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State of White Sox farm system aligns better with rebuild

Recent draft infuses top-10 list, but any attempt at contending would rely heavily on health

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MLB: General Managers Meetings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

At the general managers meeting in Scottsdale, Rick Hahn still didn’t tip his hand as to the White Sox’ direction, but the reporters around him are getting the sense that this could finally be the winter the White Sox stop tilting at windmills.

Here’s Dan Hayes, for instance:

And while Hahn took every opportunity Tuesday to qualify that he wasn’t defining which direction the White Sox are headed during a 45-minute media session, he also continued to hammer home that the franchise is ready for a change.

“We’ve always been focused on putting ourselves in the best position to win,” Hahn said. “At the same time, I think we’re veering away from the standpoint of looking for stopgaps. A lot of what we did in the last few years had been trying to enhance the short-term potential of the club to put ourselves in a position to win immediately. I feel the approach at this point is focusing on longer-term benefits. It doesn’t mean we won’t necessarily be in a good position in 2017. It means that our targets and whatever we’re hoping to accomplish have a little more longer-term fits in nature.”

And friend of the front office Bob Nightengale:

The World Series champion Cubs may be feted for life in Chicago, but considering the adoration and attention that Al Avila of the Detroit Tigers and Rick Hahn of the Chicago White Sox are receiving at baseball’s general manager meetings, they may not have to buy dinner or drinks all winter.

For the first time in nearly two decades, the Tigers and White Sox are letting teams know that anyone and everyone on their roster are for sale, trying to emulate the Cubs’ rebuilding success, and surviving long enough to bask in the glory.

Nightengale’s reservations are stronger than Hayes’, as the USA Today reporter says other executives have their doubts considering the two AL Central teams’ reluctance to give in over the years. It remains too early to call, but you can start girding your loins for the possibility.

If the Sox do sell Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and others, it’ll be remarkable that nobody got fired during all the failing to win. Robin Ventura doesn’t count — boy howdy, he does not count — considering the Sox had ample reason to try somebody else before the 2016 season, not to mention the two-month window during it.

But as humiliating as it would be to admit defeat ... it might also be the adult thing to do. Regarding the trade market, the White Sox are at the high-water mark for individual trade values. Sale and Quintana, and Nate Jones and Adam Eaton while we’re at it, will be hard-pressed to improve their personal stock, and any gains would probably be incremental.

Meanwhile, the farm system is still at least one year away from being able to supplement any go-for-it season in a meaningful way. Convenient for this discussion is the first top 10 White Sox prospect list courtesy of Baseball America:

  1. Zack Collins
  2. Zack Burdi
  3. Carson Fulmer
  4. Spencer Adams
  5. Alec Hansen
  6. Jordan Stephens
  7. Trey Michalczewski
  8. Jameson Fisher
  9. Alex Call
  10. Jake Peter

My top four responses to the top 10 list?

No. 1: 2016 draft picks make up half of the list.

Collins (first), Burdi (supplemental), Hansen (second), Fisher (fourth) and Call (third). That’s great news for Nick Hostetler, and not entirely surprising for a team that is getting contributions from recent first-rounders like Tim Anderson and Carlos Rodon, but the pipeline is nowhere near complete. For instance...

No. 2: There are no position players that can be counted upon to step in.

Saying so would hinge on a bat-forward Zack Collins overachieving in his first full season of pro ball. A deserved fast-tracking is within the realm of possibility, but it’s not something that should be penciled in.

It looks like miles vary on Charlie Tilson, mostly due to the injury. In his corresponding chat for the list, BA’s Hudson Belinsky said of Tilson, “His fragility is a significant concern and I couldn’t justify him as a top 10 prospect in this system.” The top 10 is in better shape than it was at the end of last season, but the back half of it was crackable.

The good news? Belinsky sees Collins as a catcher more than others, and the recent reports share a lot in common with Tyler Flowers’ defensive improvement (big body that can block a lot, just without acrobatic capability; average arm with adequate accuracy; hard work with John Orton).

No. 3: They don’t have a handful of pitchers who look like legitimate rotation fodder.

Carson Fulmer didn’t benefit from “White Sox first-round pitcher” expectations, and in the corresponding podcast, Belinsky and J.J. Cooper doubted that Fulmer would be top-100 material due to his unclear role. The shuffling around didn’t help, and Fulmer finished the year with a flourish after resetting in Charlotte’s rotation, but he should be allowed to stumble a little more.

The bigger problem is that there isn’t anybody behind/alongside him who can give the Sox multiple options to plug leaks. Sure, Miguel Gonzalez wouldn’t have been foreseeable as a solution at this point last offseason, so there are other ways to find/build depth, but as it stands, the Sox are precariously thin.

No. 4: Sure would be nice to see an international player crack the top 10 soon.

Belinsky mentioned a few in his chat, but nobody on the cusp of breaking through. We know the flaws with Micker Adolfo (hit tool, health), but Luis Martinez (needs more power behind his fastball and breaking ball), Yosmer Solorzano (throws in the high 80s) and Amado Nunez (some tools, but far away) didn’t generate much hype, either. At the moment, the Sox traded away their most promising international prospect for James Shields.

It’s not easy to build an international presence from the ground up, and they’ve had a helluva time keeping their international picks healthy, but whichever one is the driving reason, the Sox still are short an arm to fight with in the minor-league ranks.

Taking a step back, the farm looks healthier than it did last season, but it looks another year away from coalescing into a system where players can be projected into roles and holes. And after that, Chris Sale has two years left on his contract, and the Sox will have fresh vacancies at left field and third base, among others.

That’s why selling seems to line up better with a sustainable future than buying despite that incredible core. The next attempt at buying — and quite possibly the one after that -- looks like patching together a one-ply attempt at an 84-win projection and the margin of error to carry them into the hunt, barring some pleasant developments that have eluded them in the past.

That’s one way to spend the rest of Sale’s under-contract seasons, and I can see why fans would rather do that than choose the mystery box, especially with this front office’s track record. Either course is setting the stage for further frustration until history reverses itself. One just has more wins while it’s happening.