After a disappointing 2014 season, White Sox GM Rick Hahn contemplated a complete team teardown. But once owner Jerry Reinsdorf opened his checkbook, Hahn “won” the offseason with a series of splashy moves — which ultimately added only three wins in the standings.
This past offseason, Hahn again underwent some of the same soul-searching over the direction of the White Sox, debating everything from a complete rebuild to chasing some of the winter’s nine-figure free agents. Determining that the status quo wouldn’t get the White Sox into October and a teardown would set the franchise back, Hahn got to work. This time, however, the GM did so with a sneaky trade chased by a series of under-market signings (as MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes examined in his recent review of their offseason).
But even with the AL Central fully up for grabs, it will take more than a few extra wins to get the White Sox to their first postseason since 2008 — and to that end, the convivial Hahn turns stern, ensuring that no Pale Hoser’s place in the lineup is guaranteed: “There are no scholarships.”
With Cactus League games underway, Hahn takes time out to talk exclusively with MLBTR about his second consecutive busy offseason.
After 2014, you “won” the offseason with some pretty pricey deals/trades, signing Adam LaRoche, David Robertson and Melky Cabrera and dealing for Jeff Samardzija. The holes to fill arguably were as big after 2015, but expenditures were much more modest. What changed?
We certainly were “in” on several of the higher profile free agents this offseason, but ultimately we were unable to come to terms on a deal with which both sides were comfortable. It can be frustrating — especially from a fan’s point of view. However, there are several factors that go into these decisions – some of which are not economic-based.
For example, whenever I see a guy choose to remain with an organization with whom he enjoyed success and with whom he is comfortable, I have to remind myself that we were the beneficiaries of such decision-making back in 2006, when Paul Konerko chose to re-sign with us over other suitors. Frankly, it’s more fun to be on that side of the choice.
Did the offseason unfold pretty much as expected — striking hard with prospects to grab a super need in third baseman Todd Frazier, then filling in at a buyer’s market with Jimmy Rollins, Mat Latos and Austin Jackson?
Given the need – arguably one that has existed for the organization going back to Joe Crede or, perhaps, even [manager] Robin [Ventura]’s playing days – the talent, and the impact he could have in our clubhouse, Todd was at the top of our target list. Converting on him was essential to executing our offseason plan.
Some markets moved more quickly — like the catchers’ market — than others, like outfielders, and we had to respond to the pace accordingly. A couple of times we tried to speed things up. But in reality, the goal had to be to get the right mix by Opening Day, not by some artificial deadline, such as the end of the winter meetings or [January’s fan convention] SoxFest.
In the case of Jimmy and Austin, at least, players chose the White Sox over as good or better playing opportunities and/or salary. Does it ever tire, getting guys who are psyched to be White Sox?
[Laughing] I do like the idea of players electing to join us over other opportunities. We do our best to learn as much as we can about a player’s makeup before acquiring him, and some of our guys have certainly backed up their words about wanting to contribute to winning in Chicago being the most important factor in their decision-making.
You have a super-plum prospect in Tim Anderson. What’s the best-case scenario for his arrival date?
Given that he was coming out of a smaller program and had only really been playing baseball full-time for about two years, our original development plan for Tim contemplated full-season stops at every level. Based on the original plan, that would mean Timmy would spend essentially the entire 2016 season at [AAA] Charlotte. That said, the good ones have a way of forcing the issue or speeding up the timeline, so we’re going to remain flexible.
Is there anything the White Sox are doing differently with Tim, in contrast with Gordon Beckham — likewise a first-rounder shortstop who sped his way through the Sox system — eight years ago?
With regards to Beckham, one of the larger issues for him was that he never failed prior to getting to Chicago.
Obviously, you don’t want a player to struggle at any point in their career, but there is something to be said for them learning how to dig themselves out of adversity. Those lessons are much easier to learn somewhere in the minors and away from the scrutiny of the bright lights of the majors. Since struggles are inevitable in the majors for every player, there is a fair amount of benefit for them having gone through it in the minors, which prepares them to be able to adapt and rebound once it happens in Chicago.
The toughest call of the offseason had to be cutting ties with catcher Tyler Flowers [who had strong pitch-framing metrics]. Cutting him even briefly raised the ire of irascible-mode Chris Sale. On paper, it seems for roughly the same dough, your catching has gotten older and, at least defensively, worse. For a relatively conservative and loyal organization, the move surprised. Is your new catching platoon’s upside that high?
We see a fair amount of upside in the combination of Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro behind the plate. Obviously, this club struggled to score runs in 2015, and we weren’t comfortable just bringing back the same unit and hoping it would be better this time around.
From a defensive standpoint, both Alex and Dioner have received a great deal of praise from the pitchers who have thrown to them. While they may not post some of the framing numbers that we have seen in the past, considering the entirety of their offensive and defensive skills – which includes throwing out runners, pitch-blocking, and game-calling in addition to framing – we feel that it was overall a change that needed to be made.
Shortstop Alexei Ramirez seemed an easier call, at least in declining his $10 million option. How close did you come to bringing him back at lower AAV, or was a change of scenery the best for both sides?
As with the Flowers decision, this was another area that we felt it was time to try something different. Alexei was a stalwart for us for many years; however, we weren’t just going to bring back the same squad and expect things to be different.
No way around Avisail Garcia’s struggles last season, and you’ve often reminded us he’s just 24 years old. That said, what do you need to see from him this season — stats be damned — to feel good about committing to him in the future?
Avi has a world of talent and as you noted, is still only 24 years old. This is an important year for him, and we’re looking for improvement in terms of his approach. He has the aptitude to execute the plan that [White Sox hitting coach] Todd Steverson has put in place for him, which fundamentally is about him doing more damage on his pitches and laying off those that aren’t likely to lead to good results. He has been working diligently on some mechanical adjustments that we think will make this approach easier for him to execute. Thus far, with the usual “it’s only spring” caveats [10 hits, two homers, 11 RBI in his first 23 Cactus League at-bats] – he has delivered.
You have come across as doubleplus positive about Tyler Saladino, dating back even to his injury stints in the minors, and he was prepared to shoulder the starting shortstop role before you signed Rollins. In the case of both Tyler, who perhaps had cause to place a chip on his shoulder about entering 2016 as a starter, and Avisail, who had no cause for chip, what do you say to them now that their playing time almost certainly will be being squeezed by Rollins and Jackson?
We’ve been clear both internally and publicly that playing time will be earned here, so there really is no limit on the amount of time that either of those players could play in 2016 if they are producing. Robin knows that the lineup card is entirely his, and he should play whomever he feels gives us the best chance to win on a given night regardless of contract status, seniority or pedigree. There are no scholarships.
The White Sox, to their credit, simply do not rebuild. In my memory there has never been a teardown. Presumably it goes against the competitive instincts of you, Ken Williams, and all the way up to Jerry Reinsdorf. Is it a particular point of pride, entering every season with a true shot at a title?
Certainly it our preference to compete for the next immediately-available championship. However, we do not intend to delude ourselves. Any time you have a disappointing season, you have to look at all of your options, and this offseason we certainly considered going the “full rebuild” route. In the end, we simply felt we were closer to winning a championship by adding to the core we had already on hand than taking it down to the brass tacks and trying to reassemble a new core in the future. If for some reason we fail to meet our expectations again this season, it will be on the table once again next offseason.
There seems to be a lot of ninnied handwringing about the so-called “window of opportunity,” a.k.a. without Yoenis Cespedes you’re wasting Chris Sale’s prime. While not ignoring that one day Sale might be soft-tossing like Mark Buehrle, if you’re going for it every year, is the “window of opportunity” a false premise?
I actually do believe in success cycles, or windows of opportunity. However, there is more than one way to put yourself in a position to take advantage of an opportunity to win.
When you sign a guy like Latos, there is always an element that claims adding “him” will be the ruin of the club. Obviously there is due diligence, I believe to the degree you won’t even get on the phone or sit down with someone who would “ruin” the club. Has it ever happened where you sat with someone and walked away saying, “no way, not if my job depended on it?”
There are certainly risks in terms of clubhouse mix or chemistry that we would not take. However, if we based those decisions strictly on reputation or hearsay, as opposed to trying to get to know the player and his motivations directly, we likely would have missed out on a number of players who played large roles in our success over the years. A.J. Pierzynski and Bobby Jenks come to mind, to name a few.
We certainly have made an effort over the years to target team guys who prioritize winning. The fact is that I would expect every guy on the club to say that same thing. When you see recent comments like those made by Eaton, or Rollins and Jackson about their decisions to sign with us, it reinforces that our scouts are doing a great job evaluating character as part of their reports.
Fans can tend to be irrationally possessive of draft picks, certainly in reference to losing one to sign a free agent. Is this a silly worry, in that there literally is no free agent you would ever consider talking to who’s not worth losing a pick over?
Fundamentally, we are willing to sacrifice draft picks in order to make what we believe are significant improvements to the current club. While that did not happen this past offseason, we were in talks throughout the offseason that could have led to such. Plus, we did last offseason with Robertson and Melky.
Is there a deal you most regret not making?
The twisted part of this job is that you probably spend more time lamenting the deals that did not go the way you had hoped versus relishing in the ones that worked out. When things go well, it’s easier for me to see the scout, coach or analyst who made the recommendation or the positive contribution to helping the transaction work out than it is for me to see my role. When it craters, I feel the responsibility for the poor decision gone awry.
This year shapes up to be a tight Central Division race. Team you most want to beat: Royals, Tigers, Twins, Indians — or Cubs?
It’s all about winning the division. While we certainly want to win every night and there is heightened fan and media attention surrounding the crosstown series, the fact is beating the clubs in our division gets us much closer to our goal than taking games from a NL club.
In this day and age, do the White Sox have anything near a “number” that ends up being assigned to a player? We fans have WAR now, in spite of whatever imperfections and controversies; do the White Sox have their own secret sauce that breaks things down similarly, beyond the 20-80 scale or eye test?
We do not look strictly at one all-encompassing number. We look at a bunch of different metrics that we trust and combine it with the subjective evaluation.
Best movie shot at [Hahn’s high school] New Trier: Home Alone, Ferris Buehler, Uncle Buck, or Sixteen Candles?
I’ve got some built-in biases here. First of all, I currently live in the hometown of Joel (Tom Cruise) from Risky Business. Second, while not filmed at New Trier, The Breakfast Club was loosely based upon New Trier’s detention system, and I, myself, served time in a breakfast club or two during my high school career — although I only incurred a weekday before-school penalty or two along the way and never the full-day, weekend sanction showed in the movie.
In the end, I have to go with Ferris Buehler given how much of the city is covered, but those other two are close behind for me.
So, then: How freaking cool is it to be a major league GM?
This is something I truly to hope to do a better job of appreciating this season. It’s a pretty fantastic opportunity – especially being able to do it in my hometown – but frankly I need to do a better job enjoying the victories along the way.