SoxFest kicks off at 4 p.m. today, and it should be largely free of acrimony. Granted, the Q&A sessions will never be as heated as they were in 2005, but a 99-loss season could have brought back memories of Red Lacquer Rooms past, even if in a muted form.
Perhaps the crowd will be more disgusted than anticipated, but the 2013 White Sox crashed so hard and fast that they afforded Rick Hahn and friends enough time to get them back on an upswing. They might be miles from cruising altitude, but there's been enough activity to gain some distance from the wreckage.
There are still reasons to gripe -- Adrian Nieto doesn't really change the catching complexion, and Adam Dunn remains for at least a few more months -- but intrigue with Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton could be enough to cover for the persistent trouble spots.
Much like the 25-man roster, the SoxFest lineup got younger in a hurry. In recent years, you could write out the next season's batting order and rotation before Christmas, and those certainties were enough to stock the autograph tables. This year, there's a thin line between Chicago and Charlotte at several spots, and the Sox are rolling with it.
So Erik Johnson gets an invite, which isn't a reach. But he'll be joined by players who are a notch or four below him on the lock ladder -- Josh Phegley could be crowded out with a trade (or Adrian Nieto), and Marcus Semien will probably have to firm up his game in Triple-A before getting an everyday opportunity.
Furthest away from Chicago is Micah Johnson, who has yet to cement himself both as a hitter and defender in Birmingham. Those gaps in his game have kept him out of most top-five White Sox prospects lists, but he'll be at SoxFest. That's a departure, but it's cool. He's an engaging guy coming off a couple of noteworthy accomplishments, and Scott Reifert said fans had a "terrific reaction" to him during his September visit to U.S. Cellular Field.
If you want to fit all this into a narrative (go nuts! I do!), you could call it a next step in the White Sox's acknowledgment of their farm system. It's been a gradual process -- developments like the hiring of Marco Paddy, the new CBA, and the transition from Kenny Williams to Hahn have coalesced to lift the farm system out of the cellar. The road map over the next year has a number of previously established major-league positions in flux, a No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft, and larger domestic and international spending budgets.
"It's a fantastic opportunity for the organization," Hahn said. "It was an awful season to sit through to get to that position, but come next June and in next July's international signing period, we are going to have huge benefits for the organization. We do feel in '12 and '13, when we maxed out amateur spending -- close to $10 million in '12 and $7-8 million last year -- we have been able to add to our system. We're starting to build from within.''
For Sox fans who haven't seen much incentive in following the minor leagues, now is a pretty good time to tune in. SoxFest may help some of them get caught up on the backstory.
Erik Johnson and Semien called season-ticket holders on Thursday. Semien looks like he's having some fun. Johnson looks like he's working on commission.
Johnson looks a little less under-the-gun in the accompanying video.