's words), perhaps this year's experiment wouldn't have even started. That experiment: Can the same three men whose complacency put the team in a place where the Astros have more long-term upside (which, I'd argue they do) actually fix the problems they've created?
We have seen some worst-to-first transformations in baseball. The Red Sox made it look easy last season as they climbed out of the basement in the AL East and won the World Series, but this is certainly not common. As I wrote last offseason, only two percent of teams have ever improved their record by as many as 22 games in one season, so the odds of the White Sox improving that dramatically are certainly stacked against them. We're still in small sample territory here, but the White Sox fell below .500 after Wednesday's loss to the Rockies. There have been strides, though, like the 15 runs they scored against them on Tuesday (which I checked in two places to make sure it wasn't a box score typo since it seemed unbelievable, even for Coors Field) and are currently leading the American League in OPS+ after finishing dead last in that metric last season, but it's still hard to believe that the White Sox are suddenly cured after years of mistakes steering them towards last place.Jose Abreu hits one out. (Doug Pensinger )
That's not to say there hasn't already been some progress in fixing the roster; if you asked the question, "Who had the best winter in baseball?" the Sox would be near the top of that list. They began before that, at last year's trading deadline, dealing Jake Peavy and Alex Rios to make room on payroll and roster alike for a then-hypothetical wave of young players, which now includes Avisail Garcia in right field and Marcus Semien at second base (Gordon Beckham has been sidelined with an oblique injury since late spring). During the offseason, they signed Cuban defector Jose Abreu to play first base and though it was risky given that he had never played in the majors, there is realistic hope that the power he displayed in Cuba is real. The Sox also swapped two pitchers, closer Addison Reed and swingman Hector Santiago, in favor of position players and got better defense and leadoff hitter in Adam Eaton, and perhaps a future third baseman in Matt Davidson, a prospect they hope will become a fixture at the hot corner, something they have lacked since Robin Ventura stood on the field instead of the top step of the dugout.
These moves might work, but -- small sample again -- what we've seen thus far is kind of a cosmic joke where last season the pitching was great and the hitting was terrible, but now the opposite is true, a parade of costly walks leading to runs. The Sox are experiencing a common problem that haunts most broken teams; there will be days where there is a false sense of security that some of the defective parts are working, only to watch them sputter out again (which is exceptionally dangerous here, given the front office has historically thrived on a false sense of security). The roster is still a leaking bucket; some of the holes have been plugged, others patched with duct tape, but there are still integrity issues with its overall utility. While I can't predict what the final outcome of the season will be, it seems likely to be a course of teetering between extremes of good and bad for both hitting and pitching, and if you think that averages out," in this case, the middle isn't necessarily .500.
The outcome of this season won't determine the outcome of the experiment. This recurring White Sox column will attempt to keep tabs on the rebuilding -- excuse me, retooling. The concern here is more about the situation than the outcome: Reinsdorf, who earned a bad reputation nationally as the man who helped instigate the 1994-1995 labor war and then precipitated its ending by signing Albert Belle, is a sentimental guy who doesn't like to clean house and often finds himself caught between his two favorites, the repelling magnets that are Williams and Hahn. While there's something to be said for plan set forth by Hahn, the bureaucracy certainly makes execution more difficult.
In addition, there's a third-year manager who seems ready to execute but couldn't do much with last year's roster. There is the lack of a prospect fit to carry George Springer's gym bag in Triple-A. The White Sox are the baseball equivalent of one of those culinary shows where chefs are asked to make a meal out of bok choy, fish eyes, licorice, toothpaste, and harissa. If they succeed, it'll be a story of redemption. If they don't, it won't exactly shock anyone, either.
In many senses, though, not a lot has changed. There is no Billy Beane Moneyball magic being tried here, no Sandy Alderson trying to recreate his 1980s wizardry on a shoestring, no Jeff Luhnow scouring the Internet to bring some of the brightest baseball minds to the front office. Here, it's the same guys who made the mess trying to fix it, the epitome of asking if old dogs can, in fact, learn new tricks.