White Sox – 2017 Preview

Jonathan Hodges was hired as GM of the Chicago White Sox in October 2012 and the rebuilding process began immediately.

A typical rebuild can often take five or more years to produce results at the Major League level.  It requires a selling off of whatever veteran talent the club holds to build a cornucopia of talent at the Minor League level with the understanding that not every minor leaguer is going to realize their potential.

On that schedule, 2017 would reason to be a year in which the Chicago White Sox should begin to see success at the Major League level.  Contrarily, the MLB Pro Preseason Predictions have the White Sox earning the worst record in baseball and the #1 overall pick in next year’s amateur draft.

In a recent interview with Baseball Prospectus, GM Jonathan Hodges was candid.

“I genuinely believe our initial moves were beneficial.  We sold off costly Major League talent for solid minor league depth, and our farm club rose quickly to a Top 5 farm system.  Over the course of that first offseason under my helm and the following Major League season, we’d built up a respectable crop of offensive prospects as well as a stocked stable of young arms.

“Then we began the 2015 season at an unexpected winning pace, and we got excited.  Which is to say we got greedy.”

The White Sox began the 2015 season on a winning pace, leading the AL Central through the first few weeks of the season and surprising most every pundit in the League.

Then summer hit, and the entire team went cold.  They won fewer than 10 games the entire month of June.

“We panicked,” said Hodges.  “We saw the results in the spring, through April and May, and felt we had a team that could contend.  A couple injuries set us back and so we thought a jolt to the organization could get us back to the type of winning atmosphere we’d seen to start the season.  It was, in retrospect, an overreaction.”

On June 16th, 2015, the Chicago White Sox traded five prospects, including 3 young starting pitchers, to the Atlanta Braves for arguably the best pitcher in baseball — especially at that time — Clayton Kershaw.

“We felt that we were one big move away from taking the AL Central… That’s how impressive our club had played as a unit early on in the 2015 season.  Kershaw was probably the best pitcher in baseball when we acquired him.  But it just didn’t work out.”

Kershaw struggled in his first month as a White Sox and didn’t win a single game during that period.  In the meantime, the offense continued to struggle and the team continued to lose, and by the time September rolled around — despite a bounce back performance and a respectable August and September — the damage was done and the White Sox were out of the playoffs.

“I should have paused there,” said Hodges pensively.  “We had Kershaw under contractual control and a quantity of prospects still in place.  The team was still primed to win if 2015 wasn’t a fluke, and we had no reason to believe it was.

“But I thought I could see it through.”

So the White Sox made an off-season move in which they traded their star catcher Jason Castro, as well as one of their primary Major League-ready young starters Taijuan Walker, for OPS king Prince Fielder.

“Playing in a park ruled by offense, your instinct is always to try to outslug the opposing team.  You see a guy who hit 35 home runs for a team with an average park, you think, ‘That’s at least 40 homers for us.’  But it’s a ruse.  Those five extra home runs may only mean five extra runs over the course of a season.  And what is the true value of five runs over the course of an entire season?”

Despite solid performances from Prince Fielder and Clayton Kershaw alike, the White Sox performed poorly in 2016, winning only 64 games and finishing last in the AL Central.

“As wonderful of players as Clayton Kershaw and Prince Fielder are, they are two men.  And this is baseball.  And two men cannot carry the 23 other men of an organization on their backs.”

So the White Sox attempted to regroup heading into the offseason ahead of the 2017 season.  They lacked offensive support for Prince Fielder, and they lacked a back end of the rotation to bail out Clayton Kershaw.  Not to mention a bullpen.  But they weren’t yet ready to reset.

“At the end of the year, the scouts, and developmental staff, and coaches, and I, we all sat down to discuss whether or not this team had the bones to be competitive.  And what we saw was a bonafide ace in Clayton Kershaw at the top of our rotation.  We saw Steven Matz as young starter who had been nothing but stellar in his limited appearances at the Major League level who seemed destined for the #2 role behind Clayton.  We saw Prince Fielder, of course, in the middle of our lineup, with the young Miguel Leon on the cusp of his breakout year at shortstop, and our young star in center field, Luis Serrano.  And we felt these men were surrounded by some solid Major League starters such as 2B Tyler Bortnick, OF Tyler Naquin, and closer Jorge De Leon.  And so we determined that if we could shore up the back end of our bullpen, find perhaps one more starter to improve our rotation, and improve our corner infield, we would be able to get off to a start such as what we saw just 2 years prior in 2015.”

The White Sox’s first move was to acquire first basemen Richie Shaffer from the Reds, though in the process they gave up starting pitching prospect Matthew Spalding.

“But as much as we liked Spalding,” explained Hodges, “he had a propensity for giving up homers in the minors, and that would only be amplified in our Major League stadium, so we thought it an opportunity to sell high on his potential before we risked calling him up and seeing his numbers dip.”

Spalding responded by allowing zero earned runs in 24 innings pitched this Spring with 5 walks and 28 strikeouts.

Staffer hit .268/.305/.393 for a sub-.700 OPS.

At third base, the White Sox approached the Braves about Kolbrin Vitek.

“We saw a 27 year old third basemen on a Major League minimum contract that was likely flying under the radar of other organizations.  Advanced scouting told us he was a high character clubhouse presence who could provide some leadership to our offensive unit despite his limited time in the show.  So we gave up two rookie-league offensive prospects for him.”

Vitek went on to slash in the Spring .236/.232/.364 for a sub-.600 OPS.

With Opening Day just around the corner and prognostications flying about, no one is discussing any hope for the White Sox.  And MLB Pro’s own estimations have them drafting #1 overall.

“We honestly feel like the underdogs this year,” said Hodges.  “No one is mentioning us in discussions of relevance.  Baseball soothsayers have cast us off into the afterthought of top draft picks for next year.  But we think, rather, we’re on par to show up rather how we did in 2015.  We have Clayton Kershaw for an entire season, Prince Fielder, Steven Matz, Miguel Leon, Tyler Naquin, Luis Serrano, and countless other impact players.  As competitive as the AL Central may be, we don’t see ourselves as look-over team on their schedule.  Which may sound redundant — no organization is ever going to truly think of themselves as an easy win for the opposing team — but we made some moves this offseason we truly think are going to make ourselves better, and we think they’ve been glanced over.”

With Opening Day for the White Sox just a day away, only time can tell how the team will gel, but despite a rebuilding tag still being attached to the organization, those in charge think this could be their year to contend.

“Am I predicting that the White Sox win the AL Central this year?  No.  But am I suggesting that we’ll be in the hunt for a Wild Card berth?  I absolutely believe that as a possibility, yes.”

It will also begin to unfurl on April 3rd.