The Chicago White Sox farm system wasn’t producing, and by late August 1985, team President Eddie Einhorn vowed to make some changes in the development plan.
“We`re unhappy with the quality of the position players we have in the minors,” Einhorn said. “I can’t spell out the changes yet, but there will be some alteration in the structure. We had a five-year plan that just isn’t paying off now.
“We needed to have players to step in and replace the guys like (Greg) Luzinski and (Carlton) Fisk, and they haven’t come along like they should have.”
At that time, the Sox were considering their September call-ups. Manager Tony La Russa mentioned one prospect in particular — Double-A outfielder Ken Williams — as a possibility for the stretch run.
Williams wouldn’t make his major-league debut until September 1986, but 36 years later he’s executive vice president of the Sox and La Russa’s boss, overseeing another minor-league development plan that has been dubbed “Project Birmingham.”
Several top prospects from their two Class-A affiliates were promoted at the same time this week to Double-A Birmingham, including shortstop Colson Montgomery and outfielder Oscar Colás, their top two minor-leaguers, according to MLB Pipeline. Montgomery, at No. 60, is the only Sox player among the Top 100 in baseball.
Assistant general manager/player development Chris Getz told reporters the Sox would send their minor-league coordinators to Birmingham for the end of the season and “treat it almost as an advanced instructional league so these guys are set up for their offseasons and work toward next year.”
Some might suggest the Sox fast-forward the plan and call up Montgomery, Colás, outfielder Yoelqui Céspedes and starter Norge Vera from Double A on Sept. 1 to see if an infusion of youth could spark the Sox in their stop-and-go playoff run. The Sox could even call it “Project Bridgeport.”
But because rosters can expand to only 28 players on Sept. 1 — two more than the current 26 — and none are on the 40-man roster, that would involve some machinations such as releasing an unproductive player or two with weighty contracts.
Oh ,well. We still can dream.
Either way, Project Birmingham seems like a good idea and bears watching with the Sox rebuild having stalled two years after ending their postseason drought in 2020.
It’s not unthinkable to envision Williams making drastic changes in the offseason if the team continues hovering around .500 and misses out on October even with the extra wild-card spot.
Time for another five-year plan? Nothing would be a surprise.
The Sox still have plenty of time to turn things around, as we seemingly note on daily. But it’s getting more concerning as the days grow shorter and summer nears an end. We’re still waiting for that run that’s always just around the corner.
If the Sox don’t make one, Williams’ most important decision would be the fate of general manager Rick Hahn, who engineered the rebuild but has seen it stall out at a point at which the Sox were supposed to be championship contenders. Hahn told MLB.com this week: “I still think we are fully capable of winning a championship, absolutely.”
That’s difficult to see with a 62-61 record, the absence of table-setter Tim Anderson, the latest setback for injured starter Michael Kopech and the glaring lack of clutch hitting. For all the angst over manager Tony La Russa, the players have yet to prove they can overcome adversity after not being challenged in the second half of their 2021 division title run. The GM or the manager usually takes the fall when a team underachieves, and we know La Russa won’t be fired.
But La Russa’s fate is not in Williams’ hands, for reasons that have been explained ad nauseam. So until La Russa says he’s not returning to manage in 2023, you should expect the status quo. It would seem unfair to keep La Russa and replace Hahn, but it was unfair not to allow Hahn to pick his own manager in the first place.
Whoever is GM, the Sox’s most important free agent will be Johnny Cueto, whom Hahn signed to a one-year, $4.2 million deal in spring training. Cueto has more than delivered and stands to cash in this offseason. Losing him would leave a hole in the rotation and in the clubhouse, where his call for more “fire” from the team was welcomed by everyone with the possible exception of La Russa.
The next-biggest soon-to-be free agent is José Abreu, who would figure to be slam-dunk signing. The veteran first baseman, who turns 36 in January, is having another strong season, leading the league in hits (143) with an .849 OPS.
Abreu has made no secret he wants to spend his career with the Sox, and it’s hard to envision them without their leader. But the Sox have two other first baseman in Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets who are playing out of position in the outfield. A regular DH role apparently is not an option as long as Eloy Jimenez and Yasmani Grandal are on the roster. So it’s likely Abreu will be back — but it’s not a done deal by any stretch.
It might be too early to look that far ahead, but if things don’t change on the field, it’s going to be difficult for Williams to rationalize another season of crossing your fingers and hoping everyone plays up to their potential and key injuries can be avoided in 2023.
No one should feel safe after a season like this.