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The White Sox Plague, Part 2: The Front Office

When you’re set up to fail, you don’t necessarily have to commit to it so hard

Kansas City Royals v Chicago White Sox
It’s been a long decade, Rick Hahn and Ken Williams.
David Banks/Getty Images

Welcome to the next part of my ongoing series on analyzing the symptoms of the disease that is the 2022 White Sox. Having examined the “contributions” of ownership to this fandemic, let’s now delve into the people that are putting the team on the field; GM Rick Hahn and team president Ken Williams.

When Rick Hahn took over the GM’s chair after the 2012 season, the White Sox were coming off of an 85-win season and narrowly missed a division title and playoff appearance with a late-season collapse. The rotation was bolstered by the breakouts of Chris Sale and José Quintana, with Hector Santiago also on the rise. Adam Dunn and Alex Rios had rebounded from their disastrous 2011 seasons. Paul Konerko continued to be a middle-of-the-order threat. Dayan Viciedo flashed his potential with a 25-home run campaign. Gordon Beckham was totally gonna have his big breakout any day now, seriously.

Times were good.

Sadly, ensuing events showed how skin-deep the good vibes were, and the entire house of cards came crashing down quickly. It immediately became apparent that Ken Williams had left Hahn quite the mess to clean up, which gave the new GM quite a bit of leeway with fans for the ensuing lack of success and his many blunders along the way. However, having needed nine seasons just to put together a single winning squad, and with the franchise health looking as shaky as ever beneath the surface, what exactly is the malady here, in 2022?

Trading a brighter future for a shittier present

As discussed in the ownership installment, the White Sox, by nature, operate their franchise very much in the near term. Until the 2017 teardown, there was little planning beyond a two- or three-year period. Prospects flamed out quickly, long-term contracts for veterans were avoided, and trades usually involved a quick fix with a poor or nonexistent long-term outlook.

Living in the now was very much how Williams ran the team, except he was a lot better at pulling it off than Hahn was. Where Ken traded away ash and trash to acquire major contributors like José Contreras, Freddy García, Jake Peavy, and Matt Thornton, Rick’s track record includes a series of disasters including Jeff Samardzija, Yonder Alonso, Nomar Mazara, and James Shields.

It’s bad enough when you actively making your team worse with moves like these, but trading away players who would go on to become stars in their own right just compounds the failure. As a fan, it’s galling to watch the likes of Marcus Semien, Chris Bassitt, and Fernando Tatís Jr. morph into All-Stars knowing they could have been doing it on the South Side.

This is not to say that the talent given up is the primary problem. Nobody’s lamenting the loss of Alex Call or Justin Yurchak, but when the guys they’re bringing in are so bad they can’t even last the season on a team that’s trying to lose, that’s not a good look.

Free agent landmines

Free agency is a risky business, so it’s no wonder the risk-averse White Sox tend not to be major players in it. However, not signing mega-deals shouldn’t be a hinderance to finding productive players on the open market. Sadly, Hahn’s track record reads like Sideshow Bob stepping into rakes.

Sure, Hahn has had recent/limited successes like Carlos Rodón and Johnny Cueto, but it’s hard to give him to much credit for those when he released the former from the team before signing him after striking out in free agency elsewhere and didn’t sign the latter until literally Opening Day after losing one of his incumbents in spring training. That looks less like prudent planning and more like, “Eh, may as well give it a try.”

But fans are far more familiar with signings like Jeff Keppinger, Adam Eaton, Adam LaRoche, Felipe Paulino, Emilio Bonifacio, Dioner Navarro, Austin Jackson, and Jimmy Rollins. Among others, these were players signed to solve a roster need who promptly provided negative value production. And hey, criticize spending $330 million on Bryce Harper all you want; it’s a lot more efficient to throw $25 million a year at him for 4-6 WAR than dump $4 to $12 million into an instant DFA candidate.

I could stand for the team to sign a guy who everybody thinks will be good to a big contract only for it to go bad. What I can’t stand is for them to keep signing players whose benefit to the roster is dubious at best because of their bargain price, and having to watch said players shit the bed year after year.

Poor resource allocation

Discussed ad nauseum in the preseason podcasts (hint: Check out the SSS pod), now that the White Sox are finally spending, their allocation of said spending is just plain weird. No other team invested such a massive proportion of their payroll in their bullpen, and that’s even after the Dodgers bailed out Hahn by trading for Craig Kimbrel’s exorbitant option year.

On the one hand, it’s difficult to complain that the White Sox feel price is no object when it comes to relievers. Kendall Graveman has been a needed addition, and Joe Kelly seems like he will be a positive contributor even as he struggles with various maladies. Liam Hendriks has been arguably the best reliever in the AL during his White Sox stint. Sure, that’s more than $30 million of relief arms, but that’s an acceptable return on investment for a team looking to win.

The problem is that commitment to spending to fill a need does not really extend to the rest of the roster. Yasmani Grandal was one notable exception to this, and despite his performance falling off a cliff this season his contract is still well above water. Hey, record spending for the franchise worked out! But spending to get an outfielder? A second baseman? A frontline starter? Perish the thought.

I wish this were something isolated, but the repetitious nature of the problem makes it impossible to ignore. When people come at me with the line that there was nobody better available last offseason, they conveniently ignore that Hahn has had multiple offseasons to address these problems. This is why instead of having a guy like George Springer in the outfield or Trevor Story at second base we’re stuck with overstretched utility players and/or flinging first basemen everywhere and hoping they don’t kill themselves.

Waves of talent hitting the breakwater

One of the promises of the rebuild was a commitment to rebuilding the farm system, creating waves of talent which could sustain a competitive major league team and provide trade capital when needed. Indeed, the farm was rebuilt, and fed the team enough talent to create a postseason contender. Sadly, none of it was sustainable.

With the Sale and Eaton trades, the White Sox overnight went from a bottom-five farm system to one of the better ones in the league. The Quintana and David Robertson/Tommy Kahnle/Todd Frazier trades further gave the system a much-needed shot in the arm. Top 5 draft picks were eventually added to the mix. Things were looking up.

While the above are all fine and good, they are not sustainable sources of talent. A cost-controlled young talent like Sale is not a repeatable trade asset. Top 5 picks should not be part of the plan for a club intending to win. Second- and third-tier prospects have to step up to fill in the gaps as the first-tier players inevitably get promoted.

And therein lies a big part of the problem. While most of the first-tier prospects did eventually matriculate, they mostly came from outside of the organization or were early first round draftees. When it came to developing rawer prospects, the returns just were not there, and watching fringe prospects like Luis González and Semien turn into real contributors elsewhere is not a good reflection of the minor league system this front office has put together. The failure to get serious value out of less-heralded talent will continue to be a hinderance to extending any competitive window.

The Man Behind the Curtain

Williams took, and rightly deserved, a great deal of criticism for the state of the franchise after his promotion to team president. The end of his tenure saw the White Sox farm system universally considered a laughingstock (which was pretty consistent with the middle and beginning of his tenure, too) and a roster loaded down with aging veterans. Basically, he pulled the pin, discarded the spool, and handed the grenade off to Hahn, running away while counting to five.

... or was it three?

Williams has since settled into a boogeyman role, where his primary purpose seems to be to just hang around out of sight to deflect blame from Hahn. Every bad move was clearly the result of Ken still pulling some of the strings behind the scenes; surely the boy wonder GM wasn’t to blame here! To be fair, KW’s day-to-day role remains ambiguous even a decade later, and that’s probably by design.

On occasion, however, Williams has been notably involved in White Sox business, particularly with the scouting and signing of José Abreu and Luis Robert. So while he’s mostly a deposit point for excess fan anger, at least there’s a couple positive contributions we can point to on his behalf.

Seriously, though, not to be a Bob and all, but what is it you do here, Ken?

Even after decades of being a White Sox fan, I can’t get past the penny foolish/pound wise operations of the White Sox front office. On the rare occasions this team spends money, it generally turns out well. Of the 10 free agent contracts over $30 million in the history of the franchise (yes, 10), only Adam Dunn and Dallas Keuchel could be considered truly disappointing, and in retrospect both of those players contributed meaningfully to competitive teams during their respective tenures.

Unfortunately for White Sox fans, the team tends to go shopping more often in the $5-25 million range, and the returns there are absolutely atrocious. Of the 27 free agent contracts in that range, nearly half were complete disasters, and you have to go all the way back to A.J. Pierzynski’s 2011-12 contract to find even a 3.0-bWAR season out of one of them.

To be fair, this front office does have its strengths. The trades which kicked off the rebuild successfully built a new core of players. The White Sox presence in the Cuban market is unmatched, and the returns continue to be excellent, even in the minors. Arguably no team has more aggressively signed its up-and-coming talent to extensions, which have mostly been to the team’s benefit.

But building a foundation is not enough. When it comes to finishing the house, Hahn is using substandard materials and employing shoddy workmanship. When the basement starts to leak, he’s relying on buckets instead of a sump pump, to predictable results.

As discussed previously, Rick Hahn is operating under certain restrictions. But a competent GM would be able to work around them to create a truly finished product, and not just another flash in the pan.