The Importance of a Long-Term Plan

Editor's Note: Mike actually submitted this piece on Friday, so the White Sox draft slot has changed incrementally with the Dexter Fowler signing, but his arguments about the short-term worth of a MLB outfield upgrade vs. a late-1st round draft slot remain.

By Mike Musary, Special Contributor to The Catbird Seat

When Rick Hahn came out and said that the White Sox seven-game win streak right before last year’s trade deadline didn’t impact the team’s decision to hold onto Jeff Samardzija, I believed him. Unfortunately, I think that leads to a much bigger issue: the White Sox seemingly lacked long-term planning with this decision and now the chickens have come home to roost, so to speak.

Going into the trade deadline, the White Sox were 49-51 and trailed four teams for the Wild Card spot. The teams in front of them all made some small moves to bolster their playoff odds, and one of those teams, the Toronto Blue Jays, made blockbuster moves to acquire both David Price and Troy Tulowitzki to incredibly increase their playoff chances. When this happened, it became quite clear that the White Sox weren’t going to make the playoffs. Or, at the very least, it should have.

To piggy-back off of Patrick Nolan’s excellent article on SouthSideSox, I’ll use a normal distribution to showcase this. First, a few assumptions: 1) The second Wild Card team would need to win 84 games to make the playoffs 2) The White Sox’ true talent level was their winning percentage through their July 30th game (49%) and 3) the standard deviation in winning percentage for the rest of the season was 5%.** So, given the scenario, the White Sox would need to win 35 games the rest of the season to make the playoffs, a 56.5% winning percentage. Using the Z-score formula of (X-mean)/standard deviation, we find that a 56.5% winning percentage has a Z-score of +1.5. Using a basic one-tailed test, this tells us the White Sox chances of achieving their goal of 84 wins or better is about 6.68%. Yuck. And, while my math is oversimplified, if you look at the White Sox playoff odds from Fangraph’s tool, on July 31, 2015, their odds of making the playoffs were 10.4%, not terribly greater than my own estimate.

And why does all of this matter? It means the White Sox had a very, very good idea that they wouldn’t make the playoffs at the time of the trade deadline (or that they don’t have an analytics department and they solely exist as an organization full of willful delusion, but we know it's the former). Thus, keeping Samardzija had no meaningful impact on the trajectory of the team the rest of the year and it should have been clear they were going down. The logical conclusion then becomes that the White Sox valued the compensation pick they’d get when Samardzija departed more than any prospect offered for Samardzija via trade. My question is: why?

It’s already been stated that, on its own, the 28th pick in the major league draft really isn’t likely to add a player of consequence to the White Sox minor league system. I’ll go even further and say from 2000-2007 (to allow some time for player development) picks 28-50 in the major league draft have accumulated an average bWAR of only 2.4 and only an estimated 18 of 184 players drafted will accumulate more than 10 bWAR in their respective major league careers.*** Is that 2.4 average low because some players haven’t finished their careers? Yes. But it’s still unlikely that number EVER reaches just 4 WAR. Are their some big names in those 18 players? You bet. Adam Wainwright, Joey Votto, Josh Donaldson, and David Wright headline that list, but not only are players like that incredibly rare, they exist only about 5% of the time, they are arguably even more rare now thanks to the hard draft slotting system preventing young players from asking for very large signing bonuses and thus flushing later rounds in the draft with more talent.

And finally arriving to my point, based on all of the information above, the idea that a team wouldn’t trade a prospect of equal or greater value than the 28th pick for Samardzija is pure poppycock (remember prior to the trade deadline he still had an ERA of 3.94 with the White Sox defense behind him). Sure, you could argue that the compensation pick has trickle down effects by adding more money to the draft pool, but to me, that’s really more important to getting organizational fillers and making sure the franchise has guys in the minor leagues who can fill in at replacement level in case of injury. You know, so they don’t have to give multi-million dollar contracts to the Rob Mackowiak’s of the world. That’s obviously important, but certainly not as critical as, say, adding a player of Dexter Fowler’s caliber to replace a black hole in a year when the team is trying to contend.

And much more importantly, on top of all this, the White Sox should have had at least some kind of inkling of what they were going to try to accomplish during the off-season. If they had a long term plan in place, they would have known that they were going to try and make a push for the playoffs in 2016, and this should have had an impact on the valuation of the compensation pick at last year’s deadline. Holding onto Samardzija essentially made it more painful for the White Sox to sign a QO free agent over the winter. The White Sox (should) know how the system works, and should have adjusted their internal valuations of the comp pick accordingly. Only, it appears they didn’t. Heck, if you believe the org speak, the White Sox themselves didn’t even know how this off-season was going to go! And that’s a big, huge, MONUMENTAL problem. My boss always quotes Ben Franklin and says: “to fail to plan is to plan to fail.” And that’s certainly the truth. The White Sox were short-sighted at the deadline and it’s biting them in the rear end right now.

But for me, the frustration continues. After the White Sox acquired Todd Frazier, I was all smiles. I’m sure many White Sox fans were. They had just obtained a top ten, if not higher, third baseman in the majors to address one of the darkest black holes in all of baseball. Since Joe Crede departed after the 2008 season, in 5716 plate appearances White Sox third baseman had amassed a major league worst -0.8 Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) and a major league worst 79 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) from 2009-2015. Seriously. In fact, only one other position for any team had been below replacement level by fWAR during that time period. That position? Second Base for your Chicago White Sox. And you know what? Acquiring the Toddfather also addressed that issue by shifting the mediocre, but not an unmitigated disaster (an actual option historically for the Sox), Brett Lawrie to second base. All things considered, this was a great-if-not-excellent transaction that suddenly defined the direction of the White Sox off-season.

Then the rest of the off-season happened.

The moment the Frazier trade was completed, they White Sox should have said: “You know what? We messed up with the Samardzija business. Oh well, we can’t change the past. Gotta move forward.” But again, they didn’t. They’ve desperately clung to that compensation pick like it’s the last helicopter out of Vietnam. I don’t know if it’s because the White Sox aren’t willing to spend money, or if someone’s ego in the front office is refusing to believe they let Samardzija go for nothing, but the White Sox have strapped an awful anchor to what was once a very promising off-season. And again, why? What long-term plan (if any) do they have that suggests building an above-average team, while leaving significant holes on the roster, is their best course of action? The White Sox are taking a dangerous gamble that could further plunge the organization into irrelevance all because they didn’t have an adequate long-term plan in place. Groan.

Here’s to hoping the White Sox’ stubbornness and short-sightedness don’t keep them out of the playoffs. Again.

**As for these assumptions, I actually believe that all three are lenient in favor of the White Sox making the playoffs, as it actually took 86 wins to make the playoffs, the White Sox end of season winning percentage was 46.9% and if we think that six wins over an entire season is indicative of the standard deviation around a preseason projection, that would equate to a standard deviation of roughly 3.7% in winning percentage.

***Below is the poorly formatted excel sheet where I typed in bWARs of all the players from picks 28-50 in the 2000-2007 drafts. I listed all of the players that have accumulated at least 10 bWAR. Some players have an asterisk because they haven’t yet made it to 10 bWAR, but I envision that they do so before their career is over. Just glancing at the list of names, I see 6 people that I’d be mad that the White Sox missed out on if they gave up the compensation pick. Considering that’s less than 5% of the players drafted, I’ll say the opportunity cost of giving up the draft pick for Dexter Fowler would have been well worth it. But I don’t make the decisions.