White Sox’s Rebuild Is Working

The Chicago White Sox are almost certainly not going to contend this year. That was the prevailing opinion entering the season, and one week of baseball — despite a respectable 3-3 record — has done little to change that notion, as they rank 25th in ESPN.com’s latest power rankings.

The team is rebuilding, but thanks to the busy offseason of general manager Rick Hahn and his baseball operations staff, the path back to contention may not be as long as we think. The White Sox have done or are doing five things correctly that bode well for the future and make them worth following this year.

1. Stockpiling assets
The White Sox have a pretty poor farm system, but they’re moving the needle in the right direction. After having only one player in Keith Law’s top 100 prospect ranking in 2013, the team put three players on it in 2014, including Matt Davidson, who was acquired over the winter for closer Addison Reed. In addition to that, they have acquired an impressive number of players that are major league-ready.

In the past year, the team has traded for Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia and Leury Garcia. The latter two are 23, Eaton is 25, and all three are contributing at the major league level right now. (In addition, they used the player they acquired from Boston last season for Matt Thornton — outfielder Brandon Jacobs — as one of the three players they sent to Arizona in exchange for Eaton). Now, not all of these guys are going to be stars — in fact it’s likelier that none of them will be. But what it shows is that the team is willing to find solutions that will help its future.

To get these guys, they gave up Hector Santiago (age 26), Jake Peavy (age 32) and Alex Rios (age 32). The latter two are past their respective primes, make a lot of money and were not a part of the long-term plan. Santiago has promise, but he’s a back-end guy, and Eaton fills a more glaring need as a speedy outfielder with OBP skills.

The Sox haven’t just been stockpiling potential building blocks, though, the team has also made a habit of taking fliers on under-the-radar or down-on-their-luck players. That list includes players like Casper Wells, Felipe Paulino, Mitchell Boggs and Eric Surkamp. Pluck enough of these kinds of players, and one of them will make you look very smart.

2. Playing the kids
Many teams look to restrict the playing time of their younger players, for fear that they will lose them to free agency sooner than they would like. White Sox prospects Erik Johnson and Marcus Semien were called up late last year, and have started the season with the big club. Davidson wasn’t cut until late March, and shouldn’t be down for long, especially if Jeff Keppinger remains on the shelf.

You could perhaps make the argument that the White Sox are playing the kids out of necessity, but it doesn’t hold up. They could easily sign retreads on league minimum deals if they wanted to just cover the positions, but they aren’t doing that — they’re giving the kids valuable experience, and that will give them a better opportunity to hit the ground running when the time comes. It also makes them a lot more fun to watch.

3. Showcasing trade assets
While they are mixing in younger players, the White Sox seem to get that the way to keep piling up talent is to let potential trade chips play. Alejandro De Aza and Adam Dunn have each started five of the first six games, and Alexei Ramirez started each of the first six. They represent the three 30-or-older players who should draw interest at the trade deadline.

Like Peavy, Rios and Thornton, they are unlikely to garner significant packages, especially Dunn, who is in the final year of his contract. Ramirez, however, is a surprisingly good player, particularly if he hits, and the Sox don’t need to trade him, so as a result he is likely to fetch the highest price.

4. Not beholden to the past
Playing the kids and showcasing trade assets can only happen if the team is willing to admit it’s time to move players that don’t fit either bill. Paul Konerko may be the most beloved player on the South Side since Frank Thomas, but that has not stopped the team from doing the right thing when it comes to his playing time. They are not letting him wade out onto the field every day in his final season, in a vain pursuit of 450 homers (he is currently at 434).

They are taking the same approach with Dayan Viciedo. Viciedo never really made his mark as a full-time player. The only season in which he really played full time was 2012, when he compiled a grand total of 0.3 WAR. Still, he got to take 473 turns at the dish last season, a number which he probably won’t get anywhere near this season. At least, not as long as De Aza remains on the team.

Viciedo started only two of the team’s first six games, and if that ratio continues, he probably won’t reach 300 plate appearances. Back in 2008, the White Sox made a decent investment in Viciedo, giving him a major league deal and a four-year contract following his defection from Cuba. But it didn’t really pan out, and while the Sox haven’t yet cut him loose, they’re not stubbornly trying to shoehorn him into an everyday role for which he is not qualified.

5. Spending money
Many teams that are going through a rebuilding phase are reticent to spend money. They would rather sit around and count their fat revenue-sharing checks. The White Sox, however, struck when an opportunity presented itself. The team correctly realized that slugging first basemen in their 20s don’t come around all that often. So when the bidding opened for Jose Abreu, they made sure they didn’t lose out, signing him to a six-year, $68 million deal. Now, they may have a monster on their hands.

The Steamer projection system pegged only seven hitters to post a better wOBA than Abreu this season — Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Giancarlo Stanton, Prince Fielder, Troy Tulowitzki and Paul Goldschmidt. The ZiPS projection system has him pegged for the 13th-highest wOBA overall. Anecdotally, he’s been compared to Albert Pujols. He hasn’t started in dominant fashion, but he did pick up three extra-base hits in the season’s first week, and should he become the player that forecasts expect, the 27-year-old Cuban native should still be very productive when the rest of the White Sox get up to speed around him.

FanGraphs has the squad pegged at 75.3 wins, with just a 5.2 percent chance of reaching the wild-card game. But as long as the White Sox continue to make the right decisions with the talent they do have, they may have a shorter rebuilding cycle than most.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.
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