Less than 48 hours after giving a rather substantial vote of confidence to Micah Johnson, Rick Hahn had to walk it back -- at least some of it -- when the White Sox announced a switch at second base on Thursday.
Even at the time, Hahn's answer about Johnson Tuesday read like one of his less artful dodges. He started safe, but ended on a too-strong note:
"There’s a balance. It’s important for us to build something sustainable to introduce our own young talent on a pretty much annual basis. The Braves did that on that long run of theirs, every year adding a homegrown piece that became a mainstay to their core as it evolved. That’s where we want to get to. We anticipate and hope we’re going to follow a model like that and have our own homegrown talent integrated in. At no point do we expect those guys to carry the load, so to speak. So our expectations for Micah and Carlos now in the rotation is on Day 1, you have to show up and you’re responsible for this. It’s a matter of performing up to their ability and showing progress and our ability to project out that they’re going to be the type of player their capable of being and they’re best served doing that at the big league level.
"It is a good problem to have. We’d much rather have options, especially at premium positions and Carlos is doing a great job. If and when the need arises in Chicago, we know that Carlos at the very least will provide quality defense and be a tough out. There’s some elements of Micah’s game you can’t replicate. The pressure he puts on a defense in the way he’s able to disrupt a pitcher’s rhythm which helps the hitters behind him when he’s on base. Which is why he’s here now and he’s the right guy."
Those in the media who took Hahn at his word on the last point were left scratching their heads when the news broke on Thursday.
Asked Hahn about Johnson/Sanchez on Tues. He called Micah "the right guy" now, but it seems a change already was under consideration.— Doug Padilla (@ESPNChiSox) May 14, 2015
The Micah Johnson thing...did not see that coming. Damn. They're not messing around.— Chris Rongey (@ChrisRongey) May 14, 2015
Dan Hayes' Twitter page illustrates the divide between words and action the best:
And yes, Hahn's words at face value make his actions look impulsive and capricious at best, which isn't what you'd want from somebody in charge of others' careers. So he had to pull back the curtain a little and admit that the public-facing general manager can be an unreliable narrator when cornered:
"We’re not going to show all our cards, or reveal that we’re going to make a change in the coming days," Hahn said. "I don’t think that’s real productive to maximize a player’s performance. At the same time, we have consistent conversations with our players about where they sit and what we’re expecting. And while I’m sure Micah was disappointed with the ultimate decision, I don’t think he was surprised that it was a possibility or didn’t foresee it as a possibility."
That was my sense of it -- Hahn wasn't going to let a rookie twist in the wind, so any demotion was likely to come without advance notice. Likewise, I'd have assumed even without Hahn's assurance that he gave Johnson some measure of courtesy that he didn't afford the media.
Operating without assumptions, if Hahn pulled a Steinbrenner and acted on a whim, sure, it would have been unfair to Johnson. But a change seemed in the offing even with Hahn's vote of confidence because the existing situation was too unfair to everybody else in the equation.
Unfair to Johnson: At first, I was kinda bummed that this happened just as I got the idea to add "Batman" sound effects to his GIFs.
But, as Steve mentioned, he only played 107 games above A-ball, and he didn't exactly light up Triple-A. The Sox took a chance that his loudest tool would make its own sauce, but it turns out he doesn't yet have the skills to make use of that speed. The Sox took the risk, he did what he could, and it didn't help either side. The Sox could have pulled the plug faster, but it's also easier to imagine them taking even more time, and that would've made people sour on him unnecessarily.
I'm sure the perks of MLB life outweigh the "unfairness" of being exposed at the highest stage, but at least the expectations for him at this point in his career are now reasonable. Charlotte makes a lot more sense for his career path, whether it's taking a jackhammer to his defensive mechanics at second, or perhaps taking it to the outfield.
Unfair to the pitchers: On at least a couple of occasions, Jeff Samardzija had to check himself from being too critical about Johnson's defense -- once with a physical reaction during spring training, and once with a quote about the play of the infield ("We definitely need to not make this harder on ourselves").
Samardzija isn't alone. Robin Ventura acknowledged it as well, saying, "The friction that happens if [poor defense] keeps happening, it's not good."
Speaking of which...
Unfair to Robin Ventura: There's already enough on Ventura's plate during this disappointing start, so featuring an overmatched player when there are more suitable alternatives is the way to go. It's one thing to help rookies assimilate into the big leagues and adjust to the speed of the game but it's another thing to have to coach them up:
Ventura alone has spent many hours working with rookie second baseman Micah Johnson on his footwork, hand location and overall mental approach to a position he’s still trying to get better at.
Besides that nugget from Bruce Levine, Steve Stone said on 670 The Score that Ventura's also doing the same thing with Conor Gillaspie at third base. If this were an evaluation year first and foremost, this might be a big part of the position. But the Sox fashion themselves as a contender, so it'd be cool if the manager were supplied with more players who have prepackaged skills.
Unfair to Carlos Sanchez: I understood why Johnson was so appealing to the Sox and the media, but even accounting for that, I'm not sure why Sanchez was disregarded to such a great extent during spring training. Johnson did make a helluva first impression, but it's like nobody read "The Tortoise and the Hare." Sanchez ended up outhitting Johnson over the course of the spring, he outdefended him, and he had a month of MLB experience while Johnson was on the shelf ... and yet Sanchez was always the second choice.
Now, it's entirely possible that the Sox think Sanchez won't meet even his modest offensive ceiling, and that's why the Sox were cool to the idea in March. If so, maybe Sanchez ultimately gained from the Sox' first decision. Starting Johnson created such an extreme skill deficit at second base that Sanchez can help plenty by being a mere constant.
Settling the tab like this makes it seem like a no-brainer. It's fair to the guy who was demoted, it's fair to the guy taking his place, and it's fair to the manager, and it's fair to a sector of his teammates. The only party that didn't benefit from the timing of this decision was the beat writers , and it'll be fun to see if this about-face changes the way new looming decisions are treated.