After three weeks of spring training, the Chicago White Sox are getting closer to setting not only their 40 man roster, but also the 25 men who will be in jerseys on Opening Day. However, there still remains work to be done and battles are still being played out in Arizona.
One of the top battles at spring training was for the fifth starter role. A few weeks before players reported to Arizona, it looked like it was going to be 26-year-old Erik Johnson. Johnson impressed in Triple-A last season (International League Most Valuable Pitcher) and held his own during a September call-up in 2015. The team brought in some competition in former failed prospect Jacob Turner, but it wasn’t until the move to bring in veteran Mat Latos that Johnson’s standing was truly in question.
On Tuesday, the decision was made to send Johnson back to Triple-A to work on fastball command, according to pitching coach Don Cooper. The move implies that Mat Latos has earned a spot in the rotation (Jacob Turner certainly hasn’t). The oddity of that implication is that the Johnson move happened before Latos had even pitched with the big club this spring (he had one start with the B-team) [Latos pitched Tuesday to mixed results; 11 hits and seven earned runs with most of the damage in his fifth inning].
The thinking behind this move leads to a bigger picture question that has plagued the White Sox over the past decade plus. Is it better to allow your team’s young prospects to learn by experience or to bide their time by plugging in veterans until they can’t miss? The White Sox certainly have a recent history of success in drafting and growing pitchers (not so much with hitters) with Chris Sale and Carlos Rodon. Jose Quintana wasn’t drafted by the White Sox, but he is a product of their minor league system. The team has recently put more stock in their scouting department and is starting to reap the benefits. The trade for Todd Frazier hurt the current stock of minor league prospects, but the fact that they had the pieces to move for such high return is a credit to the system.
Since Kenny Williams became general manager in 2000, the White Sox have not had a period dedicated to rebuilding, and the minor leaguers have mostly been treated as currency to be dealt for the next replacement piece. The team has only finished below .500 six times this century, but three of them are in the past three years – the only consecutive seasons below 81 wins. Despite these recent woes, the strategy has remained to keep going for it all. The last two seasons, the White Sox have been one of the most active teams in free agency, trying to build around their cheaper homegrown crop of stars (Sale, Quintana and Jose Abreu). With that mindset, it makes sense for the team to bring in a veteran like Jimmy Rollins to play over the unproven Tyler Saladino, or to have Latos start in the rotation over Johnson. On the other hand, the White Sox may have too many holes for these changes to matter. With the team being in that gray area – good enough to compete, but not good enough to be considered a favorite – either side can be argued.
The team hasn’t changed its ways since 2000, which leads to the sense that that Williams is still pulling the strings, and not the current GM Rick Hahn. This notion has hit the news recently with the Adam LaRoche saga (sorry, had to bring this up again). Not only was Williams front-and-center in the drama but Hahn (and Robin Ventura) were nowhere to be found.
Williams has been ridiculed for bringing in stars past their prime – Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez and now Jimmy Rollins, to name a few. My hypothesis is that it was one, or several, of the new veterans brought in that approached Williams about the LaRoche “issue”. It can be assumed that Williams’ habit of bringing in veterans is based on more than just on-the-field skills. He probably also appreciates their experience, leadership and the lessons that they can teach from past success. If a certain ex-MVP approached Williams and said it was a little ridiculous that a 14-year-old kid was in camp every day, it’s possible he might have taken action upon hearing that opinion.
Baseball, more than other major sports, lends itself to free agency having the biggest impact. Some of the smaller-market teams (Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics) try to build mainly through the draft, but success becomes much more difficult with that limited option. The San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals, teams known for building with their own players, still have to find free agents to supplement their own guys. However, the Royals gave players such as Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas plenty of opportunity, playing through failures. It clearly paid off last year as those were two of the Royals hoisting the trophy.
The move of Erik Johnson to the minors for Mat Latos shows that the White Sox are still on the other side of the spectrum. It may also show that Williams’ impact is as strong as it ever has been. There’s no telling if the move will pay off. The stars entering their prime years provide enough of a starting point to believe that the team can have success. With the windows of those primes only being so long, it can be argued that the time to strike is now – there is not enough time to allow a Johnson to learn through experience. But again, the remaining holes may be too much to overcome. After this year or next, the approach may change; the regime could officially be fully handed to Hahn and he may go with more of a homegrown-first plan.
As for the 2016 season, Erik Johnson will work on his craft in the minor leagues and will possibly be joined by other possible ready-for-promotion players, such as Matt Davidson and Jacob May. Their time may have to wait for 2017 or when their veteran replacements either succumb to injury or a lack of production this season.
The team will again “go for it all” in 2016, and if they fail, it may be time to go back to the drawing board. The question remains if the eraser will be used on that board and a different decision can be made by the current regime. If so, there may finally be a feeling that a transition has been made from Williams to Hahn.