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How to judge a Rick Hahn Trade

by Sox On 35th Contributors

The AL West-leading Texas Rangers are opening up old wounds for White Sox fans.

Marcus Semien, their All-Star second baseman, is currently slashing .284/.345/.461, with 11 HR, good for an OPS+ of 120. Dane Dunning, a starting pitcher worthy of being an All-Star this year, has an ERA of 2.69 (160 ERA+), 1.095 WHIP, and 51 strike outs to 21 walks in 80.1 IP. Both players were on the South Side in the beginning of their careers, before being traded to the Oakland A’s and Texas Rangers, respectively, and both have many Sox fans left with Buyer’s Remorse.

Furthermore, both players were traded away to receive a veteran pitcher on essentially a one-year deal. The theory was that while the White Sox were sending away players that could potentially help them down the line, they were receiving a player that would (should) help them win now. The White Sox were trying to win in 2015 and 2021. As such, in December 2014, the Pale Hose sent away Semien, RHP Chris Bassitt, C Josh Phegley, and 1B Rangel Ravelo for RHP Jeff Samardzija. In December 2020, the White Sox sent away RHP Dane Dunning and LHP Avery Weems in exchange for RHP Lance Lynn. One of these trades is considered one of the worst trades of Rick Hahn’s career, and the other one is viewed has one of Rick Hahn’s best.

For the past two years, I wrote a piece for Sox on 35th ranking every major trade in Rick Hahn’s career as the White Sox General Manager. The Samardzija trade was ranked bottom three on both lists, and outside of the three main trades of this current rebuild, the Dunning-Lynn trade was ranked top two. There are of course other mitigating circumstances with these rankings, but a large reason for the discrepancy between these two trades was the performance of the pitcher the White Sox received in return as well as the success of the team they played for.

In 2015, Jeff Samardzija was atrocious for the Chicago White Sox. In 214.0 IP, the former Notre Dame wide out had an ERA of 4.96 (ERA+ of 79), 1.294 WHIP, and 163 strikeouts to 49 walks, good for an fWAR of 2.3. It also didn’t help that the 2015 White Sox went 73-89 and did not make the playoffs (though that’s in part because Samardzija did not perform well). Meanwhile, Lance Lynn was excellent for the White Sox in 2021. In 157.0 IP, Lynn had an ERA of 2.69 (163 ERA+), 1.070 WHIP, and 176 strike outs to 45 walks, good for an fWAR of 4.2. Lynn also finished third in AL Cy Young voting. Further, the White Sox won 93 games and the AL Central that year.

On some level, I understand the argument that all trades should not be viewed in hindsight, they should be judged at the time the trade was made. To that counter, I present The Ringer’s assessment of the trade that brought in James Shields:

“Shields has made at least 31 starts and thrown at least 200 innings every year since 2007. Even if he’s just average — or slightly below average — he’s going to eat innings like a college student on a 3 a.m. Waffle House run eats hash browns. With the team two games back of Kansas City in the AL Central, the White Sox won’t miss the playoffs for lack of competent starting pitching.

That’s a significant comfort, and while paying somewhere between $27 million and $31 million through 2018 — plus two players — for peace of mind seems like a lot, it’s worth it. Losing 26-year-old pitcher Erik Johnson and an intriguing prospect in 17-year-old minor league shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr. isn’t too steep a price for Chicago GM Rick Hahn to pay.”

The Ringer’s Michael Baumann

Essentially, trading away an MVP-level caliber player for an innings eater like James Shields is the ultimate example of mortgaging the future to acquire a veteran pitcher that has blown up in Rick Hahn’s face. This trade was the worst trade on both of my previous year’s trade rankings. It’s naïve to only judge trades based at the time the trade was made. You can justify a trade that way, but you can’t solely judge it that way.

It’s okay to trade away prospects in order to win now, and the White Sox are certainly not the only franchise guilty of this transgression. The goal is not necessarily to “win the trade” so to speak, but to improve your ball club. If you feel you can win now, acquire players to win now, and don’t necessarily worry about what may or may not happen five to ten years down the line. The Washington Nationals gave up elite prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning in order to acquire Adam Eaton. Despite the success of the aforementioned Dane Dunning and Lucas Giolito turning into a borderline All-Star pitcher, I can’t imagine Nationals fans are too broken up over the trade as they saw their team win it all in 2019. While this is probably not the best example because Adam Eaton was not THAT big of a factor in the 2019 Nats’ success, you get my drift.

The main problem Rick Hahn has in the “acquiring a veteran pitcher for prospects” approach, is that this is a band-aid to cover up organizational flaws. The White Sox do not acquire elite-level free agents to supplement these trades. Smarter organizations will not only trade for a pitcher like Lance Lynn but also acquire other top-tier players to continuously bolster the roster. The Sox view these types of trades as the end-all, be-all, and let the weaker parts of the roster remain weak.

Additionally, the White Sox have done a horrific job at developing their own players. This is the rot at the core of the organization as a whole, but it also amplifies how poor the “acquiring a veteran pitcher for prospects” approach is working for Rick Hahn. Not only do the Sox not have a good enough farm and developmental system to replace the mid-tier pieces they give away, but the pieces are given away to better organizations who know how to turn mid-tier pieces into All-Stars.

Dane Dunning was not a highly touted, Top 100 prospect. He was considered the third-best pitcher in the Adam Eaton trade and was basically a developmental project to get Lance Lynn’s $10M off of the Rangers’ 2021 books.

It’s unknowable how Fernando Tatis Jr. would have turned out if he spent his entire career within the White Sox organization. However, considering the Sox have only four homegrown talents earn All-Star consideration over the past 30 years (Tim Anderson, Joe Crede, Ray Durham, and Frank Thomas), I feel confident stating that Tatis Jr. reached greater highs because he was traded.

Outside of Lance Lynn’s spectacular 2021 campaign, part of the reason the Lynn-Dunning trade remained so high in my previous trade rankings columns was because of the lack of success of Dane Dunning. However, even with Dunning’s tremendous turnaround in 2023, I would still rank the trade very high. I can understand the burn Sox fans feel whenever Dunning has another incredible start, especially contrasted to Lynn’s poor 2023 season. However, Lance Lynn was superb in 2021 and helped the White Sox reach back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history.

Trading away prospects for a veteran, especially one year of a veteran, is always going to be a risk. You lose many years of development and team control in exchange for the hope of immediate success. Even smart organizations who consistently make intelligent decisions use this approach, and often times they never reach the Promised Land of a World Series. That being said, it’s even harder for an organization that operates like the Chicago White Sox to find sustained success.

It’s not an inherently wrong or incorrect approach that Rick Hahn consistently trades away non-Top 100 prospects for cost-controlled veterans. In fact, it’s a very smart thing to do. However, it can’t be the only approach, and that’s where the White Sox front office falters. Cheap veterans need to be supplemented with top-tier free agents and top-tier players within your own farm system, two aspects the Sox struggle with mightily. As such, it puts even more emphasis on the acquired cheap veteran to be good while playing on the South Side.

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Featured Image: Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

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