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Three years ago, White Sox general manager Ken Williams began what he deemed to be an infusion of youth into his ballclub.
After having liberally used his club's farm system to give it a better chance to win in the moment, Williams said that he recognized that the organization couldn't keep up with how it was operating if it wanted to be successful for years to come.
"We have pushed the envelope for a long time on trading prospect-type young players for the veteran guys that can help us win a championship," Williams said Thursday. "We pushed the envelope maybe more than any team in baseball.
"But over the last three years, we have tried to make a concerted effort to build up the system, infuse youth into the entire program so that we could sustain some level of consistency in our successes."
Chicago's movement to "go young" has picked up steam this offseason. And perhaps one of the biggest indications that Williams is intent to rely on his youth came with Thursday's announcement that his club had traded veteran starting pitcher Javier Vazquez and left-handed reliever Boone Logan to the Braves in exchange for four prospects.
In the deal, the White Sox will receive highly touted catching prospect Tyler Flowers, infielder Brent Lillibridge, third baseman Jon Gilmore and left-handed pitcher Santos Rodriguez. The two teams agreed to the terms of the trade on Tuesday night, but it was not finalized until all players passed their physicals.
Of the four players that the White Sox received from the Braves, only Lillibridge is expected to have an impact on the ballclub in '09.
Lillibridge, 25, will join Josh Fields, Wilson Betemit, Jayson Nix, Chris Getz and Dayan Viciedo in competing for two open infield spots. A healthy Fields has the edge at third base going into Spring Training. Second base is a little more wide open -- with Getz possibly having the slight edge going in, but the position is open. Alexei Ramirez, who is being moved to shortstop, appears to be the only lock.
Heading into last season, Lillibridge was considered to be among the Braves' top prospects, with his speed perhaps being his biggest asset -- Lillibridge has been successful in 127 of his 162 stolen-base attempts in the Minors. But the infielder struggled offensively in 2008, hitting just .220 in 90 games with Triple-A Richmond. Still, Williams said that he's had his eye on Lillibridge for some time and wasn't put off by one rough season.
"I told him [Thursday], 'I just want you to go back to being yourself and go back to playing the game to win,'" Williams said. "He's one heck of an athlete and can play shortstop, second base, third base [and] center field, and will bring some speed and that dynamic."
Flowers, 22, is considered to be the most highly touted prospect in the deal. He caught the attention of many people while playing in the Arizona Fall League this fall, including Williams. Flowers batted .387 with 12 home runs and 23 RBIs in 20 games for the Mesa Solar Sox. The catcher was coming off a season in which he was named to the Carolina League All-Star Team after hitting .288 with 17 home runs and 88 RBIs at high Class A Myrtle Beach.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Flowers, like the other two players the Sox acquired in the deal, is still considered to be a few years away from the Majors. Scouts have raved about Flowers' offensive potential, yet they say he needs to improve defensively if he is to catch at the Major League level. But after watching Flowers "seven or eight times" in the AFL, Williams didn't seem concerned about the prospect's defense.
"I think this guy is going to be an All-Star catcher," Williams said. "For a guy his size, he certainly has a lot of agility behind home plate and he throws the ball particularly well."
As for the other two players, who are even further away from contributing, Williams said his scouting department was high on both, high enough to turn down another Major League-ready player whom was offered by the Braves.
The 20-year-old Gilmore, who was described to Williams as a Joe Crede-type player, hit .186 in 27 games with Class A Rome and .337 with four homers and a .473 slugging percentage for Rookie-level Danville this past season.
Rodriguez, 20, went 1-2 with a 2.79 ERA in 14 relief appearances for the Gulf Coast League Braves this year. His attractiveness is a live arm with a plus-slider and plus-fastball. In 29 innings, he recorded 45 strikeouts and issued 13 walks
By trading Vazquez, the White Sox not only added youth, but freed up a considerable amount of money as well. Vazquez, 32, is under contract through 2010 and is set to earn $11.5 million in each of the next two seasons.
"Just because I'm talking about playing a more youthful team does not mean that we are sacrificing our goals of trying to win this division this year."
-- Ken Williams
Williams said that his moves to rid the ballclub of some expensive contracts this offseason, like Vazquez and Nick Swisher, have not been dictated by the weakened economy. But he did acknowledge Thursday that he's been aware of his payroll limitations.
"There are parameters that we have right now," Williams said. "And at least payroll-wise, we are bumping up against our break-even point as we sit here today."
Although Vazquez struggled down the stretch for the Sox in 2008, when he went 0-4 with a 13.22 ERA in his final four starts -- including a Game 1 loss to the Rays in the American League Division Series -- the club must now find a way to replace the 200-plus innings and double-digit victories he provided in each of the past three seasons.
But that doesn't mean Williams is necessarily on the hunt for another starter. As with his position players, Williams seems content to rely upon his younger arms to fill the two holes remaining in the rotation.
"When we went out and got Jeff Marquez [from the Yankees in the Swisher deal], that was with the mind-set -- that, at the end of the day, it made us, and me in particular, feel comfortable that, should we end up moving Javy, that we can put Marquez and [left-hander] Clayton Richard in the back of the rotation," Williams said. "Now that can only be done with the type of bullpen that I think we have, because you have to support those guys as they are going through some of their growing periods."
Along with Marquez and Richard, Aaron Poreda is also an option for the rotation. Although Poreda could be moved to the bullpen since the White Sox would not want four lefties in the rotation, Williams said the pitcher will begin Spring Training in a starter's role.
Having watched some of his recently acquired young players like Carlos Quentin and Ramirez find success, Williams is set to give his young players a shot to earn their spots for the '09 season. His goal has been to bring these young pieces together and then allow them to hopefully become a strong group for years to come -- similar to what the Twins and Rays have been able to do recently with their ballclubs.
But as a GM who has been very active at the Trade Deadline in the past, Williams isn't likely to just sit back and watch if his team isn't coming together the way he anticipates -- something that he alluded to on Thursday.
"Just because I'm talking about playing a more youthful team does not mean that we are sacrificing our goals of trying to win this division this year," Williams said. "Along the way, if they show you they can do certain things -- or cannot do certain things -- then you have built enough depth that you go out and make an adjustment."