It's What If week at the mothership, prompting a lot of wondering of what kind of wonderful and interesting things could have happened if ideal conditions had held up for just a bit longer. What if the 1994 strike hadn't happened? is a fun one for White Sox fans. Here, we'll even do that one for free real quick right now: The Sox would have won the 'effin World Series. That's what would have happened.
But since I like to watch the world burn, let's ask a far more dastardly question: What if the 2004 White Sox had stayed healthy?
The 2004 White Sox, full of bright expectations, flopped pretty badly and missed the playoffs by nine games. Kenny Williams entered the offseason feeling a mandate for sweeping overhaul, and he certainly achieved it. But the 2004 Sox didn't so much fall on their faces as they were pushed.
Magglio Ordonez collided with Willie Harris on May 19, hurt his left knee, dragged himself through 14 more awful games before undergoing surgery and never put a White Sox uniform on again, barring some nostalgic activities in the privacy of his home. Just before Ordonez made his ill-fated and short-lived July comeback attempt, Frank Thomas' best season in four years ended on July 6, when his untrusty left foot broke once more. Either way you cut it--after Magglio went out, after Frank went out, or after the All-Star Break, the Sox became a sub-.500 team, as spare at-bats were eaten up by Timo Perez, Joe Borchard and Ross Gload. In Borchard and Perez's case, it's fair to ask whether they ate the at-bats, or vice versa.
Unfortunately, even with the crazy error margins and flaws of wins above replacement, we know too much to argue something like full and healthy seasons of Ordonez and Thomas making a nine win difference. A most optimistic projection of Thomas had him on halfway to a 6 WAR year. Ordonez had been worth 5-6 wins the previous two seasons, but had gotten off to a slower start. 3 WAR over the last four months is a plenty reasonable expectation for Ordonez.
Baseball Reference and FanGraphs disagree about how awful Perez, Borchard and Gload were, with B-Ref closer to -1 WAR and FanGraphs near -2. Both metrics seem to have an intense hatred of Gload--a genuinely productive hitter (.321/.375/.479, 120 wRC+)--for his defense despite him only making ~40 starts in the field between the outfield corners and first base. Saying the Sox would be seven games better seems plenty aggressive.
If anything, Thomas and Ordonez going down might have tempered the Sox activity at the trade deadline. They made the blockbuster move for Freddy Garcia, couldn't have done any better swapping Esteban Loaiza for Jose Contreras, while bringing in Carl Everett and Roberto Alomar (again). The Sox got knocked out of it by injuries, but nine games is a ton. We're re-writing history, not fan-fiction. The Sox were in second place and 22-17 when Magglio went down. Pegging them as 93-win division winners is a bit much.
What I propose is something much more sickly familiar: a near miss. The Sox play meaningful baseball deep into September, win an impressive number of games, and are left wondering what little tweak could be made to add a handful of wins to a group already on the doorstep. Without the injury, the same rift between the organization and Ordonez doesn't open up mid-year, he and Ozzie Guillen aren't sworn enemies, and perhaps re-signing the homegrown slugger is the No. 1 priority for a team desperate to snap a four-year playoff drought. Considering they still had a 102 OPS+ without, full and healthy seasons from Ordonez and Thomas, along with Carlos Lee's breakout campaign, likely give the Sox one of, if not the best offense in the league, and doesn't give them the same mandate for sweeping reform that Williams wound up having.
This all threatens a series of events talked about like it's an alchemist formula around these parts. Even if the Sox landed Ordonez for the 5-year, $60 million offer they were pushing in 2004, rather than the $75 million deal the Tigers inked with him, that alone roughly matches the combined annual salary they wound up giving to Jermaine Dye, Tadahito Iguchi, A.J. Pierzynski, Orlando Hernandez and Dustin Hermanson. Not to mention that the trade for Scott Podsednik swapped out Lee's $8 million arbitration figure for Pods' $700K salary.
Spending limits under Reinsdorf have been flexible depending on the situation, but the '05 Sox already saw a $10 million payroll jump from the previous season already. Dye and Hernandez and Iguchi are likely out if the Sox keep their core together, but Pierzynski and Hermanson were both brought in on make-good deals in the $2 million range already. It's possible they're still around. Depending on how close they finished, the Sox are likely highly-motivated buyers.
First of all, maybe it doesn't matter. Ordonez enlisted the services of Scott Boras and was headed to free agency. His time with the White Sox looked in danger well before he plowed into Willie Harris. Carlos Lee was sliding like Guillen wanted to by mid-September, but was often marked as a bastion of an all-or-nothing offense already. Maybe they're looking to trade him for speed anyway.
Second, is such a team that much worse? Jermaine Dye was more than game in 2005 and a steal for the money, but he was no Healthy and Productive Magglio Ordonez. Podsednik's defense and baserunning at best made him a break-even with Lee's superior bat. Replacement-level solutions for catcher and second base would detract, but the rotation that would drive the team was already in place.
Ultimately it's a chemistry argument. As is often the case, the major shots of the 2005 overhaul had been fired before we realized the battle had started. The White Sox didn't change size, but shape. They shifted their emphasis from a small core of superstar bats to a more speed-and-defense profile--which mostly couldn't score without dingers, ironically--while their starting pitching took center stage. They didn't win because this approach is necessarily better, but it correlated with what could be thought of as a fluke season, just because such a large portion of the roster had the best seasons of their career.
The more charitable way to describe it is that everyone maximized their potential, and how much of that was just happy luck or the product of environment and approach is the stuff of franchise legend. A clubhouse filled with the old guard of Ordonez, Lee and Thomas is a lot different from Quiet Captain Konerko and Ozzie Guillen as the unchallenged figurehead. They say these things matter.
Would the 2005 White Sox still have won if 2004 didn't crash and burn? My temptation is to say 'no,' because that season was such a confluence of fortunate circumstance that it makes me worry about the butterfly effect to change one detail. When miracles happen, even of the cheesy sports variety, even the mistakes and hiccups that go before them feel like part of the recipe.