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How the White Sox Are Trying to Perfect Tanking

The South Siders haven’t merely embraced the rebuilding methods that led the Cubs and Astros to World Series glory. They’ve taken the modern baseball tank to the extreme—and it looks like it’s going to work.

Like a thief in the night, the Chicago White Sox have robbed me of my birthright, and I only recently noticed. As a dyed-in-the-wool Royals fan, a healthy hatred of the White Sox had been my rightful inheritance, one forged in a division rivalry now in its 50th season and tempered in the 1980s when archaic television practices meant my team was rarely on TV. When they were, as often as not it was because they were playing the White Sox, whose WGN broadcasts played nationally, my venom hardening to the soundtrack of Hawk Harrelson’s voice shamelessly rooting for the South Siders.

I rooted against them in 1991 when all-time Royal Bo Jackson returned to the major leagues in a White Sox uniform with one functioning hip. I rooted against them in 1993 when they won the division. I rooted against them in 2000 when they finally broke the Cleveland Indians’ stranglehold on the AL Central, bludgeoning opponents with 978 runs on their way to a 95-67 record. And I rooted against them in 2005, my own annus horribilis, when I hit the exacta of misery: While my Royals were easily the worst team in baseball, the team I hated the most won the World Series.

While 2005 was my lowest moment as a fan, ironically, it was the way the White Sox were treated in the aftermath of their championship that began the process of turning my heart from an implacable enemy into, if not a friend, at least a begrudging admirer. Because while I hate the White Sox, I, like so many others, love an underdog. And the aftermath of their championship made it clear just what an underdog the White Sox were: so overlooked that even the quintessential Cinderella championship story barely registered as more than a blip on the national radar.

The 2005 White Sox won a championship that by all rights should have been every bit as meaningful and cathartic as the titles won by the 2004 Red Sox or 2016 Cubs, teams that will never die. Not only did those White Sox win the franchise’s first title in 88 years, they did so in spectacular fashion, going 11-1 in the postseason, tied for the best playoff record in the wild-card era. (The 1999 Yankees are the only other team in history to finish 10 games above .500 in the playoffs.) They got four consecutive complete-game victories from their starting pitchers against the Angels in the ALCS, a feat more at home in 1905 than 2005, and followed that with the most exciting World Series sweep ever, beating the Astros by a combined six runs in four games. They ended a historic run of futility with a historic performance in the postseason.

And they were almost immediately forgotten.

Even in Chicago, the impact of the White Sox winning the city’s first baseball title since World War I was surprisingly muted. I moved to Chicagoland in 2003, and while I predictably sided with the Cubs in the city’s fratricidal baseball war, I fully expected that the Sox’s championship aura—just two years after the Cubs’ epic NLCS collapse might have nudged undecided fans toward donning the black and white—would move the needle. I was wrong. Chicago never wavered in its Cubs tilt, and nationally, the Sox might as well have not existed.

The coup de grace of this dismissal of the White Sox came as the Cubs prepared to lay claim to their own championship in 2016, courtesy of this infamous graphic on ESPN:

But truthfully, forgetting about the White Sox appears to be less an oversight than a lifestyle choice:

Those steady dismissals have helped me come to grips with something about myself: I no longer hate the White Sox. After knowing what it feels like when the national media barely acknowledges your team exists—as they did with the Royals from 1986 to 2014—I can no longer hate a franchise that couldn’t get traction even after its first championship since the Russian Revolution. (If someone were to forget the 2015 Royals, I’d disembowel them with an Eric Hosmer–sliding-into-home bobblehead.) So I’m cool with the White Sox now. Hell, I’ve even grown fond of Hawk Harrelson.

And it’s a good thing, because, thanks to the most radical commitment to tanking we’ve yet seen from a baseball team, they’re as well positioned for the future as they’ve been since they won it all.

It took the White Sox a long time to find religion on rebuilding. After their 2005 title, they understandably tried to hold the roster together as long as they could, and in 2008, they edged the Twins for the AL Central crown, with much the same core they fielded three years prior.

But it’s a mathematical certainty that teams that stay together will age together. The White Sox didn’t have a young offense when they won the World Series, and they didn’t get any younger in the years to come. When players aged out of their jobs or left via free agency, GM Kenny Williams brought in veterans like Alex Rios and Adam Dunn to paper over the fact the farm system was perennially one of the worst in baseball. They drafted poorly. They routinely traded their best prospects to stay competitive in the moment—including somehow trading Gio González twice before he reached the majors. And their ability to find talent in Latin America was crippled by scandal: In 2008, their senior director of player personnel, David Wilder, was fired (and eventually sentenced to prison) for skimming money off Latin American players’ signing bonuses.

Because they were always playing for the now, the White Sox never really bottomed out—from 2009 to 2015, they lost 90 games only once. But they also never won 90 games in that span, and because they were constantly mortgaging the future to pay for the present, their farm system was a mess. From 2007 through 2016, Baseball America’s preseason organizational rankings placed the White Sox’s farm system in the bottom half of baseball every single year.

After nearly a decade of spinning their wheels, the organization finally realized it needed a new approach. Williams, who deservedly will always have a place in White Sox lore as the architect of the 2005 championship team, was bumped upstairs after the 2012 season to be executive vice president, making room for longtime assistant Rick Hahn to become GM. But even after the Sox went 63-99 in 2013, Hahn still didn’t have the gumption to do what needed to be done right away. Instead of rebuilding, Hahn tried a quick fix, signing Cuban defector José Abreu and trading for Adam Eaton. To his credit, both moves worked spectacularly—but stapling a pair of five-win players to a 63-win team still leads to only 73 wins. The Sox crept up to 76 wins in 2015, and 78 wins in 2016, and had they wanted to, they could have stayed in The Mediocrity Zone indefinitely.

And then, finally, the White Sox saw the light. Jealousy is a powerful emotion—maybe it took witnessing their crosstown rivals winning their own long-awaited championship, with a team built upon the ashes of a total teardown, for Hahn to embrace the dark side and listen to his inner Gordon Gekko:

Like greed, tanking, for lack of a better word, is good. Tanking is right. Tanking works.

They say it’s darkest before the dawn, and the last significant move of the Sox’s old paradigm was arguably its worst. After getting out to a 23-10 start in 2016, the Sox decided to go for it, and soon traded a fringe major leaguer (Erik Johnson) and a 17-year-old kid from the Dominican Republic named Fernando Tatis Jr., who hadn’t even taken his first pro at-bat yet, for James Shields, who they thought would be a reliable veteran starter.

In this enlightened era of baseball management, where all the suckers long ago left the table, this wound up being about as bad a trade as a team can make. For one thing, the clock expired on Shields about five days before the trade—in his final start with the Padres, he allowed 10 runs in 2 2/3 innings, which augured what has been a disastrous tenure in Chicago. He’d shown subtle signs of slippage since signing with the Padres the year before, and since joining the Sox, Shields has made 44 starts, with a remarkable 5.99 ERA and 6.37 FIP. Meanwhile, Tatis was perhaps the breakout prospect in baseball last year, hitting .278/.379/.498 with 32 stolen bases as a shortstop while reaching the Padres’ Double-A affiliate; he’s a consensus top-10 prospect in the game today.

The White Sox regressed to the mean after the trade and finished the 2016 season 78-84 and in fourth place in the AL Central. The Cubs finished the 2016 season on top of the world. It was long past time for a new approach.

And almost overnight, the White Sox adopted one. Since the end of the 2016 season, they haven’t simply embraced tanking. They’ve redefined it.

The historic drought-breaking success of the Cubs in 2016, and then the Astros in 2017, has shone an intense spotlight on the incentives baked into baseball’s CBA for mediocre teams to break bad. That scrutiny took on added urgency during this frozen winter of a free agent’s discontent, when, as Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto so memorably put it, “You could find yourself competing with more teams for the no. 1 pick than you would for the World Series.” As The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh wrote, though, it’s not clear that tanking the Cubs/Astros way is bad for baseball, or at least not worse for baseball than what came before.

There’s another reason not to be troubled by the strategy the Cubs and Astros implemented. To be blunt: What choice did they have? They weren’t exactly blowing up the 1927 Yankees. The team that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer inherited in Chicago was drifting to 100 losses with or without their intervention. The 2011 Cubs went 71-91, and ominously, six of their nine most utilized hitters were 33 or older. Not only were they nowhere close to contending, they had precious few players who were likely to still be productive and under contract by the time the team was ready to contend.

From the time Epstein and Hoyer were hired after the 2011 season until they flipped the switch from “rebuilding” to “contending” after the 2014 season, they dealt away 12 players who were productive major leaguers at the time of the trade. None of the 12 were younger than 29. And crucially, none were under contract for even two years. The closest any of their trades came to moving a long-term asset was when they dealt one and a half seasons of Jeff Samardzija (and three months of Jason Hammel) for Addison Russell, who was already a top-five prospect and was starting for the Cubs by the following April.

The Cubs had a grand strategy to rebuild, and they made plenty of moves that traded short-term pain for long-term gain. But the emphasis is on “short term”—not one of their trades cost them wins on the field even 12 months later.

The Cubs wouldn’t have won a championship without trading away so many veteran players, but in retrospect what’s amazing is that they got so much talent for so little in return. That the Cubs turned three months of Scott Feldman into Jake Arrieta, or three months of Ryan Dempster into Kyle Hendricks, isn’t purely a reflection on the virtues of tanking—it’s a reflection on how deftly the Cubs executed it. Meanwhile, Starlin Castro, the one player on the 2011 Cubs who could reasonably be expected to still be productive when the team was ready to contend, was still in their starting lineup when they made the playoffs in 2015.

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

At least the Cubs front office had some agency in their decision to tank. The Astros front office didn’t. By the time Jeff Luhnow was named their new GM after the 2011 season, the team had already hit rock bottom with a 56-106 record. The team had precious few assets left to strip: Two of their most valuable ones, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, had already been dealt the previous summer by an outgoing GM (Ed Wade) working for an outgoing owner (Drayton McLane).

With even less talent on hand than the Cubs inherited, Luhnow was forced to be even more creative and churned through player after player in an attempt to One Red Paperclip his way to a title. So he traded Mark Melancon, his closer with five years of club control—but for Jed Lowrie, a shortstop already in the major leagues. The next offseason he traded Lowrie, with two years of club control left, for Chris Carter, who had just completed his rookie season, as well as prospects. Twice Luhnow traded a young player just establishing himself in the majors in an attempt to sell high before the shine wore off—which didn’t work well with Chris Johnson, but it did with Jarred Cosart. There were also the requisite veterans-in-the-final-year-of-their-deals trades of Carlos Lee and Brett Myers (who brought back Chris Devenski—from the White Sox).

Only three times did Luhnow trade a veteran with more than a year of club control in exchange for prospects: a massive 10-player deal with the Blue Jays where he sent J.A. Happ and two lesser players to Toronto for a package of role players and prospects; a trade of Wandy Rodríguez, with two and a half years remaining on his deal, to Pittsburgh for three prospects, including Robbie Grossman; and a dump of 2.5 years of Bud Norris, who had a career 91 ERA+ when he was dealt for prospects, among them Josh Hader.

Happ, Rodríguez, and Norris had value, but they were no. 3 starters at best. None of the three was someone that was going to move the needle had the Astros kept him, nor were they the caliber of player a rebuilding team could construct its foundation around. Like the Cubs, there was only one player on the Astros that was young enough to justify keeping around for the rebuild—and not only did the Astros keep José Altuve, they signed him to a long-term extension right before Altuve became a superstar.

The Cubs and Astros rebuilt their way to the top, yes, but even for those who believe that tanking is a sin, what they did must look like a peccadillo. Tanking implies deliberately crushing the hopes of your fan base in the short term to benefit from the perverse incentives that come with losing. Neither the Cubs nor the Astros had any realistic hopes to crush in the first place. Maybe they were in no great hurry to make a bad team better, but neither the Cubs nor the Astros ever traded an established star, in the prime of his career, with years of club control remaining, to roll the dice with prospects down the road.

The White Sox, by contrast, did. And then they did it again. And then they did it again.

Rick Hahn didn’t have to push the detonator. The 2016 White Sox weren’t a good team, but with a 78-84 record and a minus-29 run differential, they were good enough to dream. The 2016 Twins lost 103 games, but they took advantage of a league with four superteams and 11 also-rans to sneak into the second wild-card spot with an 85-77 record in 2017, becoming the first team to go from 100 losses one year to a playoff spot the next. That playoff spot could easily have gone to the White Sox.

And unlike the Cubs and Astros, the Sox had several core assets they could build around after the 2016 season. Chris Sale, who turned 28 that winter, was on the short list of the best pitchers in baseball and had signed a long-term extension that kept him under club control for up to three more years for $38 million. Adam Eaton turned 28 that winter, had hit .290/.362/.422 over the previous three seasons with excellent outfield defense, and had signed a long-term extension that kept him under club control for up to five more years for $38.4 million. And José Quintana turned—you guessed it!—28 that winter, was one of the most consistent starters in the game (he had thrown 200 innings each of the previous four years, and his highest ERA in that span was 3.51) and had signed—you guessed it again!—a long-term extension that kept him under club control for up to four more years for $36.85 million.

The White Sox could have rebuilt around those three players with the knowledge that they had all three under contract through at least 2019. Instead, they dealt all three of them for prospects. Sale and Eaton were dealt on back-to-back days in December 2016; the White Sox held onto Quintana until the right deal came along, and despite his superficially poor first half in 2017, the Cubs finally acquiesced to the White Sox’s trade demands last July.

Sale, Eaton, and Quintana each averaged more than four bWAR a season between 2014 and 2016. It’s one thing to trade away past-prime assets with an expiration date for prospects, and quite another to trade stars in the prime of their careers, with many productive seasons under contract yet to come. If the Cubs and Astros represented little-t tanking, the White Sox went the capital-T route.

If a savvy rebuilding team could flip a bunch of expiring assets and still come up with the occasional Kyle Hendricks or Chris Devenski, what could a team flip three All-Star-caliber players with 12 combined seasons of club control for?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. The Sox flipped Sale to Boston, where head honcho Dave Dombrowski, barely a year into the job, was looking to make a splash. While Dombrowski’s trade history in Detroit was formidable, it’s probably easier to convince the guy in charge to trade the prospects he inherited from his predecessor than the ones he carefully nurtured from their embryonic origins. So while it’s hard to argue that Dombrowski overpaid for a true no. 1 starter, neither did he get a discount: The White Sox received Yoán Moncada, a dynamo out of Cuba, and Michael Kopech, one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the minor leagues, along with two other prospects.

Moncada was already the no. 2 prospect in the game per Baseball America when the White Sox acquired him, and it says something about the White Sox that they had never had a prospect ranked among the game’s top three going back to the start of Baseball America’s lists in 1990. Kopech ranked no. 32 on the same list, giving the White Sox two top-40 prospects for the first time since 2002.

One day later, they had four top-40 prospects, for the first time, because, in exchange for Eaton, the Sox got a trio of pitching prospects from the Nationals, including former first-round pick Lucas Giolito (no. 25 on BA’s list) and Dominican fireballer Reynaldo López (no. 31). In the span of 24 hours, Hahn had done what the organization hadn’t been able to do in 16 years—construct a farm system ranked among the top five in baseball. And all it cost him was his two most valuable assets.

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals
Lucas Giolito
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Moncada, Giolito, and López all graduated from prospects to major leaguers last year, but the Sox actually inched up to no. 4 on Baseball America’s organizational rankings this winter (and probably would have ranked no. 1 had they not traded Tatis), thanks in large part to the proceeds from the Quintana trade. A combination of Quintana’s talent, his payroll-friendly contract, and the Cubs’ mild desperation upon finding themselves looking up at the Milwaukee Brewers in the standings at midseason, enabled Hahn to extract as much talent for Quintana as he had for Sale and Eaton.

Quintana fetched four prospects, headlined by Eloy Jimenez, who got $2.8 million to sign with the Cubs out of the Dominican Republic in 2013 and has been worth every penny so far. Jimenez hit .312/.379/.568 as a 20-year-old last year while advancing to Double-A and now clocks in at no. 4 on BA’s top prospect list. Along with Kopech, who moved up to no. 11 on this preseason’s list, the White Sox have as many top-12 prospects (two) as they had from 1995 to 2016 combined.

And having fully committed to tanking, the White Sox weren’t about to stop with the trades of their three stars. In the 18 days between the Quintana deal and the trade deadline, the Sox made four more swaps, moving six veterans off their roster (third baseman Todd Frazier, outfielder Melky Cabrera, and four relievers: Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Anthony Swarzak, and Dan Jennings) in exchange for seven prospects (and Tyler Clippard). Most of these lower-caliber prospects will fail, but the Sox need to hit on only one of them to make it worth their while.

The failure rate of even the best prospects is formidable, but what makes the White Sox’s approach so notable is that all of the top prospects they acquired were so close to being major league ready. Moncada, Giolito, and López had already made their major league debuts when the White Sox acquired them, and both Kopech and Jimenez were almost ready for Double-A and closing fast. With the best prospects, teams want to minimize uncertainty, and the less they have to dream on a player, the less uncertainty they have to worry about. The Sox did take flyers on some of the secondary prospects they acquired, like pitchers Dane Dunning (who made BA’s top prospect list at no. 82 this winter) and Dylan Cease and outfielder Blake Rutherford. With secondary prospects, a team would rather have a high-risk/high-reward type than a player with a high floor but a low ceiling.

The White Sox also finally boosted their farm system from within for a change. Joining Jimenez, Kopech, and Dunning in BA’s Top 100 is Alec Hansen, a right-hander from the University of Oklahoma who reached Double-A in his first full pro season, as well as outfielder Luis Robert, who is the latest Cuban defector to join the organization. Robert hit .401/.526/.687 as a 19-year-old in his final season playing in Cuba’s National Series, then .310/.491/.536 in the Dominican Summer League after signing last year. Robert is still 20 and has yet to play a pro game on American soil, and his range of outcomes could be anywhere from superstar to A-ball washout. But the White Sox invested $52 million in Luis Robert’s services—half to him as a signing bonus, and half as a penalty for surpassing their international bonus limits—and they deserve the benefit of the doubt for that spending, given that they’ve already hit paydirt twice on Cuban players in the past decade, with Alexei Ramírez and Jose Abreu.

For all the veterans the Sox have traded away, they still have a few left in reserve. Abreu has been among the AL’s best hitters from the moment he arrived from Cuba. Already 31 years old but with a career line of .301/.359/.525, he would be a tempting trade target for most contenders. But in a first-base market where Logan Morrison and his 38 homers had to settle for one year and $6.5 million, the Sox seem content to keep Abreu around for his leadership skills in the clubhouse—for now. And then there’s Avisaíl García, who had an out-of-body experience last year, hitting .330/.380/.506 after slashing .250/.308/.380 over the three years before that. Neither the White Sox nor anyone else knows what to expect from him this year, but once he establishes what he is, the market will be able to price him appropriately.

There are other pieces to potentially build around as well. Tim Anderson showed tremendous promise as a rookie shortstop in 2016, hitting .283/.306/.432 but regressed last season. He struck out 162 times and drew just 13 walks, making him the first player in major league history with no more than 13 walks and at least 150 Ks. But Anderson has spoken about the emotional toll that weighed on him following the senseless shooting death of one of his closest friends last May. He has the talent to be an above-average everyday shortstop, and the White Sox think so highly of him that they’ve already locked him up through 2024. (And he already hit a pair of home runs on Opening Day.) And then there’s Carlos Rodón, who was the no. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft and has been one of the most promising young left-handers in the majors since he debuted the following year, but who underwent arthroscopic surgery last September and isn’t expected back until June.

The White Sox have taken tanking almost as far as it can possibly go—the only way to tank more outlandishly would be to tear apart a team that has so much talent it’s a contender right now. This would be like winning a million dollars on a game show and then asking to be paid in lottery tickets.

Teams have executed the strategy before, but in baseball, when you tear apart a winning team to acquire young talent, you’re not doing it for the future—you’re doing it for money. But unlike the 1915 A’s, or the 1995 Expos, or the (Pick a Year) Marlins, the White Sox had their eye on the prize when they burned it all to the ground. And as a result, they may be back on their feet faster than anyone expects.

When a team commits to a rebuilding project, the expectation is that it will take at least four years to see the payoff; it took four years for the Cubs and Astros to make the playoffs under new management, and that was with expert guidance and a little luck. And it may take the White Sox that long. But from here it feels like their extreme version of tanking may pay off even sooner.

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals
Yoán Moncada
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

For one thing, they started at a higher base, so that even during a season when they were stripped down for parts by September, they still won 67 games. And the sheer volume of talent they’ve acquired, and the proximity of so many of their top prospects to the major leagues, suggests that this could come together fast.

The 2018 White Sox remind me a little of the 2014 Cubs, a team whose sub-.500 record overall masks the fact the team on the field in September was vastly more interesting than the team that took the field on Opening Day. (Also, both teams are managed by Rick Renteria, who was hand-picked by Epstein and Hoyer to be the man to lead the Cubs to the Promised Land until Joe Maddon unexpectedly became available.) Forget that Shields was still the Sox’s Opening Day starter, with Adam Engel in center field. Consider what the roster might look like in September: Jimenez in the outfield along with García, to go along with the middle infield of Anderson and Moncada, with Abreu at first base. And if Rodón gets healthy, the Sox could conceivably have a rotation of him, Giolito, López, Kopech, and Hansen, which would be one of the youngest and most exciting rotations in the majors. The Sox may not be in contention this September, but they’ll be the team no contender wants to play down the stretch.

The Sox would then go into 2019 with the buzz of a team rapidly on the upswing, with Robert charging through the minors along with whoever the Sox draft with the no. 4 overall pick this summer—and of more immediate relevance, a crap ton of payroll space in one of the best free-agent markets in years. They could elect to hold onto Abreu and García, both of whom are under contract for 2019, and play to win next year. Much as the Cubs announced to the world that the rebuild was officially over when they signed Jon Lester, the White Sox are in excellent position to add an elite free agent next winter. With a payroll of barely $70 million this year and just $11 million (!) in guaranteed contracts next year, they have the money to go after anyone, up to and including Bryce Harper. The rampant rumors this winter that the White Sox tried to trade for Manny Machado to fill their third-base hole didn’t correlate with their long-term plan, but as a free agent next winter, Machado would be a perfect fit on the South Side. If they can’t land Harper or Machado, a surgical strike to fill one of their remaining holes—Josh Donaldson for third base? A.J. Pollock for center field?—would substantially improve the team.

A playoff-bound White Sox team in 2019 might seem like an aggressive timetable, but then, in the spring of 2014, it seemed aggressive to suggest that the Cubs might be playoff-bound in 2015. (And for the Astros, it seemed like lunacy.) The AL Central is up for grabs: The Royals and Tigers are each beginning a long and painful rebuild, and the Indians’ great strength is in their pitching, which can fall apart quickly due to injuries, while Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez, and Bradley Zimmer are their only lineup regulars who will be younger than 29 next year. The Twins are ascending, but their fluky playoff berth last year disguises the fact their pitching staff for 2019 is still mostly theoretical after José Berríos.

Maybe some will argue that Extreme Tanking, White Sox–style, isn’t good for baseball, or sports in general. But it’s definitely been good for the White Sox. Let other teams try to copycat their success at failing. Let the owners and MLBPA grapple with how to change the incentives to dissuade future teams from trying the same thing. For the first time since 2005, the White Sox are a model for other teams to emulate. This time, while I wait for my Royals to pay the bill for the two new flags that hang over Kauffman Stadium, I’ll even be rooting for them.

And maybe this time, if the White Sox one day go on to win it all, people will remember.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated Tim Anderson’s 2017 walk total; it was 13, not 16.

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