Mind-numbing disappointment is hardly a new phenomenon in Chicago baseball; in fact, you could argue it's every bit as ingrained in this city's sports culture as inadequate quarterbacking and cheering during the national anthem. But even by the paltry local standards, the Chicago White Sox still registered as exceptionally frustrating in 2011. "All In" wasn't just a marketing campaign on the South Side, it was a lifestyle. When prized free agent signing Adam Dunn flamed out in historic fashion and high-priced gambles Alex Rios and Jake Peavy fell flat, the Sox were unexpectedly left with no backup plan and nowhere to turn.
Dunn -- a lefty slugger with a long history of stellar production -- was not supposed to hit .159, the lowest batting average of any player since baseball's pre-Ruthian dead-ball era. There also weren't many hitters less productive than Rios, who followed a solid 2010 (.781 OPS) with a miserable 2011 (.613 OPS). Peavy -- with his annual $15 million salary in tow -- was counted on to be a top-of-the-rotation lynchpin, not an undependable arm with very pedestrian numbers.
In the final standings, the 2011 Sox had 79 wins, but it felt like 20 less. They were never in contention during a season many predicted they would win the AL Central. That the campaign ended with popular manager Ozzie Guillen's unceremonious exit was the proverbial icing on the cake for a season as decidedly underwhelming as any the White Sox have had in recent memory.
"Rebuilding" is hardly a term that ranks highly in Kenny Williams' personal vocabulary, but the Sox's general manager was left with no other choice. Finances were down after poor play led to poor attendance; a bloated payroll dragged to the dirt by untradeable, underachieving slugs had to be trimmed at whatever the cost. But instead of committing to the first full-on rebuilding plan of his tenure, Williams has proven tentative for the first time in his career.
It is simply not in Kenny Williams' blood to trade veterans for prospects. He thinks it's supposed to be the other way around.
Why Williams was trusted to oversee a very obvious need for a clean rebuild remains unclear. If we're to believe that the past two seasons on the South Side have been characterized by a manager and general manager raging against each other, then why choose to keep Kenny over Ozzie? Williams is the one responsible for Dunn/Peavy/Rios, all while amassing what might be baseball's least potent farm system.
Regardless: the White Sox should have been blown up, carcasses to the ceiling. Instead, Williams abandoned his "All In" mantra for a one-foot-in-the-water approach. The Sox have shed approximately $20 million in payroll this offseason -- a sizable amount, but they've done it without adding highly-regarded prospects. For a team with a minor league system as desolate as any team in the league, the Sox needed an infusion of high-upside youngsters in exchange for their once-proud vets. Instead, Williams and the Sox seem set to head in 2011 with just enough trimming to stop the bleeding, while being tied to a farm system that will likely remain as barren as ever before.
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For as caustic as Guillen's end-of-season exit was, the departure of starting pitcher Mark Buehrle may have left an even bigger imprint on the South Side. Buehrle (along with first baseman Paul Konerko) was one-half of the 'Face Of The Franchise' for the only franchise he had ever known. Yes, few expected the Sox to retain him when a host of teams started to inquire about the lefty's services; even fewer found outrage when the Sox failed to match the Marlins' four-year, $58 million offer to reunited Buehrle with Guillen in Miami. But after the Sox locked up arbitration eligible pitcher John Danks to a five-year, $65 million extension a month later, head-scratching started to set in.
Danks is a fine young pitcher, regarded as a better one than his 2011 numbers would indicate. At six years younger, he's a much safer bet moving forward than Buehrle. But Danks was also the Sox's best trading chip, and could have presumably brought in a wealth of prospects. Perhaps Williams didn't see anything he liked on the trade market after teams like the Oakland A's dealt their young pitchers first. If that's the case, fine. But making a serious play to retain Buehrle -- who gave the team a bit of a hometown discount on his previous contract -- and trading Danks to replenish the farm system may have been the wiser move, if it was there. At least the fans would have been happier, and maybe would have shown up to The Cell a little more often. Wasn't that the whole motivation behind hiring a zero-pedigree manager like '90s White Sox icon Robin Ventura?
Per usual, Williams' biggest crime continues to be his ignorance towards the farm system. The Sox are widely considered to have one of the MLB's five weakest systems, and offseason trades of solid veterans Sergio Santos, Carlos Quentin and Jason Frasor hasn't added much in return. The lack of a haul for Quentin is perhaps most agitating. Quentin certainly had his issues, but he was an All-Star last season and unquestionably the team's second best bat. His value was higher in Chicago than anywhere else. In pursuit of saving on the all-important bottom line, though, the right fielder formerly known as Q!perman was jettisoned to San Diego for pitchers Simon Castro and Pedro Hernandez. Neither arm could even crack the Padres' top 25 -- twenty five! -- prospects list put together SB Nation's John Sickels, though Castro was once highly-regarded before regressing last season. That's tough to live with when Quentin meant so much to the Chicago lineup.
It's worth noting that Nestor Molina, the top prize in the Santos deal, was immediately named the White Sox's top prospect by Sickels, but serious doubts exist on whether he can cut it as a starter. Molina is a nice pickup, but hardly a blue chipper. And so far as impact bats are concerned in this farm system? Yeah, nothing to see here.
Williams' offseason appears to be finished, though 26-year old Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes is still out there and is reportedly coveted by the Sox. With a presumed $10 million a season price tag, it seems likely Cespedes has priced himself out of the Sox's range. As it stands, the 40-man roster the Sox have now is likely to be the same one that heads into spring training. If everything goes right, maybe the Sox can compete in the farily weak AL Central. That would require a major turnaround from Dunn, Rios, and Peavy, in addition to Konerko continuing to push back the intrusive hands of father time. It would take a career season from Gordon Beckham, a solid job by Buehrle replacement Chris Sale, and a gargantuan season by young slugger Dayan Viciedo. That's a lot that needs to go in Williams' favor, though I suppose anything is possible.
You have to wonder how long Williams' leash will continue to be if the White Sox are a sub-.500 team, as expected. With Dunn and Rios both on the hook for $81 million through 2014 (Peavy expires after this season), it's going to be a while before Chicago has any semblance of budget flexibility. That bodes poorly for the ultra aggressive Williams, a high stakes gambler who busted on too many hands. Now the White Sox are paying for it. With uninspiring replacements bubbling in the minors, Williams can only hope a horde of underachievers a season ago can miraculously regain their swagger. More than likely, it's going to be another long summer on the South Side.
Ricky O'Donnell is a writer and editor in Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. He is always very much available for hire. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.