CHICAGO -- A couple of weeks ago in the Chicago White Sox clubhouse, Adam Eaton was ribbing Avisail Garcia about the fact that he was the senior position player in the White Sox organization in service time. Garcia just laughed it off as the White Sox hurried to get on the field and start getting ready for their game.
That might seem a little crazy. Garcia has been with the team since July 30, 2013, coming over in a three-way deal pulled off by Rick Hahn during his first trade deadline as the White Sox general manager. Which brings home something very simple about the 2016 White Sox: This, now, is Hahn’s team.
That’s a meaningful distinction because it’s important to remember the team Hahn inherited after taking over for Kenny Williams in October 2012, especially a lineup relying on past-their-prime veterans Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios. That first Hahn team lost 99 games, a 22-game decline that might have encouraged other execs to blast down to the foundation and try to earn a genius rep through a slow rebuilding program.
The problem is that wasn’t the job Hahn had taken on.
“We don’t get the luxury of an extended rebuild here,” Hahn said. “Those have been executed masterfully throughout the league, as we’ve seen, which is understandable. It’s just not how we’ve chosen to address things here over the years. The fact is, after the ’13 season, losing 99 games, having what was widely regarded as a bottom-tier farm system, and having several players on the roster who were older, some contracts that were rather sizable, we had to make a choice: Do we go with the five- to seven-year full rebuild? Or do we try to turn this thing a little more quickly?”
Hitting the reset button might bring the benefits of better draft position -- and revenue-sharing money – and might protect your draft picks from free-agent investments. But it also risks chasing away fans and sponsors, potentially hampering your ability to maximize your profitability with local revenue.
And doing that in one of the biggest of big markets -- Chicago? As an executive, you might ultimately reap some genius laurels. It even worked out for Dayton Moore with the Royals, years after he’d been reduced to a national punching bag by my fellow statheads for talking about “the process” when it didn’t seem that his team's three-decade absence from the postseason was ever going to end.
Instead, the White Sox made a hard choice, and for them it might have been the only choice while operating in a market where they don’t have Wrigley Field to draw fans no matter what the master plan might be. And this year, Hahn’s fourth, is being played and won with the roster Hahn has designed.
So you look at today’s outfit, with Adam Eaton -- picked up in a Hahn trade in December 2013 -- giving the Sox one of the best leadoff men in the game. Jose Abreu -- signed by Hahn in October 2013 -- is the roster’s centerpiece slugger, and the latest additions, Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie, provide additional power. Melky Cabrera -- signed before the 2015 season – has also rewarded the Sox’s faith in him; after the break last year, he put up a .782 OPS. And finally, the Sox might have a lineup that can produce to make regular winners out of their one-two punch atop the rotation.
“Starting off with that ’13 team, at least having Chris Sale, having Jose Quintana, that gives you a pretty decent starting point,” Hahn acknowledged. “And then being able to very quickly add Abreu to the mix, and Adam Eaton helped us make that transition. But we still knew it was going to be a multiyear process. Not of the magnitude of the full rebuild, but instead one that would be able to pivot much more quickly.”
Another key for the White Sox has been getting better production throughout the lineup, a matter of design meant to correct last year’s short-sequence offense that saw the bottom three slots generate just a .628 OPS.
“It was important to us this past offseason to, how shall I say it … level off portions of our roster,” Hahn said, managing to be politic and pointed about previous problems. “We had a number of players, other slots in the lineup, that were not keeping the line moving, so to speak. We wanted to make sure we didn’t have any dead spots.”
A part of why the White Sox have a .722 OPS now over last year’s .686 is that they’re almost 50 points better from their bottom three slots in the order, and that’s without getting big numbers out of their catchers (Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro) and center fielder Austin Jackson in the eight-nine slots. Improvement may be relative, but as bad as the Sox were, they’re much better now.
That fix ends up creating a lineup not unlike last year’s surprising Astros team, which sprang into contention in part because of a lineup equipped with more power top to bottom -- the power to overcome mistakes late in games. It gives you a puncher’s chance, even once the game is in the hands of bullpens designed to erase opponents in the last three innings.
“Obviously, adding a guy like Frazier, Melky picking up where he left off in the second half last year, are big pluses. But we also wanted to make sure that, one through nine, we avoided carrying any negatives. In recent years, we’ve had too many holes in the lineup.”
You could note that without Sale’s 9-0 start, the Sox are “just” a .500 team. But you can do that with a lot of teams and their ace. (Shazam: The Dodgers are 13-20 without Clayton Kershaw.) Pick holes, and you’d risk missing the point that the White Sox are better built today to win games, something they’ve accomplished without the full teardowns we’ve seen in Houston -- or on Chicago’s North Side.
Which deserves a question: Isn’t that the harder job?
“I’ll go with that,” Hahn said with a laugh. “It’s my approach, it was Kenny’s approach, it’s Jerry [Reinsdorf’s] approach as well.”
And to be fair, it’s that win-now approach that did notch Chicago’s only World Series win in almost a century, back in 2005. If the White Sox earn a shot at another division crown, another pennant or another title, it will be because they charted the course that made sense to them, rather than retreat into an extended rebuild that may have left them forgotten as the Second City’s second team.