Twenty-four months later, and coming off a third straight fourth-place finish, the prevailing wisdom has shifted, both for the White Sox and the industry as a whole. Having seen teams such as the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs completely remake themselves the hard way – stripping down their rosters and hoarding prospects and draft picks until it hurts, then building themselves back quickly into contenders – smart franchises with little hope of short-term success are more willing to take giant steps backwards in order to eventually move forward.
That brings us to the just-concluded 2016 winter meetings outside Washington, where the White Sox made the opposite sort of splash to the one they made two years ago. In a pair of blockbuster trades, Hahn gave up two veterans — ace lefty Chris Sale to Boston and outfielder Adam Eaton to Washington – for a total haul of seven prospects, moves that drew rave reviews within the industry but signaled a painful, multi-year rebuild for fans on the south side of Chicago.
“Certainly in our city, it’s easy for [fans] to see the fruits of those hardships on the other side of town,” Hahn said of the Cubs’ climb from 101 losses in 2012 to 103 wins a World Series title in 2016.
It helps that the White Sox drew almost universally positive reviews for their returns in the Sale and Eaton deals. From Boston, they got slugging infielder Yoan Moncada, the consensus top hitting prospect in baseball last year, as well as hard-throwing right-hander Michael Kopech, plus two other prospects. And from the Nationals, they got right-hander Lucas Giolito, the consensus top pitching prospect in baseball last year, plus fast-rising right-hander Reynaldo Lopez and 2016 first-rounder Dane Dunning.
It’s no wonder the White Sox were considered one of the clear winners of the winter meetings. Here was Baseball America’s assessment of what the moves did for the White Sox’s minor league system: “[They] started this week with a 26th-28th-ranked farm system. [They are] leaving D.C. with a top-five system.”
The shift in direction was a painful reality for a proud franchise that likes to think of itself as a perennial contender, and had approached every off-season with that in mind. But it was also a necessity for a roster that hadn’t posted a winning season since 2012 or won a playoff game since 2008.
“Given where we were as an organization entering the off-season, we knew we were going to have to make some painful decisions,” Hahn said. “[In the past] we’ve been in more of a ‘win now’ and ‘patch-and-play’ type of situation. [But] the last thing you want is to be caught in between. You don’t want to be a club that’s not capable of winning a championship, but at the same time is just sort of mediocre.”
And the White Sox almost certainly are not done. Among the other trade pieces drawing interest around the game are Robertson, left-hander Jose Quintana, third baseman Todd Frazier, first baseman Jose Abreu and outfielder Melky Cabrera.
There will be more pain felt with each trade. But once you shift yourself into tear-down mode, there is no point in stopping halfway.