Thanks to Matt Swartz's arbitration cost projections and some Cot's Contracts magic we can now really zero in on the White Sox's payroll commitments for 2014 and, given that, start to figure out what it would take to compete by 2015. While some commentators I've heard (the guys at Fringe Average come to mind) are fairly skeptical that '15 is a reasonable target, I've been of the opinion that it's not totally nuts to use that as a target date. Let's break it down and see if the Sox can get there.
What The Sox Have
It looks like this. If you clicked through to the above, you saw that the Sox have something like $59 million committed to 2014 payroll outside of their non-arb eligible roster options. From there we need to add some 14 guys to the 25 man roster. That puts the Sox at something like $65 million if Hahn fills out the roster with league-minimum guys. At a minimum, that's what we're spending in 2014.
Next, we want to know what we're getting for that money. The quick and dirty way to do it is to use last year's total WAR. The Sox managed about 20 WAR per FanGraphs, or about 68 wins. Granted that team had Jake Peavy and Alex Rios, who contributed 3 total WAR. But -- hopefully -- it will also not have Paul Konerko and Jeff Keppinger contributing an offsetting number.
That's maybe a bit of a fudge, but the angle of the piece is to stay glass-half-full. So, we have a 68-win team spending $65 million. That's not very good. For comparison, the A's and Rays spent nearly that on their playoff teams this year.
What The Sox Need
Fortunately, the Sox have more leeway than those clubs. In the recent past, ownership has been able to justify breaking even on something like $120-130 million. Those teams presumably were projected by the organization to at least compete, if not win the division outright. Meaning, in order to get up to that kind of spending level, the team will have to at least be expected to be in the thick of the playoff hunt.
They're already spending $65 million. There's another $60 million in the bank and we need to add 22 wins to really compete. That gets us to 90. That would have been good enough in 2012, at least, to make the playoffs.
Getting To 90 Wins
We're saying for the sake of argument, Jerry Reinsdorf will kick in the extra $60 million as long as the Sox have 90-win talent. The old rule of thumb is that it costs about $5 million per win, though that's been successfully challenged lately . In fact, it looks like wins cost something like $7 million on average. "On average" being the operative phrase there. Adam Dunn and Keppinger suggest that maybe that won't be a figure we can rely on.
But I said this would be glass-half-full, so okay. Let's say that the Sox can expect a free agent to cost $7 million per win. They've got $60 million to spend, that kicks them up from 68 wins to 77.
So yeah, Jerry's not signing off on that kind of spending spree any time soon. The Sox will need to get some free wins out of their prospects and some dumpster diving. Specifically, they'll need some 13 wins at the league minimum to easily justify Reinsdorf throwing in that $60 million. That's equivalent to adding another Jose Quintana and Addison Reed to the roster, plus four average position players. Said a different way, Jerry is going to be looking for the 2014 team to get to .500 without much additional spending.
Unfortunately, the Sox are renowned for having a farm system that could charitably be described as "full of soot and poo." A lot of our major investments have only been recently made and significant returns simply aren't likely to show up given the timeframe we're working with. The obvious immediate contributors are Erik Johnson, Andre Rienzo, Marcus Semien and Avisail Garcia. Sticking with the bright-side-of-life theme, there's your Quintana, Reed and two average contributors. If they all work out and you throw in the $60 million, that's an 86-win team.
More likely, they won't all work out. But the Sox will continue to sift through the trash for guys like Quintana, Alejandro De Aza and Conor Gillaspie. Some will fail, but if enough work, they'll be able to supplement that small influx of young-ish talent. That is, 86 wins by 2015 I think is actually fairly feasible; 90 really seems like a longshot. Given the competitiveness of the AL, we'll get to watch some pretty good baseball and ultimately fall short.
Certainly after the total tragedy of 2013, it's pretty easy to like the prospect of a .500 team next year and 86 wins the year after. I'd caution two things: one, that's still asking a whole lot of improvement in 2014. And two, that 86-win equilibrium is one we've more or less been stuck in since 2005. Close, but not good enough for regular playoff bids. In fact, it's easy to name the primary culprit that's lead the Sox down this not-so-virtuous cycle: The White Sox must improve their player development in order to break into the AL elite.
Actually, it's even more specific than that. The Sox know pitching. It's their position player development that's awful. And if Courtney Hawkins is any sign of the current state of affairs, it isn't getting better. There are signs of life (Marco Paddy, for one), but it isn't just about drafting the right guys. Handling and developing them are the next critical steps. It seems as though the Sox will finally have the budget to really compete for top prospects internationally and otherwise. But if they can't add value to their guys once they're in the system, it'll all be for naught.