Lecturing fans about fan practice has always gone well and left the writer feeling like they used their time wisely, so here goes.
Like with any fanbase, the White Sox crowd has the requisite amount of bellyaching and kvetching about any positive roster move an AL Central rival makes, and shameless April scoreboard watching and responses to every win and loss. Far be it for me for the fifth-year blogger to chide for overzealous behavior, but this is pointless energy.
The impetus to worry about division rivals is the notion that they're competitors for a single, exclusive playoff shot. That there are only four other teams competing for this spot heightens the perception that it's the best opportunity. That's fine, and I won't bother crunching numbers to refute that now.
The error is perceiving this as a drastically moving target that must be monitored. In now 20 completed seasons of three-division play, the lowest win total that's grabbed the AL Central crown is 86 victories for the 1997 Cleveland Indians, the first of five sub-90 win division winners. On six of 20 occasions, the division winner has taken 95 or more games. That seems like a fair amount of variance, but the Sox have been good enough and unfortunate enough to fall in between the cracks all of once.
Since 1994, the White Sox had one 90-win team miss the playoffs; the 2006 squad. That homer-happy club makes it in the new format, where it's nigh impossible to field a team worth a damn and to feel left out of the tournament. The 91-win 2013 Texas Rangers have a beef, but they also hosted a one-game playoff to get into the other one-game playoff that year.
The so-called hard luck squads of 2010 and 2012, don't have a lack of a friendly divisional placement to blame. The 88-win 2010 club would have finished fourth that year in a stacked AL East, only after getting so brutally flogged by the rival Twins down the stretch that a once strong chance at a division crown became a non-race. The 85-win 2012 club, which fans were so sternly lectured for not racing through the turnstiles to finance, didn't even finish in the top-half of the league. Thanks to interleague dominance, 85-77 was the eighth-best record in the AL, good enough for the NBA playoffs. The seventh-place Tigers went to the World Series, proving again that playoff appearances are worth their weight in gold.
Which is why this obsession with cheaping the way into playoff ecstasy is frustrating. Focus has centered too strongly on a down division clearing the way to a playoff spot, when the rules have reformatted to any real display of competence allowing for an opportunity. The window of opportunity is now entirely self-directed, just in case the illusion that it wasn't was being passed on.
From a team planning standpoint for the Sox this year, a lowered bar for entry encourages all-out aggression in free agency and shorter-term focus in acquisitions--Melky, Scherzer, that kind of insanity. A higher bar encourages them to stay disciplined, emphasize acquisitions with a long-term focus--such as the Adam Eaton deal--and possibly avoiding players with qualifying offers so as to protect their high second-round pick.
They simply need to make that assessment themselves. The Sox have to weigh the immediate push of Sale, Abreu, Quintana primes--Eaton is a consideration too--with the relative insanity of trying to turn around an organization that had 99 losses and an uninspiring farm system just last year. There are four prominent holes in their roster (Corner outfield, corner infield, back-half of the starting rotation, with at least two more high-leverage relievers needed) and immediate solutions and smart solutions typically having only so much overlap in a single offseason.
When the season starts, worry about whether the solutions to the Sox current holes look viable. Worry about the health and maintenance of that four-player core. Worry about whether their success--if they have any--is sustainable. And if it's really close, in the last couple weeks, with clearly no other opportunities, maybe start thinking about the Tigers, Royals and Indians.
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