Rebuilding now a White Sox reality

CHICAGO -- So polarizing is the concept of rebuilding that Kenny Williams remembers the last time he used the word in reference to the Chicago White Sox.

And it hasn't been in the past decade.

But lightning rod though it is, rebuilding does not have to be a dirty word.

With the bar set so low last season that a game of limbo would be impossible, the Sox have turned fans' expectations into pretty humble ones: Stay in games. Score runs. Improve team speed. Be interesting because they sure weren't last year.

It's hard for a fan to complain too much about rebuilding when you've witnessed a team with a $129 million payroll (fifth highest in baseball) finish four games below .500. Of course, not enough witnessed the Sox, who ranked 21st among major league teams in average home attendance in 2011, which continues to be a major factor.

But agreeing that rebuilding is probably best and then actually watching it happen are two different things, which is why Tuesday's news that the Sox had traded reliever Sergio Santos for Toronto prospect Nestor Molina was initially a little tough to hear.

Santos, 28, who developed a high-90s fastball and a very good slider among other pitches while notching 30 saves last summer, was their guy. The Sox converted him from an infielder (he was a shortstop in Toronto's minor league system from 2006-08) after signing him as a minor league free agent in 2009. And despite an 8.16 ERA and 1.99 WHIP in 26 minor league appearances that first year as a pitcher, the Sox wisely kept him in the big leagues in 2010 so as not to risk losing him on waivers after he was out of options.

Santos, who signed a three-year extension in September that guaranteed $8.25 million for three years and made him easy to trade, immediately becomes the Blue Jays' closer.
But Molina, a 22-year-old right-hander, has great upside as a mid-rotation starter. He had 9.3 strikeouts for every walk last season, third-highest in the minors, and averaged 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in his first full season as a starter. In 130 innings with Class-A Dunedin and Double-A New Haven, he went 12-3 with a 2.21 ERA.

And not so coincidentally, Molina was signed by Marco Paddy (Williams' newly hired special assistant) who formerly worked with the Blue Jays. Molina also was converted by Paddy from an outfielder to a pitcher.

"It's the start of rebuilding now," said Williams, who told reporters in Dallas that he hasn't used the word in 12 years. "Is it the start of a falling domino-type rebuilding? No. Absolutely not."

Williams said he is not yet swayed by anything offered for his "valuable veteran pieces." And God knows the team can't unload Adam Dunn or Alex Rios, to whom the team has committed $24 million combined next season.

"We'll probably keep the rest of the pitching intact and we'll focus on some peripheral things to kind of continue to get a piece here or there that will help us in 2013, 2014," Williams said.

That picture probably will not include free agent Mark Buehrle, whose departure has long been expected but remains a tough reality to swallow for Sox fans. But the closer situation might be tougher than just sliding in Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain or Addison Reed, whom Williams named as possible replacements for Santos assuming Chris Sale becomes a starter.

At this point, why not wholesale rebuilding if you can get quality prospects for guys such as John Danks, Gavin Foyd and Carlos Quentin? Why not start Robin Ventura with a relatively clean state and hope he can impress upon Gordon Beckham to stay away from the high fastball?

After last season's excruciating experience for Sox fans, it might be easier for Williams to sell than he thinks.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.