I have long been a critic of Kenny Williams as a general manager. Whereas Scott over at the Juice saw a glass that was half-full when it came to his abilities, I saw a glass that was half-empty and with a hole at the bottom. From the Todd Ritchie trade to his continual misuse of resources (signing outmaker extrordinaire Royce Clayton and exiling Jose Valentin to third base because he made a few too many errors, thereby also burying Joe Crede in the minors longer than necessary...), Kenny Boy seemed in way over his head to me. He "got lucky" occasionally (Damaso Marte being Exhibit 'A'), but from what I could see the bad far outweighed the good.
Then, last year, everything clicked for the White Sox. Garland and Contreras developed; the defense gelled; a couple of bullpen guys had career years; Dye, Everett and Thomas combined for 1200 plate appearances; and voila, Chicago had a ticker tape parade. I will still give pitching coach Don Cooper far more credit for the title than Williams, but there was no denying that his moves for the most part worked. He was, it seems, learning from his past mistakes.
Now for most GMs, winning a title means that the time for learning is over. They've already reached the top of the heap -- what more do they need to do? Laurels are so comfortable too. If they weren't meant to be rested on, why were they invented?
Kenny Williams is clearly not most GMs.
In the most frantic MLB offseason in recent memory, Williams -- rather than coasting through, playing it 'safe' and bringing back the core of the champs intact -- has been one of the busiest movers and shakers, making two big moves and one smaller one, all of which look like clear wins for the White Sox, and all of which prove that Williams is still willing to learn and improve:
1) The Thome trade was a risky one, in the sense that Thome has health issues and that the Sox could lose some defense in center field. But Thome was one of two players on the market who fit the team's biggest need (left-handed power), and came with a cheaper price tag both in talent and dollars than the other potential solution, Carlos Delgado, fetched. If Brian Anderson proves to be what his minor league track record hints at (namely, Aaron Rowand Version 2.0), then one of those risks is dealt with. And while Gio Gonzalez is a tough prospect to lose, he is still a 20 year old kid with just one dominant season under his belt, who has yet to face the high minors acid test.
The old Kenny Williams traded guys like Gonzalez for nearly replacement level players like Ritchie; the new Kenny Williams gets Thome instead.
2) Damaso Marte was one of Williams' most successful acquisitions, so you'd think there would be some emotional investment in keeping him. Instead, after two seasons in which he started to show signs of breaking down (fluctuating HR and K rates, and some arm trouble), Marte gets flipped back to the club he was stolen from in exchange for extremely useful supersub-type guy Rob Mackowiak.
The old Kenny Williams traded for guys like Billy Koch because they threw hard; the new Kenny Williams trades away guys who throw hard before their flaws catch up to them and erode their value.
3) The third deal is the capper for me. It won't be official until all parties have passed their physicals (and given the involvement of Orlando Hernandez, that's no sure thing) but Tuesday night's swap of El Duque, Luis Vizcaino and Chris Young for Javy Vazquez was pure genius, especially when you consider that, like Thome, the Sox won't be footing the bill for his entire contract.
Vazquez's profile is similar to Freddy Garcia's -- a younger pitcher with some good seasons on his resume, whose value slipped a bit due to a couple of tough years. Vazquez brings far more to the table than Garcia did though when the Sox acquired him:
When you consider that it cost the Red Sox two of their best prospects to get Josh Beckett (another under-30 potential ace who hasn't quite put it all together), while it only cost the White Sox one top prospect, one swingman of indeterminate age and a 5.12 ERA in 2005, and one reliever whose strikeout rate has declined for two straight years, the trade just looks that much better.
The old Kenny Williams targeted pitchers coming off career years, and at the peak of their perceived value; the new Kenny Williams targets talented arms whose perceived value has dropped.
In just a few weeks (the best weeks of his professional life, performance-wise) Williams has added power hitting, rotation depth and bench strength to a championship roster, in exchange for nothing more than bullpen depth and prospects. With the powers in the AL East looking more and more vulnerable, Williams seems to have set his sights on a bigger prize than just a ring -- he's looking for a dynasty.
A lot can, and likely will, go wrong to keep him from that goal over the next 10 months, and it's entirely possible the loss of Gonzalez and Young could come back to haunt him. But that won't change the fact that Williams has put himself at least into the conversation, along with the likes of Schuerholz and Beane, when it comes time to discuss the best GMs in the game.