It was last summer that Dan Fabian got the word out. Late June, early July, he can’t remember the exact date.
What the White Sox pro scouting director does remember is the message. With the White Sox already eight or nine games out of first place and on their way to a fourth straight losing season, Fabian texted his pro scouts across the country and told them to drop their major league coverage and forget equal coverage of the 29 other organizations.
|Eight of the top 10 prospects in the White Sox system were acquired in a six-month span in 2016, which was a concerted effort to bring in fresh talent as part of a rebuild.|
|1. Yoan Moncada, 2b Dec. 2016 (Trade)|
|2. Lucas Giolito, rhp Dec. 2016 (Trade)|
|3. Reynaldo Lopez, rhp Dec. 2016 (Trade)|
|4. Zack Collins, c June 2016 (Draft)|
|5. Michael Kopech, rhp Dec. 2016 (Trade)|
|6. Zack Burdi, rhp June 2016 (Draft)|
|7. Carson Fulmer, rhp June 2015 (Draft)|
|8. Luis Alexander Basabe, of Dec. 2016 (Trade)|
|9. Spencer Adams, rhp June 2014 (Draft)|
|10. Alec Hansen, rhp June 2016 (Draft)|
It was time to hone in on the top minor leaguers in the deepest systems in baseball.
“There definitely was a transition,” Fabian said. “There was a night after a game that I remember starting to send a bunch of texts to our pro scouts. There were at that point probably eight or 10 organizations we were kind of going to dial in on. Sitting there at the end of June, early July knowing where you’re headed, even though you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do . . . we needed to be ready, if nothing else. I needed to concentrate the pro staff on the minor league side so we could get those second and third looks.”
And so, in earnest, began the process of rebuilding the White Sox.
Ten months later, the White Sox are a vastly different team than they were a year ago, both in terms of their major league product and their minor league system. The offseason trades of ace Chris Sale to the Red Sox and center fielder Adam Eaton to the Nationals—two of the organizations Fabian specifically instructed his pro scouts to focus on—robbed the team of their top pitcher and position player but gave them their best farm system in years.
Four of Chicago’s top five prospects—second baseman Yoan Moncada (No. 1) and righthanders Lucas Giolito (No. 2), Reynaldo Lopez (No. 3) and Michael Kopech (No. 5)—arrived in the Sale and Eaton trades, and all rank comfortably among the Top 100 Prospects.
The influx of talent gives Chicago the No. 5 farm system in the game, an improvement from No. 23 last year. It is the organization’s highest ranking since they were No. 1 in 2001, when their prospects included Aaron Rowand, Joe Crede, Jon Rauch, Miguel Olivo and Matt Guerrier, to help set the table for their 2005 World Series title. (Rowand and Crede were starters on the 2005 team, while Rauch, Olivo and Guerrier were used in trades.)
Acquiring that talent required a lot of revamped travel plans and multiple looks than normal by pro scouts, both for the headliners such as Giolito but also lesser-known prospects such as righthander Victor Diaz, the fourth player acquired from Boston in the Sale deal.
“Washington is (scout) John Tumminia’s organization, for example, but I also had Keith Staab, among other guys, go up and see their Triple-A club, and he ran into Giolito in between one of his up down periods,” Fabian said. “We got three different looks at (Diaz) during the season. Joe Butler, who has Boston, saw him early. Chris Lein saw him in June or July, and even John Tumminia saw him in instructional league, and each report was better, so it sort of built the case for, in my mind, when we get to that fourth player in the deal, this is the kind of guy who might fit. You want to get the looks at the big ones, but you also need to look at the depth pieces because if you’re doing large trades, those third and fourth players are really important too.”
The devotion to, and focus on, prospect talent is a stark departure from the how the White Sox operated previously. Their trades in recent years have largely involved trading prospects or young players of their own—such as Marcus Semien, Chris Devenski, Trayce Thompson and Fernando Tatis Jr.—in exchange for veterans like Jeff Samardzija, Brett Myers, Todd Frazier and James Shields.
The desire for immediate help at the expense of the future potential even shaped their draft philosophy. They White Sox spent 13 of their last 14 first-round picks on college players and largely pushed them aggressively in recent years. Sale (2010), Carlos Rodon (2014) and Carson Fulmer (2015) were all in the majors within 13 months of being drafted. Their lone high school pick, outfielder Courtney Hawkins in 2012, was also pushed faster than most others, being assigned to high Class A by the end of his draft year as an 18-year-old.
Last November in Scottsdale, Ariz., general manager Rick Hahn acknowledged publicly that philosophy hadn’t worked out in the way the franchise wanted, and it was time to make a shift.
“I think we’re veering away from the standpoint of looking for stopgaps,” Hahn said. “A lot of what we did in the last few years had been trying to enhance the short-term potential of the club to put ourselves in a position to win immediately. I feel the approach at this point is focusing on longer-term benefits. It doesn’t mean we won’t necessarily be in a good position in 2017. It means that our targets and whatever we’re hoping to accomplish have a little more longer-term fits in nature.”
One month later the White Sox stole the show at the Winter Meetings with their headline trades of Sale and Eaton. They revamped their farm system throughout, with Moncada, Giolito and Lopez all upper-level prospects who made their big league debuts in 2016, and Kopech, Diaz, Dane Dunning and Luis Alexander Basabe yet to play above Class A.
How they develop that talent will be much different than how they previously handled young prospects, part of their organizational shift in philosophy.
“The decision to make this process also lets you develop these guys,” Fabian said. “Maybe in the past we’ve had guys come quickly because we’ve needed to patch holes at the big league side, but now we can just sort of let things evolve. We can let these guys tell us when they’re ready for that next promotion instead of having maybe the major league needs force that jump.”
The White Sox have more prospect talent, a different operating mindset and a new sense of purpose moving forward.
After four straight losing seasons and eight years without a playoff berth, it’s a change that could eventually pay big dividends on the south side of Chicago.