White Sox on verge of slipping into another first-round rut

Early returns from last several drafts risk making the rebuild run long

Chris Sale isn’t shaped like the Kool-Aid Man, but he knocked down a wall just the same.

Before Sale came along, the White Sox wandered the desert for 20 years in the first round of the draft. The picks from 1991 (Scott Ruffcorn) to 2009 (Jared Mitchell) combined for 6.5 WAR over the entirety of their professional careers, and just about all of it is attributable to Kip Wells’ career after the Todd Ritchie trade.

The Sale pick doesn’t quite make up for lost time, but you have to credit the Sox with maximizing the return. Eight years after the draft, Sale has been the most productive MLB player in a loaded first round:

  1. Chris Sale, 43.1 WAR (13th overall)
  2. Manny Machado, 33.8 WAR (3)
  3. Bryce Harper, 27.4 WAR (1)
  4. Christian Yelich, 26.2 WAR (23)
  5. Yasmani Grandal, 13.2 WAR (12)

(This might surprise you, but if you extend it beyond the first round, Sale is still first, but second-rounder Andrelton Simmons slides into second with 34.9 WAR, and ninth-rounder Jacob deGrom is two-tenths behind Harper.)

The Sox are still searching for a true encore for Sale, but they’re at least initially safe from a similar drought. Tim Anderson (2013) and Carlos Rodon (2014) did enough this past season to clear the Gordon Beckham Bar, which could end up being a pretty handy line of demarcation between stalled and productive careers.

Here’s what the White Sox leaderboard now looks like among their first-round picks:

  1. Sale, 43.1 WAR (2010)
  2. Wells, 8.0 WAR (1998)
  3. Rodon, 6.6 WAR (2014)
  4. Anderson, 6.2 WAR (2013)
  5. Beckham, 6.1 WAR (2008)

In theory, there isn’t a detectable difference between the WAR totals of Wells and Beckham, but Wells signed multiple major-league contracts as a free agent, whereas Beckham only landed one*, so that gives their careers a different feel.

(*The first one with the White Sox doesn’t count.)

Rodon and Anderson still have work remaining to put distance between them and Beckham, but even middling returns over the rest of their careers should create plenty of separation from the “bust” label.

That said, the White Sox have to be wary of another potential outage. Although the shift to polished college players was lauded at the time by people traumatized by Courtney Hawkins, the transition from Doug Laumann to Nick Hostetler hasn’t yielded much in the way of clear contributors:

Carson Fulmer (2015): The pick between Andrew Benintendi and Ian Happ — and also the last official first-round pick of Laumann’s — has to dig himself out of a hole thanks to a 6.68 career ERA over 24 MLB games. Walker Buehler aside, that was not a year to go with a pitcher in the first round. Fulmer is trying to reinvent himself as a reliever, and we’ll see if Driveline can work any magic.

Zack Collins (2016): One of the draft class’ most polished bats hasn’t looked the part in the minors. The batting eye is as advertised, but the .232 career average over 274 minor-league games evenly divided between Winston-Salem and Birmingham makes it hard to call his approach playable, and he might not get to the majors as a catcher, either. In Collins’ defense, that first round didn’t produce much in the way of fast-trackers, with fan favorite Corey Ray running on a similar track.

Zack Burdi (2016): The Downers Grove Mustang was on the cusp of a call-up before tearing his UCL in 2017. He’s pitching in the Arizona Fall League, but without his top velocity. His goal is to get everything back by February. Mild skepticism is warranted.

Jake Burger (2017): After a so-so pro debut during his draft year, Burger came into spring looking good and talking better. Then he ruptured his Achilles. And then he tore it again. If he’s lucky, he’ll have just 1½ seasons of missed development to overcome.

Nick Madrigal (2018): His first pro plate appearances wowed for the frequency of contact and little else, but after a long college season that included a wrist fracture, his slate is still clean. He just hasn’t done anything to establish a clear trajectory.

That kind of lull in first-round success can stretch out a rebuild without an infusion of outside help, although the scouting director won’t be the only one under pressure. After a year of injuries and setbacks that ravaged the top 10, just about everybody in player development — directors, coaches, trainers, caterers — has to take a hard look at what’s happened.

Particular to this situation, this year’s 100-loss season gives the White Sox one more good swing with the third-overall pick, and The Athletic’s headline on James Fegan’s story isn’t wrong when calling it “the most important draft of the rebuild.”

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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This is a laugh so you don’t cry article


I think you’re being a little pessimistic on Madrigal. Meatball side: Dude’s a stud and if he develops any game power, he’s a top 30 player in the league. Realistic side: He’s a great to elite middle of the infield glove with good to great speed and great to elite hit tool. Even without power added, a trajectory that at worst is playable and at best is a 2B version of Andrelton Simmons.


Replace ‘great to elite’ with ‘solid but unspectacular’ and I agree.

Patrick Nolan

Where was the pessimism? Jim said that 1) Madrigal made a lot of contact (true), 2) didn’t do a whole lot else with his plate appearances (undeniably true) and 3) he has a clean slate and we need to see more of him to figure out where he goes from here.


The narrative of the article is that the White Sox are in a potential rut of bad first round picks. I wasn’t saying he was lying about Madrigal, everything he said is true, but he was framing it as though there is little to be excited about outside of hit tool which omits the other positives of his game. He’s exactly who the Sox should have picked with decent floor and high ceiling. He has as much as a clear trajectory as any prospect.


The whitesox dont deserve any benefit of any doubts about top picks. I admit to being high on Collins and not so much on Burger but neither immediately came in and raked… madrigal has a small window which he didnt seem to do much on either side of the did he flash or did he bomb spectrum.

lil jimmy

We do want to see more, for sure. Returning from a broken wrist could certainly have had a lingering effect. On draft night, Josh asked all of us on the podcast right before the pick who they should take. Everyone said the same thing. Madrigal.


Your realistic side desciption sounds an awful lot like Nellie Fox. I could live with that.


I endorse this line of thinking!


Keep Madrigal away from the chewing tobacco!


I’ve been waiting for a discussion on this topic. Thank you. I’m wondering how the Sox seemingly ineptitude matches up and ranks vs other teams….also curious to see what would shake out if the study was expanded to include 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc round picks.


From 2000-2014, the Sox seemed to be dead last in productive top 100 picks (essentially rounds 1-3) in the cursory glance I did at bbref’s draft histories. The best teams hit on about a third of their picks, the average team hit on about a quarter, the Sox hit on a sixth at best (Sale and Gio Gonzalez were the only standouts).


I might throw Marcus Semien in there, too. I did the analysis before the 2018 season and Semien had a very good 2018 in part due to noticeably better defense.

Trooper Galactus

Even then Semien is emblematic of how the White Sox consistently targeted players who post low OBPs.


How much turnover in the scouting department since Hostetler took over?

I’m glad we’re not wasting top 100 picks on football and basketball players anymore but if the same scouts are still around it just means we’re swapping low floors for low ceilings.


The Athletic article on Bryce Bush gives me some hope there — seems like Hostetler listened to the area scout and they were able to get him in the 33rd round. Gives me the impression that finding prospects is more important these days than in the fallow years. It’s bad to strike out so much in the first round, but I’ll feel much better about that if they show they can make up for it in the other rounds.

karkovice squad

Voros McCracken also has some analytics contributions to draft strategy.

Right Size Wrong Shape

I believe he was trained by his brother Phil.


I realize the topic of this thread is 1st round picks and how poorly it appears the W Sox have been in having their picks be WAR-succesful. A footnote to this could be the number of #1 picks of other teams get added to Sox. (eg 2005 WSeries team had LAD#1 Konerko, NYY#1 Everett,..other years they’ve tried J Nix Colo#1 plus assorted others).


“assorted others”:
John Danks (Tex), Gavin Floyd (Phil), and the ever popular Nick Fucking Swisher (Oak)
Trading for other teams’ number one picks was a KW strategy. It seemed to me he was relying on other teams scouts to cover for the Sox draft failures.

Trooper Galactus

Of course, we traded away Brandon McCarthy and Gio Gonzalez in a couple of those deals, so it’s not like we didn’t lose some pretty decent talent on our end.


J Garland was a Cubs #1, I think


If only Daniel Palka was a first-rounder!


What? You got off the NickyD bandwagon and jumped on the Palkawagon?


Palkawagon might be that Candy home alone band

Eagle Bones

As bad as Fulmer has been, I don’t really have a problem with that pick (or Burdi for that matter). Loved the Madrigal pick. Collins and Burger are the two I really had a problem with. Those are the kinds of picks I’d prefer to avoid (high certainty of moving to 1B/DH, weak hit tool). I’ll admit it may be a little early to ding Burger’s hit tool, but he’s looked pretty stiff to in the looks I’ve gotten and the swing comps to Frazier don’t inspire confidence.

Trooper Galactus

I wasn’t a huge fan of the Burger pick because, as you stated, his value was wrapped up entirely in his hitting with nothing else to fall back on, and it’s doubtful he could even handle a corner outfield position. In the case of Collins, at least there was an argument that he had a pretty high ceiling if he could stick at catcher, but after watching Omar Narvaez put up an .800 OPS and somehow still be a ho-hum value overall, there’s something to be said for a catcher who isn’t a total disaster behind the plate.

Eagle Bones

I would have been fine with Collins if there was a little more split opinion on him sticking at catcher. They seemed to be the only ones that thought that was possible.

Trooper Galactus

I mean, if they expected to be able to slot a guy who could post an .850+ OPS at catcher into future lineups, they probably set the bar pretty low for his actual catching ability. That said, it’s disturbing how little value the front office has put on defense and framing at the position since jettisoning Flowers, not to mention an inability to even recognize capable catching talent. They were pretty fooled by a one year positive blip for Castillo.


Hopefully, one of the 2 catchers (Rutschman and Longeliers) at the top of all the mock drafts will be available…and they’ll be the real deal !!


Or maybe they are ahead of the curve and foresee robot umpires? We’ll just never know.

Eagle Bones

Assuming whatever framing metrics they were using looked similar to BP, I don’t really have a problem with them taking a chance on Castillo, but yeah I agree it’s a little unsettling how they haven’t seemed to value framing at all.

karkovice squad

Collins was supposed to have a strong hit tool and an advanced approach–among the best in college for that draft.

Eagle Bones

I remember reading positive things about his hit took in a scouting report or two, but it’s hard to figure out where that came from. I dont get the feeling hes changed drastically from college.

karkovice squad

It came from the fact that in the ACC he hit:

There were a small number of scouts who saw the hitch in his swing and thought it would be exploited in pro-ball.

Eagle Bones

I would expect a grade on a hit tool to come more from scouting than college stat lines.


I agree with this, except the Burger part. If the Sox didn’t draft Collins the year prior, I think people wouldn’t be as down on him, its more that they drafted two college bats (who might be limited to 1B) two years in a row.

Even two years and two Achilles later, looking at the rest of the first round, there’s less than a handful of people I would swap with Burger.

Eagle Bones

I don’t hate Burger because of what happened after the draft, I hate the thought process behind the pick (and the Collins pick). What’s happened since they were drafted is somewhat immaterial.