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NEW YORK — When or if Hal Steinbrenner ever gets around to trying to determine the root cause of what’s gone wrong with his Yankee ballclub — which, despite consistently owning the highest or near highest payrolls in baseball has not been to the World Series since 2009 — he would do well to take a hard look at the Chicago White Sox model.
At the same time so much of the attention in baseball has been (deservedly) focused on the exploits of Shohei Ohtani, Jacob deGrom, Fernando Tatis Jr. and the wild, wild NL West race, a truly remarkable story has been quietly unfolding on the south side of Chicago where the White Sox, despite having been decimated by injuries, have opened up the largest division lead of any first-place team. What’s made it quite so extraordinary, however, is how the White Sox are doing what they’re doing — with a roster comprised of no less than 14 players acquired through the draft, including hitting on seven No. 1 picks — shortstop Tim Anderson, catcher Zack Collins, outfielder/first baseman Andrew Vaughn, infielder Jake Burger, reliever Garret Crochet, lefty starter Carlos Rodon and (now on the injured) list) second baseman Nick Madrigal. Such success in the draft — accounting for nearly 50% of the team’s active roster — is almost unheard of in baseball, particularly for a team in first place.
As White Sox GM Rick Hahn says, it’s all about scouting, scouting, scouting (as opposed to analytics). In this era of creeping analytics in baseball, there is no bigger champion of scouts in the game than White Sox board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. The one common denominator in the White Sox draft strategy is that they’ve almost exclusively used their high picks on college players, but even those are never guarantees.
“I give all the credit to our scouting and player development departments,” Hahn said by phone Friday. “Even though we did draft high a lot of years, and it’s true college players are more polished, you still have to really know the players you are drafting and that’s where the scouts come into play. There is no substitute for makeup and character and the ability to deal with adversity.”
We’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, to put the White Sox‘s unparalleled draft success in perspective, after failing to sign Gerrit Cole (their No. 1 pick in 2008), the Yankees have had 16 first-round draft picks, with only one — Aaron Judge in 2013 — even making it to the big leagues with them. On their present roster, there are only five players who were drafted by them — Judge, Brett Gardner, Kyle Higashioka, Jordan Montgomery and Nick Nelson.
At the same time, there are the Houston Astros, who under analytics guru Jeff Luhnow, executed a tear-down back in 2012 with the idea of using all their analytics data to build the team up with high draft picks. When they won the World Series in 2017 (before it was compromised by their cheating scandal), Luhnow and the Astros were acclaimed throughout baseball for their analytics-first approach to building a ballclub — at the same time they were gutting their scouting department.
But upon closer inspection, it’s hard to see how analytics had anything to do with the Astros’ rise. On that 2017 team, there were only four players — Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr., George Springer and Dallas Keuchel — who were obtained through the draft and Springer was a No. 1 pick by Luhnow’s predecessor, Ed Wade, who also had signed Jose Altuve back in 2007. Moreover, Luhnow had three straight overall No. 1 picks in the draft from 2012-2014, came up empty on two of them (pitchers Mark Appel in 2013 and Brady Aiken in 2014 who never made the majors) and nearly blew it in 2012 when he had decided to take Appel over Correa, the universally acknowledged best player in the draft, only to back off when Appel’s rep Scott Boras wouldn’t give him a discount bonus.
In the case of Aiken, a high school kid from San Diego who turned out to have an elbow issue, Luhnow took him over Rodon, who after leading N.C. State to the College World Series, went to the White Sox with the No. 3 pick. Rodon is the classic example of what Hahn referred to as the ability to deal with and overcome adversity. In the five years following his signing with the White Sox, Rodon missed considerable time with wrist and shoulder injuries and finally Tommy John surgery in 2019. Last December he was non-tendered by the White Sox but re-signed with them and now, after pitching a no-hitter and compiling a 7-3 , 2.31 ERA record as the new ace of the Sox staff, he’s a strong candidate for the AL Cy Young award.
While the White Sox hoped Rodon had finally overcome all his injury issues and was ready to be a productive member of the starting rotation, so many of the other White Sox draft picks had to be rushed into action this year because of the injury crunch, the latest being Collins who’s had to take over as the No. 1 catcher after Yasmani Grandal went down with a torn knee tendon. When the White Sox took Collins with the 10th overall pick out of University of Miami (Fla.) in 2016, the word was his best position was probably DH — a label he resented to the point that, upon signing, he told Reinsdorf: “If I’m not catching for you in the big leagues, I’ll give you the bonus back.” Now he is.
Indeed, this wasn’t exactly the White Sox game plan coming out of spring training, but then two of their three best players, outfielders Eloy Jimenez (torn pectoral muscle) and Luis Robert (hip) went down with major injuries that will sideline them until August and suddenly Hahn had to start scrambling for replacements before the season had hardly begun. To help plug left field, Hahn tapped Vaughn, another No. 1 pick (and third overall) in 2019 from Cal, a first baseman by trade. After starting out slowly, Vaughn has gradually raised his average (.241 as of Friday) and begun to hit for power while seamlessly adjusting to outfield play.
Perhaps the most heartwarming of the Sox draft brigade stories is that of Burger, who was called up from Triple-A Charlotte a couple of weeks ago when third baseman Yoan Moncada was briefly out of action. Drafted out of Missouri State with the 11th overall pick in 2017, Burger subsequently underwent not one but two torn Achilles tendon operations and suffered through battles with depression and anxiety. But again, it was his makeup — something that doesn’t show up in the any of the analytics algorithms — which enabled him to persevere and finally begin to fulfill his destiny.
Ideally, Burger and outfielder Gavin Sheets in particular should have spent the season at Triple-A Charlotte to further hone their skills but when they were instead called to emergency duty in Chicago they have performed. “That’s been most gratifying,” said Hahn, who added that credit must go to player development director Chris Getz and the staff at Charlotte and it is probably no coincidence that most of them all played in the major leagues and don’t have degrees from Harvard.
And then, of course, there’s Anderson, the heart and soul of this Sox team whom they took with the 17th overall selection in the 2013 draft out of obscure East Central Community College in Decatur, Miss., on the advice of their area scout Warren Hughes (who’s still with them). It was a pick that raised eyebrows in that Anderson had not begun playing baseball until his junior year in high school after suffering a basketball injury, and there was doubt about him being able to remain at shortstop. “There was talk about Tim having to maybe move to center field,” Hahn said. “He didn’t want to hear about it. That was his makeup.”
Needless to say there is now a whole fraternity of scouts across baseball quietly rooting for Reinsdorf’s White Sox this year. And dare we say, just as quiet lately through this constant White Sox transition are all those media critics who said 76-year-old Tony La Russa couldn’t relate to young players.