Two Roads Diverge at the Winter Meetings, are the White Sox walking blindly into the woods?

While the mild weather in Chicago has yet to reflect a change of season, winter is upon us. With it comes baseball’s annual Winter Meetings. In recent years, these meetings have been a time of much activity for the White Sox, especially since Rick Hahn filled the GM seat. In the last few years, Hahn has acquired Adam Eaton, Jeff Samardjiza, Melky Cabrera, and David Robertson all during baseball’s annual December assembly, moves which have been, for better or worse, some of the most consequential of the Hahn regime.

As of now, the White Sox have not been attached to any major players save for a couple of very loose rumors from months ago, and haven’t made any transactions that will have a large effect on the win column in 2016. After last year’s flurry off offseason moves, that may seem to suggest the White Sox plan to have a quiet offseason, but it is worth noting that with the exception of the Samardizja trade (loosely), the White Sox were not strongly connected to any of the aforementioned players before the week of their acquisitions. While the team has always kept their dealings close to the vest, under Hahn it seems that they have been near-completely free of leaked information.

That being said, it is hard to develop a good understanding of how the Sox plan to operate over the next week and beyond. In recent offseasons they have at least made a relatively major move by now--the Jose Abreu and Adam LaRoche deals had already been consummated by this point in 2013 and 2014, respectively--but 2014 was always going to be a rebuilding year, and the signing of LaRoche was hardly evidence that the Sox would make the trio of acquisitions they did last December. Pair the lack of moves with either vague or meaningless statements from brass about a plan--stating the obvious like “no one is off limits” or “we want to acquire good players at a reasonable cost”--and any predictions are very difficult.

Furthermore, there really is no evidence at this point of what the White Sox general plan is. They are at a juncture on the win curve where they really have two distinct options: a spending spree towards contention or a teardown/rebuild, and nothing they’ve done or said has suggested that either of these plans is more likely (or if they plan to do something in between).

I’ve made it quite clear in myriad twitter rants that I would like the White Sox to take advantage of the cheap and strong core they have now and spend towards contention. I’m not going to defend this as if I have a complete understanding of the White Sox’ revenue (though I have little sympathy for the profit margins of an owner with a net worth of $1.2 billion), but I truly believe that the White Sox’ core is strong enough that spending like a team in a large market can would make them a contender.

If payroll expanded to even $130 million--a figure that would have been 10th in baseball in 2015, not at all unreasonable to expect of a big-market contender--the White Sox could fashion a team with a very good shot at the AL Central crown. $130 million would allow for about $30 million in 2016 expenditures to be added. That’s plenty of money to play with, and would allow splurging on one of the big OF FAs (Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward, or Alex Gordon) or spreading out money to fill infield holes. While any contracts handed out in FA are unlikely to be cost-effective, the upgrades they would provide would be large enough that they could vault the White Sox into contention*. With no long-term bad money committed (Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera, and John Danks all have one or two years remaining on their deals), now would seem like a perfect opportunity to spend on an expensive star to supplement the core.

*It’s worth noting here that because the value of adding wins isn’t linear with respect to where a team is on the win curve, cost-analysis by $/WAR or any similar measure in a vacuum is near meaningless if not accounting for team context. This is a much larger discussion, see here for a good primer on this topic.

However, if money really is going to be tight, contention in this window may be difficult. In this case, the best option may be to go into full rebuild, trading anyone of value in hopes of creating a core for the next AL Central winning White Sox team. The slash-and-burn strategy has gained popularity and notoriety in recent years, and has certainly worked to varying degrees of success for teams like the Cubs, Astros, and Royals. I’m not a fan of this method in general, as I believe the primary beneficiary of such a model is the owner’s pocketbooks, but if that owner won’t approve of spending in a way that will allow this team to win, it may be the best option for building a contender.

 I do believe people tend to overrate the infallibility of this method--it takes a lot more than high draft picks and trades for prospects to ensure long-term success, evidenced by the aforementioned Royals for the better parts of the last three decades--the White Sox have a group of players that could allow them to get a big head start on their rebuild if they went that route. Chris Sale is likely one of the five or so most valuable trade pieces in MLB, under contract for 4 more years at only $47.1 million while pitchers of his talent level or below with more innings on their arms are getting in excess of $200 million (Dan Szymborkski’s ZiPS projection system says Sale would get a 10 year, $299 million contract as a FA right now). Add Jose Quintana’s incredibly cheap contract (he’s under contract at 5 years and $43.25 million while comparable pitchers Jon Lester and Cole Hamels are making over $23 million per year each) and you have two starters that you could deal for a treasure trove of prospects, with Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton also being extremely valuable trade chips. This route would undeniably destroy contention hopes for at least a couple years; however, if the White Sox fail to spend big, they may not have much hope in that time anyway.

And this brings us to the third option, one that it is the worst and probably the most likely. This option likely includes what is mostly a repeat of last offseason: acquisition of mid-tier talent, filling one or two holes but still having a roster that lacks the talent to win without loads of good luck. Unless another swindling along the lines of Santiago-for-Eaton can be pulled off to secure positional talent, this plan basically hopes that enough things can go right to an average-ish team and a playoff spot can be reached. With the AL Central consisting of possibly four other teams in this position (three if the Royals manage to avoid major losses in free agency and to regression), you’re basically saving money and hoping things break better for you than everyone else.

This screams pennywise and dollar foolish to me. While certainly it would be nice to field a division winner on league-median payroll, the cost of wasting another year of the core without winning is extremely high, making this entire strategy incredibly risky. When this risk could be greatly alleviated by spending more on free agents, this path is potentially catastrophic if it leads to another missed playoff year, especially because of the damage a year can do to the trade values of the top players on the team.  The White Sox are at a fork a road with two divergent paths, and instead of following one of these, they look like they may just close their eyes and blindly walk into the forest that is straddled by the two paths. If they get lost in said forest, they’ll likely wind up in the same place in a year’s time, no closer to their goal and with depleted resources from another year of being lost. 

Ethan Spalding is a staff writer for The Catbird Seat who is studying statistics and mathematics at UW-Madison. For more White Sox talk, in more disjointed, 140 character packages, follow him on twitter @SpaldingBalls