Optimism around the future success of the Chicago White Sox is thick. In just six trades Rick Hahn has vaulted the South Siders’ prospect pipeline to the top of the heap. The White Sox boast eight prospects in MLB Pipeline’s top-100 while none rank out of the top 70.
Hahn has been praised for his machinations in resuscitating a roster mired in mediocrity, and while there is renewed optimism around the White Sox fresh turnover, caution should be exercised.
Even as the White Sox swim in new currents, debris of busted rebuilding efforts is scattered about. There are various ways to derail new construction and the Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds offer two cautionary examples.
The Phillies are the envy of White Sox tank fans, owning the worst record in baseball and delivering repeated gut punches to Philly fans on a nightly basis. They consistently find unique ways to lose even as prospects join the big-league roster.
Philadelphia started moving players three years ago when they traded Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers. Rollins was the emotional center of the Phillies and his departure signaled the first turn of the screw in dismantling the roster.
The Dodgers sent Tom Windle and Zach Eflin to south Philly in exchange for the veteran shortstop and both players have been disappointments. This is not too surprising given the diminished value Rollins had as an aging middle infielder with a bloated contract.
Windle hasn’t been able to find his way passed Double-A and at 25 years old might find himself without a home soon enough. Eflin debuted with the Phillies in 2016 and appears to be a Quad-A master. In 19 starts with the big-league club in 2016 and 2017, Eflin is 3-8 with a 5.79 earned run average and a 1.369 WHIP. After a winless start to 2017, the right-hander was demoted to Triple-A and struggled with undisclosed injuries. But the puzzle remains unsolved.
I’ll save you the lengthy chronology of the greater rebuild and cut right to the chase. The big moves former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and current G.M. Matt Klentak have approved include Cole Hamels, Jake Diekman and Ken Giles.
Hamels and Diekman reeled in six prospects including four players that are on the precipice of returning value. Jared Eickhoff has been a pendulum of success and hasn’t emerged as the ace Phillies officials hoped he would be.
Outfielder Nick Williams finally debuted in July and has provided a boost to a beleaguered lineup. He joins a crowded outfield with Aaron Altherr and Odubel Herrara with minor-league slugger Dylan Cozens breathing down his neck at Triple-A.
Cozens, Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery are poised to serve as the core of the Phillies eventual success and all were plucked from the draft. Together, the trio accounts for a staggering 65 home runs at Triple-A this season and 186 runs driven in.
J.P. Crawford, once the highest ranked shortstop by MLB Pipeline has added 10 more long balls with an additional 45 RBI, but the risk is clear. Jumping from the minor leagues to the majors is the longest leap to make and projections are educated guesses based on observations of tools but can’t possibly quantify the human condition that governs the entire outcome.
Cozens has severe swing-and-miss concerns and Crawford is batting a meager .225 this season. Still, other prospects like Mickey Moniak and Sixto Sanchez, neither of whom were swiped in trades, brighten the horizon if recent swaps don’t work out.
So, has the Phillies rebuild paid off? The verdict isn’t in but there is cause for concern.
Phillies brass tacked in a different direction last offseason, acquiring veterans Clay Buchholz, Pat Neshek, Michael Saunders, Joaquin Benoit and Howie Kendrick. Saunders was released in June after a discouraging start while Buchholz only made two starts before undergoing season ending surgery to repair a flexor tendon in his forearm.
Klentak managed to salvage value on Kendrick and Benoit at the eleventh-hour before the trade deadline while Neshak was the only swap of much value. However, three years into rebuilding the franchise, the Phillies still seem years away from regaining a foothold in the N.L. East. With recent trades and potential moves during the waiver period, the return on value should start pushing into the big-league lineup.
But for White Sox fans, the Phillies’ plight should provide caution about applauding the future too soon.
The Cincinnati Reds
The Reds are in the sweet spot where prospects should be returning value after one of the largest sell-offs in Major League history. Cincinnati jettisoned Johnny Cueto, Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman, Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon in an epic teardown that hasn’t yielded the immediate results players of their ilk should return.
Davis has a 7.58 ERA in five starts for Cincinnati in 2017, Renda batted .183 in 32 games in 2016, Cotham posted a 7.15 ERA in two brief stints with the Reds in 2015 and 2016 with a WHIP of 1.74 while Jagielo is still struggling in Double-A with a .230 batting average.
Meanwhile, Chapman was flipped from the Yankees to the Cubs for a lucrative prospect return for New York, put a bow on a World Series title for the Cubs and returned to the Bronx with an enormous contract.
Cueto was dealt for Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed in 2015. Finnegan was having a decent 2017 season before he was sidelined with a strained trapezius muscle. The Lamb experiment in Cincinnati spanned two seasons before the Reds booted him with a 6.43 ERA over 119 2/3 dreadful innings and Reed has a ghastly -1.7 career WAR in the big leagues.
Frazier may have provided the most value in a three-team deal where the Reds pulled three prospects from the Dodgers.
Jose Peraza, Brandon Dixon and Scott Schebler traveled to Cincinnati from L.A. Peraza and Schebler are hanging on with the big-league club while Dixon is mired in mediocrity in Triple-A. But the future of Peraza and Schebler hangs in the balance considering Taylor Trammell and Shedric Long are climbing the minor-league ladder quickly.
Latos netted Anthony DeSclafani from the Marlins but a sprained ulnar collatoral ligament sidelined the right hander in the midst of a solid 2017 season.
Besides the trades, Cincinnati has reloaded through the draft, but the timeline to contention seems to be elusive. Nick Senzel and Trammel, both 2016 picks, are still years away from contributing at the big-league level and Hunter Green hasn’t played in a professional game yet.
The Reds are in a race to the bottom with the Phillies for the worst record in Major League Baseball and bolstering the farm system through the draft is a slow and arduous process.
The Braves have the only minor-league system that can compete with the White Sox. Atlanta has had a rough rebuilding process over the past few seasons. Elite prospect Dansby Swanson has battled to regain his footing in the big leagues while Braves manager Brian Snitker’s experiments at the hot corner with Freddie Freeman have been bankrupt.
Heralded prospect Ozzie Albies was recently promoted and could relieve the pressure from Freeman by reshuffling the infield. Still, the Braves bevy of prospects are still unproven against big-league competition, the true litmus test of value.
The Mets reached the World Series in 2014 after a test of patience paid off with elite draft picks. But, it appears the wheels have fallen off that wagon as Noah Syndergaard fell victim to injury and Mets officials considered selling at the trade deadline. The Reds flipped Jay Bruce to the Mets in 2016 and New York is still trying to shed the outfielder after the trade deadline expired.
The Cubs and Astros are symbols of success after years of disillusionment. Houston appears to be the real deal and even their shifts while rebuilding wasn’t guaranteed. Jose Altuve has been a pleasant surprise while Carlos Correa has returned on the promise of his skill-set.
Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo composed the holy trinity of a 116-year-old World Series while Schwarber is in the throes of a sophomore slump that threatens to derail his entire legacy.
Another club that took years of dedication to the process in order to win a World Series is the Kansas City Royals. While the league ran by them, George Brett and Dayton Moore remained steadfast in their commitment to the organizational talent pool, one that is sure to expire very soon.
A small market team with a dwarfed budget, it is wholly impressive that Brett and Moore were able to coax the promise from Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez to reach the pinnacle of Major League success.
Yet, Kansas City is at the doorstep of another rebuild after their core hits the free agent market, and it will be curious to see how they decide to restore the dearth of talent.
Rick Hahn has amassed an unparalleled stable of prospects in six trades that maximized value and accelerated the rebuilding process. Already, many experts are calling for the South Siders to contend in 2019 or 2020. The current payroll is low enough to handle the sensational spending in the 2018 free agent market that could put the White Sox over the top (of course, history and reason tell us that the White Sox will not make that splash that we all hope for).
So, applause is due in phase one of the process. Enjoy the tank and let your imagination run wild in speculation on Hahn’s next move. But beware of the slippery slope of overzealous predictions. There are too many flops to ignore the prudence of cautious optimism.