Breaking Down The Impending Decline Of The Chicago White Sox

Watching Matt Harvey mow down the Chicago White Sox last week was as much a statement of how putrid Chicago’s offense has become, as it was about the development of the Mets’ starter. After being average to above-average over the past decade, the White Sox offense has sunk to the bottom of the American League in almost every major statistical category.

Perhaps nothing is more telling than Chicago’s major league worst on-base percentage of .279. Since 1968, no team has posted lower than .281 for a season.

And as you might expect, not getting on base means not scoring. Ventura’s crew has scored fewer runs than everyone in the American League, including the Houston Astros—a team seemingly forfeiting the 2013 season.

Unlike Houston, this is not a problem of declining to spend for talent. According to the Associated Press, Chicago opened the season with a payroll slightly over $124 million, which was ninth in baseball.

Adam Dunn

Overspending and overestimating

If you’re scratching your head as to how anyone could spend that amount of money on this roster, you wouldn’t be alone. The issue with the White Sox mainly comes down to allocation of resources, decisions by former general manager Ken Williams and the inability to develop hitting prospects.

To the team’s credit, one thing the White Sox have been able to do is accumulate strong pitching. The trade for Jake Peavy has treated Chicago well the last two seasons, while Chris Sale leads a talented group of young, intriguing arms, including Jose Quintana and Hector Santiago.

That’s what makes the contracts to John Danks and Gavin Floyd all the more frustrating. The two pitchers account for just over 20 percent of Chicago’s 2013 payroll. Not exactly ideal for a couple of pitchers with career ERAs above 4.00, and who have both suffered major injuries.

The other obvious albatross of a contract is Adam Dunn’s. Now in the third season of a four-year, $56 million deal, Dunn’s 2012 batting average of .204 is looking like the possible high point of his tenure.

Few teams other than the New York Yankees can absorb poor contracts and still remain competitive. The deals given to Jason Bay and Johan Santana set back the Mets franchise, while before the Angels miraculously picked him up, Vernon Wells’s seven-year, $126 million deal most likely prevented the Toronto Blue Jays from retaining key pieces like Roy Halladay.

Even when the Sox don’t hand out large contracts to veteran players, the front office doesn’t use the money wisely. The Sox decided not to bring back catcher A.J. Pierzynski, a known clubhouse problem who also did many things that this White Sox roster lacks, including rarely striking out and working deep counts.

But rather than investing that money, the White Sox took some of the money they saved on Pierzynski and handed out a three-year, $12 million contract to Jeff Keppinger, a player who broke his right fibula just a month prior, and who had never hit more than nine home runs in a season.

While this offensive mess is by no means all Keppinger’s fault, the utility-infielder-turned-nearly-everyday-third-baseman is hitting .191 with a .397 OPS, suggesting the club could have been a little more diligent about how the injury could hamper his season.

White Sox at Orioles August 11,  2011

An unproductive harvest

In the end, though, the desire to hand out big contracts to players like Dunn and smaller contracts to players like Keppinger all stems from one thing: the inability to develop major league talent in the farm system. The reason that players like Dewayne Wise, Connor Gillaspie and Tyler Greene accumulate at-bats for Chicago is that there are no younger alternatives to replace them. On the opening day roster there were just three homegrown players expected to fill starting roles: Tyler Flowers, Gordon Beckham and Dayan Viciedo.

Flowers was another large part of why the White Sox let Pierzynski walk without signing a veteran to replace him. It appears to be a misguided decision at best, as the 27-year old entered the season with a .207 batting average in 273 career at-bats. Not surprisingly, he’s hitting .183 so far this season.

But Flowers has a long way to go before he matches the disappointment of Beckham. Since his strong rookie season in 2009, Beckham has significantly regressed. Expected to be a mainstay in the infield, he has instead become a career .246 hitter whose OPS has not topped .700 since his first season.

Ranked the No. 20 prospect in 2009 by Baseball America, Beckham might have excelled if the White Sox had not aggressively called him up after just 59 career minor league games. As far as developing hitters go, Viciedo might be the White Sox’ biggest success over the past decade. That’s less of a compliment to Viciedo as it is a statement on the team’s farm system, as the Cuban player has had just one productive season and is a nightmare in the outfield.

Although the White Sox have been able to remain competitive despite these shortcomings, the weak farm system will rear its ugly head in the years ahead, as players like Paul Konerko, Alexei Ramirez and Alex Rios see their production decline as they age.

Saying help is on the way would be an outright lie. Prior to the season, the only White Sox player ranked in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects was outfielder Courtney Hawkins at No. 55. A 19-year old who is still years away from contributing, Hawkins is hitting .177 in High-A ball.

A quick fix to the offensive problem is unlikely. Without prospects, the White Sox not only lack the ability to plug young talent in the lineup, but they also can’t trade for key pieces that would provide a more immediate boost.

Instead, Chicago must be committed to a rebuilding effort that will take several years. The reality is that the White Sox will not be contending for a World Series title in the next five seasons. It’s time to strip down the roster and load up the farm system, something that was never Williams’s style as Chicago’s general manager.

No player should be untouchable on the roster. First-year GM Rick Hahn needs to gauge potential packages for Rios and Sale, as their best seasons ahead will likely be spent on losing teams. All of the focus should be on accumulating young talent, with an emphasis on the June draft.

There are only so many years that a franchise can leave its minor leagues barren and get away with it. The best thing that the White Sox can do now is acknowledge it and correct it, before seasons like 2013 become synonymous with the South Side.

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