The last White Sox rebuild: Bobby Howry remembers aftermath of '97 'White Flag' trade

The last White Sox rebuild: Bobby Howry remembers aftermath of '97 'White Flag' trade

Bobby Howry wasn't aware of the fact he was part of one of the more infamous transactions in White Sox history until a few years after it happened. 

In 1997, with the White Sox only 3 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cleveland Indians, general manager Ron Schueler pulled the trigger on a massive trade that left many around Chicago — including some in the White Sox clubhouse — scratching their heads. Heading to the San Francisco Giants was the team's best starting pitcher (left-hander Wilson Alvarez), a reliable rotation piece (Doug Drabek) and a closer coming off a 1996 All-Star appearance (Roberto Hernandez). In return, the White Sox acquired six minor leaguers: right-handers Howry, Lorenzo Barcelo, Keith Foulke, left-hander Ken Vining, shortstop Mike Caruso and outfielder Brian Manning. Only Foulke had major league experience, and it wasn't exactly good (an 8.26 ERA in 44 2/3 innings). 

Howry was largely oblivious to the shocking nature of the trade that brought him from the Giants to White Sox until, before the 1999 season, he was featured in a commercial that referenced the "White Flag trade."

"I don't even know if I knew it was called that before then," Howry recalled last weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago at Cubs Convention. 

The trade was a stark signal that youth would be emphasized on 35th and Shields. Both Alvarez and Hernandez were set to become free agents after the 1997 season, and the 40-year-old Darwin wasn't a long-term piece, either. With youngsters like Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee rising through the farm system, the move was made with an eye on the future and maximizing the return on players who weren't going to be long-term pieces. 

Sound familiar? 

It's hardly a perfect comparison, but when the White Sox traded Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox in December for four minor leaguers — headlined by top-100 prospects in Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech — it was the first rebuilding blockbuster trade the organization had made since the 1997 White Flag deal. Shortly after trading their staff ace at the 2016 Winter Meetings, the White Sox shipped Adam Eaton — their best position player — to the Washington Nationals for a package of prospects featuring two more highly-regarded youngsters in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. 

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And there still could be more moves on the horizon, too, for Rick Hahn's White Sox (Jose Quintana has been the subject of persistent rumors since the Winter Meetings). But for those looking for an optimistic outlook of the White Sox rebuilding plans, it's worth noting that the club's last youth movement, to an extent, was successful.

Only Howry (3.74 ERA over 294 games) and Foulke (2.87 ERA, 100 saves over 346 games) became significant long-term pieces for the White Sox from those six players brought over in 1997. And it wasn't like Schueler dealt away any of the franchise's cornerstones — like Frank Thomas, Albert Belle and Robin Ventura — but with future starters in Lee, Ordonez and Chris Singleton on their way the White Sox were able to go young. A swap of promising youthful players (Mike Cameron for Paul Konerko) proved to be successful a year and a half later. 

And with a couple of shrewd moves — namely, dealing Jamie Navarro and John Snyder to the Milwaukee Brewers for Cal Eldred and Jose Valentin — the "Kids Can Play" White Sox stormed to an American League Central title in 2000. 

"It was great," Howry said of developing with so many young players in the late 1990's and 2000. "You come in and you feel a lot more comfortable when you got a lot of young guys and you're all coming up together and building together. It's not like you're walking into a primarily veteran clubhouse where you're kind of having to duck and hide all the time. We had a great group of guys and we built together over a couple of years, and putting that together was a lot of fun."

What sparked things in 2000, Howry said, was that ferocious brawl with the Detroit Tigers on April 22 in which 11 players were ejected (the fight left Foulke needing five stitches and former Tigers catcher/first baseman Robert Fick doused in beer). 

"About the time we had that fight with Detroit, that big brawl, all of a sudden after then we just seemed to kind of come together and everything started to click and it took off," Howry said. 

The White Sox went 80-81 in 1998 and slipped to 75-86 in 1999, but their 95-67 record in 2000 was the best in the league — though it only amounted to a three-game sweep at the hands of the wild-card winning Seattle Mariners. 

Still, the White Flag trade had a happy ending two and a half years later. While with the White Sox, Howry didn't feel pressure to perform under the circumstances with which he arrived, which probably helped those young players grow together into eventual division champions. 

"I was 23 years old," Howry said. "At 23 years old, I didn't really — I was just like, okay, I'm still playing, I got a place to play. I didn't really put a whole lot of thought into three veteran guys for six minor leaguers." 

Don Cooper's 'eyes lit up' watching White Sox prospect Michael Kopech

Don Cooper's 'eyes lit up' watching White Sox prospect Michael Kopech

There are bittersweet emotions because he's no longer Chris Sale's pitching coach, but Don Cooper is excited about the future of the White Sox.

The team's veteran pitching coach joined the White Sox Talk podcast on Tuesday and said even though he's sad see Sale go, it's hard to overlook the talent the team has received in return. Last month the White Sox traded their five-time All-Star to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for four prospects, including Michael Kopech. The club also added Lucas Giolito and two other pitching prospects in a trade for Adam Eaton. 

"When I saw Kopech, my eyes lit up," Cooper said. "Not only is he a big strong son of a gun, the stuff out of his hand is really good, life, energy stuff. He's just untapped talent right now. He's 20 years old. But he's already moved up the scale. 

"Delivery-wise it was like, 'Whoa.' Everything I like, he does. ...

"If he stays healthy he has a chance to be a killer."

Cooper also has high hopes for Giolito, baseball's top pitching prospect in 2016, who posted a 6.75 ERA in six big league games last season. He discounted Giolito's struggles as a small sample size and hopes to maximize the pitcher's talent.

"He still has his good stuff," Cooper said. "We've got to mix it up. We need more strikes. We need more consistency."

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Cooper also noted that the stuff of Reynaldo Lopez, acquired with Giolito and Dane Dunning from Washington for Eaton, caught his eye. Combined with the pitching prospects already in the organization, Cooper thinks the White Sox have a talented farm system.

"Looking around, all of a sudden, combined with the younger pitchers we had in the system already, the injection of these guys that Rick (Hahn) has traded for, it's giving us a stronger, stronger system," Cooper said. "We’re amassing a lot of good talent."

Cooper said Sale is the most talented pitcher he's ever coached and he'll miss their everyday relationship. He described Sale as one of the 10 best pitchers on the planet. But Cooper hasn't been surprised by any moves since the White Sox allowed Mark Buehrle to leave via free agency. 

"It's sad that Chris is gone because my individual everyday relationship with him is over as a coach," Cooper said. "But the exciting thing is one of the reasons, the excitement of the guys you get back in return.

"It was mixed. 'Listen man, I'm sad you’re leaving because of that, the relationship. The everyday relationship is no longer there. We're friends.' I know this guy. I've seen every pitch in the big leagues he's thrown. 

"When you get to see every pitch and you're with them every single day and that relationship is over, it's sad in some ways. But this has happened before. It happened to Buehrle. If it can happen to Buehrle, it can happen to everybody."

White Sox plan to give prospects more time to develop

White Sox plan to give prospects more time to develop

Out of necessity, the White Sox in the past often expedited a prospect's development plan to get him to the big leagues to fill a vacancy. Carlos Rodon, Carson Fulmer and Tim Anderson are the most recent examples of young players whose paths were sped up in order to potentially play a big role for a contending club.

But now that they're enduring their first rebuild in nearly 20 years, the White Sox say they plan to change the way they operate. With no immediate designs to contend for the postseason, general manager Rick Hahn's focus on the long-term health of the organization will extend to player development, where the White Sox intend to take more time with minor leaguers. While the team's current crop of top prospects — three accrued service time in 2016 — could easily reach the majors next season, the White Sox say there's no rush. They've decided to embrace their position and will essentially slam on the brakes for the betterment of their young players.

"No guy is going to get to Chicago until we feel they’re ready to have success at the big-league level, that they’re ready for that finishing element of their development that happens at the big-league level," Hahn said last week at the Winter Meetings. "No one’s going to be promoted any time in the foreseeable future simply because there’s a need at their position."

Zack Collins offered many pluses when the White Sox selected him with the No. 10 pick in the 2016 amateur draft. Not only could he potentially be the team's catcher of the future, but Collins' plate approach is so advanced he could have found himself in the majors as a designated hitter by as early as mid-2017 if all went well.

Given 2017 was expected to be the third year of their contention window, Collins potentially gave the White Sox another left-handed hitting option.

But now that they're focused on the future and only the future, Hahn said the White Sox will take their time and try to develop Collins' catching skills. He's likely to start 2017 at Single-A Winston-Salem.

"If he was a bat-only player he would come more quickly because the bat is more mature, more close to big league ready than the receiving," Hahn said last month. "However, we think he has a very good chance to be an everyday catcher with a premium bat and we're going to take the time to bring along the defense at the rate it requires."

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The same goes for infielder Yoan Moncada, who after a meteoric rise through the minors had 20 big league plate appearances in 2016. Acquired from Boston in the Chris Sale trade, the White Sox want Moncada, 21, to work on his defense and plate approach. He could start next season at Double-A Birmingham.

While Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez both pitched for Washington last season, last week Hahn said both are likely to begin 2017 in the rotation at Triple-A Charlotte. Same goes for Fulmer, who was in the majors last July, only 13 months after he was drafted. After he struggled in a relief role in the big leagues, Fulmer rebounded with three great starts for Charlotte to end the 2016 season. While Fulmer is close enough to ready for the big leagues, the White Sox may prefer for him to further develop in the minors and force the issue.

The past two seasons the club promoted Rodon and Anderson with the idea that they would take their final development steps in the majors. Each was needed to fill a critical void for a team hopeful it could reach the playoffs. Both have made tremendous strides and proven to be very capable big leaguers. Both also at times exhibited signs they could have used more development in the minors.

But now that they're rebuilding for the first time since 1997 that same rush isn't as likely to occur in the short term. It's the advantage of the White Sox knowing where they're headed and embracing the plan.

"Perhaps the last couple of years, we’ve walked out of these meetings and addressed a number of holes at the big-league level and you get that excitement about wanting to see it all come together," Hahn said. "Your time horizon was much shorter. You were only a few months away from putting it together and seeing it on the field. This is going to be a lot longer than a few months. ...

"It’s going to be about putting them in the best position for their long-term development.