White Sox can still hope to follow Astros' rebuilding model — without coming close to doing what they've done off the field

Vinnie Duber
NBC Sports Chicago

Being like the Houston Astros seemed like a good thing.

It turns out looks can be deceiving.

One of baseball's dreamiest rebuilds, the transformation of 100-game losers into perennial World Series contenders, turned into a nightmare Monday, when commissioner Rob Manfred handed out yearlong bans to Astros general manager Jeff Lunhow and manager A.J. Hinch, the result of their inaction in the face of sign-stealing during the team's run to the 2017 World Series title.

The harsher punishments came shortly thereafter, when Astros owner Jim Crane fired them both.

So much for a lack of consequences. While the Astros, with their extraordinarily talented roster still intact even while their two bosses sat on the sidelines for a season, seemed capable of winning another World Series in 2020, Crane's upheaval of his organization casts a longer, darker shadow.

It remains true that no players are getting caught up in this, despite Manfred outlining the elaborate sign-stealing scheme as mostly "player driven." For the uninitiated, the Astros were found to have used a live feed from the center-field camera to decode signs given by opposing catchers to opposing pitchers, then banging on a trash can in the dugout to indicate to the batter what type of pitch was coming. They were found to be doing this during that postseason, as well, en route to a world championship. Lunhow and Hinch were both punished - and eventually fired - for not doing anything about it. There's speculation baseball's punishment could be even more significant for current Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was the Astros' bench coach in 2017 and had a hand in masterminding the entire operation. The Red Sox are currently under investigation for stealing signs during their run to a World Series title in 2018.

The punishments initially seemed to allow the Astros to remain well equipped to win it all again in 2020. Hinch's successor, at least on an interim basis, will be bench coach Joe Espada, a major league caliber manager who interviewed for multiple opening this winter, including the one on the North Side. Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and George Springer will all still, presumably, be able to hit. Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke will still, presumably, be able to pitch.

But a year of familiar faces at the helm seemed weatherable. An uncertain future accompanied by a significant culture change is something else entirely. Manfred's actions were unprecedented, sure. But Crane, it turns out, was the one who handed out the earth-shattering punishment, a seemingly necessary course of action to reboot a culture that even Manfred called out Monday.

"While no one can dispute that Lunhow's baseball operations department is an industry leader in its analytics," the commissioner wrote, "it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the ways its employees are treated, its relations with other clubs and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic."

Obviously, a full-scale rebuild does not require a toxic culture, and no one is accusing any other rebuilding squad of trying to emulate that aspect of what the Astros built in Houston. The Astros were not the only ones to undergo such a teardown and eventually reach the promised land. Look to the Kansas City Royals and Cubs before them.

The White Sox are trying to be the latest to make that kind of thing work, and after the kinds of loss-heavy campaigns the Astros experienced when Lunhow came aboard, they seem on the verge of using their own homegrown core of youngsters to power a surge into contender status. The White Sox likely hope their ascent mirrors that of the Astros.

Like the Astros' core built of Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Springer, Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez, the White Sox have amassed their own stockpile of homegrown position players: Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Michael Kopech and Nick Madrigal.

Like the Astros' moves for proven veteran pitchers Verlander, Greinke and Gerrit Cole, the White Sox have already added an accomplished front-of-the-rotation type from outside the organization in Dallas Keuchel, coincidentally a homegrown Astro who was a member of that 2017 World Series team.

Like the Astros' rise from a combined 416 losses from 2011-2014 and a nine-year playoff drought to World Series winners, the White Sox hope they can emerge from a combined 284 losses in the last three years and a playoff drought that's lasted more than a decade to reach similar heights.

But for all those parallels on the field, the White Sox will be happy if no parallels exist off the field.

Monday's actions by Manfred and Crane will dominate the headlines and conversation around the game for some time. But this isn't the first fallout of the Astros' ghastly behavior, not even the first in the last few months. The team's assistant general manager, Brandon Taubman, thrust himself into the spotlight in bizarre fashion when he taunted a group of female reporters, celebrating closer Roberto Osuna, who had previously served a domestic-violence suspension. The team then besmirched the reporter by saying it never happened before eventually - and clumsily - fessing up. (Taubman, by the way, was also punished by Manfred on Monday, placed on baseball's ineligible list.)

Teams don't need to act like this because they achieve success, and there should be no concern or any shred of anticipation that this could happen to any team seeking success via the rebuilding model. It's merely all laid out to show what's been going on in Houston, an organization that seemed to have everything figured out when it came to winning baseball games.

Things went from "be like the Astros" to "don't be anything like the Astros" pretty quick.

It's not impossible to do both at the same time. The White Sox can win like the Astros and not act like the Astros. In fact, they'll be expected to do just that.

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White Sox can still hope to follow Astros' rebuilding model without coming close to doing what they've done off the field originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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