White Sox should welcome conflict

I picked up The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers from a used bookstore on Monday, and while thumbing through it, this passage about Whitey Herzog caught my eye.

See, Whitey understood something, which is that sports are essentially conflict. A manager who backs away from conflict is useless. A player who backs away from conflict is useless.

This directness, this willingness to do battle, enabled him to establish expectations for his players. Everybody had a weight limit. Everybody was expected to report to camp in shape.

Herzog had worked for several years in scouting and player development, and he was very, very good at it. He made his own decisions about who could play and who couldn't. This is extremely unusual. Few people in baseball are willing to look at a young man who hasn't yet played in the majors and who doesn't have the "hot prospect" label, and say, "Here's a guy who can play for me." Herzog was never dependent on established stars, because he was always willing to rest his fate on young, unproven players.

Whitey was the boldest man in baseball. He looked for an attitude, a willingness to get it done. When a player lost that edge, that fearlessness, that love of risk, he lost his value, and then his manager had a problem. If the manager faced that problem head-on, there would be conflict. If he didn't, there would be mediocrity.

We certainly became intimately familiar with the idea behind that last sentence, didn't we?

When you look at the way James describes Herzog, I wonder if Ozzie Guillen would describe himself the same way. After all, that's what he was supposed to be -- an honest evaluator with an aggressive strategy who wouldn't back down from a fight when a player challenged his baseball values.

Over his last two seasons, though, would you be able to look at Guillen and establish any real philosophy? From where I'm sitting, his being-somewhere-elseness watered down his baseball values, transforming tenets into token bench calls. "Unselfishness" became "bunt a lot," and "aggressiveness" turned into "try stealing a lot."

Forget stars -- he was dependent on established players. Regardless of results or apparent effort, it took a tsunami to knock a veteran out of his pre-established Role-with-a-capital-R. When anybody suggested replacing one of the underperforming parts, Guillen said, "With who?" But when real solutions were presented, the response was, "And take him out?"

His management of the late innings is the only area where he showed flashes of inspiration. I liked the four-out saves a lot. I liked the one-out saves less, but both showed he was capable of turning off autopilot and responding to performances and situations on the field.

Otherwise, Guillen became an empty uniform. Which is exactly what any of us would be if we were transported into the manager's office. Our best chance to survive the season would be to make the most important players -- not the best ones, just the ones with the most gravitas in the clubhouse -- as comfortable as possible. Otherwise, said players would immediately respond to challenges by attempting to undermine our authority, and in all likelihood, we wouldn't have the resources to handle it.

When the skipper manages a team (not a game, but a team) like we would, there's a problem. I don't know all the specific reasons why Guillen and the Sox didn't act, but I thought the baseball sense outweighed the replies of "it's complex," a.k.a. "the unknown."

Judging only from the way events played out, the White Sox ran away from conflict. They chose the path of least resistance at every turn. The six-man rotation would be the ultimate example -- Guillen created it to avoid replacing a struggling starter with Phil Humber, and then Guillen disabled its most beneficial feature (an extra day of rest) because Jake Peavy wanted the ball. Conflict aversion decided the strategy.

The result was mediocrity. It's a shame we can't replay the season, because I would've liked to see how actual shake-ups would have tested the "complexities." I'm still not sure why preserving the status quo became such a priority when the status quo was unacceptable.

Star-divide

Speaking of unacceptable status quos, Larry and I (more Larry than I) had another Twitter debate Chris Rongey, which most of you already know about from the last thread. The conversation started from my re-tweet of Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus:

Regarding the worst farm system. // RT @Kevin_Goldstein Yes. And it's not close. RT @sdsufan5 white sox?
Oct 20 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

 

Goldstein held a similar sentiment to Baseball America's Jim Callis:

#WhiteSox, no contest. @musiqboateng: which team has the worst farm system in the majors?
Oct 19 via HootSuiteFavoriteRetweetReply

 

There wasn't much to the discussion -- we argued that the Sox should do better than dead-last in amateur spending; Rongey argue that turning focus to the minors is difficult for a team that only draws when the Sox are seriously competing, and that paying over slot wouldn't solve problems by itself.

Those sides aren't on the same coin, because there's a lot more to it besides individual bonuses. Hell, the Sox can start by not giving away draft picks (or extra players in trades). But treating Rongey's response as a reflection of White Sox thinking, there's not a whole lot separating a "conservative" approach from an "a-scared" approach.

The Sox don't do contentious negotiations with prospects. They don't make serious investments in the international market (Dayan Viciedo was three years ago). They would rather exchange prospects for proven players than watch their own players try to tread water.

Advocates of this approach would laud Kenny Williams for playing the percentages. Detractors could call it a fear of failure, and when Rongey says the Sox can't afford to miss on picks they invest heavily in...

... well, it's because they have so few of them. For instance, most teams can absorb their Jared Mitchell situations, but for the White Sox farm system, it's a total nut punch. Their top prospect list could be headlined by a reliever next year because forces conspired against Mitchell. Because they invest so little in amateur talent, they become more invested in the few alluring picks they do have. As a result, when Mitchell breaks his ankle or Gordon Beckham can't recognize pitches, it hurts way more than it should.

Star-divide

Hopefully Adam Dunn shattered the model.

On paper, Dunn was the safest move Williams could make. He had production you could set your watch to. He cost a first-round pick, but his production was supposed to keep the revenue model in motion for future investments down the line. He'd hit titanic homers, the Sox would play vitally important baseball into September and October, and the fans would show up in response.

Instead, the safest choice proved to be more dangerous than any first-round slot payment could be. In terms of overall numbers and self-inflicted damage, Dunn probably had the worst season in baseball history. The Sox could've drafted a college bat with the 23rd overall pick, put him in the lineup immediately after signing him, and received better production from the DH spot. At least the draft bonus is a one-time payment.

Dunn, with assistance from Alex Rios, made this team probably the least-liked version of the White Sox since the late 1990s. Attendance dropped significantly, and with another uninspiring season, the Sox will have lost all attendance gains since they won the World Series.

The Sox are in desperate need of fortitude at every level, and not just of the testicular variety. This is the perfect time for it.

At the major-league level, Dunn and Rios have little to zero professional credibility, Juan Pierre no longer has a lockdown on the leadoff spot, and the utility infielder will likely have fewer than 2,000 games on his B-Ref page. There are no valid reasons for 2011's "complications" to seep into 2012, because after watching Alejandro De Aza break out the way he showed he could in Triple-A, organizational action could have given the Sox a handful of wins by itself.

Likewise, this would be the best time to lobby for investing in amateur talent. The Sox ramped up their payroll in 2011, and they lost attendance. After watching what proven players did with $30 million up top, how can the Sox be scared of spending $5 million at the bottom?

In both cases, I just want the White Sox to stop opting for whatever is the easiest. Highly paid professionals are supposed to be able to handle conflict and see avenues for adapting, but the Sox have developed a nasty habit of sidestepping opportunities. Every cry for change has been answered with "we can't," or " we don't," or "we couldn't," or "we won't," and as a result, the White Sox didn't.

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