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2000 Organization Of The Year: Chicago White Sox

CHICAGO–Forgive Frank Thomas for pinching himself. There was no way he expected to be back in the playoffs in 2000, not with so few familiar faces left on the White Sox roster.

Thomas, perhaps baseball’s ultimate company man, signed on to go the distance with Jerry Reinsdorf. He not only didn’t criticize the White Flag trade, but actually added six more years onto the three that were remaining on his contract shortly after the controversial 1997 deal with the Giants.

He was left as the only real veteran after Reinsdorf parted ways with Albert Belle and Robin Ventura. When he looked around the clubhouse, he saw kids everywhere. Where was this going to lead?

Thomas certainly didn’t see 95 victories and an American League Central title. But that’s what the White Sox somehow achieved this year, without interrupting the astonishing flow of talent into the organization.

"Well, to be honest, I saw this happening maybe next year," says Thomas, who snapped out of a two-year funk to bat .328-43-143. "These guys came together a lot quicker than everyone thought. This year, in spring training, I didn’t think we’d win the division, but realistically we were looking at the wild card. And things happen in baseball. Cleveland had so many injuries, they were able to put their team back together down the stretch, but they fell a little short. We’re just proud and happy that this team was able to accomplish what we did this year."

Add another accomplishment to Chicago’s list. The White Sox are Baseball America’s 2000 Organization of the Year.

Despite being swept by the Mariners in the American League Division Series, the White Sox headed into the offseason on a high. Indians general manager John Hart says he’s making his plans figuring the Sox will be able to duplicate their 95-win season in 2001 and beyond.

That’s a big assumption. But because the White Sox are a young team with tremendous payroll flexibility–only Thomas is under contract for more than $5.9 million next season–and a wealth of minor league prospects, they are positioned for a long run at or near the top.

"One thing I hope people understand is we all sat down together a few years back and mapped out a plan," says Ken Williams, who was promoted from farm director to GM when Ron Schueler resigned Oct. 24. "That plan has gotten us to this point. We’re about to embark on a four- or five-year window where we’re going to be pretty darn competitive. I’m here to ensure that and see this thing through."

Williams doesn’t shy away from big expectations. "I’m extremely happy that I’m getting this opportunity," he says. "If we do not bring a championship, a World Series to Chicago, then in my mind I will have failed. It doesn’t matter whatever criticism is out there. If I don’t get the job done, I’ll be a hell of a lot harder on myself than anyone."

Reinsdorf, the head of a group that bought the team before the 1981 season, and Schueler certainly weathered their share of criticism. Reinsdorf is still blamed by many White Sox fans for his hawkish role in the last round of labor negotiations, which brought the 1994 season to a premature end. At the time, the best Sox team since 1983 led the AL Central. Cleveland went streaking past Chicago in 1995 and try as they might, the Sox couldn’t catch up.

Reinsdorf signed Belle away from the Indians in 1997, but Thomas and Belle lumbered out of the gate, leaving the Sox pursuing Cleveland. Chicago was just 31Ž2 games back on July 31, when Reinsdorf approved a Schueler trade that sent veteran pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez and Danny Darwin to San Francisco for six minor leaguers.

The White Flag trade hurt the Sox’ credibility with their fans–attendance at Comiskey Park dropped from 1.87 million in 1997 to 1.39 million in ’99–but brought the Sox three relievers who were on this year’s playoff team: closer Keith Foulke, set-up man Bob Howry and rookie Lorenzo Barcelo.

"The people who criticized us in 1997 were White Sox fans, not fans of any other teams," Reinsdorf said after the Sox clinched this year’s title. "The only reason they criticized us was they thought we were doing the wrong thing. Those people today, I’m sure, are as happy as I am, and are happy that they were wrong. All White Sox fans can rejoice."

Sox fans certainly didn’t rejoice about the team’s payroll. Reinsdorf pointed to the poor attendance as a reason to ratchet down the payroll from $54.7 million at the start of 1997 to $24.5 million in ’99. The Sox increased that to about $31 million to start this season and $36.9 million by the end of the year.

While stripping the major league roster, Reinsdorf made two decisions that would prove significant. He didn’t make major changes in his front office, leaving in place Schueler and his assistants, including Danny Evans and Larry Monroe, along with scouting director Duane Shaffer and Williams, the farm director. He invested some of the money being saved on the major league payroll back into the budgets for scouting and player development.

"It’s the difference between a six-month CD and a long-term mutual fund," says Evans, who resigned on Oct. 27 after being bypassed for the GM job. "They both pay out, but we were looking over a long period."

Many still wonder why the White Sox allowed Terry Bevington to stick around to manage the Thomas-Belle team in 1997, but Schueler made a great move when he finally got around to changing managers. He hired Jerry Manuel, who remained upbeat before winning in 2000.

Schueler made some great trades, most notably stealing righthander Cal Eldred and shortstop Jose Valentin from the Brewers, but the bulk of the players whom Manuel won with in 2000 were either drafted by the White Sox or obtained in obscure minor league deals. Only Eldred, Valentin and infielder Tony Graffanino played as many as 150 big league games before coming to Chicago. Eight Sox pitchers earned their first major league victories this year, as 18 first- or second-year players contributed at some point.

The success using homegrown players validated the White Sox’ commitment to restocking their pitching, which began with the White Flag trade.

Because it lost Belle, Fernandez, Ventura, Dave Martinez and Kevin Tapani as free agents and failed to sign 1996 first-round pick Bobby Seay, Chicago had 12 high picks in the draft from 1997-99. Ten of those selections were spent on pitchers. Jim Parque brought an almost instant return. Prospects Rocky Biddle, Matt Ginter, Aaron Myette, Rob Purvis, Brian West and Dan Wright also came from compensation choices.

In the 1998 draft, the Sox landed Kip Wells with their first pick and uncovered Mark Buehrle in the 38th round, then signed him a year later as a draft-and-follow. Buehrle was just part of a landslide of quality arms signed in 1999, when the White Sox took pitchers with 14 of their first 15 draft choices. In the third round, they stole 6-foot-11 righthander Jon Rauch, who became BA’s Minor League Player of the Year and the No. 2 starter on the U.S. Olympic team in his first full season.

While accumulating talent through the draft, Schueler and his scouts also raided other teams’ farm systems. Promising righthander Jon Garland came from the Cubs for reliever Matt Karchner in ’98. DH Paul Konerko (from the Reds), center fielder Chris Singleton (from the Yankees) and reliever Sean Lowe (from the Cardinals) were added before the ’99 season.

So was catcher Brook Fordyce, a key piece in the July 29 deal this year with the Orioles for catcher Charles Johnson and DH Harold Baines. Fordyce came from the Reds for righthander Jake Meyer. Lefty specialist Kelly Wunsch was signed as a minor league free agent last winter. Third baseman Herbert Perry (waivers) and Graffanino (for righty Tanyon Sturtze) were picked up along the way this season from the Devil Rays.

For those eight players, the Sox gave up only one player who figures to be a significant major leaguer: Mike Cameron. In each case, Schueler relied on the opinions of scouts such as Monroe, George Bradley, Gary Pellant and Scott Cerny, along with major league scouts Ed Brinkman and Dave Yoakum.

"Our scouts have done an unbelievable job," Evans says. "They deserve a ton of credit for what our team has done."

The Singleton deal in particular was a steal. The Yankees needed to clear space on their 40-man roster, and Schueler was ready and waiting with an offer of lefthander Rich Pratt, who was coming off a 6-12 season in Triple-A.

Bradley isn’t known for pushing players, but he had been touting Singleton, believing he could help a big league team as an extra outfielder. It was also Bradley who encouraged the Sox to sign Wunsch, a former Brewers first-round pick.

Schueler admits this year’s success surprised him, but only because it was ahead of schedule. He expects the Sox to be successful for years to come. He’ll watch from his new position as a senior vice president and special consultant to Reinsdorf.

"Circumstances forced Ron to play two very different roles as general manager with us," Reinsdorf says. "In the early 1990s, his focus was on finding the one or two complementary players to help us sustain our success. Later in the decade, he has helped develop an organization from the inside out with young talent. We were fortunate to find a general manager who could succeed in each role."

While Williams frets that a few prospects have advanced too quickly in recent years, he plans to stick to Schueler’s build-from-within formula. He foresees both Garland and Wells in the rotation next year. With Mike Sirotka, James Baldwin and Parque around, that effectively takes the Sox out of the market for free-agent pitching.

Joe Crede, MVP in the Double-A Southern League this year, figures to be the long-term solution at third base. Outfielders Aaron Rowand, McKay Christensen and Brian Simmons remain in the wings. Ditto first baseman Jeff Liefer, a lefthanded slugger who hit 32 homers at Triple-A Charlotte this year.

The best prospect of all might be switch-hitting outfielder Joe Borchard. He was on track to quarterback Stanford this fall before the Sox gave him $5.3 million to concentrate on baseball. Borchard’s signing generated grumbling elsewhere, but one rival scouting director is so sold on Borchard that he calls him "the type of player we need playing baseball."

Williams wants to give prospects more minor league repetitions than in the last few years. Given the presence of young stars like Ordonez, Konerko and left fielder Carlos Lee, the young pitchers and hitters should have the time to develop.

When Williams makes a deal, it will be from a position of strength. For that, he can thank Schueler, whose stated goal was to build a team with staying power, rather than a one-year wonder. He completed his mission.

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