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White Sox exceed diminished expectations

Next up: Raising them

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Having never experienced a premeditated rebuild since I started writing about the White Sox on a daily basis, I came into this season prepared for the arc of an ark. Gather as many farm products as you can, because an unbelievably long downpour is going to wipe out the previous way of doing things, and they better be fruitful and multiply afterward.

For a team undergoing a self-induced cataclysm, the White Sox were surprisingly enjoyable in 2017.

That’s a rather considerable qualifier, and for good reason. A better organization could have made competing with Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton an automatic “yes,” especially with the way the American League wild card turned out.

After years of unforced errors by a front office attempting to speed up the first reconstruction — poor pro scouting compounded by a leadership void at all levels, basically -- the White Sox learned they lacked the ability to build a winner out of this particular group.

In most organizations, that realization would be accompanied by a house-cleaning. In Jerry Reinsdorf’s, not so much. There were some tweaks at some levels, but the chief decision-makers remained in place, because that’s the way his ships are run.

That left White Sox fans to partially applaud their acknowledgement of their limitations, but without any benefit of the doubt that they could actually see another attempt through.

When the expectations are that low, it’s difficult not to clear them. This part of the process was always going to be graded on a curve.

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Case in point: Rick Renteria.

I had a difficult time reconciling the praise of Renteria with the idea that he wasn’t given a chance to lead a contender.

There was never a good explanation why the Sox deemed Robin Ventura the only manager suitable to oversee the first rebuild. The actual reason is probably found in an unrelated quote from 2008 cited by Ricky O’Donnell at Blog-A-Bull as he discussed the return of Doug Collins:

For a few days, it seemed certain Collins would be Derrick Rose’s first coach, just as he was Michael Jordan’s. There was only one reason Collins didn’t get the job: owner Jerry Reinsdorf was so close to him he couldn’t stand the thought of again firing his friend.

"I love Doug Collins," Reinsdorf told the Tribune at the time. "It's not a great thing for friends to jeopardize a relationship for business. And relationships with coaches always end at some point.”

Mr. T said it better: “Don’t get too close, man. It’s hard to pity a fool if you get too close.” For some reason, that understanding didn’t transfer over from one organization to another, and even as late as last month, Reinsdorf insisted that Ventura would still be the manager of this club if he wanted to be, which is the last thing White Sox fans wanted to hear.

Renteria would have been a perfectly apt choice to give the previous core a shot. He would’ve been an even better choice in January through June of 2016, but 2017 wasn’t too late. He had climbed through the minor-league and coaching ranks. He had previous MLB managerial experience. He was actually qualified and deserving of a job.

Instead, they chose him to oversee the rebuild, which ended up being surprisingly entertaining for a team that was outmanned on most nights. The distinguishing factor was a perceived increase in effort, deduced from the Sox making more games more interesting than they usually had a right to be.

As one of the last sayings Hawk Harrelson might ever coin goes, “Ricky’s boys don’t quit.” But did that mean Ventura’s did? And if so, how that was ever acceptable?

Or here’s Avisail Garcia, pointing to Renteria as one of the keys to his breakout season.

“He pushes everybody to do their best every day,” Garcia said. “No matter what happens, we prepare to win the game the next day. He’s a great manager. I’m happy he’s here with us. I love Ricky. He’s that kind of guy that pushes you every day. He’s that kind of guy that even if you don’t hit, he’s always got your back. Big, big part.”

Would Garcia have responded earlier with a more qualified manager? That’s a development that would have changed the complexion of the White Sox dramatically. We called him El Fulcro, after all.

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If this all sounds a little heavy for a season that won rave reviews for its watchability, I’ll have you know I surprised myself by the way this started. I had fun this season, too.

Certain developments have gnawed at me, though, along the lines of the things unsaid with the Renteria praise. Watching Sale relish pitching for a division-winner is one. Watching Jose Quintana revel in his first champagne shower is another.

I also missed writing about make-or-break decisions over the course of the season, because few things can make or break a rebuilding season. If Renteria called too many bunts or wrote weird lineups or entrusted the wrong reliever, or if a TOOTBLAN or poor throw ruined a night, it didn’t really matter, because the draft order was an effective consolation prize. Tanking makes for short-term fun, but nobody should want to spend more time than they have to around gallows.

Fortunately, the White Sox fared well with the one essential midseason event. The Quintana trade yielded Eloy Jimenez, who joined the White Sox and proceeded to make Winston-Salem and Birmingham look like high school parks, which is no small feat.

The addition of a top-five outfield prospect meshed nicely with the previous acquisitions. The White Sox gave a lot by trading Sale, but Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech developed like a dynamite combo this season. Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito and Dane Dunning all thrived after coming over from Washington in the Eaton deal. After years of abiding by international spending restrictions when every other team with know-how willingly accepted the overage penalties, the White Sox spent $52 million to land Luis Robert.

The front office might be largely the same, but the course of action and results look nothing like the old ones, which is good enough for now. It’s regrettable the Sox had to pick this direction, but I sensed the organization’s shame in resigning itself to rebuilding, from Renteria’s muted introductory press conference to Hahn’s conflicted winter meetings victory lap.

I think it’s a healthy shame. If nothing else, they nailed the first step. Or the second step, if admitting the problem is the first.

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Now comes the tough part. The White Sox face the challenge of keeping this year’s fresh air from going stale without the aid of necessary turnover. Barring a surprise trade of Abreu or Garcia, they seemingly have nobody left to deal. Assuming they stay on track with the full and proper rebuild, they will be only minor players in free agency.

There’s no reason to think they’ll change course, because Hahn has remained steadfast in slow-tracking everything. He was in the strange position of downplaying his team’s early success in 2017, and he wrapped up the year suppressing expectations for the coming season.

“We know we might be entering a slightly more difficult phase of this rebuild, and that is the phase where we have to allow this talent the time and patience to develop,” Hahn said. “With (Yoan) Moncada and (Lucas) Giolito and (Reynaldo) Lopez, there was a lot of people clamoring for them to come to Chicago and we had to remain strong and not bring them until we felt they were in the best position to have success.

“There’s going to be temptation again next year, whether it’s high-profile guys like (Michael) Kopech and (Eloy) Jimenez … or others on the fast track — that in order to get this thing right for the long term, we have to make sure they answer our questions that we have for them at the player development level before they come to Chicago. Ultimately, that may prove to be challenging.”

For the time being, no hope is still better than false hope. There’s something to be said for enjoying baseball by divesting oneself from the results. Two years from now, however, that balance will start to shift, and we’ll need to see the shape of the new world order, because a forced flood is only supposed to be a one-time deal.

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This concludes the regular-season programming for South Side Sox.

As always, thanks to everybody who makes it enjoyable to write about a 90-loss season. That starts with You the Reader, and You the SSSer. I’ve basically been thinking aloud for 12 years now, and that thinking would be far less complete if those thoughts had nothing to bounce off of.

Thanks also extend to Josh for running the South Side Sox Podcast and joining Larry, Patrick, Jimmy, Steve, Ken, Gus, Mike, HSA and Rob in filling out our daily and draft coverage. Also, thanks to Ted for introducing Sporcle Saturday into our weekly rotation, and Jonathan for being our man in Charlotte.

Beyond the site, I appreciate White Sox Twitter capturing things I missed, the beat writers hanging in during a tough environment for media, and BP South Side and FutureSox for the additional analysis.

If you’re new to the site, you should still keep coming here, because we’ll still have new stuff every day. We’ll disassemble the season, talk about the postseason, hash out offseason plans, track the hot stove, and more. Hell, the 1917 White Sox haven’t even started the World Series yet.