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Here’s How The White Sox Can Still Lose 100 Games, But In An Interesting Way

Jackson Holliday #7 of the Baltimore Orioles looks on during batting practice prior to a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 12, 2024 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Years ago, I was having dinner at a friend’s home when conversation turned to our baseball team’s new play-by-play announcer, whom, we all agreed, nobody liked. “Maybe he just needs a little more experience,” my friend’s mother offered, generously. It was a nice thought, and we considered this posture of grace—maybe he would improve with experience—before my friend’s father countered with, “Yes. But do you really want to listen to him get it?”

If you must learn on the job, it’s best to do so when the stakes are low and the eyeballs are few. Admittedly, this becomes a taller task when the job is playing baseball. Last Friday, the Orioles demoted Jackson Holliday, MLB's top prospect, after he began his major-league career 2-for-34 with two walks to 18 strikeouts in 10 games since his call-up. Holliday's demotion, and the games leading up to it, awoke the usual arguments over what should be done with a struggling rookie. Parsing his body language and swing path, fans made expert declarations about “his confidence,” which would obviously be shattered by keeping him up, and also by sending him down.

It is true that the only place a hitter can adjust to major-league pitching is in the major leagues. Major-leaguers throw harder and their breaking stuff breaks more; Orioles general manager Mike Elias said Friday that he believed the gap between Triple-A and the majors to be growing. It is also true that a team atop the American League East might prefer that one guy is not personally making five of 27 precious outs. Holliday just needs a little more experience. But did the Orioles really want to watch him get it?

Letting cherubic teens figure shit out at the plate for months is the rare luxury afforded to bad teams, like, say, the 6-25 Chicago White Sox. In any given game, they have nothing on the line, oodles of at-bats to go around, and outs being made by the washed likes of Robbie Grossman, Martín Maldonado and Kevin Pillar. The honor of watching maybe the least compelling baseball team in history has fallen to new Sox play-by-play announcer John Schriffen (a little downstream epilogue to my dinner party anecdote). Listening to this extremely chipper fellow call a game rather breaks my heart. I worry that the White Sox will soon break his. He prepared a goofy victory catchphrase—“South Side, stand up!”—but says it so infrequently (just five times this season, since one of the six wins was an Apple TV exclusive) that when he recently did get to announce a win, for the first time in 10 days, he “South Side, stand up!”-ed like he might never say those words or any words ever again. “Say it with me! Say it proud! For all the haters!” (???) he cried.

“Well, sure, it’s very easy to complain about the state of the world,” you’re saying. “But can you offer any concrete policy solutions to these problems?” Ha! This policy solution is so concrete you wouldn’t believe it. This solution would: 

  1. Allocate major-league at-bats more efficiently.
  2. Bring joy to millions and millions of fans.
  3. Keep John Schriffen’s spirit intact.

This solution marries soccer's loan system with the NBA's now-shuttered G League Ignite team, which offered elite 18-year-old hoopers a paying alternative to college basketball. Before G League Ignite was made inessential by NIL rights, Jalen Green, Scoot Henderson and Dyson Daniels came up through the program. The league created a team specifically for top prospects, signing them to six-figure deals and filling out the roster with veteran teammates who could mentor them. We're not starting a new team, though, just commandeering an existing team.

Upon hearing the seeds of this brilliant idea, a colleague recalled that Bill Barnwell had once proposed an MLB player loan system. I read his old Grantland post about this and found that we had arrived at the idea from different directions. “The most typical type of loan in soccer involves young players being sent to lesser teams, often in lower divisions, to try to get them first-team action before returning to their parent clubs. That wouldn’t be the case in baseball,” Barnwell wrote. 

OK, well, that would be exactly the case here. Barnwell suggested that bad teams (he used the White Sox as his example, too) loan their good players (Chris Sale, in his case) to good teams in the thick of a pennant race. I am suggesting the opposite: that good teams loan their bad players (bad for now, but probably good soon) to bad teams at any point in the regular season. 

Pale Hose, meet rosy cheeks. Call it White Sox Ignite—the Ignite Sox! A team that can offer struggling super prospects major-league experience and the company of major-league veterans, at no one's real expense! Or at no one but Robbie Grossman's real expense. White Sox fans get to watch some actually interesting young players. Parent clubs get their prospects in front of major-league pitching. The prospects get used to the bright lights and rigors of a major-league season. And they don't have to take a bus to games like they would in Triple-A! Plus, think of what fun this could be for us prospect-curious neutral fans. Imagine Jackson Holliday socking his first major-league dinger AGAINST the Orioles. 

You have questions. I have answers:

Who can be an Igniter? Ignite Sox fans only want to watch COOL GUYS! Though the current White Sox have been grandfathered in, and may not be cool, the prospects on the team should be real prospects. Conveniently there exists a collectively bargained mechanism for identifying COOL GUYS in MLB's new “prospect promotion incentive,” which gives teams with Rookie of the Year winners an extra draft pick if the rookie is on the Opening Day roster. The PPI-eligible prospects must “appear on at least two of the three Top 100 Prospect rankings released by MLB Pipeline, Baseball America and ESPN.” Let's go with that. But if a prospect has graduated from a Top-100 list, they can still join the club. Recently demoted Cardinals outfielder Jordan Walker, for example, would make a fine Igniter, even though he is no longer rookie-eligible.

What if someone's arm kerplodes? Pitchers may not be loaned to the Ignite Sox. For one thing, White Sox manager Pedro Grifol has little reason to protect the arm of another organization's hotshot pitching prospect unless he's given some complicated set of usage rules. But beyond that, it's less clear to me that major-league experience offers a distinct benefit to pitchers, and minor-league teams are starved enough for pitching depth as is. Struggling pitchers should just be demoted and take the bus.

Are Igniters accumulating service time? Didn't really think about this, but these young lads are playing for a major-league team! They should get major-league service time!

What's in it for the Sox? What kind of compensation are we talking? Getting to field a guy who could maybe be interesting one day is compensation enough.

Whose 40-man roster is an Igniter on? Hmmm, naturally, that is to be negotiated between the parent club and Ignite Sox. These are a lot of questions...

And now, the most important question of all: Would the Ignite Sox be good? Will the South Side be standing up? I would answer with: Would the Ignite Sox be any worse? Recently, Dan Szymborski at FanGraphs used his projection system, ZiPS, to answer a similar question—baseball's version of “Could Bama beat the Browns?” He found that the Triple-A Norfolk hitters stacked up pretty well against the White Sox and Rockies lineups. Playing a simulated major-league schedule, the Norfolk Tides won 56 games on average, hurt by their less competitive pitching staff. But given this same schedule, the White Sox themselves only averaged 60 wins in his simulation. Coupled with a major-league pitching staff, the Ignite Sox might just make some noise! While I cannot with confidence tell the South Side to stand up, I would advise the South Side to keep their legs limber, just in case.

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