This is the second half of an interview with White Sox GM Rick Hahn, conducted by MLBTR contributor Brett Ballantini. Click here to read Part I.
In the second part of the conversation, Hahn addresses the disappointing 2016 season that drove his team’s rebuild, the Hall of Fame chances for all-time favorite Mark Buehrle, and a truly unexpected text received last July:
You were best in the bigs along with the crosstown Chicago Cubs on May 9, but plummeted from there, as the seventh-worst team in the majors after May 9. Was there a specific moment during the free-fall where the brain trust said, “we know what we have to do,” or did the season end with you still unsure whether it would be another all-in winter?
We knew what we wanted to accomplish [as of] last July. However, we did not feel the opportunities were quite robust enough at that time to pull the trigger on multiple fronts. The desire to make dramatic moves to more rapidly further this rebuild was strong. But we had to resist the urge to make deals that might have declared that we were embarking in a new direction, but really didn’t provide us with what we felt were adequate returns for some of the players we were discussing back then.
When the team got off hot, what were you feeling? Was it, “Jeez, this is great, smiles all around,” or are you more a worrywart concerned that Mat Latos’ BABIP is unsustainable?
I don’t want to make it sound like we did not enjoy the 23-10 start last year. We did. We were winning a lot of ballgames late and were getting some tremendous pitching performances up and down the staff. However, all of us are trained to kind of be prepared for what could go wrong.
Even in the midst of that run, we made the decision to let John Danks go. Even while six games up [in first place], we felt that the back end of our rotation needed some sort of further reinforcement beyond the addition of Miguel Gonzalez, and that the bullpen was getting severely taxed. We were concerned about some areas of depth where we lacked sufficient reinforcements in the minors. Unfortunately, each of those areas of concern turned out to be valid as spring turned to summer.
Noting that injuries did not help matters, was the 2016 White Sox catching production anything more than a black hole scenario from your perspective? Framing appeared to crush the starting staff, particularly lefties Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon. Clearly releasing a plus-framer in Tyler Flowers on the hunch that Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro would be an overall-plus move did not work out. Has your analysis of catchers/catching changed or evolved coming out of 2016?
We obviously did not get what we were hoping for out of our catching last season, but that extended beyond a framing issue. I do have to say, for all the abuse that Tyler took from certain segments while he was with us, it is nice that he is at least now getting some credit for his framing ability, which he worked very hard at.
The decision last offseason was based upon a desire to inject some added run-scoring ability into an offense that badly needed it, without too many feasible avenues open to doing such. We knew that would come at the expense of some of the framing numbers, but we also view a catcher’s defensive contributions more broadly. Framing is certainly important, but so is the ability to throw out runners, block balls in the dirt, know our pitchers, and adjust game plans on the fly, among other things. In the end, we did not get as much out of the change as we anticipated because we did not get the performances that we expected—not because we were oblivious to the exchange we were attempting to make.
When we talked a year ago, you acknowledged that one regret about your former first-rounder Gordon Beckham is that he never tasted failure until the majors, which ultimately worked against him. Tim Anderson was expected to play all of 2016 in Charlotte, but got the call at midseason and impressed across the board. Assuming that players getting a taste of failure is a key element in your decision to give him the call up to the White Sox, it can’t be as simple as waiting until a guy has a 15-K week or gets bombed in two straight starts. Is there an element of a player’s makeup that most impacts your decision to “rush” him to the bigs?
The makeup element to this is huge. You are correct that we, like most clubs, view failure in the minors as part of a player’s development. More precisely, learning to respond to adversity outside of the glare and scrutiny of the majors will likely serve a player well once he inevitably encounters similar hardships in the big leagues.
With Tim, he did have some small slumps during his time in the minors, and he certainly had to make some adjustments along the way. But from an ability standpoint, it was clear he was ready for the final stages of his development, which occurs at the big league level. Prior to bringing him up, we had a number of conversations with Buddy Bell, Nick Capra (who was our farm director at the time), and others in player development about whether anyone had any doubts that Timmy could handle it. Everyone believed in Timmy’s makeup and ability to cope with the adjustments required as any player makes that transition. Obviously, his performance was strong, but how he handled himself was even more impressive.
Pitching coach Don Cooper has had remarkable success with diagnosing even the smallest quirks preventing a pitcher from maximizing his potential. Is Lucas Giolito just a Coop camp away from resetting himself back into a breakout MLB arm?
Sure. I like that. Look, we’re excited to see all these new guys work with our coaches. Not just in the coming weeks in ML camp, but throughout the season. They each have some development left ahead of him, but we have the luxury of being patient with them, to allow our coaches to work with them, and to give the player time to be put in the best position to maximize their abilities.
Rick Renteria had a sneaky-great season managing the Cubs in 2014, and got a really tough break losing that job when Joe Maddon became available. Was Rick already on your radar by that time, as a guy who would project as a great pilot? What did he show you with the Cubs that made you want to get him in a White Sox cap—and how were your observations or hunches confirmed when he worked under Robin?
Ricky had a sterling reputation with coaches, players, and front office people alike going back to his San Diego Padres days, and was likely on a list somewhere in most front offices at that time. We had heard about his work ethic, ability to teach, passion for the game, openness to new ideas and debate, and communication skills over the years, but it is difficult to really appreciate that until you are working with him. Sox fans are really going to like and appreciate what he brings to dugout over the coming years.
You worked closely with Mark Buehrle for years, and in 2003 and 2007 you negotiated extensions with him in turbulent waters. With his almost-stealth efficiency, Buehrle comes in around 52 WAR across Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus measures, with a no-hitter, perfect game, and win-save in the World Series. Is he a Hall-of-Famer?
I’m allowed to still be a fan sometimes, right? Good. Sure, Mark Buehrle is a Hall-of-Famer. I say that with complete bias and 100% based upon the fact that I loved watching him pitch. Objectively, I realize that the true answer may be a little different, but for these 30 seconds, I don’t care. Mark was a great White Sox, a tremendous teammate, and a joy for all of us to watch during his time with the club.
What is the weirdest moment you’ve had as GM?
One afternoon last summer, I was filling in as first-base coach for my son’s Little League team because one of his coaches had a conflict. It was playoff game, the team was making a nice late rally, and the whole thing was a great little escape for me.
Then my phone started blowing up. After a text from [manager] Robin Ventura that read, “No. Actually, he’s cut up all the jerseys,” I knew my little escape was over….
Follow Brett Ballantini on Twitter @PoetryinPros