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Right Team, Wrong Time Once Again for the White Sox

by Adam Kaplan

On August 10, 1994, the Chicago White Sox defeated the Oakland A’s at the Oakland Coliseum. The Good Guys won a close game 2-1 thanks to a 5.2 IP, 1 ER performance from starter Jason Bere and a go-ahead run scored by Julio Franco off of a Wild Pitch in the 4th. The win gave the Pale Hose a record of 67-46, good for first place in the AL Central, and the second-best record in the American League.

At this time, the White Sox had the best player in the American League (Frank Thomas who had an fWAR of 7.0), and the offense as a whole had the second-best wRC+ in the AL (112). Per fWAR, the White Sox also had the second-best pitcher in the AL in reigning AL Cy Young winner Jack McDowell (4.9) and the Sox starters as a whole had the second-best fWAR (12.6) and the best ERA (3.91) in the American League.

As of August 10, 1994, the Chicago White Sox were nipping on the heels of the American League first-place New York Yankees, while also fighting off the Cleveland Indians who were just 1 game behind them in the AL Central standings. However, we’ll never know how that 1994 White Sox team would have ended up because two days later, the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike.

The early-to-mid Chicago White Sox team was a really good team. The organization won 94 games in 1993 and won the AL West (as it was known at the time). The 1994 team would have most likely broken the franchise curse of failing to make back-to-back postseasons, a streak that wasn’t broken until the 2020 and 2021 White Sox made the playoffs.

The 1994 White Sox may not have even made the playoffs, nevertheless have won the World Series, but it would not have been a surprise if they did. Having the best offensive player and best starting pitcher in any given series certainly helps, and the rest of the team wasn’t half bad either. Regardless, the strike-shortened season means we’ll just have to play “What If” as opposed to seeing how the team would have fared come postseason time.

Cut to 26 years later in 2020. Right as the MLB season is about to begin, a pandemic ravages the world, and the season is canceled. However, as spring turns into summer, MLB and the player’s union agree to a 60 game regular season with an expanded postseason. After years of rebuilding, the Chicago White Sox arrive on the scene. José Abreu wins the AL MVP, the offense as a whole (again) has the second-best wRC+ in the American League (117) and the team has a fearful duo at the top of the pitching rotation thanks to Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel.

The 2020 White Sox had glaring flaws, mainly a pretty bad back end of the rotation, and I don’t think they were as good as either the Tampa Bay Rays or Los Angeles Dodgers (both teams who played in the World Series), but it would have been interesting to see what moves Rick Hahn and company would have made at the trade deadline for another starting pitcher had 2020 been a regular 162 game season.

Though, the pandemic shortened season didn’t so much hurt the 2020 White Sox as it did the 2021 White Sox. Two key pieces of the White Sox lineup, Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal, tore their hip flexor and hamstring, respectively, on a routine play running to first base. Maybe both injuries would have occurred regardless, but the type of injuries Robert and Madrigal sustained plagued the league in 2021, and the most likely culprit was a full season being played after a shortened regular season.

Both before and after the injury, Luis Robert was clearly the Pale Hose’s best player, and his loss for an extended period of time could have made a difference between the Sox getting home-field advantage in the first round (the Houston Astros only ended up finishing 2.0 games ahead of the Sox by season end).

Though, Nick Madrigal’s injury, I would argue, turned out to be even more detrimental to the team. I wrote an entire article about what would have happened to the Sox had Madrigal not gotten hurt. Not only would the Sox not have had to trade for César Hernández, but they wouldn’t have traded for Craig Kimbrel as they wouldn’t have had enough assets to acquire him. In the article, I wrote that the Sox would have traded for Kris Bryant from the Cubs. Obviously, that portion becomes an Unanswerable Question, but considering the poor assets the San Francisco Giants ended up giving up, I don’t think that would have been out of the question. Further, the White Sox would have not had the Second Base sized hole on the roster right now (assuming MLB baseball will be played in 2022) if Madrigal had not required season-ending surgery.

Especially compared to the 1994 and 2020 White Sox, last year’s team absolutely had a realistic shot of winning the World Series. The team was a legitimate competitor even without Nick Madrigal and with Craig Kimbrel and with Luis Robert missing significant regular-season games. The 2021 White Sox would have been even more of a force had they gotten home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (or at least in the first round). A team with a healthy Robert and Madrigal (and maybe Kris Bryant) and no Craig Kimbrel may not have caught the 100 games won by the Rays, but I am confident they would have had a better record than the 95 games won by the Houston Astros.

It’s hard to say we fans of the Chicago White Sox are truly unlucky as we did get to witness the team win the World Series in 2005. However, we certainly seem to have bad break after bad break being foisted upon us as well. Part of the reason the Sox have not been able to have sustained success throughout the years and decades is thanks to owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Sustained success in MLB requires money, and while Reinsdorf is worth billions, he often refuses to pump those funds into his baseball team. If you’re also a fan of the Chicago Bears, you’ve seen firsthand over at least the past decade how poor ownership trickles down to poor product on the field. Unlike the Bears, I do believe the White Sox have knowledgeable personnel in the front office who understand how the sport is run and played with guys like Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn. At the same time, it certainly feels as if current GM Rick Hahn has to often play with one hand tied behind his back. Having the owner go above your head to hire his friend as the manager certainly helps sustain that narrative.

For at least the past 30 years, the Sox have not had a plan, or at least if they had a plan, it was not well-executed, for sustained success. After a huge offseason spending spree in 2015 failed to even garner the White Sox with a winning record, Rick Hahn was finally able to convince Jerry Reinsdorf of a plan, and one that would later prove to be successful – sell every player worth a damn and acquire a core group of young talent that will develop together years down the line.

The seeds that Rick Hahn planted in 2016 and 2017 started to bear fruit in 2020. Lucas Giolito, Eloy Jimenez, and Yoán Moncada, players acquired from trading away Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana, and Chris Sale, respectively, along with 2013 first-round pick Tim Anderson started coming into their own. Combined with young talents like Nick Madrigal and Luis Robert, and veteran acquisitions/extensions like José Abreu, Dallas Keuchel, and Yasmani Grandal, the 2020 White Sox opened the window to a potential dynasty. After being subjected to purposeful bad play and tanking for years, the success of the South Siders in 2020 gave fans faith and hope as we had rarely seen before.

And now this hope is being dashed by multiple external forces beyond Rick Hahn’s control and it feels like the Sox are getting doubly screwed.

The White Sox window to win a World Series opened in 2020 and will close after the 2023 season. During this window, was not only the COVID shortened season but now the lockout of 2022.

Both Lance Lynn‘s and Yasmani Grandal’s contracts with the White Sox end after the 2023 season. Lucas Giolito will become a free agent after the 2023 season, and the Harvard-Westlake alum is not going to take a “hometown discount” to stay with the team. That means he’ll probably be in a different uniform to start the 2024 season. And while José Abreu is technically a free agent after the 2022 season, I will assume he’ll be a South Sider until he retires. Though, he’ll be 38 if he still plays for the team in 2024.

Assuming no one gets traded or seriously injured (knock on wood), the 2024 team will still have Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease in the rotation, Liam Hendriks to close games, and have Eloy, Robert, TA, Moncada, and Andrew Vaughn in the lineup, but still, you’re asking Rick Hahn to fill a lot of holes with budgetary restrictions and a weak farm system that I’m not sure the 2024 team, as it stands right now, is competitive enough to win a World Series.

The White Sox are right now smack dab in the middle of their window. They have already gotten part of their window screwed thanks to the pandemic and are getting screwed again thanks to this current lockout. If 2022 ends up getting completely canceled (I’m still optimistic it will not), then that obviously is a huge thorn in the side of The Rebuild and obviously screws over the Sox. However, if the 2022 season gets shortened, a la the 2020 season, then not only do the Sox get hurt in 2022, but there’s the chance for more unnecessary injuries in 2023. This feels like a never-ending cycle of getting ****ed.

The White Sox may not win a Championship during their window. Good and well-built teams lose all the time. But it would be nice to see the team actually on the field competing for the opportunity.

The last time baseball saw major labor negotiations go sideways was in 1994 when the White Sox had a legitimate chance to win a World Series and it’s currently happening again. After years of purposeful tanking thanks to The Rebuild and decades of mediocre baseball thanks to having an owner who supposedly said it’s best to finish in second place every year to give fans a carrot for the next season without actually having to deliver a winning product, the White Sox were finally in a place to succeed. Yet, seemingly, something always happens and takes the wind out of our sails.

It’s moments like the one we’re in right now where it feels that White Sox fans are destined to be Charlie Brown and the MLB is Lucy always swiping the football that is a World Series ring away right at the moment we’re about to kick, leaving us bruised and looking to the sky wondering what happened.

Featured Image: MLB / Twitter

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