In 2012, the Chicago White Sox were a good team. They won 85 games, led their division for 104 days, and were in first as late as September 24th before being usurped by the Tigers.
In 2013, the Chicago White Sox were not a good team. In fact, they were a very bad team. A year after finishing just 3 games behind the Tigers for the division crown, they finished 30 games back, last in the AL Central. They lost 99 games, with an offense whose team .299 wOBA was 4th worst in the major leagues. Their former star, Paul Konerko, seemed like he had nothing left in the tank; he hit .244/.313/.355, and his horrid defense and baserunning made him (by fWAR) the worst player in the American League. But Konerko wasn’t alone — there wasn’t a single position player on the White Sox that wasn’t an unremitting disappointment. Adam Dunn, in the 3rd year of a 4 year, $56 million deal, hit .219 out of the DH spot. Gordon Beckham, once the 20th-ranked prospect in all of baseball, posted his fourth consecutive year with an OPS under .700. Dayan Viciedo, who the White Sox had signed out of Cuba to a great deal of fanfare, was barely a replacement player. The team’s catchers hit an abysmal .195. The team had little going for it, and worse yet, the farm system was ranked in the bottom 10 of the league, with few players ready to make immediate impact. For GM Rick Hahn and the White Sox, it became clear that it was time to break out the ‘R’ word, the word every fan loathes — rebuild.
And since the trade deadline in July, that’s what the White Sox have done. They have traded away the few remaining pieces of value they have (save Chris Sale, who is as close to untouchable as they come) for players that might help in the future. Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Hector Santiago, Addison Reed — all players with varying degrees of value, all traded away; Peavy to the Red Sox, Rios to the Rangers, Santiago to the Angels by way of the Diamondbacks, and Reed to the Diamondbacks outright.
But this is no typical rebuilding effort. The White Sox have not done as so many teams before them have done, targeting players with immense potential who are years away from the big leagues. Instead, they have tried to acquire big-league talent that will allow them to rapidly rebuild their team around a new, young core. In the Peavy deal, the White Sox received Avisail Garcia, a 22-year old corner outfielder who was ready to jump right into their lineup, and in fact, did, hitting .304 in 42 games. For Rios, they received Leury Garcia, another 22-year old who can play multiple positions and had already seen big league action. For Santiago, they got Adam Eaton, a 25-year old with a rocket arm who was projected to be the Diamondbacks opening day center fielder before an arm injury derailed his season. And for Reed, a two-year closer with a career ERA over 4, they got third baseman Matt Davidson, a 22-year old former first round pick with a career .803 minor league OPS who made it all the way to the big leagues this year.
But all these surprising moves pale in comparison to the stunner the White Sox pulled in late October, when they signed first baseman and Cuban expat Jose Dariel Abreu to an 6 year, $68 million deal. Abreu, at age 27, is in the prime of his baseball career, ready to produce now, and rebuilding teams almost by rule avoid giving out contracts of this size; this deal was the largest ever given to an international free agent. But this fits right in with the White Sox offseason strategy — to acquire major league-ready talent that has the capability to become the nucleus of a winning team sooner rather than later.
For most teams, rebuilding is a painstakingly slow process, and it often takes years for that process to produce results at the major league level. The White Sox are rebuilding, but they have chosen a different tact. They have decided to almost entirely bypass the minor leagues, opting to let a new young core develop right in the South Side of Chicago. It remains to be seen whether this strategy will ultimately be successful. But Rick Hahn is attempting to prove, and White Sox fans are hoping, that there is more than just one way to rebuild a franchise.