Commentary

White Sox's next step better be up

If Kenny Williams doesn't find a quick fix, he could follow Ozzie Guillen out the door

Updated: September 29, 2011, 10:02 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- On the first day of the rest of his baseball life, Kenny Williams was feeling introspective. After surviving the Not-So Civil War of Bridgeport, the Chicago White Sox general manager told reporters he's really into self-analysis. So I wondered what he was thinking as he drove to U.S. Cellular Field for his first Ozzie Guillen-free day since 2003.

"My throat hurts," he said Tuesday afternoon in the Ozzie-free home dugout.

After that ...

"Still hurts," he said as he sipped a hot tea. "What's going through my head? Again [dramatic pause], I can't help, even though, you know, it was pretty evident what the desire was here, but still can't help feel a sense of sadness that however it turned out, the way it turned out. Somehow I felt like, 'What could we have done about this to make it right?' "

The Ozzie-Kenny flame war that encapsulated the past two seasons is over. Well, there's sure to be a few remaining embers here and there, but with Guillen apparently off to Miami and Williams remaining, the organization can move on. Move on to what is unclear. Guillen made his demands for a contract extension loud and clear, even as he admitted he didn't deserve one based on the team's record. Williams, on the other hand, told reporters he offered to fall on his BlackBerry to the chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, "one year ago, six months ago, four months, three weeks ago, two weeks ago" if the chairman thought that was the answer to the team's funk. Of course it wasn't.

[+] EnlargeKenny Williams
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastWhite Sox general manager Kenny Williams talks to reporters before Tuesday's game, the team's first without Ozzie Guillen.

That's the difference between Guillen and Williams. Guillen is brusque. Williams deals in dramatic pauses. At one time, we thought they complemented each other, but that was only when things were good.

Things aren't so good right now as a $127 million team struggles with mediocrity and relevancy. Williams' big free-agent acquisition, Adam Dunn, is only having the worst season by a hitter in, oh, major league history.

"The bottom line is it's a bottom-line business," Williams said. "It hasn't worked out. So you have to be accountable for that."

So how did Reinsdorf, who has been burdened by the Williams-Guillen drama for years now, deal with his general manager's humble flagellation?

"He didn't like it very much," Williams said.

Funny how that works out.

"But I felt compelled to reiterate again that I was completely prepared to vacate the seat," he said. "And I even expounded on that by telling him if, in fact, it was his feeling that Ozzie and I needed to work together, I had no problems along those lines. Do I wish certain things had been done differently? And handled differently? Absolutely. But I would have gone into it committed to making it work for the betterment of the Chicago White Sox."

Why did William offer to leave the organization? He's a proud, confident man, as he should be. There's a World Series trophy in Chicago. Those don't come easy. Maybe he's stressed. Maybe he's burned out. Maybe he's just looking inward. Williams certainly knows success and failure. He's got an ego, but he also has some sense of self-awareness.

"I offered it because, listen, I'm a big believer in self-analysis and self-assessment," he said. "I have a perspective that is one of needing, not wanting, needing this organization to be amongst the best in baseball. … But if I'm the cog in the machine that is tripping us up, and my decisions are such now that they don't warrant, or my style doesn't warrant more opportunities to get that done, that's fine. I've been sitting in this chair for a long time anyway.

"I think I've told you guys before that there comes a time where everyone has an expiration date. I can accept that. But I'd still like to be a part of building something and hope that it can transition into that. If it doesn't, it doesn't, and you move on. But for now, I'm a White Sox and I want another banner up there."

So what is Williams' expiration date? When does Reinsdorf accept his employee's humble protestations?

The hourglass has been turned over now with Guillen's departure, and the sands are going against Williams. It's his time to show the organization can reclaim its past success or move on, too.

Williams will have his new manager in the coming weeks. He said his list is narrowed down. What we do know is his hire won't have Ozzie's charisma or likely his immediate impact. The odds are Guillen's Marlins team will win a trophy before the Sox. That's just history talking.

But without a tricky roster overhaul by Williams, it's pretty clear this team isn't built for banners. Have you watched this team the past few years? "Whenever you start losing, the first guy that has to go is the manager," Omar Vizquel said.

Williams' career, just like Guillen's, is defined by 2005. The former outfielder hit some homers in the years following the World Series, Gavin Floyd and John Danks, as well as Manny Ramirez and Dunn. & Sorry, on those last two I got his home runs mixed up with his fastballs to the temple.

Williams did some good things, back in the day. Some great things. He was recognizing talent and making deals that put his peers to shame. But it looks like he's lost his eye and his edge. This roster is bloated by Dunn's sorrowful season, Alex Rios' unworthy contract and Jake Peavy's expensive unreliability. Don't get me started on his parade of failed ex-Royals.

With all those weighty contracts, Williams is skeptical the Sox will add payroll in 2012. Of course, he says that every year. Maybe this time it's true. Attendance is down. The Sox barely outdrew the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mark Buehrle, the kind of reliable starter who deserves another contract, is the latest potential casualty. He made possibly his last start in a Sox uniform in front of a few thousand soggy fans Tuesday, basking in a standing ovation after his seven shutout innings.

Who would replace Buehrle? Several highly touted starters in the organization were traded away in recent years, one twice, though hard-throwing reliever Chris Sale, who fell to the Sox in the 2010 draft, is under consideration to start next season. Danks needs a new deal too.

Williams' big-money deals have failed of late, but he expressed confidence in the farm system by pointing out Brent Morel, who is raking in garbage time; Gordon Beckham, who can't recapture his rookie success at the plate; Dayan Viciedo, the Cuban export who is finally up with his countryman Alexei Ramirez; and Tyler Flowers, who languished in the minors after getting traded by the Braves in the Javier Vazquez deal after 2008 season. He said the Sox have a backlog of young relievers.

Williams also stressed the good things that are going on in the Venezuela operations (except for you know, Guillen leaving) even if he doesn't name the two top prospects that he referred to as "The Franchise -- Sanchez -- and a left-handed pitcher in the Instructional League."

He can't brag about the team's status in the talent-rich Dominican Republic. Williams seemed to suggest it's getting tougher to scout there, which is odd.

"If you look at our reports, across the industry, there's not as many Type I, Type II Dominican players coming out," Williams said. "It's getting harder [and] harder, for whatever reason."

The Rangers signed Dominican outfielder Nomar Mazara to a record $5 million deal this season. Bonuses are high across baseball for Dominican players. Under the Ricketts family, the Cubs are banking on upgrades to their Dominican operations, which has produced Carlos Marmol and Starlin Castro.

No one really brings up the Sox's continued failures in the Dominican, but when the White Sox develop a homegrown Latin American star again, let me know.

Williams described his GM tenure quite accurately as "11 years of throwing haymakers." But in recent years, those shots have missed wildly, like a punch-drunk boxer trying to remember a knockout he had 10 years ago.

Can Williams recapture his magic? He's got a puncher's chance, but the bell tolls for everyone at some point.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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