In our Q&A one year ago, GM Rick Hahn admitted that he considered a full rebuild for his Chicago White Sox. But with the encouragement of executive vice president Ken Williams and owner Jerry Reinsdorf, he reloaded the team in 2016 for one more run at a title. That effort got off to a scorching start, with the White Sox surging to a 23-10 record in early May that found them second only to the Cubs in all of baseball.
From that point, things went downhill. From bizarre controversies like superstar lefty Chris Sale refusing to pitch in a throwback uni to underperformance from key acquisitions like catchers Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro, by midseason Hahn knew it was time to chart a different course.
The 45-year-old exec was the belle of the ball at the 2016 Winter Meetings, swapping Sale and breakout outfielder Adam Eaton in bang-bang deals that netted Chicago four players who dot Top 100 prospect lists from MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America and ESPN: uberinfielder Yoan Moncada and fireballer Michael Kopech from the Red Sox for Sale, and ace-caliber arms Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez from the Nationals for Eaton.
After those lauded swaps, the full rebuild was stopped in its tracks, as 29 other GMs decided to let Hahn’s hand cool at the trading table. With admittedly four deals that still need to be made in 2017, Hahn took his ear from the Batphone long enough to chat a bit about where the White Sox are, and where he hopes they’re heading.
In the first part of our conversation, Hahn addresses the decision to rebuild, and how important it is for him to “win” trades:
After the 2015 season, a rebuild was on the table. But you and Ken, with Jerry’s backing, felt close enough to a title to add to the core. While the 2016 record didn’t show improvement, at season’s end the core was unchanged, and arguably strengthened by Todd Frazier and Tim Anderson. But this offseason you’ve traded your two top WAR players in Sale and Eaton, and the direction is decidedly different. Why?
While obviously this offseason we decided to take the club in a different direction, the decision was the result of the same analysis we do virtually every offseason. Each offseason we attempt to look at where we are as a franchise as objectively as possible.
This involves asking ourselves are we close, realistically, to winning a championship? What are the areas we need to improve upon in order to get to where we want to be, and how available are those pieces—either internally or externally? Based upon a series of these discussions, we felt taking a longer-term view would be more beneficial to the franchise overall than attempting once again to piecemeal the thing together with a shorter-term view.
While we certainly felt the same frustrations as any Sox fan with our recent attempts falling short, the decision to pivot now was based more on an objective evaluation than emotion.
Ken was renown as an all-in GM, and you spent your first four offseasons as GM in some form of win-now mode. Knowing how hard it has been to accept the reality of a rebuild, that to whatever degree it represents organizational failure, was it hard—even depressing—to arrive at this offseason’s rebuild?
As I talked about earlier this offseason regarding the congratulations we were receiving from other clubs at the Winter Meetings after the Sale trade, it’s actually a quite humbling feeling. The fact is that we were not able to win with Chris, among other talented players, heading up the top of our roster. We all regret that fact, and none of us relished the idea of moving him.
However, despite that regret, seeing the talent that is starting to come in the door is exciting. The idea of building something from the ground up energizes not only those of us in the front office, but our scouts and player development people, as well as employees in other departments throughout the club as well. There is a certain level of excitement that comes with new direction, and it’s something we look forward to building upon over the coming weeks and months.
The Cleveland Indians are tough and appear to have used this offseason to get a lot tougher. For a variety of reasons, the rest of the AL Central is wide open. When you see how the offseason has wrangled out, does any part of you want to say, “Uh, Dave Dombrowski, Mike Rizzo — want to flip Sale and Eaton back to Chicago?”
No. We’re trying to build a team that can contend for championships on an annual basis. As much as we want to put ourselves in that position as quickly as possible, last year’s club won 78 games, and to believe that the same group was suddenly going to morph into a perennial powerhouse without augmentation would require a level of wishcasting that we’re trying to avoid.
You’ve been cool at the poker table this offseason. Perhaps too cool, because it seems that while you still have a stack of chips, all the other GMs got a little jittery and left. The Sale and Eaton deals came quick, and then, crickets. You’ve admitted that you intended to continue turning over the roster, but so far, no dice. Ken is famed for his “we were five minutes from going another direction,” and you yourself handled at least one such deal where A.J. Pierzynski had essentially bought his bus ticket to L.A. before you ushered him back to the White Sox for 2011 with some cocktail-napkin negotiations. Were there some deals this winter that were one dropped signal or one email to spam from happening?
We’ve been clear throughout that if we had our druthers, we would knock out four more transactions that would advance the organization towards our goal as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for us, it’s not only our desire that drives the timing of these deals. My eagerness, or Kenny’s or Jerry’s, cannot be a factor in determining when to pull the trigger on a deal. It has to be based upon feeling like we are maximizing the value in a deal—not just forcing something home.
But, yes, we did have two deals—with different clubs, involving different players—die at the ownership approval stage when the other clubs decided in the end that the deal did not work for them. That’s unfortunate, but it happens. It’s also part of the reason that I never handicap the likelihood of a deal taking place when asked—nothing is completed until that final call is made. Far more deals fall apart for one reason or another than ultimately get consummated.
When you look back on these two blockbusters in years to come, what will it take for you to judge either trade a win?
We really aren’t looking to “win” deals. Instead, hopefully, all of our deals work out well for both sides. Given that we are at a different spot in our competitive cycle than the Red Sox and Nationals currently enjoy, there is certainly the chance of them to reap significant benefits now, and for us to do the same later.
In terms of judging deals from our own perspective, we try to look at the process and the decision as opposed to the result. That is, based upon everything we knew at the time, was it a good decision? Now, obviously, it’s pretty much impossible to ignore the performance after the fact, but ideally we use that performance to illustrate what we did right—or unfortunately, at times, wrong—in making the decision to move player X for player Y.
Part two of MLBTR’s Q&A with Rick Hahn will run tomorrow afternoon.
Follow Brett Ballantini on Twitter @PoetryinPros.