How the lowly White Sox are modeling themselves after the Cubs

It’s been positively bucolic over at those ivy-covered fields on the North Side of Chicago lately, what with 108 years of ghosts being exorcised and a five-month long party celebrating their World Series title barely being interrupted by the start of a new season. The Cubs’ success has so dominated baseball that what has gone unnoticed is the fact that most interesting team of the next five years is actually located 10 miles to the south of Wrigley Field.

Despite their 6-5 start, the current iteration of the White Sox isn’t likely to be much fun to watch—SPORTS ILLUSTRATED projected them to finish last in the American League. They sold off ace Chris Sale and outfielder Adam Eaton last off-season after a year in which they won 78 games with their two best players—winning even that many this season might be a stretch. The Sox haven’t made the playoffs since 2008 and haven’t won a postseason series since they ended their own 88-year title drought by winning the championship in 2005. But there are few fan bases that would rather have the White Sox’s future. How is that possible? It starts with an approach that their famous neighbors took just a few years ago.

On Opening Day 2014, the Cubs managed six hits against the Pirates and centerfielder Emilio Bonifacio had four of them. Jeff Samardzija pitched seven scoreless innings in a 1-0 loss. By July, Bonifacio and Samardzija had been traded to the Braves and A’s, respectively. Second baseman Darwin Barney and rightfielder Nate Schierholtz had been too. The Cubs went 73-89 and finished last in the NL Central.

But the Cubs took in a bounty that year. They drafted slugger Kyle Schwarber in June and landed shortstop Addison Russell in the Samardzija trade. In December they signed Jon Lester. And they already had a guy named Anthony Rizzo in the lineup and another imposing hitter down on the farm named Kris Bryant who put together a season that would win him Minor League Player of the Year honors.

The ‘17 White Sox have not inspired the same paeans to team-building but they have similarly built smartly and effectively with high-end talent. They already have building blocks like slugger Jose Abreu and infielder Tim Anderson playing every day. In their farm system are potential pitching studs like Carson Fulmer, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Reynaldo Lopez, as well as infielder Yoan Moncada, Baseball America‘s No. 2-ranked prospect. They are only picking 11th in the draft this June but they have two top-50 selections and three in the top-100.

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Still, there is much more work to do. The Sox’ current ace, Jose Quintana, is perhaps the biggest name on the trade market this year. Third baseman Todd Frazier, who has hit the seventh-most home runs in baseball the last three years, and closer David Robertson are also candidates to be moved this summer. All three could bring back top prospects who could make immediate impacts. Others like outfielder Melky Cabrera and pitchers Derek Holland and even James Shields could also fetch some intriguing pieces. Chicago’s system was ranked fifth this winter by Baseball America, and features six of the game’s top 80 minor leaguers. Subsequent moves only figure to deepen that talent pool. Just as the Cubs built up so many useful pieces they were able to trade from that surplus of youngsters to acquire talent at the big league level (sending prospect Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for closer Aroldis Chapman last July, and outfielder Jorge Soler to Kansas City for reliever Wade Davis this past off-season), the White Sox could do likewise to fill out the final pieces to their puzzle.

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There is one important way in which the White Sox may not be able to replicate their neighbors’ success: luck. Theo Epstein and Co. drafted extremely well—getting Bryant and Schwarber in back-to-back years. They signed free agents who made big impacts—Lester, second baseman Ben Zobrist and outfielders Dexter Fowler and (defensively at least) Jason Heyward. They acquired 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta off the scrap heap from Baltimore. There is no guarantee that any of the White Sox’s prospects will pan out, or that Moncada will become the next Bryant or that Giolito is the next ace, or that free agents will flock to Guaranteed Rate Field.

But there is plenty of reason to hope. And in a city that has knows how to be patient with its baseball teams, a little more waiting could result in Chicago’s other team soon having a party of its own.

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