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The White Sox Plague, Part 4: The Players

Where the rubber meets the road, we’re often riding on the rims

MLB: JUN 22 Blue Jays at White Sox
Dancing on the ball diamond gets players hurt.
Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s so much blame to go around in the White Sox organization. The owner is a meddlesome skinflint. The front office is incompetent. The manager is, practically speaking, deceased. These are difficult things to deal with as a fan because it leaves one with the same sinking feeling, year after disappointing year.

But it would be unfair to lay absolutely all of the blame on them without casting at least a judging glance at the guys on the field. Sure, management is responsible for fielding the roster, but these are supposed to be professional ball players. At a minimum, competence should not be an unreasonable ask.

So what’s the deal? For all of the extraneous things like poor management, coaching, and training, why is it talented players so often look lost when they don a White Sox uniform?

The Kids Can’t Play

White Sox players often embody extremes; they’re generally really, really good at some things, but absolutely bottom of the barrel at others. The concept of being well-rounded is something that has generally eluded this organization, at least when it comes to players it drafts and develops. While this has not stopped the White Sox from producing some very fine players, over the course of a 162-game season the shortcomings become more and more glaring and exploitable.

Their current core bears out a lot of this quirk. Tim Anderson has elite contact skills and speed, but rarely walks and has questionable defense even in the best of times. Luis Robert looked like he might be an all-around marvel, and maybe he still will be, but issues with his plate approach have undermined his march to stardom. Adam Engel made it to the big leagues with elite speed and defense despite a bat that tends to disappear for stretches. Jake Burger surprised everybody by coming through with his bat, but his defense was as poor as feared. The story was much the same for José Abreu.

This is not to accuse the White Sox of being devoid of talent, but when your best hope is for players to be in the 90th percentile in one or two categories to paper over being in the 10th percentile in others, that’s a philosophy fraught with perils. This only gets magnified when all too many of the players share the same flaws, and never overcome them.

The Casa Bonita Cliff Divers

In the last decade or so we’ve seen some real stinkers brought onto the team via free agency and trades. What’s amazing is that, for as low as expectations were for some of these guys, they would consistently underperform even those. FanGraphs’ ZiPS projections predict a gradual decline for players, but the White Sox rarely benefit from a soft denouement and just walk right off where the sidewalk ends.

Sure, there was little enthusiasm when the White Sox traded for Nomar Mazara because he’d always been a mediocre player, but compared to what we got, mediocre would have been rather welcome. By contrast, they sign a perennial 30-homer/.800+ OPS guy in Edwin Encarnación, and there’s genuine excitement at the 11th-hour deal. And while 37-year-old players are always going to be inherently risky, his near-total lack of production was shocking.

There’s a certain exasperation I feel when GM Rick Hahn laments that the team isn’t getting “back of the baseball card” production from one of their veteran players, but I can’t say he isn’t justified feeling that way. When you bring in even second- or third-tier players like Yonder Alonso, Jeff Keppinger, Adam LaRoche or Kelvin Herrera, it’s perfectly normal to have minimum expectations for performance. When, in the absence of debilitating injuries or other obvious mitigating factors, the players fail to perform to even the most basic of expectations, they are the ones ultimately responsible for their failures.

Prepare to Be Prepared

Every player who makes it to the major leagues has put forth a great deal of effort to get there. Once there, however, it’s an open question just how much of that effort is ongoing. And while measuring effort and desire is never a good policy as an observer, when an elite assemblage of talent produces continually mediocre results, it has to be a part of the conversation.

A repeating theme among casual White Sox observers is a clear lack of preparation. By more than one account, pregame warmups are half-assed and lacking effort and professionalism. The results bear this out with continuing injury woes and constant gaffes in the field, as well as an all-too-common appearance that this is a team coasting on talent but with no real game plan day-to-day.

Again, some blame lies with the coaching staff for not properly motivating the players or getting them appropriately prepared for every game. But these guys are adults, and supposedly professionals; they shouldn’t need their hands held in every task, especially when it’s clear they aren’t getting the necessary direction otherwise. If they’re fine with continuing with an underwhelming status quo and not taking the initiative to make a change in their routine or rededicate themselves to bettering their performance, they have to shoulder a good chunk of the blame.

It’s exhausting writing about this organization. We know things are very, very wrong, but those things rarely ever change, and certainly not as seismically as any truly accountable organization would. I can’t think of a single other organization that wouldn’t have fired their manager or GM under the current circumstances. Continually underwhelming returns on major player investments should lead to some sort of reckoning, whether it be in pro scouting or the training staff or otherwise, but the same people linger year after year.

Maybe there’s some hope on the horizon. Colson Montgomery has played his way into Top 100 prospect status, and several other prospects in the low minors are on the rise. Perhaps another season spending at the $180-200 million level, with major salaries coming off of the books, will yield a better crop of free agent additions. Maybe Tony La Russa forgets how to get to the park and the team just moves on without him. I dunno, but give me the straws and I’ll grasp at them.

There are cures for what ails this team. Choosing not to vaccinate themselves against these festering diseases is, naturally, a personal choice.

It’s also a dumb one.