The non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone and the White Sox did not wind up doing anything besides trade Zach Duke. I suppose that technically puts them in the "seller" category, but this falls far short of the major roster reconstruction that a healthy chunk of the fan base envisioned, so I feel that it is fair to say that they essentially stood pat. The combination of inactivity and being "mired in mediocrity" is disconcerting to many; it's certainly understandable for fans to want to see something done about the problem, particularly when management has been verbally insistent that it's frustrated with the status quo.
As aggravating as it seems, relative silence at the trade deadline was a valid course of action for the White Sox if they're looking to build a team for next season. Here's some thoughts on the lack of movement and what it might mean.
1. 2016 is a lost cause
Regardless of your stance on what the White Sox did, this is some common ground on which I think people on both sides of the ledger can agree. The current playoff odds for the White Sox per FanGraphs are below 2 percent, so consider the towel thrown in. This is an obvious, yet important place to start in understanding why the team did so little.
2. Buying would not have made sense
This follows directly from the first point. Since we aren't trying to make a push to win in 2016, there's no reason to purchase a rental player and that's the first thing that Rick Hahn publicly ruled out. However, a month or so ago when the Sox' playoff odds were 5-10 times better than what they are now, many wanted to see the White Sox make a move that would help this year and (at least) next.
August and September of this year are now meaningless for the White Sox, but they're not meaningless for contending teams looking to buy. Those teams set the market and there's typically a premium on acquiring players for the high-leverage final months of a playoff chase. The White Sox don't want to pay that premium for an immediate-term payoff that doesn't matter to them. Therefore, it's much better to wait until the offseason to acquire players to help in 2017.
3. The White Sox had no useful players on expiring deals
Coming into this season, the White Sox were set to have John Danks, Adam LaRoche, Austin Jackson, Dioner Navarro, Alex Avila, Mat Latos, and Jimmy Rollins leave for free agency at the end of the year. That's ::ahem:: not a list of players coveted by other teams right now.
The only guy who's deal-able that sorta fits this category is Justin Morneau. At .256/.319/.442, he's been serviceable but hasn't distinguished himself from a replacement-level DH. Because he's a waiver deal candidate (he's a good fit for a contending team's expanded September roster) and you probably weren't even going to get a lottery ticket for him, it's not a big deal that he wasn't traded.
With a lack of obvious "must-trade" players, the only option remaining is to deal guys that would be under control for 2017. This would have hurt next year's roster unless some team was suddenly convinced that James Shields was worth even the White Sox' portion of his contract. Zach Duke was dealt, sure, but that's more of a mild re-tooling. The Sox may be better off next year with Charlie Tilson and $5.5 million extra to play with in the winter than they would have been with Duke.
A similar line of thought could be applied to a potential David Robertson trade, but given his recent peripherals, there's a reasonable chance the market views him as a underwater contract. If that's the case, hanging onto him to see if he bounces back is probably the right call.
4. Well, what about the big ones? Why are Sale and Quintana still here?
I've been pretty insistent that if the White Sox wanted to deal these two guys, the trade deadline and not the offseason is the time to do it. Health is no guarantee and theoretically, the leverage of a playoff chase plus the extra two months (and postseason) of control point to a higher price to be had in July than December.
One piece that I've overlooked in applying that logic is that potential buyers may limit their offers at the July deadline. In order to get full value in 2016 from acquiring Sale or Quintana, a team will want to avoid using significant contributors on their 25-man roster in the deal. If the White Sox try to acquire a Nomar Mazara type in a trade, the other team will often say, "No, we're using that right now" and look for upgrades elsewhere that can be had by only using minor leaguers.
There's a small number of teams (most notably the Red Sox) that could put together a reasonable package for Chris Sale using only their farm system and if they aren't willing to meet a fair price, the offseason might expand the universe of potential offers and increase the likelihood the White Sox will receive $1.00 in exchange for their dollar bill. Of course, now that Sale and Quintana will be here in November.....
5. 2017 is not a lost cause
This is a premise that seems somewhat controversial given the performance of the team in recent years, but I think it only appears as such because of the recent trend of the White Sox playing below their projections. My rough calculations indicate that the Sox will have about $20-$25 million in flexibility this offseason after arbitration raises if payroll remains stagnant. They're entering the season with a full rotation (minus a reasonable minor league deal or two to insure against a Shields implosion), and need to patch holes at DH, center field, both catcher slots, and lefty reliever.
Some of those will need to be fixed up on the cheap unless payroll significantly expands, but you can fit at least one pretty good player in that budget and it should not be hard to significantly improve upon J.B. Shuck, Dioner Navarro, Alex Avila, and Avisail Garcia. Plus, I fully believe that Robin Ventura cost this team a win or two with his decision-making and replacing him with a strong tactician is another chance to improve on the margins. It's feasible for the 2017 roster to look better on paper than the 2016 one, and pretty much everyone gave the 2016 White Sox a real chance in April.
Unfortunately, while it's realistic for the 2017 White Sox to be competitive, they're unlikely to be division favorites and will need to noticeably out-perform their March forecast, assuming there is no massive influx of resources from ownership. That's far from impossible, though. The Indians, Tigers, and Orioles are all doing it right now. What happened to the White Sox in 2013, 2015, and 2016 does not dictate the variance or luck that future teams will experience.
With the contracts of Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera, and Brett Lawrie set to expire after next season, the stage is set for the White Sox to give this thing one more spin with their current core before cashing in their chips. Should it fail before next July, there will be little excuse to further prolong the grand-scale restructuring that many fans were pining for in the hours leading up to 3:00 PM on August 1st. Inactivity at this year's trade deadline wasn't a sin in of itself. Now, it's up to the White Sox front office to use this winter to justify their lack of action.