One of the fun things about blogging the White Sox is that you have to negotiate a wide variety of sentiments, based on who is conducting the evaluation. The conflict is on full display this week -- those looking mostly at the 25-man roster feel pretty good about the Sox, and those studying minor-league depth marvel at the wafer-thin state of the system and wonder when it will all come tumbling down.
It's not quite like the emperor has no clothes -- it's more like the emperor has no pants. The more risk-averse teams would be mortified at the prospect of being exposed in a disaster, but there's another school of thought that believes the farm system is meant to develop currency for scoring proven major-leaguers. From that perspective, being bottomless means you're already halfway to a great time.
That's the conclusion Jeff Passan reached in his season preview of the 2011 White Sox. He listed all the various concerns and potential pitfalls the roster faces -- Paul Konerko won't repeat 2010, the corner outfielders might provide little impact, Chris Sale could alternately leave the bullpen thin as a starter, or lose potential as a reliever ... and yet this is his final paragraph:
Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with the 2005 World Series title and the annual contention, and amid the individual inconsistency, that’s something that shouldn’t change. The White Sox, their drama and their money aren’t going anywhere.
And he's not alone with his optimism.
Over at Baseball Think Factory, Dan Szymborski posted his ZIPS projections for the White Sox, and his interpretation of the roster construction is similar to Passan's:
The team's depth isn't that great, but Kenny Williams is always aggressive about improving the team, whether it's landing Peavy, picking up Ramirez's money, or taking a risk and picking up Alexis Rios's contract (a much better risk than picking up Vernon Wells). Not all of his moves work out, but the saying is Audaces fortuna iuvat, after all.
The projections themselves provide a great opportunity for critical thinking. They're more than numbers -- they're arguments, because they're also amalgamations of a player's traits, weighted in a certain order of importance. And Syzm is usually more than willing to fill in the gaps. Just say his last name three times, and he appears.
So you can look at Edwin Jackson's uninspiring ERA (4.55) and WHIP (1.41) and think it's way too pessimistic -- but that's certainly reasonable in a world where Don Cooper didn't help him fix his collapsed back leg. On the flipside, I think the Sox would love to see Quentin hit .261/.358/.495. That line is optimistic because, as Szym explained in the BTF thread, ZIPS is still calling shenanigans on his absurdly low BABIP (.232). I've never gotten the impression that Quentin is particularly unlucky from watching him, but it's both nice and frustrating to know what he would look like if he became less radical.
A handful of other quick reactions:
*Gordon Beckham's projection is eye-raising (.264/.331/.421), but it's also his career line. It seems like the easiest "over" pick to take. He hit .206/.271/.280 in his first 81 games last year, then rallied with a .342/.401/.574 until Frank Herrmann's jerk fastball screwed up his hand on Aug. 30.
*Alex Rios' comparisons are Garry Maddox, Aaron Rowand and Marquis Grissom, which isn't good if you want him producing from ages 31-33 (when he'll be making $12 million annually). Rios concerns me, because while he was more than adequate offensively, May was the only month where he posted an OPS higher than .800. That makes it one good offensive month out of eight in his time with the Sox, and that needs improvement.
*Gavin Floyd actually has a chance at underperforming ZIPS for the first time in his career. Previous projections included ERAs of 4.78 and 5.11 the past two seasons, but it looks like it's caught up with his improved home run rate. Floyd only allowed 14 last season.
Floyd history against ZIPS might be a good reference point for Jackson in his first and last full season with the Sox.
*Anthony Carter comes out looking the worst of all the pitchers not named "Scott Elarton," which is actually kind of reassuring to me from a baseball-watching perspective. Aside from his good 10 innings in the Arizona Fall League, I don't see the appeal.
*Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are both considered "fair" at first base, and if you believe the metrics, that's being kind to Konerko, as Dunn pantsed him across UZR, Plus-minus and Total Zone. Konerko's piss-poor results confound me. I don't think he's a good first baseman, but I honestly couldn't detect any different in his usual step-and-a-flop range from 2009 to 2010.
However, if the metrics are indeed onto something, then that means it's perfectly fine to rotate Dunn in for some time at first base once or twice a week.
J.J. shares some additional thoughts over at White Sox Examiner.
Listening to Goldstein's podcast, he and Jason Grey talk for 10 minutes about the White Sox farm system, and their capper is decidedly more pessmistic:
Kevin Goldstein: I wrote this at the end -- I'm a big fan of Kenny Williams. I like his aggressiveness. He's very aggressive in the trade market ... he's very aggressive in free agency, and they've yet to ever bring that aggressiveness to either the draft or the international market. It's very weird to me because their system is always kinda bad, because they're very boring in the way they approach player procurement.
Jason Grey: It doesn't seem to be very sustainable, and I'm looking at your top 10 talents, 25-and-under ... [Trayce] Thompson, the guy that we said has very little chance to do anything in baseball, is No. 10.
KG: Yeah, the only two young players on that big-league team are [John] Danks and Beckham, that's it.
JG: Just on the surface, this does not like a team that's going to be anything close to competitive in two years.
Just on the surface, there's nothing wrong with this claim. But I think Williams' maneuvering after the 2007 season rendered much of the conventional wisdom irrelevant. He had a 90-loss team, and a familiarly thin farm system that had high-ceiling prospects, but were years away from contributing.
Saddled with an aging roster that fell apart, Williams took the only sensible and responsible route -- he ransacked the top shelf of the farm system to acquire older players, and then signed two 30-something relievers.
His team won the AL Central the following year.
The Baseball Prospectus (published Nov. 7, 2007) and Baseball America (published Jan. 13, 2008) lists show what the farm system looked like before and after Williams traded for Nick Swisher and Carlos Quentin.
That BA list was probably rock bottom for a historically rocky White Sox farm system. Three years after the trades, the White Sox have received no meaningful direct contributions from any of the Top 10 remaining prospects
And yet here they are, coming off an 88-win season and with a good a shot as anybody to win the Central in 2011.
It's easy to say the White Sox are doomed to future mediocrity, because it's easy to see what they could look like in another world: the Houston Astros. The Astros don't spend on the draft, they don't develop many players, and they're concerned with maintaining the facade of a contender. It has proven to be a dreadfully draining combination for them, and the White Sox seem lucky to avoid such a fate.
But it's worked too long to be just plain luck. Williams is unorthodox, and his comfort zone is in a completely different place. He might be the Tim Lincecum of GMs -- his method looks so strenuous and violent that it doesn't look like it can last over a long career, and yet the day of reckoning has never arrived.
In this case, the day of reckoning is three years away. Just like it was three years ago.
Relevant Mystery Science Theatre clip -- can we say Kenny Williams often has to be at his Ben Murphyest? (Note: The Williams-symbolic scene starts at 2:40.)