Like most White Sox fans, I’ve spent the winter trying not to think about the elephant in the dugout—the elephant the Sox are stuck with for three more years, and to whom they still owe $44 million.

What a difference a year makes. Last December the Sox were crowing about the slugging free agent they’d signed, and everyone was crowing along with them. “Adam Dunn figures to be a monster signing for the White Sox,” Daily Herald sportswriter Bruce Miles wrote prophetically.

About the time the Sox signed Dunn, they also re-signed Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, who’d become free agents. “If you’re going to be all in, you go all in,” Sox GM Kenny Williams said.

Dunn’s total contract was $56 million for four years. The Occupy Wall Street protesters would tell you that’s too much money for any single person to make—but remember, it’s gross, not net. By the time your agent and accountants and the IRS have gotten their mitts out of your wallet, you’re buying your Porsches on eBay.

Williams told reporters he signed Dunn because of his “consistency.” Dunn did prove remarkably consistent last year, hitting .160 in the first half of the season and .158 in the second half, while whiffing with Herculean efficiency against lefties and righties, starters and relievers, at home and away, in the afternoon and at night, with the infield shifted or tweeting. The Big Breeze was finally benched late in the year, which threatened his pursuit of the club single-season K record of 175, set by Dave Nicholson in 1963. But in the last week of September, he was given one more chance at designated misser. He didn’t disappoint at disappointing, fanning nine times in his last 11 official at bats, giving him 177 Ks in only 122 games.

Hindsight is 20-20, of course, a vision one wishes Dunn had. But in retrospect, and not to overstate it, the signing of Dunn thus far looks like the single worst decision by a general manager in the history of sport.

After “all in” last year, the slogan this season likely will be “dream on.” Because of Dunn’s performance, and also that of coconspirators Alex Rios, who hit .227 and is owed $36 million over the next three years, and Jake Peavy, who gets $17 million this season after winning seven games last year, owner Jerry Reinsdorf declined to further raise the team’s debt ceiling. So Williams had to cheap it out this winter. Gone are three key players, and their salaries, with nothing but air replacing them. At least it should be easy getting good seats this year, even in the dugout.

Soon, Sox players will report to Glendale, Arizona, for season 2 AD, and we’ll learn how this subtracting-by-subtracting approach plays out on the field.

On the one hand, the Sox have lost their top starter (Mark Buehrle), their closer (Sergio Santos), and their right fielder (Carlos Quentin).

On the other hand, the Sox now have a lot of other hands. The hands are attached to arms, young arms, arms with great torquing potential, powered by strong scapular muscles that have, one hopes, only modest arthritis. Arms that have shut down sluggers on diamonds in this nation, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

The new hurlers include Nestor Molina, Simon Castro, Pedro Hernandez, Jhan Marinez, Myles Jaye, and Daniel Webb, all in their early 20s. Unless you’re a minor league fantasy baseball addict, chances are these names are new to you.

Scouts don’t rave about them. “A long way away,” “projected middle reliever,” and “raw” are among the assessments. The Tribune‘s Phil Rogers, who saw Castro pitch in the 2010 Futures Game in Saint Louis, recalls “a big, powerful, overly amped guy throwing a lot of too-straight fastballs.” The reports on this youthful corps make me think of the great Casey Stengel’s appraisal of one of his young players: “He’s 20, and if he works real hard, in ten years he could be 30.”

Molina, acquired from the Blue Jays for Santos, has gotten the best reviews. A 23-year-old right-handed strikeout artist with control, he was converted to a starter last year. He likely needs another year on the farm.

The Sox also recently signed a Venezuelan pitcher named Luis Martinez, who doesn’t even turn 17 until a few days from now. According to Baseball America, Martinez is already six foot four and “gets good downhill angle” on his fastball. That’s the angle the Sox will be specializing in this season.

Williams brought in Robin Ventura, the team’s former star third baseman, to replace the departed Ozzie Guillen as manager. Ventura never has managed at any level, but Williams was impressed with his affordability.

So the future looks bleak, fellow Sox fans—but you never know. There’s a reason they play the games (money). Dunn could bounce back. You’d think he surely will, given how awful he was last year. But that’s what we figured after the first half of 2011.

The only good news this winter, and the club’s only large outlay: Williams locked up southpaw John Danks for five more years for $65 million. Since this is more money than Dunn’s getting, maybe the Big Breeze would like to renegotiate? Williams should offer to tear up his contract.