I think the most painful part of the 2016 Chicago White Sox season was just how avoidable this outcome really was.
A hot start provided some hope that for the first time in four years, we'd spend our summer with our hearts pounding with every pitch. September would once again be a month of late-inning thrillers, fist-pumping, and aggressive scoreboard-watching instead of (fantasy) football. Finally, gone would be the familiar feeling of playing out the string, just watching for a Trayce Thompson or a Marcus Semien or a Tyler Saladino to give us some minor optimism for the future before turning the page.
The White Sox weren't fortunate enough to experience regression after their scorching April run. Regression would have been kind. Regression would have kept the team in the race through the trade deadline and beyond. Instead the White Sox took a nosedive right past regression and straight to a total evening-out of their early luck from which they'd never recover. A bullpen that was initially lights-out eventually succumbed to its peripherals. The late-inning clutch hitting completely disappeared. The depth of a flimsy roster was put to the test and failed. Every die-hard White Sox fan knows by heart what this team's record was after the first 33 games. That fact is deceptively sad.
It didn't have to be this way.
It's been a full decade since the White Sox put a team on the field on April 1 that you could definitively project to be better than average. Robin Ventura (who was retained for 2016 because reasons) may not be a good manager, but I usually find sympathy for the man who sits in that chair. The owner wants to win, not enough to make risky monetary moves that could put the White Sox in the upper echelon of the American League, but you know, "wants." He'd prefer it to not winning. The front office publicly insists that the team is good, despite every projection system saying it's just OK. Here is your average baseball team, White Sox Manager. Go out there and try to win the standard deviation lottery while we announce to the world that we're not okay with losing.
Despite the White Sox winding up at 78-84 this year, the path to competing in 2016 wasn't a drastic reconstruction away. They just needed to avoid a couple of mistakes and apply a situationally appropriate level of boldness in their approach to the offseason. Here's how a few different choices could have reversed this team's fortunes.
To avoid conflicts between metrics, win-valuations are based on an average of Baseball Reference WAR (bWAR), FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) and Baseball Prospectus' WARP, with the exception of catchers. Catchers are valued using only WARP because it is the only metric of the three that incorporates framing.
1. The Dioner Navarro fiasco
It's been beaten to death far too often already, so I'll be brief. Tendering Tyler Flowers was the obvious correct decision rather than giving him the boot in favor of Dioner Navarro. At the time, it looked like voluntarily swapping out an average catcher for a replacement-level one. Looking back on it, the White Sox actually swapped out an average catcher for the worst position player in baseball. Now that the book is closed on the season, we can assess the damage:
- Dioner Navarro WARP: -2.5
- Tyler Flowers WARP: 2.7
2. The approach to free agency
Though not a certainty, I feel that this one probably falls on ownership, as there's not a general manager in baseball that would try to compete with fewer resources than budgeted. The White Sox went into March with Avisail Garcia, he of the -2.0 career fWAR through over 1,000 career plate appearances, as the starter in right field. Adam LaRoche, a platoon bat with no obvious platoon partner, was coming off of a -1.4 fWAR season and was first on the depth chart at DH.
Earlier in the winter, the White Sox had built themselves into a roughly .500 team with no obvious juggernaut in the division. The free agency class for players at their problem positions was ridiculously deep. This was a perfect intersection of need, player availability, and spot on the win curve to take a big risk and make an unprecedented splash.
The White Sox responded to that situation by signing Austin Jackson, a sub-par starter at best and 4th outfielder at worst, for $5 million on March 6, after all of the numerous superior options had flown off the board.
Jackson was essentially lost for the season after putting up replacement-level numbers for a couple months. This subjected the White Sox to way too much J.B. Shuck, who was the fourth outfielder despite no discernible major league skill and zero ability to competently play center. During his overexposure, Shuck performed 1.6 wins below replacement level.
There were several players available that would have represented dramatic upgrades. The obvious one is Yoenis Cespedes, though choosing a risky play on a premium free agent would have also necessitated dodging the Justin Upton and Alex Gordon bullets (admittedly, I had a slight preference for Gordon over Cespedes). Even if these targets were considered far out of the White Sox' league, they had two cheaper alternatives that practically fell into their lap. Ian Desmond and Dexter Fowler lingered on the market until late February and received relatively small contracts due to the attachment of draft pick compensation. These guys were the low-cost, relatively disappointing fallback options in the eyes of the fans. The White Sox shattered those modest dreams and found a way to skimp even further on their biggest need.
It's thought that the compensatory pick was the reason the White Sox didn't make a major push to ink either player, and it's confusing why they let that be an obstacle. The Todd Frazier trade announced an intent to win immediately. If a compensatory pick really held the White Sox back from pulling the trigger on the best player possible, that's hedging. Teams making a serious push don't hedge; they accept that near-term aggression may adversely affect their future.
Here's how the five primary options shook out in 2016:
- Dexter Fowler: 4.2 wins
- Yoenis Cespedes: 3.8 wins
- Ian Desmond: 2.6 wins
- Justin Upton: 1.6 wins
- Alex Gordon: 0.5 wins
3. The James Shields blunder
Early in the year, the White Sox were remarkably proactive about trimming the fat on their roster and showed little patience for John Danks and Mat Latos. A nice free-talent find in Miguel Gonzalez eliminated the need for the former and the latter was displaced via a trade for James Shields. Acquiring Shields didn't feel like a horrible idea, but with multiple voids in the lineup, it felt like ignoring a gunshot wound to treat a paper cut. At the very least, he seemed like he could hold his own as a fourth starter, eat innings, and keep the White Sox in games.
Shields unraveled quickly after his acquisition in early June. After three disaster starts, we were treated to this Jeff Sullivan piece that illustrated that Shields has actually been broken for quite some time. There wasn't a strong negative reaction among White Sox fans at the time of the acquisition because without taking such a deep analytical dive, we didn't know any better. Maybe the White Sox didn't either.
The problem is that it is the White Sox' job to know better.
That Sullivan piece (which was very well done) didn't look at Shields' mechanics. It didn't show any film or discuss scouting reports. All it did was review publicly available data from Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs to draw a conclusion that turned out to be pretty on-point. An analysis like this should be the minimum level of research that a major league baseball team should do when attempting to acquire a player. Even if the White Sox saw the trend and thought it wasn't pointing towards Shields becoming this bad, why was this the player to whom they felt the need to commit $27 million? That's more than five times their largest free agent acquisition from the 2015-16 offseason, and it was directed at fixing the least of their problems.
It's only fair to point out that there's a significant possibility that the Padres withheld medical information on Shields that may have reduced his price tag or (less likely) scared off the White Sox from acquiring him. But it's still another example of the White Sox failing to understand their problems and targeting the wrong guys to solve them. Instead of going all-in on Shields, the White Sox could have simply accepted Mat Latos (a replacement-level pitcher) or rolled the dice on some fungible ones that would have required no investment. Hell, Scott freaking Carroll once posted a replacement-level season over 129 innings.
The resources used on Shields could have instead been put towards a different midseason acquisition that could have helped the team in a meaningful way. Even if we assume the White Sox wouldn't have acquired anything of value instead, Shields performed 1.5 wins worse than a replacement-level pitcher.
That's three mistakes. One of them was extremely easy to avoid. One of them could have been prevented with an understanding of the team's needs, a satisfactory amount of research, and respect of a budget that seemed all too firm last winter. One of them required them to push towards contention as hard as they claimed to be pushing by signing just one player that carried any level of risk.
Three bad decisions. Ten wins.
While watching the White Sox this season, you may have thought that they don't look anything like a playoff team. Yet, all it would have taken to give them an upper-80s win total and put them near the front of the Wild Card race would have been Tyler Flowers, Dexter Fowler (or Ian Desmond), and a replacement-level starting pitcher. With a non-Shields trade deadline acquisition and a better tactician than Robin Ventura (another self-created problem), who knows? Maybe they could've gotten over the hump and earned at least the chance to throw Chris Sale in a one-game playoff.
We didn't get that experience, and 2016 will forever stick out in my mind as a blown opportunity. It won't be the year Jose Abreu disappeared for four months, the year Todd Frazier's batting average took a dive, the year Jake Petricka, Zach Putnam, Austin Jackson, and Brett Lawrie got injured, the year with that no-good, horrible, very bad April schedule, or even the year that Adam LaRoche and Chris Sale finally got national attention for the White Sox for all the wrong reasons. Instead, I'll remember it as the year that the White Sox decided their way out of relevance.
The White Sox have Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton, Jose Abreu, Todd Frazier, Carlos Rodon, Miguel Gonzalez, Tim Anderson, and Nate Jones set to make just $50 million combined next year, with Shields' $10 million registering as the only significant contractual liability. With another offseason of decisions looming, the White Sox would do well to recognize that one way or another, this not a group of assets that should play for another middling team in 2017.
Don't screw this up.