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The future of the White Sox lies beyond early extensions

Great contracts alone couldn’t hoist the club above .500 in the first rebuild

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Chicago White Sox Photo Day Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Catching up with old friends over the last few days brought A Christmas Carol into spring training. In chronological order, we have:

The extension that worked out: Chris Sale, who is making Boston writers aware of 1) his intensity, 2) his unsparing self-criticism, and 3) his fundamental defensive lapses.

Sale failed to cover first base in the fourth inning, his last in a 4-3 Red Sox win over the Pirates at JetBlue Park.

“That’s stupid,” said Sale, who punched himself on the head with the ball afterward. “That’s what we’re here for. We’ve done that 400,000 times since we’ve been here, covering first base. A ball hit over there, cover first base. That’s just a stupid mistake on my part. I’ve got to be better than that, even here. There’s no excuse for that, at all.”

The extension that didn’t: John Danks, whose career appears to have arrived at the end. The Braves released him from his minor-league deal in the middle of an unsuccessful spring, and with Danks reportedly having no interest in pitching in the minors, there may be nowhere else for him to go.

The extension that never was: Gordon Beckham, who might have to cope with a future in the minors himself. On Monday, facing the team that expected to build around him but never could, Beckham went 0-for-3 to fall further behind in the Giants’ utility infielder battle.

I’d had these threads in mind before Scott Merkin reported on Monday afternoon that the White Sox were discussing a long-term deal with Tim Anderson. Larry reviewed the implications of a theoretical deal, as it’s pretty early for a guy whose plate approach is in need of refinement.

At the very least, it’s not a bad idea. Early extensions seldom go wrong, and the White Sox went 3-for-3 with Sale, Jose Quintana and Adam Eaton. When they do fall flat — think Jedd Gyorko with San Diego or Ricky Romero with the Blue Jays — they’re not budget-busters. The costs don’t get truly prohibitive until the final years, and those are usually club options.

From what we know about Anderson, he’d be a fine vanguard of the next wave. While it’d behoove him to close the walk-strikeout disparity, he’s outpacing expectations at a key defensive position to give his profile some ballast, and his successes are refreshingly smooth after years of grinder fatigue.

But while it’s natural to talk about the face of the White Sox, what we’ve learned from the first attempt at rebuilding is that a body needs more than a face, at least until Futurama becomes the present and heads in jars can remain sentient.

After all, the Sox had smiles for miles early. Sale was the natural hood ornament of the White Sox, unless you required that title go to an everyday player, then which Jose Abreu would become the position-player envy of the bunch. If that wasn’t enough, Quintana challenged Sale’s supremacy, and Eaton surpassed Abreu’s. That’s four potential faces, even if one was allegedly a bit of a backpfeifengesicht.

And all they had to show for it?

  • 2014: 73-89
  • 2015: 76-86
  • 2016: 78-84

The White Sox had four star players earning sub-star salaries, and they couldn’t even get to .500. Mismanagement, poor pro scouting, inexplicably harsh declines, a farm system that couldn’t compensate, children in the workplace — you name it, the White Sox were undermined by it.

Really, you could say that early extensions are the only thing the White Sox have done reliably right. Besides the three mentioned earlier, the White Sox also got Gavin Floyd’s best years for a bargain, and they tried to lock in Danks on the same offer (Danks held out for a few years and came out ahead by quite a margin.) Alexei Ramirez’s extension also worked out, and best I can tell, there were no such substantial reports about one for Beckham. The White Sox seem to know what they’re doing here.

Assuming his extension is in line with others, whatever the White Sox do with Anderson is cool, and that’ll also apply to Yoan Moncada if and when he approaches his expectations. Both of them have immense physical skills with positive reports about their aptitude to harness them. Assuming they remain solid citizens, there’s a lot to like about this middle infield leading the way.

But as we’ve only seen, stars can only carry the team so far. For this next White Sox rebuild — the second attempt in five years — they’ll have to get a lot better at supplying their second tier with adequate Major League Baseball players. If you want to extend the face metaphor to what supports one, the Sox need orbital bones, maxillas and a mandible. This is why nobody extends said metaphor, but the point remains.

Update: Reporters like Bob Nightengale and Ken Rosenthal have confirmed that the Sox and Anderson have a deal. Nightengale says it’s for six years and $25 million guaranteed with two club options worth an additional $26.5 million if exercised.