For the third year in a row, patience paid off for a team committed to building from the ground up. The Astros lost at least 106 games in three consecutive seasons as new ownership took over, but their steadfast belief in analytics and their farm system culminated in a seven-game victory over the Dodgers for their first World Series title.
The Cubs won it the year before, and Theo Epstein took them over, sold off their assets in the search for the bottom, and accumulated a new roster through drafts and the trades of their veterans. The year before that, the Royals saw their painstaking process all the way through to the top, winning the World Series in their second crack at it.
It seems pretty straightforward, right? Sports Illustrated may as well draw up the covers for a White Sox winner in 2020 at this point.
OK, sometimes progress is hard to find. The Phillies, for example, traded Cole Hamels in 2015, and they’re still picking ahead of the White Sox in the draft, narrowly avoiding a 100-loss season this year. The Braves were a popular sleeper pick for second wild-card contention, but they fell into their third consecutive 90-loss season in 2017 and are now dealing with a front-office investigation.
But since the White Sox’ first rebuilding season was surprisingly watchable, maybe they deserve the optimistic track. If so, here’s what some potential roads ahead may look like.
The Royals didn’t rebuild -- they just failed to build anything for nearly two decades. They had a staggering 17 losing seasons out of 18 from 1995 through 2012, including three consecutive 100-loss seasons from 2004-06.
If you want to retrace steps and find a real start date amid all the false ones, it’s probably 2007, even though Alex Gordon and Sal Perez were already in the fold. 2007 is when they started stringing together productive drafts (Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Greg Holland), followed by 2008 (Eric Hosmer) and 2009 (Wil Myers) that stocked a legitimate farm system. They capped off the assembly stage in 2010, trading Zack Greinke to Milwaukee for Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress.
It just took a long time for everything to jell, and it almost cost Dayton Moore his job. They lost 90 games in 2011 and 2012, and with arbitration years looming in the not-too-distant future, he had a small window to try to solve problems from the outside. That resulted in the controversial James Shields trade in December of 2012, and those panning it framed it as a desperate, short-sighted attempt to find the pitching they couldn’t develop.
But it worked, because Shields brought order to the rotation during his two years in Kansas City while Wade Davis — the overlooked second player in the deal -— eventually teamed up with Holland to take care of the late innings. They won 86 games in 2013, 89 games and the wild card in 2014, and 95 games and the World Series in 2015.
Two consecutive AL pennants and one title means The Process paid off, but it wasn’t perfect. Because it took so long for the prospects to come together at the MLB level, the Royals had a smaller window to capitalize on it, and limited resources to reinforce it. They had to burn prospects to acquire veterans like Shields, Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist to get them into the postseason multiple times, which left them searching for a second wave of talent that could supplement the roster when the first wave hit free agency. They haven’t had to kind of draft luck to compensate for Moustakas, Hosmer and Cain all heading to the open market at the same time.
Ideally, you’d want to build a team with prospects arriving over the course of a few years, allowing the front office to line up replacements a little more easily. It’s better if you can find the complementary veterans through free agency or low-level trades, like ...
In contrast to the Royals, the Cubs bottomed out on purpose. Epstein didn’t see much of a purpose striving for .500 the way Jim Hendry did, so they phased out veterans through trade or attrition with no attempts to replace them.
2012 was Epstein’s first full season, and they basically used that year, 2013 and 2014 to amass young talent. They acquired Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks by trading major leaguers, they drafted Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber with top-six picks.
After three years of losing to serve their purposes, they unleashed their resources in 2015. They ambushed the Rays by signing away Joe Maddon, and ambushed the Giants and Red Sox by signing Jon Lester. Throw in a trade for Dexter Fowler, and they had the veteran help needed to complement the in-house youth foundation. Everything clicked at once, and the Cubs went from winning 73 games in 2014 to 97 games in 2015. Signing Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist completed the puzzle, as they won 103 games and the World Series in 2016. They combated a few residual problems in 2017, but they still made it to their third consecutive NLCS, and remain in a good position for a fourth in 2018.
They split the difference between the first two teams. They’re closer to the Royals in that they were already a bad team that merely abandoned all pretenses of respectability. They’re closer to the Cubs that there wasn’t much of a lag between assembling the farm system and making the postseason.
Jim Crane bought the Astros in 2012, when they were coming off a 106-loss season. He chose to put his stamp on the franchise not by adding immediately, but by bringing in an entirely new front office headed by Jeff Luhnow, then allowing his staff the chance to build deliberately. Instead of attempting to win 70 games, they resigned themselves to winning 55 in 2012 and 51 in 2013 before their course started to change organically.
Luhnow inherited Dallas Keuchel, Jose Altuve and George Springer. High draft picks yielded Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers and Alex Bregman. Nifty under-the-radar trades brought in Marwin Gonzalez, Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock, helping flesh out the base.
But unlike the Cubs, they didn’t use a huge signing as a springboard into the postseason. Signing Luke Gregerson and trading for Evan Gattis were only mild moves, but they helped the Astros jump from 72 to 86 wins and beat the Yankees in the Wild Card game before losing in five to eventual champion Kansas City.
After stalling at 84 wins in 2015, then the Astros started throwing real resources to get over the hump. Even then, there weren’t any huge splashes like Lester and Heyward, though. They were medium-grade moves, like signing Yuli Gurriel to a five-year, $47.5 million contract, Josh Reddick for four years and $52 million, signing Carlos Beltran to a hefty one-year deal, and taking Brian McCann off the Yankees’ hands after Gary Sanchez usurped him.
They already had the depth to coast to the postseason before they made their single-biggest expenditure — the August deadline acquisition of Justin Verlander, which cost them prospects Daz Cameron, Franklin Perez and Jake Rogers, as well as roughly $45 million for Verlander’s final two-plus seasons. The Astros have no regrets there, and while the very long season may take a toll on them in 2018, they should be talented enough to remain the AL West favorite.
How do the White Sox square up?
The White Sox are coming from a different starting position than any of these teams. They won 78 games in 2016 on the backs of a talented cost-controlled core with little help elsewhere, but without a clear path to 90 wins that didn’t jeopardize all semblances of sustainability, Rick Hahn offloaded three-quarters of that core for considerable hauls. That kind of sell-off made one top-five pick possible, but multiple ones may be difficult to come by, because all of those trades helped replenish the high minors.
The comparisons are more useful when trying to figure out the optimal time to add. The Cubs invested heavily after a 73-win season, and the Royals stepped it up after a 72-win campaign. The Astros’ buy was relatively mild by comparison, but they made a 16-win jump after a 70-92 season. The prospects don’t have to do it themselves.
The key is establishing a cost-controlled framework for the 25-man roster, and keeping finances free for the (hopefully) few areas where no internal help is on the horizon. If enough goes well — Luis Robert meeting the hype and some combination of Zack Collins, Jake Burger and Blake Rutherford looking like first-round picks among the iffier questions — the Sox may only need two concentrated seasons of prospect-hoarding before an outside push is worth it.
While they wait for the current wave of prospects to cement a beachhead, this winter looks like one for small trades, waiver claims and garage sales, barring another surprising sell like trading Avisail Garcia or Jose Abreu. The tinkering on the margins bides time without blocking anybody, with the hope that a couple minor moves can connect while the youth movement presses forward.