Is the White Sox rebuild losing traction?
To say so might be a stretch, but there has been some pulling away from the warm embrace of the Sox teardown that began with the trade of Chris Sale for Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Luis Basabe and Victor Diaz in December 2016.
Think back to SoxFests 2017 and ’18, when, after the teardown many fans had been requesting for years, the notion of a brighter future with a restocked farm system was mobilizing a disgruntled fan base tired of being “mired in mediocrity,” as general manager Rick Hahn had put it.
The buzz was palpable. What the Sox had been doing wasn’t working and this was worth a shot because it offered the real potential for, as Hahn put it, competing for multiple championships.
Lauded for making trades that sent Sale, Adam Eaton and Jose Quintana to the Red Sox, Nationals and Cubs for prospects, Hahn was hailed as Chicago sports’ “Person of the Year” by The Athletic. Hahn hadn’t accomplished a thing, but with a clearly communicated formula and bright hope for tomorrow, he was lauded as a hero, a man with a plan to buy into.
The Sox spent big in the international market, too, giving Cuban outfield prospect Luis Robert $26 million and paying a matching tax. A long-term vision began to take shape as Sox prospect rankings soared from the bottom third of baseball to the top five. Moncada, Kopech, Dylan Cease, Eloy Jimenez and Robert became the faces of the franchise.
But there have been glitches in the master plan. Moncada, considered the No. 1 prospect in baseball at the time of the trade, fell well short of expectations in 2018. A rash of injuries spread throughout the prospect ranks, setting back the development of Jake Burger, Robert, Zack Burdi, Micker Adolfo, Alec Hansen, Dane Dunning, Luis Basabe and even Jimenez to a small degree when he was limited in spring training last season.
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And then came the hammer, the blow of all blows: Tommy John surgery for Kopech at the end of last season.
That one really hurt.
But there would be more, flashing ahead to last week. With a chance to heal up the aforementioned wounds, they failed to convert on the huge window of opportunity that was Manny Machado. The reaction from frustrated fans was surly, to put it mildly, seeing an empty, second-place finish for the 26-year-old talent with 10 years of two-way All-Star production to give by offering an historic but inferior $250 million guaranteed deal. What really hurt was knowing the Sox were not competing with heavyweights such as the Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs but against the small-market San Diego Padres, viewed as a beatable foe.
The Padres won.
And the Sox lost, leaving skeptics to wonder about their ability to convert on future big-time, high-priced needs vital to completing a long-range plan.
The farm system is still there to hold onto. But other franchises have strong farm systems, too, and the Sox are not the only rehabber in the neighborhood. It seems like everyone is doing it. And not all are enamored with the Sox prospects. ESPN’s Keith Law ranks them No. 13 in baseball, behind the Twins (fourth) and Indians (11th), the two best teams in the AL Central.
Of course, the Sox are only a strong season from Jimenez and Cease, bounceback seasons from Moncada and Lucas Giolito and an eye-opening Cactus League season from No. 4 overall pick Nick Madrigal from putting it all back on track.
Spring training is always a good place to start.