Do You Need to Have Successful Drafts to Be Successful?
by Scott Long
The 2008 White Sox are a great example of how you can succeed without much homegrown talent. A franchise that most baseball experts were saying was falling apart and closer to the cellar than the playoffs is in first place at the all-star break. Hey, maybe Pedro Gomez knows a lot more than the guys at Fire Joe Morgan. Let's examine.
The biggest steal of the off-season was Carlos Quentin from the D-backs for minor league first baseman Chris Carter. Left fielder Quentin has had an OPS around .900 all year and it doesn't seem like a fluke. The guy is finally healthy and at the age of 25, still has growth potential. With all the hitting issues that Arizona has, this trade will haunt them for a long time.
The big trade that Kenny Williams made in the off-season was trading for Nick Swisher. While his defense is much better at first base than in center field, he has been a major upgrade over what the White Sox has had there since Aaron Rowand was traded after the World Series season of 2005. While Swisher has gotten off to a very slow start (especially his .402 SLG), he has been hitting much better the past month and leading the league in pitches seen per bat is an important addition to a team that was too free-swinging in 2007. At the time, it seemed like a steep price for the Sox, as they traded their 2 top pitching prospects in the deal. So far, Gonzalez and De Los Santos have pitched poorly in 2008. Ryan Sweeney has helped the deal look a bit better on the A's part, but my guess is that Swisher's OPS will be 100 points higher (or more) for the next 3 seasons.
Before the 2005 season, Williams signed A's free agent right fielder Jermaine Dye to a 2 year, plus a 3rd year option. It wasn't seen as a particular wise move. Let's look at the results.
Even with Swisher's slow start, the production of the 2008 White Sox offense is really great and a major upgrade over 2007. Quentin and Dye have been A-rated transactions by Williams.
At first base, the White Sox have Paul Konerko, who was obtained for Mike Cameron back in 1996. It has been an excellent deal for the team, though his current contract which runs through 2010 looks to be an overall negative, at 12 mil per.
Lost in the kudos for Williams on the Quentin steal has been the signing of Alexei Ramirez. The future shortstop for the team, Ramirez has been dynamite at second base, since he was installed there in May. The Cuban missile has had OPS around .900 since the temperature warmed up (he had never hit in cold-weather before this year), has brought some much needed speed to the lineup and has as good of range as second baseman in the game. The Sox are getting this for $4.75 mil...for 4 seasons.
Just like how the 2008 White Sox have 2 new outfielders, they also have 2 new infielders. Confident in the depth of his starting pitching, Williams traded Jon Garland for Orlando Cabrera. He has been a big upgrade with the bat at shortstop versus Juan Uribe. In the most recent issue of Sporting News, a poll of players and scouts rated him the best fielding infielder in the American League. Cabrera and Ramirez have given the team 2 players with some speed, which is important considering how many plodders they have on their roster.
The first home-grown player I will discuss is Joe Crede. Crede has had a strange year, as his offense has been great (.889 OPS), while his defense has been erratic. He is expected to leave for free-agency next season, with Josh Fields most likely taking over.
The most hated player among MLB players is A.J. Pierzynski, but he has been a high quality pick-up for the White Sox. Williams got him on the cheap after his problems in San Fran and has been a bargain in every year except in 2007. This year his OPS is .750. Despite throwing out few runners, he is a plus defensively, as the team ERA would seem to denote.
Javy Vasquez has had as good of K/BB totals as anyone as baseball since he was picked up by the White Sox in the Chris Young trade. He is just one example of why I believe this stat is overrated among sabermetricians when it comes to starting pitchers. Strikeout pitchers run up higher pitch counts, usually have higher salaries, and my guess is are more prone to having arm problems. (I'm sure Will might feel differently.) While Vasquez has escaped the later, he throws too many balls over the plate. Sure his K/BB totals are gaudy, but the more important stats are not. If I'm building a team, I would want my relief pitchers to have great K/BB totals, but I think there is an argument to be made to go with starters like the A's and Twins have who aren't smoke throwers. Even though Vasquez has only had one good season in his 3 with the Sox (2007), the trade that was slammed by most hasn't been a negative for the team. Chris Young has not become the star player he was projected to be, as his OBP is a brutal .297 during his major league career. While he is just 24 years old, it is appearing like his career is not one of greatness that many projected. Actually, his Baseball Reference second most similar player comparison is Dave Kingman, which hitting-wise is pretty dead-on.
From Baseball Prospectus 2006: While Javier Vasquez makes a more worthwhile acquisition target than Larry Anderson, Young could wind up being the Pale Hose answer to Jeff Bagwell All-time Trivia Question, "Name a great prospect that your organization burned for little or no return."
Considering that many of the same sentiments were thrown out when he traded all-world prospect Jeremy Reed for Freddy Garcia, I can see why Williams has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to some experts grading out his initial deals.
A great trade that Williams made was packaging Brandon McCarthy to Texas for John Danks and Nick Masset. Danks showed promise in 2007, but in 2008, he has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. His ERA stands at 2.67, which is even more remarkable considering the homer happy park he pitches in. (Danks has given up only 8 gopher balls.) Add in that Masset has been solid in middle relief and Jon Daniels better hope that McCarthy finds himself soon.
Maybe just as good of a trade for the White Sox was obtaining Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez for Freddie Garcia. The Sox knew Garcia had faded in 2006 and wanted Gonzalez back, but few (including me) thought Floyd could be a quality starter. He has been. While he has been a bit of a high/low performer, he has been outstanding more than not, as his 3.63 ERA proves. At just 25 years of age, Floyd and Danks give the Sox 2 solid starters for a few years down the road.
Jose Contreras can be hard to watch, but if you consider what Williams gave up to get him (Esteban Loaiza and the Yankees paid a good portion of Contreras' salary to dump him), it turned out to be a great deal for the Sox. Especially when you factor in his dominant pitching in the 2005 World Championship run and his quality season the following year. His current contract is not a particularly good one for the team, but his ability to eat innings (like the rest of their starters) has kept the bullpen fresh.
Finally we come to the second important player on the team that was drafted by the team, Mark Buehrle. A 38th round selection in 1998, Buehrle continues to be the most consistent pitcher in the American League. This year he started off poorly, but has battled back to get his ERA to 3.69. He might be a poor man's Tom Glavine, but that ain't too shabby considering at the age of 29 he has won 114 games. He is well on his way to his 8th straight season of pitching over 200 innings.
Quite possibly the greatest waiver move of the past 5 years was Williams picking Bobby Jenk off the scrap heap from the Angels in 2004. Jenks was the final piece needed for the Sox to win in 2005 and since then has been one of the 5 best closers in baseball.
Last season, the White Sox were dismal in the bullpen, besides Jenks. Williams aggressively remade the pen, signing free agents Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel. While Linebrink's deal might not be a great one for them in year 4, he has been as good of a set-up man as there has been in 2008. Dotel has been nearly as good, as his fastball has come back to peak form, as his 63 K's in 42 innings demonstrate. Matt Thornton has the nastiest stuff in the pen. Thornton's WHIP is 0.92 and ERA is 2.31. He was obtained from the Mariners in 2006 for Joe Borchard in what turned out to be another great deal for the Sox.
These are the 19 most important players for the 2008 Chicago White Sox. Only 2 of them (Crede and Buehrle) were drafted by the team. They have so far been one of the top 5 teams in baseball. While it can be argued that the Sox have not be in a position to choose the cream of the crop during the past decade (this year was the first time they had a pick in the top 10), their current farm system shows the dismal efforts they have made in the draft. Kenny Williams has to take the biggest part of the blame for this failure, but his great ability to evaluate other people's talent has made up for this and more. The White Sox have become like the Oakland Raiders (during their glory days), taking on former 1st round busts and developing them into the players they were originally projected to become (Floyd, Quentin, Konerko, Thornton). It might not be Moneyball, but Williams' efforts since the book contain a bunch of success stories and no duds. While his name doesn't come up in the conversation, Kenny Williams has been one of the best GM's in baseball the past few seasons. Just think how good he could be if he some of his first round picks would not end up busts?