The Grand White Sox Rebuild of the late 2010s has failed. The team only reached the postseason twice, winning two games and zero series. While it was always difficult to expect a World Series victory, given the unpredictable nature of the playoffs, even the less optimistic fans of the White Sox expected the team to at least perennially be atop the American League Central division.
Alas, we cannot change the past, and with key player contracts expiring and several core players underperforming, the focus in Chicago has shifted from competing to retooling. Blame for the failed execution of the rebuild should go to several groups — the front office/ownership, the players, Tony La Russa, the removal of the large Goose Island goose from the right field concourse, etc. But given what we know now, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see how this rebuild could have succeeded, even under self-imposed ownership restrictions (e.g., not genuinely pursuing slam-dunk free agents such as Bryce Harper).
When we look back on this era of White Sox baseball in 20+ years, I think one of the most frustrating aspects will be that the core players were not simply bad. The failure of the rebuild would be much easier to rationalize if that were the case, and while some fans and analysts have chosen to take this route, it is not quite accurate. This is not a “what could have been” situation where most of a team’s top prospects were busts. On the contrary, most of this team’s top talent had significant (multiple seasons in most cases) successful stretches at the Major League level. The problem was a lack of consistency, cohesion, and of course, durability.
In other words, when comparing these White Sox teams to other failed rebuilds, the difference is that the other teams often failed because the presumptive star players were actual busts. By this, I mean that they couldn’t even stick around as average starters. For these White Sox, the former top prospects largely all put together at least one season that reaffirmed their prior status as some of the sport’s most promising prospects.
Consider the players that were largely expected to serve as core pieces for the contending version of the White Sox:
- Yoan Moncada
- Luis Robert Jr.
- Eloy Jimenez
- Jose Abreu
- Tim Anderson
- Andrew Vaughn
- Nick Madrigal
- Zack Collins
- Blake Rutherford
- Lucas Giolito
- Michael Kopech
- Dylan Cease
- Carlos Rodon
- Reynaldo Lopez
- Dane Dunning
- Garrett Crochet
While the word “disappointing” may be apt for most of these players, only a few are complete busts. Blake Rutherford, for example, never even made it past AAA with the White Sox. Zack Collins and Nick Madrigal made it but were either underwhelming or too prone to injuries to be relied on. On the pitching side, only Reynaldo Lopez definitively failed as a starter, and he still provided a couple of years of value as a reliever.
In addition to these players, the team also acquired more established players such as Lance Lynn, Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, and Liam Hendriks. For the purposes of the forthcoming exercise, let’s assume that the team made these exact same acquisitions, and the players performed as they did in reality. Sure, signing Bryce Harper would have acted as a tremendous boon to the rebuild’s chances of success, but as the title of this article implies, there was only one realistic way for this rebuild to succeed.
In typical White Sox fashion, that method was for the core players to stay healthy and all develop at the same rate with minimal depth.
The Exercise & Framework
Through fairly rudimentary analysis, my goal is to prove that the failure of this rebuild is particularly frustrating given that the core players were actually quite successful in the Major Leagues over significant stretches. Given the above acknowledgment that this would all have had to happen at the same time for the rebuild to succeed, the exercise here will assume that this indeed happened.
I understand that the title says “realistic,” and every core player developing/excelling on the same timeline is… aspirational. But bear with me here: changing the title to “semi-realistic” would have pushed the already borderline character count too far for my liking. And while I cede that the odds of this actually happening for any team are low, they are still higher than the odds of the White Sox signing a Bryce Harper-level free agent.
The exercise is pretty simple: I am going to look at how some of the league’s best teams in recent years have fared from an fWAR standpoint, specifically for their position players and starting rotations. I am omitting bullpens because they are too fickle for this kind of analysis, and I think we can all agree that the bullpen was not the reason the White Sox rebuild failed (if anything, a major reason for the failure is that the team invested too much in an already good bullpen).
For White Sox players, I will take their fWARs from their top seasons with the team and represent them as one figure (i.e., someone like Lucas Giolito will be represented by a composite average of several seasons, while someone like Eloy Jimenez will have more weight placed on his 2022 season). For each player, I will explain my rationale for picking the season(s) I did. At the end, I will compare this “team” (it’s really closer to half of a team, with an assumption of replacement-level [or worse] play from the rest of the roster) to the best teams in baseball.
Starting Pitching — White Sox
Let’s start with Lucas Giolito, the ace of the 2019-2023 era of the White Sox. As you might expect, I am using the 2019-2021 stretch for his composite fWAR (2022 was a down year, and 2023 is incomplete). Since 2020 was a shortened season, I am combining the three seasons and then averaging them on a per-inning basis to his own average amount of innings pitched in 2019 and 2021 (177.2). The result for this faux season is that Lucas Giolito contributes 4.7 fWAR.
With Dylan Cease, the analysis is much easier. Despite the massive shift in his reputation during these seasons, he registered 4.4 fWAR in both 2021 and 2022. Since 2023 is incomplete (although he is actually on pace for very close to the same figure), Dylan Cease contributes 4.4 fWAR.
As for Lance Lynn, the analysis is again fairly basic. With the White Sox, he was very good in 2021 (4.2 fWAR), inconsistent in 2022, and well below average (albeit unlucky) in 2023. Since this exercise is assuming that the prospects developed at the same rate, we will also assume that Lynn and his fellow veterans provided their best selves. For our season, Lance Lynn contributes 4.2 fWAR.
The rest of the rotation can be filled by Michael Kopech and some mix of Carlos Rodon, Johnny Cueto, and Dallas Keuchel. While Kopech has looked dominant over several periods of his MLB career, it would be dishonest to extrapolate an eight or ten-start sample to a full season. Instead, we’ll just use his best individual season to date (2021). As a result, Michael Kopech contributes 1.7 fWAR.
The last spot in the rotation would ideally be filled by Carlos Rodon’s 2021, but since Cueto and Keuchel also made many starts for the White Sox, it would again feel like cheating to exclude them (especially considering Rodon’s 2021 was an ace-like year that would heavily skew these results). Rodon’s 2021 fWAR was 4.9; Cueto’s 2022 fWAR was 2.4, and Keuchel’s only full season with the White Sox led to a 0.7 fWAR. Rather than take an average of the three, let’s be conservative here and say that the fifth starter produces 2.0 fWAR.
Starting Pitching — White Sox vs. MLB
Cumulatively, the above starting rotation is worth 17.0 fWAR. How does that compare to the rest of the league? Here is exactly where it would rank among all 30 teams’ rotations over the last few (full) seasons:
- 2022: 4th
- 2021: 4th (the actual White Sox rotation was 3rd this year)
- 2019: 7th
- 2018: 4th
- 2017: 4th
Had I used Carlos Rodon exclusively for the fifth starting rotation spot, this number would have risen (fallen, technically?) to 1st in 2022, and either 2nd or 3rd in the other years above. Long story short, if the White Sox had this hypothetical rotation performing at the described levels for a full season, starting pitching would (like in 2021) be the least of the team’s problems.
Position Players — White Sox
Same drill here as above — position-by-position, starting with catcher. Obviously, I am going to use Yasmani Grandal’s still underappreciated 2021 season here (although his shortened 2020 season was also good). Grandal missed a decent chunk of the 2021 season, but his .240/.420/.520 slash line (.940 OPS, 158 wRC+) made him plenty valuable, even in just 93 games. Yasmani Grandal contributes 3.6 fWAR.
At first base, we are going with Jose Abreu’s 2022 season. It’s a bit of a surprise, but his 2022 fWAR (3.9) was higher than that of any Abreu season since 2017. As great as the 2020 season was, I’m against extrapolating purely from 60 games. Jose Abreu contributes 3.9 fWAR.
Second base is kind of like the fifth starter slot — no player ever really established himself as the team’s true second baseman. Because Nick Madrigal was one of the team’s core prospects, we’ll use his best season with the White Sox (2021). While only 54 games, it is still only 0.1 fWAR less than Josh Harrison‘s 2022, for example. Nick Madrigal contributes 1.3 fWAR.
Third base is fun because while I could take the easy route and use Yoan Moncada’s 2019 season exclusively, I am going to combine it with his plenty valuable 2021 season that, for whatever reason, has been retroactively deemed poor by White Sox fans despite Moncada’s top-three AL finish in on-base percentage and stellar defense. Taking the average of Moncada’s 2019 and 2021 seasons means that Yoan Moncada contributes 4.8 fWAR.
At shortstop, we have several impressive Tim Anderson seasons to choose from. His 2019 (4.5) and 2021 (4.6) seasons were very similar from an fWAR standpoint, and since he was on pace for over 6.2 fWAR in the shortened 2020 season, let’s go with the slightly higher option. Tim Anderson contributes 4.6 fWAR.
The corner outfield positions are both a bit ambiguous, much like second base (spoiler alert, I’m using Eloy Jimenez as a designated hitter). Andrew Benintendi‘s 2023 is incomplete, so let’s use Adam Engel‘s 1.4 fWAR from 2021 here, and… I guess Andrew Vaughn’s -0.3 fWAR from the same season. The corner outfielders produce 1.1 fWAR.
Center field is tough — not because there is any doubt over whom to use, but because Luis Robert Jr.’s best season to date is incomplete, and we all know he is better than the 2.0 fWAR player he was over 98 games in 2022. Because using his 2021 total of 3.4 fWAR (68 games) feels like an undersell, I’m going to break one of my own rules and just use his average fWAR from 2021 and 2023, but over 100 games rather than anything close to 162 to account for his injury history. Consequently, Luis Robert Jr. contributes 4.5 fWAR (still feels too low given how his 2023 is shaping, but oh well).
Finally, we have Eloy Jimenez at designated hitter. In 2022, Jimenez finally looked like the version of himself that fans were promised, as he returned from injury and had one of the best second halves of a season in recent White Sox history. Since he only played in 84 games (and unlike Robert Jr., is not on pace to blow prior marks out of the water this year), we will just use his total 2022 figure. Eloy Jimenez contributes 1.7 fWAR.
Position Players — White Sox vs. MLB
Of course, the above analysis ignores any contributions (positive or negative) from bench players, but again, this is supposed to be a rudimentary exercise. The cumulative fWAR figure for White Sox position players in this theoretical season is 25.5. How does that compare to the rest of the league? Here is exactly where it would rank among all 30 teams over the last few (full) seasons:
- 2022: 8th
- 2021: 7th
- 2019: 11th
- 2018: 9th
- 2017: 9th
While slightly worse than the team’s starting pitching, this position player group would still surely be a positive for the White Sox. Additionally, one reason the number may be lower is that so many of the fWAR totals I used came from players who missed time due to injuries, so had I truly gone all in on making this an “if everyone had their peak seasons at the same time and they stayed healthy” article, the number would undoubtedly be higher.
Nevertheless, a team with a top-five starting rotation, a top-ten group of position players, and a bullpen anchored by Liam Hendriks, Garrett Crochet, and (pre-2023) Aaron Bummer would be a true World Series contender. For reference, here is where the last several World Series champions ranked in these categories:
- 2022: 1st for starting pitchers, 6th for position players
- 2021: 12th for starting pitchers, 8th for position players
- 2019: 1st for starting pitchers, 5th for position players
- 2018: 8th for starting pitchers, 2nd for position players
- 2017: 7th for starting pitchers, 1st for position players
While I wouldn’t submit this to any sort of statistical body as an example of realistically projecting the performance of a baseball team, I would argue that this sort of rudimentary exercise helps prove that it was never quite feasible for the White Sox rebuild to succeed without the team making significant additions to the roster at the top of the free agent market.
Otherwise, the organization was simply betting on the core players all playing to their potential and staying healthy at the same exact time. To some degree, the former actually happened over full seasons (not simultaneously, but often enough to win), and the latter never really came close.
An outsider might read this article and argue that one could perform a similar analysis with any failed rebuild to make the players look better and deflect blame elsewhere. However, I would argue that you can only carry out a semi-serious (e.g., not taking 30-game samples and extrapolating to 162; not taking strong 93 or 84-game seasons from Yasmani Grandal and Eloy Jimenez and simply assuming they would continue performing at that level for a full, 162-game season) exercise like this for a team of talented players with the performance to back up that assessment.
These White Sox teams did in fact have those players. While it may be easier for some to just write the rebuild off as being a failed experiment due to busts or injuries, this is only one piece of the larger puzzle. The simple fact of the matter is that a championship team could have built around this White Sox core. A 2021 White Sox season with Bryce Harper in right field and Zack Wheeler in the rotation probably would not have even faced the Astros in the ALDS on account of being the #1 seed.
Can anyone look at the roster and farm system of the 2021 Texas Rangers, for instance, and in good faith argue that they were in a better position to succeed in the long run than the White Sox at the time? How about the same comparison between the White Sox and the Miami Marlins? The reason the White Sox rebuild had so much juice as recently as two years ago is not because of the projected ceilings of certain players, but because of the on-field performance of those players.
We all watched it! It wasn’t a dream! And while I don’t think even the most pessimistic of fans would have predicted that Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada, for example, would be at such low points while still in their athletic primes, my point is that the vast majority of these players showed real promise for prolonged stretches (years) at the MLB level. The White Sox front office and ownership failed them by declining to truly invest in the roster beyond pouring a bizarrely large proportion of the payroll into the bullpen and stopgaps that no logical person could ever have viewed as a “missing piece.”
On the other hand, the Texas Rangers, who at the start of the 2021 season had the 21st-ranked farm system in baseball and finished the season 60-102, are looking like an annual contender as of 2023. While some prospects — such as Adolis Garcia, Josh Jung, and Leody Taveras — developed into legitimate Major League pieces, the team’s rapid ascent toward relevance has come from massive free-agent expenditures (Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and essentially the entire starting rotation aside from Dane Dunning).
The White Sox didn’t need to guarantee $800 million in contracts to six players like the Rangers did (although I wouldn’t have complained). However, they did need to add more than just a few middle-tier free agents. Yes, White Sox players deserve blame for the way the rebuild turned out — they were constantly injured, inconsistent, and many have gotten worse over time. But they were good enough for significant stretches that a true contender could have existed.
Instead, the same front office that failed to capitalize on the advantages of a full rebuild is currently deciding on the next direction for the franchise.
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