If you were looking southward from downtown Chicago when reports hit that Chris Sale had been traded to the Boston Red Sox, you would have noticed that Guaranteed Rate Field was shrouded in a light fog. That might be a pathetic fallacy, but the vision seems appropriate for the current state of the Chicago White Sox.
It has been a rough few months for the White Sox. A torrid start to the 2016 season put Chicago six games up in the American League Central, a lead that disappeared in less than three weeks and never came back. They finished 16 games behind the Cleveland Indians and missed the postseason for the eighth straight season. The only times the White Sox drew any real national attention were both strange controversies in which Sale was involved -- first when veteran Adam LaRoche retired over his son's clubhouse access during spring training, with Sale calling out executive VP Kenny Williams, and then during the season, when Sale lost his mind and cut up a bunch of throwback jerseys.
And this all quietly unfolded in a city where the north-side Cubs became the biggest story in sports. The White Sox have long been second-class citizens in their own metropolitan area despite a fan base that is fervently loyal and, even now, largely immune to the happenings in Wrigleyville. But as they say, the proof is in the pudding. According to Forbes, the White Sox were working with $100 million less in revenue than the Cubs in 2015, a chasm that has almost certainly widened since then. The last bit of bragging rights the White Sox owned -- their 2005 championship -- has been erased by the Cubs' World Series win.
With the Cubbie-blue shadow looming larger than ever over the White Sox, does that make this the best or the worst time to rebuild? In most ways, it probably doesn't matter. While the franchises vie for a certain overlap in local media coverage, their respective fan bases don't seem to intersect as much as you'd think, considering the ballparks are only about nine miles from each other. White Sox fans don't tend to judge their team against the Cubs, especially those who have sworn to never set foot inside Wrigley Field.
The Sale trade doesn't represent a full-on rebuild by general manager Rick Hahn, but it sends a hard-to-ignore signal that one is underway. At 27, Sale is one of the best and most durable starting pitchers in baseball. His contract, according to the Cot's Contracts, will pay him $38 million over the next three seasons. That's ridiculously team-friendly. Simply put, he was one of the most valuable trade assets in baseball.
Hahn could have held onto Sale, allowing the pitcher to continue anchoring Chicago's rotation at a bargain price. But to what end? The White Sox's best players -- such as Sale, Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, Jose Abreu and Melky Cabrera -- are in the middle of or nearing the end of their career primes. The players with the most upside -- shortstop Tim Anderson and starter Carlos Rodon -- are too few in number. The White Sox's minus-29 run differential last season was a four-year high. It just wasn't working.
For far too long -- well before Hahn took over as chief decision-maker from Kenny Williams -- the White Sox have focused on patching up their big league roster at the expense of building up their minor league system. The last, big patch-work push came before the 2015 season, when the Sox doled out around $128 million in contracts for Cabrera, Zach Duke, David Robertson and LaRoche. That accomplished nothing, so before last season, the Sox traded three prospects to the Dodgers in a three-way deal with the Reds that brought back veteran third baseman Todd Frazier.
The end result? Continuing their string of second-division finishes.
Worse, the White Sox have been neither fish nor fowl: The lack of player development has left the organization thin, and the lack of an elite revenue stream leaves the White Sox battling for second-tier free agents with far too much downside risk.
This left the White Sox at a crossroads entering the winter meetings:
Door No. 1: Should they keep throwing money at their problems, hoping to catch lightning in the bottle? It wasn't the longest of shots, after all, because at the very least, they could hope for a good starting rotation.
Door No. 2: They could finally bite the bullet and attempt to put together a more sustainable model.
With the trade of Sale, the White Sox seem to have finally set off in the right direction. Door No. 2 it is.
Keith Law's last full set of organization rankings had the White Sox at No. 22. According to Baseball America, the White Sox haven't ranked in the top 10 since 2002. They haven't been in the top half of the majors in Baseball America's rankings in a decade, and the past five years have been brutal: 27th, 30th, 29th, 24th, 30th and 23rd.
Prospect rankings aren't everything. However, the current economic realities of baseball and the structures in place under the current and recently-agreed-to collective bargaining agreements have put scouting and development at the forefront of most front office strategies. The Yankees are doing it. The Dodgers are doing it. The Royals and the Cubs have converted recent lofty draft rankings into World Series titles. But the White Sox didn't even need to look at those trends or those teams. They only needed to look at their own history.
In 2001, the White Sox were Baseball America's top team in the preseason prospect rankings. While a lot of the players who populated the top rungs of that list (such asJoe Borchard and Jon Rauch) didn't pan out, that overall commitment to player development was a big part of the Sox's title in 2005, in terms of homegrown products on the roster (Joe Crede, Aaron Rowand, Mark Buehrle) and prospects dealt for veteran pieces.
Now the White Sox seem pointed toward replicating that process, beginning with the crucial first step they've skipped over for years: establishing a solid base of prospects. They seem to be off to a great start with the Sale trade. With the acquisition of Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech and Luis A. Basabe, along with the selections of catcher Zack Collins and pitchers Alec Hansen and Zack Burdi in the draft back in June, there is a lot more upside in the organization than there was before the season. But it's only a start.
Now that Sale is gone, the other impactful veterans on the roster make even less sense. Eaton, 27, is a solid hitter and excellent defender at a time when several contenders need a center fielder. Quintana, also 27, is kind of Sale-lite on both the production and consistency fronts and has a similarly team-friendly contract. Abreu, Frazier and Cabrera will all be in or past their age-30 seasons in 2017, which means their value is higher right now than it's likely going to get. And they are at career stages out of step for a team at the outset of a full-blown rebuild.
The White Sox are well positioned to deal. Their primary veterans are good players on reasonable contracts. This isn't a blue-light-special situation -- Hahn should find multiple suitors for each veteran, and he can always stand pat if the right offers don't come in. He can deal this winter, or hold out until the trade deadline. However, if he doesn't pull the trigger on anything, suddenly the Sale trade starts to look like an odd, half-done attempt at going the prospect route. That outcome would be a surprise, especially since the thin free-agent class this winter means it's a good time to dive into the seller's trade market.
Up until the moment Hahn said yes to the Red Sox, that fog around 'The G' (formerly the Cell) really did seem like a metaphor. With that one phone call, the White Sox are no longer a team running in place. But dealing Sale was just the first step, and for the White Sox to end up where they want to go, the next steps will be the most important they've taken in years.