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Forget the blockbusters: the White Sox have been terrible at trading for a decade

Examining the team’s trade record in the Rick Hahn era yields a brutal 10 years of dead ends

MLB: ALDS-Chicago White Sox at Houston Astros
If you think getting Craig Kimbrel in the biggest bum deal of the 2021 trade deadline was a rare Rick Hahn misstep, think again.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of issues with the White Sox. The way this season has gone, I’ve spent a lot of Fridays writing about those issues.

This Friday is about one simple thing: A general manager who has spent a decade being unable to make good trades.

Even as the blockbusters that kickstarted the “mired in mediocrity” rebuild fade farther and farther into the rearview mirror, you have to give Rick Hahn a little bit of credit. Extracting nearly 40 WAR out of just three player swaps isn’t an easy feat, even if the players getting shipped out were a future Hall-of Famer and two All-Stars in their prime and on severely under-market contracts. Messing those kinds of trades up is far from uncommon — the Phillies have yet to recover from botching the Cole Hamels deal that kickstarted their rebuild; the Orioles ultimately received bupkus for their future Hall-of-Fame franchise shortstop; even with Sandy Alcántara emerging as a true ace, it’s hard to say anything positive about the return on Miami’s decision to trade Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich within weeks of each other.

That, however, is probably all the credit you can give Hahn for his handling of the White Sox trade machine he took over in the fall of 2013.

Selling high might be easier said than done, but a sports executive’s skill isn’t usually defined by what they do when they have all the leverage in the world. The best executives and organizations in sports don’t just find stars by exchanging them for other stars. They find a stars where nobody else sees a star; they find starters and role players where others don’t even see a big-leaguer. Championships aren’t won simply by trading present value for future value. Value has to be created from scratch to put a team over the top.

To say that Hahn has failed at this aspect of team-building is an understatement.

MLB: General Managers Meetings Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

This October will mark Hahn’s 10th anniversary as GM of the White Sox, the third-longest tenure league-wide. During those 10 years, Hahn has made three trades that have netted the Sox at least 10 WAR. That number will climb to four and perhaps five by the time Eloy Jiménez, Dylan Cease, and Lance Lynn have played their last games for the Pale Hose; nonetheless, averaging roughly one impact trade every 36-odd months isn’t much of a sterling record in an industry that values “what have you done for me lately?” over all else.

Remove Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and José Quintana from the equation, and the trade record reflects a team that simply isn’t good at evaluating talent around the league. This kind of cherry-picking usually feels disingenuous, but we’re talking about building a championship contender — not tearing down a failed run. It’s reasonable to remove those extraordinary circumstances as not being particularly relevant to the broader body of work.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

That broader body of work has been, to put it kindly, rocky. Remove Hahn’s three rebuild trades, and he has made exactly one trade that’s netted his team more than 7 WAR, when he acquired Eaton in exchange for Héctor Santiago nearly 10 years ago. The next-best deal after that? The 6.4 WAR Avisaíl García brought to the table after being acquired for Jake Peavy once it was clear that the 2013 team was destined for a Top 5 pick rather than another September playoff hunt.

MLB: ALDS-Chicago White Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The only other 5-WAR deals executed by Hahn during this time? Getting Lynn from Texas, and adding Todd Frazier from the Reds prior to the fateful 2016 campaign. Naturally, any rewards reaped from Frazier himself (Eaton antagonism included) are dampened by the fact that Frankie Montas (7.3 WAR and counting since 2019) went the other way in that swap, and Ian Clarkin, Tito Polo, Blake Rutherford (a sum 0.0 WAR and counting since 2019) are what ultimately came back for Frazier. And while Dunning-for-Lynn is a move that’s certainly a winner in a vacuum, exchanging Dunning’s prime years for Lynn’s twilight is in danger of becoming a net negative if the White Sox don’t even reach the playoffs again until Lynn is 36 and three years removed from breaking the 160-inning mark, as he’ll be entering 2023.

Mind you, those are the success stories. In the decade since Hahn took over day-to-day GM duties from Ken Williams (and I’m taking Hahn’s role as GM at face value; trying to break down the share of responsibility in the team’s brain trust isn’t the point here), the team has scored virtually no victories on the margins of the trade market. Where most contending teams find diamonds in the rough at least once in a while, the White Sox have come up completely empty.

Hahn has made eight (just eight!) trades that brought back more than 2.5 WAR in cumulative value, and with the exception of the initial Eaton deal (which happened, ironically, because Arizona preferred to hand their starting CF role to a young AJ Pollock) every single one of them has been the result of either trading away or for All-Star caliber talents. Tommy Kahnle (1.6 WAR) and Conor Gillaspie (2.4 WAR) are the only acquisitions to make even a minor impact with the White Sox who weren’t top prospects or established big-leaguers at the time of a deal. You can’t just snap your fingers and make the next Josh Fields (no, not that one)-for-Yordan Alvarez trade, but failing to make even one “hey, that was sneaky good” move on the trade market in a full decade as the captain of the ship is unacceptable.

Remove the three team-defining trades in 2016 and 2017, and it’s hard to say what aspects of the rebuild were actually a success. There’s a whole other article to be written about the team’s drafting and free agent strategies during those years, but three years of signing veterans to fill out the roster before trading them for mid-tier prospects during the season produced essentially nothing of value.

Let’s review the midseason trades executed between the Quintana deal and the start of 2020:

It’s not like anybody in the “Dealt” column was a trade deadline prize (save maybe the first grouping, to the Yankees), but going 0-for-10 on attempting to get value out of solid but unspectacular major league players is probably a lot more indicative of a GM and organization’s methods and evaluation than striking gold with, for the hundredth time, a Hall of Fame pitcher and two All-Stars in their prime and on dramatically under-market contracts.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Oakland Athletics D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to trades, Hahn simply just doesn’t seem to be good at allocating resources when he doesn’t have 5-WAR players to trade down with. Part of the reason the Sox don’t have the sustainable pipeline of talent that was supposed to preempt struggles like they’re undergoing now is because they refuse to systematically invest in international talent. After blowing through their bonus pool to sign Luis Robert in 2017, they essentially punted on international spending the following season, trading bonus allocations on three separate occasions that year, receiving Ricardo Pinto, Thyago Vieira, and Ryan Burr. Maybe Burr will wind up playing a critical relief role on a resurgent second-half 2022 White Sox team, but unless that happens, those trades will all remain yet more misallocations of resources that could otherwise be helping them right now.

There are a lot of different reasons the White Sox are in the spot they’re in at the moment, three games below .500 and freshly swept out of Canada. There’s plenty of blame to go around. A common element in much of it, however, is a simple failure on Hahn’s part to execute what he set out to do in the winter of 2016. He’s not going anywhere — job security is the trade-off for working within Jerry Reinsdorf’s marginally reality-based financial restrictions — so the least we might receive is an acknowledgement of some of those failures, and what might be done to remedy this ongoing disaster of a season.

None of this even accounts for César Hernández and Craig Kimbrel’s replacement-level tenures for the Sox in 2021! Goodness knows we’ve had enough angsty articles about those. In a normal organization, a manager and braintrust with the record of the 2013-present White Sox wouldn’t have even made it to 2022. In spite of Hahn’s reputation, the team’s trade record during his tenure as GM has been an unmitigated disaster outside of a single six-month stretch of 2016-17. There’s still time to turn it around, but that time is as short as it gets for a tenured Reinsdorf employee.

At a certain point, a decade of failure has to be met with an accountability. Having seen what it took to end the reign of GarPax for a franchise exponentially more valuable than the White Sox, things need to get seriously messed up on the South Side before accountability takes the form actual organizational change. Who knows if the White Sox are anywhere near that tipping point, but one thing is clear in any case: After 10 years of fruitless wheeling and dealing, fans deserve real answers, and a firm end to the shiftiness, condescension, and appeals to blind faith that we’ve been inundated with for more than five seasons now.