Hi Jerry. It's your old pal, larry. I think it's time we had a frank chat about the recent past and current state of your organization.
It's over, Jerry. Your way of running the organization hasn't worked. Hahn gave it a good effort. Williams left him a pretty poor hand and he tried to make something of it. But, as we get further and further away from the Kenny era, while the internal talent pipeline is in better shape, Hahn hasn't sufficiently turned around the major league product. And that lack of execution is on him. Let's take a look at how things have gone since Williams got kicked upstairs.
Hahn certainly wasn't to blame for going for it in 2013. What he did was actually more properly described as "sticking with it", since there was big money committed and Hahn essentially stood pat. He did bring us Jeff Keppinger that offseason on a three-year deal, which I might remind you ended up being a one-year, $12 million deal for -2 WAR. But beginners get a mulligan and, really, it didn't matter. Once things went south, Hahn then did the correct thing and oversaw a teardown in July and August. And then had a pretty solid offseason, bringing aboard most notably Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton and Zach Putnam. Two stars and a solid bullpen contributor who are all still with the club. Pretty decent for a rebuilding offseason. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the drafting of Tim Anderson.
Of course, we also saw some additional cracks in the pro scouting department, which hadn't wrapped itself in glory during the latter part of the Kenny Era. Addison Reed was getting expensive and a bad team doesn't need a closer. But Matt Davidson sure has stunk. Secondary pieces Frankie Montas and, to a much lesser extent, J.B. Wendelken from the Peavy trade proved to be useful as trade chips. The main piece in that deal, though, Avi Garcia has, well...you've watched the games. And the Neverending Quest for LOOGY had its latest casualty: $4 million paid to Scott Downs.
2014 was a dumpster fire, as it was meant to be, though you could see the basic building blocks for a competitive club. Abreu and Eaton excelled. Sale and Quintana looked the part as a top of the rotation tandem. Carlos Rodon got added via the amateur draft. And, though no one from the organization seems to have noticed or cared, Tyler Flowers was an average baseball player. Marcus Semien looked like at least a cheap major league infielder. Jake Petricka and Putnam showed promise as bullpen pieces. And all of these guys were under team control for an extended period.
That's when stuff got a little wacky. Perhaps in excitement over the above core players, you all decided to push up the opening of the competitive window by at least a year. Zach Duke for 3 years, $15 million. Adam LaRoche for 2 years, $25M. Semien and others for one year of Jeff Samardzija and his attendant $9.8 million salary. David Robertson for 4 years, $46 million. Melky Cabrera for 3 years, $42 million. And $7.5 million spread between Gordon Beckham, Emilio Bonifacio and Geovany Soto.
That sure got the fans excited. If you're going to try to buy your way into competing, that's certainly the sort of expenditure you'd expect. But the wheels came off quickly with an 8-11 April and a superb start by the Royals. And the team was never more than a game over .500. LaRoche and Samardzija both performed terribly. Robertson didn't really have much actual closing to do. Duke was maybe worth the money but a $5 million setup man isn't useful on a 76 win team. Cabrera had some bad luck on batted balls but, regardless, didn't contribute. Beckham was worth his money and Soto was superb for his money but, again, an expensive veteran bench doesn't help a losing team and the implosion of Bonifacio offset the value provided by the others. The pro scouting department didn't come through yet again.
On the internal development side, things were mixed but pointing positive. The Micah Johnson Experiment (predictably) failed. The Avi Experiment (also predictably) failed. Erik Johnson continued to fail. On the other hand, Rodon, Trayce Thompson, Tyler Saladino and Frankie Montas showed varying levels of major league competence and looked like they could be additions to the core - or, at least, its supporting cast. With some additional offseason expenditures, it looked like 2016 could erase the memory of the prior few seasons.
The offseason got off to a bit of an odd start with the signing of Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro and the non-tendering of Flowers. Avila happened first and $2.5 million for a lefty hitter who might bounceback seemed like a good idea to pair with Flowers. Then Flowers was non-tendered and replaced with Navarro for $4 million who, historically, has been a pretty replacement level or worse catcher outside of one season on the North Side. What was most notable about this switch was the White Sox going from a very good pitch-framer with admitted offensive shortcomings to an absolutely horseshit pitch-framer who could hit a bit. Hahn assured us that the tradeoff was acceptable and, in fact, would be more productive than the 2015 duo. Then he guaranteed $1.5 million to Jacob Turner.
Things got a little more intuitive with the acquisition of Brett Lawrie for a couple minor leaguers (including the aforementioned Wendelken) and then Todd Frazier for Montas, Thompson and Micah Johnson. This filled a couple long-standing gaping holes. While Lawrie came cheap, Frazier commanded a dearer price.
And then things became odd again as the White Sox let the offseason pass them by. We don't need to rehash the whole thing but there were some potential fits and it became clearer that the prior offseason's expenditures tied Hahn's hands. Dumpster diving was in order and the team paid a collective total of $10.25 million for Matt Albers, Mat Latos, Jimmy Rollins and Austin Jackson. Miguel Gonzalez arrived shortly after the season began. As dumpster diving goes, this wasn't a bad haul as there was some upside potential for minimal cost and various open spots on the roster were filled.
It was an overall underwhelming offseason for fans but we didn't care after a gangbusters start to the season. On May 9, their record was 23-10 and they held a 6 game lead at the top of the Central. Obviously, no one believed the team was as good as the record indicated. But 23 wins in 33 games were put in the bank and even a .500 performance over the rest of the season would certainly put them in serious contention for the playoffs.
But we all know what happened next.
And then Hahn acquired James Shields. Which has not gone well.
So here we sit on June 20 at 33-36 in 4th place in the Central at 5 games out in both the division and wild card. What are the overarching themes that brought us to this place?
How did it come to this?
First the bad:
- Generally terrible pro scouting and/or coaching resulting in generally poor performance from acquisitions.
- Years of neglect in the acquisition of amateur talent resulting in a lack of depth on the major league roster.
- Years of poor development of position players resulting in a lack of depth on the major league roster.
- Uninspiring to bad tactical managing resulting in games lost.
- A step down in pitcher development resulting in a lack of depth on the major league pitching staff.
Now the good:
- A refocusing of amateur talent acquisition resulting in a deeper farm system.
- Better development recently of position players resulting in actual major leaguers.
- Acquisition and maintenance of a very good core of major leaguers.
So for how much of each of these is Hahn responsible?
In his favor, the White Sox have re-established a credible presence in the international amateur free agent market. This began in Kenny's last year but Hahn has certainly supported this expansion when he became GM and, of course, Hahn was around when Kenny made the change. The White Sox won't see the results from this still for years but it's put the long-term future of the organization in a better position. While Hahn hasn't made the painfully obvious decision to go over the spending limits, one suspects that is an ownership directive.
The drafting also seems better while also taking on a bit more of a long-term focus. Rodon, the highest draft pick Hahn has had, is a big win so far. In a departure from the past, the White Sox were willing to incur the overage tax for exceeding their draft pool and dealt with Scott Boras on a high draft pick for this first time since failing to sign Jeff Weaver in 1997. His first first round pick, Anderson, has reached the big leagues quickly, has legitimate high upside potential and is a position player - again, all departures from the past. Another is that Hahn has spent high round picks on high school pitchers like Tyler Danish and Spencer Adams, both secound rounders. In Williams' last draft, he did spend his two highest picks on high school position players. While Hahn hasn't replicated that, he has been willing to use slightly lower picks on such players - Trey Michalzcewski, Corey Zangari and Luis Corbelo.
The generally good position player development is less clear. While better drafting under Rick (see, e.g., Anderson) plays a role for sure, the staff hasn't seen a major change under Rick. It was more a continuation of changes Kenny made. Again, of course, Hahn was previously involved. I feel safe labeling this as more Hahn's responsibility than not but not by it's a close question.
Up in the air is recent pitching development. It has slowed in the last couple years (obviously, Rodon the exception) but some of that can be attributed to longer-term thinking resulting in a shift towards more early round high schoolers. The development of pitchers from the 2011-15 drafts, though, has been quite poor overall. The gutting of draft picks due to the 2015 offseason acquisitions explains the paucity from that year's draft, which falls on Hahn. However, Hahn has chosen at least one pitcher in each of his drafts that legitimately projects as a major leaguer: Danish, Rodon, Adams, Brian Clark and Carson Fulmer. Zack Erwin was also a useful piece in Lawrie's acquisition. The lack of development from the pitchers taken in 2011 and 2012, in particular, has certainly resulted in the thin pitching seen this season.
Hahn has actually done a superb job with his core players. Sale and Quintana are acquisitions that Kenny gets credit for but, again, Hahn was around then, too, and he signed them to long-term deals. Hahn drafted Rodon. Hahn traded for Eaton and signed him to a long-term deal. Hahn signed Abreu. It might be debatable whether Anderson ranks as a core player but he's being counted on as a long-term piece and Hahn signed him and he developed under Hahn. Garcia is really the only one who Hahn would've considered a potential core piece who hasn't worked out.
The real damage has been in failing to acquire, maintain or develop the necessary complementary pieces. And this is really just a continuation of the Kenny Era. In the cases of Thompson and Semien, it was trading them away - and trading them away for two players who didn't/haven't panned out. In the case of catching, it was non-tendering Flowers and adding dreck while also not developing internal options. In the case of the backend of the rotation, it was failing to develop or acquire anyone useful. In the case of the bullpen, it was a failure to develop relievers. And in the cases of too many free agents to name, it's been subpar production.
One should never expect a free agent to be "worth" his contract in the strictest sense, meaning overall WAR for dollar production. First, if you sign a free agent, there's always the proverbial winner's curse. Paying top dollar sets the bar awfully high for even making your money back. Second, the real trick of signing free agents is leveraging wins in the early part of the deal. While you may sign a player to a 4 year deal and expect him to provide about 7.5 WAR in value over the contract in a normal aging decline of 3 WAR, 2.25 WAR, 1.5 WAR and .75 WAR, you really only care about the first couple years. Those are the ones in which you certainly expect to be in playoff contention and those marginal wins in the early years you're getting by signing the player are worth more than the useful but facile 1 WAR = x dollars calculation. They're worth 1.5x or even 2x. So if the player drops off a cliff in year three or four, who cares, you've already made your money back. Bench him or cut him or whatever.
So the splurge of 2015 is pretty much guaranteed to be a loss because the White Sox didn't compete in year one and year two ain't looking great, either, which also means the 2016 acquisitions aren't looking so good.
Hahn's overall record in acquisitions is horrid. Let's agree that for our purposes there should be a minimum salary threshold of $4 million guaranteed and/or valuable assets were given up that would otherwise have contributed to the major league club. [Note: fWAR used for position players, average of fWAR and bWAR for pitchers, BP's WARP for catchers.] These are the guys who were expected to make material differences to the team.
LaRoche, -1.4 WAR ($25M)
Samardzija, 1.4 WAR & compensation pick ($9.8M plus Semien/Chris Bassitt)
Frazier, 0.4 WAR ($7.5M plus Montas/Thompson)
Shields, -0.8 WAR ($27M plus Erik Johnson)
Cabrera, 0.4 WAR ($42M plus third round pick)
Keppinger, -1.7 WAR ($12M)
Navarro, -1.3 WARP ($4M)
Downs, -0.2 WAR ($4M)
Bonifacio, -0.7 WAR ($4M)
Davidson, N/A (Reed)
Duke, 0.6 WAR($15M)
Robertson, 1.6 WAR ($46M plus second round pick)
Lawrie, 0.5 WAR ($4.25M plus Erwin/Wendelken)
Jackson, 0 WAR ($5M)
Montas, Garcia (-1.2 WAR) and Wendelken (Peavy)
Jose Abreu, 8.2 WAR ($56M)
Adam Eaton, 9.2 WAR (Hector Santiago)
Oh. My. God. That adds up to 15 WAR. Basically, if Hahn had just stopped after getting Abreu and Eaton, the team would be in the same or better place. Feel free to criticize my choice of WAR or my thresholds or my groupings but the plot isn't going to be different. We can sit around and wax poetic about what ownership dictated, what Hahn was left with, who is "really" making decisions, what the manager is doing or not doing, who is developing or not, how the advance scouts are performing, whether some of these guys will bounceback, whatever. Outside of the coaching staff, the thing a front office is most in control of is who they acquire at the major league or near major league level and who they trade away. And this piss poor list just subsumes everything else, good or bad, that Hahn has done. Even though it was clear that those involved in pro scouting were under-performing prior to him taking over, Hahn has stuck with the same guys and things have only gotten worse.
So what needs to be done? Well, it sure looks like a large portion of the front office is not performing. Amateur scouting and player development are the only ones who could be spared significant changes. Pro scouting just needs to go. Some players and most, if not all, uniformed coaches need to go. Hahn and Kenny need to go. And internal replacements aren't going to cut it this time.
But what can be done right now? The major league coaching staff is certainly an easy place to start. Ventura should go. Renteria was a built in replacement and should be utilized as such, at least on an interim basis. The other things present practical challenges in the short-term. There's still the chance to make the playoffs, which probably sits around 10%. Complete upheaval of an organization probably is a short-term detriment to a team's performance. And, while we've been saying this for awhile, the team is not as bad as it's performed recently. So that 10% chance is probably worth seeing out for a few more weeks.
On the other hand, almost regardless of what happens in those weeks, there will be a need to add and subtract talent quite soon. With a front office that has proven so inept at doing that, why would you let them do it again? But if you get rid of them, it will be hard for an interim GM to have the staff and organizational knowledge necessary to do it properly, either. It's a tricky thing to balance for now.
After this coming offseason, though, a significant organizational remodeling needs to have happened. How much of that is started right now is difficult to know. Whether it's a gut job or somewhat less than that is difficult to know. What is clear is that the current front office can't be in charge of the bulk of it and that the changes can't be either few or cosmetic.
Right now, every part of the organization needs to be scrutinized and evaluated for performance in a far more detailed manner than I did here or am even capable of doing. This is something that has to be spearheaded by an outsider, whether that be a person in a temporary position or the new GM. Except for Rodon and Anderson, no major league player should be off the table. And certainly no member of the baseball operations staff, executives on down, should be safe.