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Let's Talk Downside

If only because larry's recent poll ran on a spectrum from good to excellent, it's a good time to talk about the downside of the White Sox' flurry of activity.  I picked "good" and there's plenty of reason for feeling positive about it. They will be undoubtedly better on offense having replaced Mark Kotsay and The 6-4-3 Trio with Adam Dunn.  We'll get a full season of Edwin Jackson to help off-set the Peavy injury.  To top it off, Paul Konerko is rumored to be Kenny Williams' priority, though evidently the Rangers may be stepping up their efforts to steal the captain from us.

If Konerko comes back for the $13M figure Jon Heyman predicts, the Sox will be at about $120M without having resolved the bullpen.  It's reasonable to think they'll be a good $10M above the $115M figure I picked out at the beginning of the off-season.  That's a lot and in past years, that's meant a sizeable payroll advantage against in-division competitors. 

Not anymore.  The Twins have caught up thanks to their new stadium, at least for now and figure to be within a win's worth of the Sox in terms of payroll.  That's an even bigger problem since the Twins have been more than competitive with the Sox despite being at a substantial monetary disadvantage.  In part that's canceled out by Joe Mauer's now-massive salary from here on out, but their underlying ability to churn out good to great pitching on the cheap isn't going anywhere.  Moreover, the Sox have made a habit instead of trading away their prospects which has hindered the establishment of an especially deep corps of cost controlled younger players.  That means fewer dollars to spend on meaningful free agent additions and instead having to fill holes with that cash.  For instance, this has meant signing Mark Teahen and Scott Linebrink to unnecessarily long term deals.  And ultimately It's meant an 86 win long term trend and fewer division winners than the Twins over Kenny's tenure.

And above all, Kenny has basically refused to rebuild.  They've only won less than 80 games twice during his run as GM and each time the Sox won 88 games the next season.  It's understandable.  The Sox are the second team in the Second City and building a resilient brand means never being ignorable.  But that's exactly what they should be worried about if deferring money-- both AJ and Dunn got deferred money-- becomes a habit.  Instead of maintaining and building assets, they'll be borrowing wins from future teams and end up exactly like the Cubs.  Only without the storied history* that makes their every predictable downfall somehow result in more and more revenue.

Typically, contracts for post-arb players are written so the player gets the same dollar amount every year.  E.g. Paulie signed a 5 year deal in 2006 for $12 million every season.  This works out okay because MLB salary inflation is substantial, so as the player declines the purchasing power of that $12 million declines a lot.  Replacing his value becomes more and more expensive compared to that flat cost.  But if you start paying more and more every season, the player ages and gets worse with no corresponding drop in his contract's value.

So far, this isn't too worrisome.  AJ only got a two year deal.  I was expecting he'd get re-upped at 2/10 and instead he got 2/8.  But it's easy to see how a rapid decline could hurt the team.  He's getting $6M next season, $2M more than he would in a normal deal.  $2 million next season may not even be worth half a win next season.  But if instead of recovering from his 1 or so win performance he declines even further, suddenly the Sox are enormously dependent on Tyler Flowers being a reasonable alternative or it's $6M in dead money.  Indeed, if you're going to get into deferments habitually, your cheap young players have to bail you out.  The Sox are in no position to do this.  They have one of the worst farm systems in the game.  Dunn was a type-A free agent and so is Paulie, so they may end up with zero first round picks, rather than 2 had Paulie walked and Dunn not been signed.  This means basically no shot at a college hitter or pitcher who could end up rapidly helping the team.  Instead we hope that they make up for it drafting high school guys with signability issues.

But still, one fairly small contract bust isn't a deal breaker.  Like Linebrink or Teahen, they'd probably be replacement level between them instead of a bit more than a win you're paying for.  But if the Sox are neck-and-neck with the Twins, the thinnest margins matter.    If before the season starts, the Sox' talent is 3 wins worse than the Twins, they'll make the playoffs less than 10% of the time.  On top of that, you end up with immovable contracts and end up trading young players for even younger players rather than getting out from under the dead wood.

To reiterate: this is not a guaranteed catastrophe.  But it becomes all the more possible with this strategy.  When we've  worried in the past about the Sox becoming too old, they've escaped largely thanks to their greatest competitive advantage: their incredible track record keeping their guys healthy.  But it's not like AJ or Paulie have gotten younger since we were first worried.  And deferred payments only serve to exacerbate the problems of old age.

*By "storied" I mean "established trend of" and by "history" I mean "imploding spectacularly."  Stockholm Syndrome is a hell of a drug.