Blueprint to building a winner: Start swinging a wrecking ball

White Sox, A's, Marlins show that starting from scratch is getting results

Midseason report

July 09, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The 2000 season just passed its mathematical midpoint, which is time enough to conclude that the Chicago White Sox have successfully challenged one of the basic tenets of modern baseball.

Maybe money isn't everything.

The youthful White Sox will arrive at the All-Star break with an 11 1/2 -game lead over the prohibitively favored - and heavily funded - Cleveland Indians. They look like a lock to reach the playoffs and vindicate owner Jerry Reinsdorf's unpopular decision to unload most of the club's veterans over the past four years.

Go figure.

The undeniable correlation between payroll size and on-field success is under attack from a number of directions. The Oakland Athletics have built a contender from the ground up. The Florida Marlins are above .500 just three years after gutting their world championship club and turning their future over to the player development department. The Seattle Mariners couldn't afford to keep Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey, but they are back on top of the American League West anyway.

Finally, smart front-office management is having as great an impact as deep-pocketed ownership, at least in some quarters. Big-money teams still reign over several divisions - the Braves have had the National League East locked up for the past decade - but the ability of some gutsy executives to face economic reality is starting to pay off.

South Side solution

White Sox general manager Ron Schueler became a minor villain in Chicago as he presided over the dismantling of a White Sox franchise that was getting too little bang for the big bucks it was paying to established stars like Robin Ventura and Alex Fernandez.

He built a younger, more versatile team around franchise star Frank Thomas, and the White Sox are running away in the American League Central race.

They seem almost certain to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1993, though Thomas has been quick to caution his young teammates against overconfidence.

"I've seen a lot of things happen," he said recently. "I've seen teams do super well in the first half and just flop in the second half. I've seen guys do terrible in the first half and unbelievable in the second half. So you just don't get too high at this level of baseball.

"We've been lucky. No major injuries in the first half, dealing with stuff like that. We haven't faced what other teams are facing."

Nevertheless, the White Sox blueprint for increased emphasis on youth and player development has clearly been validated, and is likely to be copied by other teams.

Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks already has pointed to the White Sox as the model for sweeping changes in Arlington if the Rangers fail to climb out of the AL West cellar.

"They have a $32 million payroll, but they've stuck with their young players and it's worked," Hicks told reporters recently. "I think you're going to see that with us."

They are doing the same thing in Oakland, where the A's have matured into one of the most exciting offensive teams in either league, but they still enter the break looking up at the resilient Mariners in the AL West.

Who needs Griffey?

C'mon, who really expected the M's to shrug off the departure of one of the most productive players in the history of the game [Griffey] and re-emerge as a strong playoff contender?

Legendary executive Pat Gillick always seems to find a way. He built the Blue Jays into a two-time world champion, then went to the AL Championship Series in each of his first two years with the Orioles. Now, in his first year in Seattle, the Mariners are thriving in the wake of the spring deal that sent Griffey to the Cincinnati Reds.

The Reds, meanwhile, are looking way up at the first-place St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, and there are rumblings that manager Jack McKeon may soon be replaced.

Griffey has delivered characteristic run-production numbers, but the Reds have struggled to achieve a consistent offensive chemistry. Promising Sean Casey has been a major disappointment after emerging as one of the game's brightest young stars in 1999. Outfielder Dante Bichette only now is starting to look comfortable in the middle of the lineup.

Factor in a starting rotation that features just one dependable pitcher (Denny Neagle) and it's not hard to see why some of the luster has come off GM Jim Bowden's spring triumph.

Instead, it was the spring training blockbuster pulled off by Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty that altered the balance of power in the NL Central. The acquisition of outfielder Jim Edmonds added significant pop to a lineup that had been something of a one-man show the previous two years.

Superstar Mark McGwire still is the cornerstone of the Cardinals' offense, but Edmonds has added Most Valuable Player-caliber numbers to an offensive attack that averages almost a run a game more than the second-place Reds.

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