The Chicago White Sox are no longer mired in mediocrity. Development hasn’t been linear and the money hasn’t all been spent, but parades and banners are still on the agenda; with pitchers and catchers reported on Wednesday, Rick Hahn emphatically stated to assembled media that his roster is “extremely upbeat and focused.”
Tim Anderson and Lucas Giolito have offered similarly effusive praise in recent days about their ball club, which seemingly has arrived. The collection of talent taking part in workouts at Camelback Ranch in Glendale is ready to embark on a very exciting campaign. “The excitement is palatable,” Hahn said.
Fans should want sports executives to clearly and concisely state goals, and while the White Sox decision-makers never have offered up a firm timeline throughout the course of the rebuilding effort, actions speak much louder than words. It was essential for the organization to tear down in order to build back up. Rebuilding is an often necessary evil in sports without billionaire hobbyists running every franchise.
There were some bumps along the way, and the club’s activity this offseason left some observers wanting more, but the White Sox have arrived and the reward for anguishing defeats and misery is on the precipice.
“As we sit here today, the goal is to win a World Series championship,” Hahn said referring to a championship-or-bust mindset. “If we fall short of that, it will be a disappointment. We’re obviously living in a unique world right now, and if we fall short of that goal we’ll certainly want to look back and figure out why and what factors influenced us falling short.”
Four years ago, the White Sox decided to make some franchise-altering decisions when they shipped off Chris Sale, Adam Eaton and José Quintana while also prioritizing development and talent accumulation. Whether they truly did enough on the margins is up for debate, but the organization today is in a much better spot than it was when the house of cards crashed to close out 2016.
“When we traded Chris Sale, the goal was to win championships,” Hahn repeated. Such a statement seems counterintuitive, but the White Sox were stuck in baseball purgatory. They had a team that wasn’t good enough to contend, propped up by some high-level talent on modest contracts. The farm system was barren, and the overall development model was fractured.
Free agent trends haven’t shifted drastically at 35th and Shields, but outside of a sterile ownership group providing a 2011 equivalent payroll, the organization is on track to produce like a winning operation throughout the next decade. Chris Getz had made noted gains on the player development side. Nick Hostetler, Ben Hansen and others have the pro scouting side undergoing significant change. And Mike Shirley’s staff will prioritize upside when scouting amateur talent.
In December 2014, the White Sox pulled off a significant trade with the Oakland Athletics that brought right hander Jeff Samardzija to the South Side. In the same offseason, the Sox signed the top closer on the market in David Robertson, with a four-year pact. Melky Cabrera rounded out the group, and the Pale Hose were declared the winners of the winter. In a similar fashion, Hahn and Williams prioritized a veteran starter, closer and outfielder six years later.
Lance Lynn, Liam Hendriks and Adam Eaton are the primary additions for the Sox this year. It’s a similar process as 2014, and the payroll number is in range as well. But that’s where the comparisons end.
In discussing the maximization of his available resources, Hahn said, “We’re not immune to the financial impacts the pandemic has had on everyone.” Hahn noted that the front office had necessary room in the budget to attack their needs, however.
While trading controllable prospects for Cy Young contenders on short-term deals and spending at the top of the market for relief pitching gives some fans flashbacks, the organization is much more equipped to handle such moves. MLB Network recently released their Top 100 players in baseball, and the White Sox landed nine players on the list. (The franchise will add four Top 60 prospects to their club as well.) Not included in the Top 100 were southpaw starter Dallas Keuchel and high-leverage relief options Aaron Bummer and Evan Marshall.
Projection systems and betting models are generally optimistic about the White Sox playoff hopes as well. They are one of the favorites in the American League. It’s a really good baseball team, and everyone involved knows it. Going 35-25 in an abbreviated 2020 season was a start, but the entire organization is expecting more going forward.
“Making the postseason was extremely important,” Hahn said. The architect of this group surmised that “leaving that particular experience unsatisfied,” however, is a development that will keep the team hungry in 2021 and beyond. The organization as a whole is ready to flip the switch and do everything possible to contend for the American League Central, clinch a pennant, and ultimately a world championship.
“It makes all of us happy for me to be able to sit here four years after the Chris Sale trade and legitimately have World Series aspirations. That’s not wish-casting; not us through rose-colored glasses. That’s realistic. That’s how the league views this team,” Hahn said. He also noted that while the White Sox have accomplished a great deal since charting a new path, the job isn’t yet complete: “We haven’t accomplished anything until there’s another banner above Guaranteed Rate Field.”
Questions about the manager were prevalent on the first Zoom call of the spring, and Hahn’s praise for Tony La Russa was effusive: “I’ve been extremely impressed with Tony.”
Questions about the hiring process were respectfully dodged, and the tension regarding the managerial decision is on the back burners with the focus rightfully on the players and staff. The assembled coaching staff is a positive development, and the 76-year-old Hall of Fame manager surrounded himself with quality coaches. The organization is just ready to move forward on their quest for a title.
Hahn also noted that they’ve been in contact with free agents throughout the offseason but indicated that any further additions would be of the minor-league variety. With guaranteed spots locked in pretty much across the diamond, the organization isn’t exactly teeming with opportunities for outside additions in their price range.
While the club is improved from last year, the addition in right field is questionable and there’s a gaping hole at designated hitter to start the year. The White Sox are betting on a bounce-back season from Eaton in conjunction with Adam Engel and Leury García. Zack Collins and Yermín Mercedes could finally receive a chance to crack the lineup. The pitching depth consists of Dylan Cease, Carlos Rodón and Reynaldo López as perceived roster locks.
Prospects will play a role, however, and the White Sox are betting on their highly-ranked reinforcements in a big way. “If we’re going to build something sustainable, build something that has a chance to compete annually, part of that is the introduction of young players at the big league level,” Hahn said. The 1990’s Atlanta Braves were referenced as a team that sustained success by constantly injecting young players into the mix.
“[Atlanta] introduced a young player every year,” Hahn said. “We want to be able to do that, and part of creating a run like that is adding young players. There’s not always going to be a veteran answer for a perceived need or hole on our roster, in part because we want to give these young guys a shot [to see] what they’re capable of doing and introduce them to the core we’ve put together.”
Andrew Vaughn and Michael Kopech are two young prospects expected to contribute in Chicago this season, in addition to Garrett Crochet and Nick Madrigal. After opting out of the 2020 season and not pitching in the majors since 2018, Kopech is in Glendale and ready to return to the mound. Hahn declared that the soon-to-be 25-year-old is “physically and mentally in a really good spot right now.”
When asked whether Vaughn could be in the majors as soon as April 1 in Anaheim, Hahn was emphatic once again: “Andrew Vaughn is very much in the mix to make this club. That may strike some people as a little non-traditional, in that he hasn’t had at-bats above High-A yet. A lot of things would have been different had there been a minor league season last year, but one of the most prominent things, had there been a season, I don’t think there would be any question in anyone’s mind that Andrew Vaughn was prepared to contribute to the big league level over the course of the 2021 season.”
It’s a questionable process, and the elite teams generally insulate themselves more aptly, but the White Sox are betting on their infrastructure. Taking a gamble on premium talent is better than leaving the cupboard completely bare, as have South Side “contenders” of the past. Jerry Reinsdorf is a firm believer in the mantra that “organizations win championships.”
Despite the arbitrary spending constraints put in place by the ownership group, the White Sox organization will attempt to prove that motto true.
“In the end, it’s about winning a ring,” Hahn said. “Fans are going to celebrate and accept this team if we’re able to win a ring. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”