Why the White Sox need to tear down their roster

This isn’t 1997. I’m guessing a majority of White Sox fans would welcome not just one White Flag trade but a series of White Flag trades, and maybe even one involving left-hander Chris Sale, provided the Sox hit the jackpot.

The game is different now — you’re either in or out, contending or rebuilding. Sox general manager Rick Hahn, meeting with reporters on Thursday, used the perfect phrase to describe a team that is caught in the middle.

“We’re mired in mediocrity,” Hahn said.

Which is why the Sox need to tear down their roster, even if it means trading Sale and left-hander Jose Quintana, an idea that Hahn concedes “might be extreme.”

Chris Sale (Caylor Arnold/USA TODAY Sports)

Actually it isn’t, not even with Sale under club control through 2019 and Quintana through ’20. The two lefties immediately would become the best starting pitchers available in a market starved for pitching. The returns would be nothing short of staggering.

The White Sox could make some trades now and some later; the pool of suitors for their players would be larger in the offseason, when teams are less reluctant to trade major-league pieces and more flexible with their rosters. The thin free-agent market also would work in their favor; demand would remain high.

The question, of course, is whether the Sox truly have the stomach for all this.

Owner Jerry Reinsdorf, 80, surely is not eager to embark upon a lengthy rebuilding program. Still, Hahn almost certainly spoke with Reinsdorf’s approval when he said, “We may well have to adjust and take a long-term view, a different approach going forward.”

Jose Quintana (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

Reinsdorf, like everyone else with the White Sox, is keenly aware that the cross-town Cubs employed that precise strategy and became the closest thing to a wrecking ball in the sport. Their own team, meanwhile, has won 63, 73 and 76 games the past three seasons, and will be fortunate to stay on their current 79-win pace.

This isn’t 1997, when the Sox made their infamous White Flag trade while one game under .500 but only 3.5 games out of first place. That deal — three major leaguers to the Giants for six minor leaguers — actually worked out OK; two of the pitchers the Sox acquired, Bobby Howry and Keith Foulke, helped the team win the AL Central title three years later. But at the time, fans were furious.

These days, hardly anyone blinks at such maneuvers, the exception occurring when the Marlins dumped salaries just months after moving into a new ballpark built with taxpayer money. No, White Flag trades are commonplace, fueled by the fan obsession with what the Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham ingeniously (and sarcastically) calls the “Prospect Industrial Complex.”

Rick Hahn (David Banks/USA TODAY Sports)

Sale obviously is unique, the kind of pitcher fans never want to see traded. But consider the White Sox’s rankings in average home attendance the past five seasons — 24th, 24th, 28th, 26th and now 26th again. Why worry about alienating a fan base that already is alienated to some degree? Why not start over, build an exciting young team, introduce a new era of winning White Sox baseball?

Imagine the haul that Sale could bring from the Dodgers, Rangers or Red Sox. Imagine a lesser but significant haul for Quintana. Closer David Robertson, due to his career-high walk rate, and third baseman Todd Frazier, due to his .216 batting average and poor defensive metrics, are perhaps less attractive than they might appear. But in this thin market, both would have value, as would right fielder Adam Eaton and left-handed reliever Zach Duke.

Really, what choice do the White Sox have? They will need to find a catcher and center fielder this offseason. Frazier, left fielder Melky Cabrera and second baseman Brett Lawrie are free agents after next season. The team is below-average defensively at a number of positions. The farm system is thin. On and on it goes.

Jerry Reinsdorf (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports)

Hahn, Reinsdorf and executive vice-president Ken Williams deserve credit for their aggressiveness over the years. They face a unique challenge competing for attention with the Cubs, who play in one of the game’s most beloved ballparks and capture the city’s imagination even when they’re losing. But Hahn took a positive step Thursday by acknowledging that the Sox’s current plan isn’t working. The next step is to commit to a new, better plan.

Reinsdorf need not apologize — he brought a World Series title to Chicago before the Cubs did. His final gift to Sox fans would be a simple recognition that the team needs to step back in order to move forward.

The Cubs did it. Other teams are doing it. Painful as it might be, the White Sox need to do it, too.