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1-on-1 with Pedro Grifol: White Sox manager talks what went wrong during 2023 season

Vinnie Duber Avatar
October 2, 2023

After a while, Pedro Grifol decided he’d done enough talking.

“Enough with the talk,” he said in mid September. “Nobody wants to hear the talk anymore. Everybody just wants to see us win baseball games. I’m not going to sit here and promise anything, because nobody wants to hear it. They’ve heard it for a long, long time. It’s about us winning baseball games.

“I’m done with talking about any type of core or talent or talent on paper. I’m done with that stuff. We’ve got to prove it there (on the field). That’s the only place that everybody in this building (comes) to see us play. They want us to prove it. They don’t want us to prove it in front of a microphone. That doesn’t mean anything to me. That doesn’t mean anything to them.

“We’ve just got to prove it on the field.”

He’s right. But he wasn’t able to just stop talking, of course. That’s part of the job of a major league manager, to meet with the team’s beat writers and other media members before and after every game, to answer questions and provide constant updates on what’s going on.

And so even though he didn’t want to try to prove anything with words, he offered up plenty of them during a 1-on-1 sit down with CHGO Sports on the second to last day of what ended up being the fifth 100-loss campaign in White Sox history.

Whatever you think of Grifol — and I’ve seen enough vitriol in my Twitter mentions this season to know there’s a portion of the fan base who has a very strong negative opinion of the man as a manager — he opened himself up to questions and offered explanations for what went oh so wrong during an outrageously disappointing season on the South Side.

As his predecessor, Tony La Russa, often said, explanations can often come across as excuses. These aren’t those, as difficult it might be to convince those most frustrated fans.

But I think they’re important to hear. As I told Grifol before our interview began, I consider a large part of my job description to be telling fans what’s going on and why the White Sox are doing what they’re doing. This is that, Grifol explaining in his own words why things went the way they did in 2023 and what the White Sox are going to do moving forward.

Hopefully, fans will give this a read — or listen to the audio version of the interview on our CHGO White Sox podcast — and gain something from it. I did, even if I already knew about Grifol’s dedication to getting things right on the field and off it.

Will it work? That, as Grifol says, is for the wins and losses to decide, to be proven on the field starting next March.

For now, I’ll be thankful that his want to stop talking didn’t get in the way of this conversation, which is presented below in its entirety, with questions trimmed, at points, for brevity and clarity.

Why didn’t the vision you had for how this team was going to play and what it was going to be like materialize?

“A lot of things happened. And none of them are excuses. This is not an excuse-making session. None of it’s excuses. Between me learning them, them learning me, injuries, heartbreaks, tough losses, tough streaks, we never really got a chance to even breathe.

“We played well the first series. Came in here and got our butts kicked against San Francisco. And then we left to Pittsburgh and Minnesota, played OK but lost four out of six. Came back again for Philly and Baltimore, I think it was four out of six, too, that we lost. And then we went on that horrific road trip that we lost seven in a row. Ended up losing 10 in a row. And then never really bounced back.

“I don’t really have an answer to that. All I know is that is not our style of play that we envisioned, and it’s definitely not the style of play that we will have moving forward. That’s the only thing I can say about it. It’s a very tough question that I don’t have a complete answer to, other than, at times we did and at times we didn’t (play the right way). We’ve got to be better, way better, in that regard.”

Sometimes fans could see a lack of effort, a lack of want from the players, especially after things went so poorly in the first month of the season. Did you see some of that? Did you see a lot of that? And were you surprised? What was the attempt at a solution moving forward on that front, specifically?

“I guess you can talk about it now, but you couldn’t talk about it at that time because it would probably give competitive advantage. A lot of it was that our guys were hurt. And we spoke prior to, ‘Whatever percent you’re available at today, that’s what I want you to give me.’ Those are things that I’m not going to go on the record after a game or prior to a game and say, ‘So and so can’t give me this because he’s nicked up.’ And that happened a ton, more than what I ever envisioned or have ever been a part of.

“But these guys are talented, and I want them in the lineup. I said this over and over again, ‘I choose the bat over the legs. I’m not expecting so and so to run, because I choose the bat over the legs. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t play them.’ That happened a lot. This is not an excuse. Injuries played a big part of that.

“And then there were some lapses, too, there were some lapses of lack of focus. But I’m to blame for that, because I’m the one that’s got to fix that and address that. I’ve never hid from that. All I know is that we’re fixing it. Was it a lot? More than what I would want but not as much as the perception is.

“I think the perception has been steadily increasing over the years, and it’s magnified. I don’t compare ourselves to any other club or anything like that, but it’s kind of the way of the game a little bit. But it’s not the way we envision our game. I’m not comparing myself to other teams, but it’s almost like, ‘Oh, this is how we’re supposed to play.’ No, it’s not how we’re supposed to play. And that’s something that I’m going to bear down on.”

On the field, we saw a lot of the same things we saw a year ago that contributed to the disappointment a year ago and contributed to the record this year. How does that get cleaned up on the field? And in the clubhouse — in guys’ heads, maybe — how do you guys clean that aspect of things up, as well?

“That’s not that hard to do, I don’t think. Our guys, for the most part, are really going home healthy and ready to go. There’s some guys that are still nicked up, but nobody’s going home, as of right now, to really rehab anything, they’re going home to prepare themselves for next year. The mindset’s going to change. That’s pretty simple. Our approach, the mindset.

“I hate talking about this because I’ve talked about it before, and it didn’t transpire this year so why would anybody believe it will transpire for next year? But it’s just time to go show it. I’m not going to sit here — there’s nothing I can say. It didn’t look good, it hasn’t turned out good. We’re fixing it.”

Can those same guys make it look good?

“Yeah. They can. Now, there’s no guarantees to anything. A winter is a winter, and a lot of things happen in the winter. So Chris and his staff will assess it, look at it and put the best team on the field. But can those guys? Those guys have the talent to do it. I think it’s important for the health part of it to be on point. If it’s not, then that’s a tough ask. Health is really important with this club, really, really important.”

You’ve talked about you and Chris Getz very much being on the same page. How much input are you going to have on the front office bringing in the kind of players that you want to have in the clubhouse? Or is it just that you guys are so on the same page that anything they do, you know will be done the right way?

“I trust his judgment and his vision 100 percent. I’m here for any communication that he wants to have. We communicate a ton, so far. But I trust him and the people they’ve brought in. We see things the same. So I don’t need to be involved in day-to-day or anything like that. He sees it, he knows what he wants, we’re aligned, and he’s going to do his thing. He’s really good at what he does.”

Is it a different vision than his predecessors, Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams, the guys who hired you?

“Yes and no. Talent is talent. Everybody sees talent, and everybody knows talent wins. We’ll see on that. There’s a possibility. He’s been down here in the clubhouse, as a player. He knows how this thing breathes. So he’s got his ideas. And he’s a good leader, and he’s always been a good leader. He knows what’s needed down here. So yes and no. Not sure yet, that part we don’t know.”

We heard a lot at the trade deadline, that those moves that were made were a positive in getting the clubhouse to where you want it to be. Was that necessary, to make the changes, to get it to where you wanted it to be?

“I don’t know how many games under we were at the deadline, 20 under? Those moves were made to make us better, talent-wise. Those guys, as everybody’s seen, those guys were going to other clubs, and they’ve done well and helped other clubs do what they wanted to do. And in return, we stocked up our system at the upper levels, and they’ve made us better going into ‘24 and ‘25.

“So if it happens that way, that the environment’s better, then so be it. But that’s not why the moves were made. The moves were made because we were 20 under, the chances were slim that we were going to be able to make a run at this thing, and there’s only one trade deadline. You only get one opportunity. And at that particular time, it was the right thing to do to acquire young talent at the upper levels that can help us move forward at the upper levels in ‘24 and ‘25.”

What did you learn about managing this team?

“A lot of the stuff, I can’t talk about. I just can’t. And even if I could, I don’t want to, because I don’t want to continue to — it’s about wins and losses. We’ve got to go out there and prove it.

“On a personal note, I’ve been in this game a long time, and I’ve gone through 162 games. But you don’t really realize how long 162 games are until you sit in this chair. At the beginning, it was almost like day to day. ‘If we lose, it’s the end of the world,’ as opposed to, ‘It’s a long season.’ I don’t think it affected the leadership, but I think it maybe affected me mentally. I took every single loss really hard. And I should, but there’s another game tomorrow. That front, I’ve gotten better at in the last couple months, for sure, and I need to be really cognizant of that next year: knowing where we’re at, going out there and competing, flushing things.

“I need to do what I preach, flush it and move on. I need to do that, too. I take losses hard. It’s not caring less, because that’s not what it is, it’s understanding that there’s a process to 162 games and things can change quickly, for the better and for the worse. But they can definitely change for the better. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

“A 7-21 start for a first-year manager with a team that’s supposed to be competing, it was tough. But I’ve learned how to deal with it. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve written down a lot. I’ve reflected a lot, and I will continue to do that. And I will be 100 times better next year for it. This is what I love to do, this is what I was born to do, and I’m grateful to have this opportunity to do it again. I am. I’ll be slightly different, and this will be different.”

Given the circumstances, obviously there’s a lot of talking about what went wrong. But what are you proud of? What do you think you did well this year, you and your staff?

“Myself and as a staff, we stayed calm. When I talk about taking losses hard, I’m talking about taking losses home. And you’ve got to flush those things at home. It can’t be 24/7, just because the mind doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to be able to turn it off a little bit and then come back and turn it back on. But in the midst of the storm, we never wavered in our work. Everybody stayed calm.

“The staff did a really good job of just continuing to teach and work and be relentless with that and prepare. That can be questioned, because we didn’t win, but the preparation was really good and the work was really good. These guys out there really worked. Very few times did I have to say, ‘We need to pick it up,’ as far as the game preparation and the pregame. That part I’m really, really proud of.

“I’m really proud of some of the individuals out there that developed as individuals: Luis Robert, Moncada, TA in the midst of his adversity and what he learned and how he got through it, Dylan Cease going through some adversity and finishing strong. There are some good things on the individual front. And my messaging is that all our successes are tied together. We need to turn this thing around and watch how everyone benefits from a winning ballclub and a winning environment.”

While Oscar Colás was struggling, you routinely talked to us about what was bothering you about the way he was playing. Fans see, or have the perception of, similar mistakes being made by other players, specifically a lightning rod this year was Tim Anderson with the numbers that he put up. We didn’t hear the same kind of language from you in regards to him or some other players. Fans want to know: What is the difference?

“The difference is that Tim Anderson’s been in the league for a long time and he’s done it over and over and over again. And he got ample time in the minor leagues to develop. Oscar hasn’t.

“Oscar got here quickly. He spent two years in Japan — nobody knows how he was developed over there — got here and moved up quickly. I think prior to this year he had maybe 50 at-bats in Triple-A? It wasn’t much. However you want to put it, no matter how good players are, they’re either going to go through adversity in the minor leagues or they’re going to go through adversity in the major leagues. You’re going to go through it at some point. He went through it up here.

“He went through it early on, things started to speed up for him, he needed to go back down and just reset. He did some of the things that he needed to do down there, not 100 percent (of them), but he did some of them. Let’s give him another shot and see where he’s at. At some point, you’ve got to try it, you’ve got to see where the development is. And then when you come up here and routinely make the same mistakes, it’s just an indication to where: The talent’s really good, he’s a part of the future, but we need to continue to develop that talent down there, in a place where it doesn’t affect him mentally.

“This is a tough level when you’re not having success, and it can work in many, many different directions. And it’s not just physical, it can work on the mental side. A lot. To now where you’re going to have to address the mind and the physical stuff. And we didn’t want it to get that far. ‘Just go down there and continue to work and continue to develop.’ He’s going to go to winter ball and continue to develop there.

“But every case is different, everybody’s different. Tim had success in the minor leagues, was there a while. Had success in the big leagues, has been here a while having success. He’s facing some adversity, you don’t send him down. For everybody else, for that matter, they’ve had success. Robert has had success here, Eloy’s had success, Moncada. All these guys have had success here. So it’s not comparable.

“This kid (Colás) just needs to continue to develop in an environment where it’s not everybody on top of you every single day just detailing everything you do right and everything you do wrong.”

And as I’m sure you would not only agree with but confirm, just because you’re not saying stuff to us reporters doesn’t mean that you’re not saying stuff to players, right?

“Correct. With me, that is going to be 100 percent the case. I’m not the type of manager that needs approval from the media or to show the media or to show anyone that I am doing the things I need to do to try to right this ship. I’m not that type. I don’t need that. I’ll wear it. I’m never going to share my meetings with media or anyone, the meetings that I have with the club or with individuals. I’m never going to do that. That’s not who I am.

“So many times I’ve had friends or people hint or people tell me, ‘Hey, why don’t you meet with the team?’ I might be doing that, I might not. But it’s happening, it’s just something I’m not going to share. That’s just not how I’m wired. I believe what happens in here stays in here. And if it means people are talking negative about it, that’s fine. I’m comfortable. I’m comfortable in my own skin knowing I’m doing what I have to do to — individually and as a team — to try to right this ship.”

You have a catching background, obviously. What have you seen from Korey Lee this year that would indicate that he’s capable of having that No. 1 catching job for an entire season?

“He’s got every characteristic to be a really good major league catcher. He’s smart, he calls a good game, he leads. He’s curious about his pitchers, about their personalities, about what makes them tick, what they can and can’t do. He’s curious about it, and that’s part of being a good catcher, you’ve got to be really curious about the guys that you’re catching. And when you have that type of curiosity, you develop great relationships. And when you develop relationships, they know that you care and they can trust you. It just frees them up to just pitch. That’s the catcher’s job. And he has all those characteristics, all of them.

“Now he has a ways to go. But I was just happy and thrilled that he was able to get these last five weeks he’s been here under his belt so that we can learn from this and be ready to go in the spring. And he’s got to compete for a job, we’re not going to just hand it to him. He’s got to compete. But he’s certainly got every characteristic of becoming an everyday guy.”

We’ve heard in the past that pitchers are very receptive to every single bit of information and coaching they get. And we’ve heard in the past that hitters are not that way, they rely on what they know because it got them to this point. Have you found that these hitters have been receptive to what you and your coaches have had to say?

“It took a little bit, just because you have to develop relationships. And when guys have had success or some form of success, it’s hard to make changes and it’s hard to develop relationships because it’s about trust. The one thing that every single player wants to do is hit and be great at hitting. There’s still a ways to go on that end. But there has been some strides made, on the relational part, on how we want our offense to roll, really. But there’s not really much that we can hang our hat on and say, ‘We’re headed in the right direction,’ because we haven’t performed, as a group, enough to say that.

“But as individuals, there’s been some positives. Obviously, Robert had a great year, and he’s just now tapping into his ability. And he knows that the one thing he worked on this year that maybe he hadn’t that much in the past was his plate discipline and his zone discipline. He knows that’s what’s going to make him either great or just an average or above-average player.

“Moncada, after the injuries, has shown now what he can be. Again, he’s done it before. I think the injuries really affected him, especially when you have a back injury. It’s tough to recover from it, and it’s tough to even get back to feeling like normal again. And he has, for the last 40-some games. Eloy’s been off and on, but he’s shown ability to just be an aircraft carrier. He can carry a team.

“TA, I really believe his knee injury affected him. And once he was facing adversity not hitting, it affected him mentally, too. ‘Why isn’t this happening?’ And then it becomes mechanical. It was a tough year on the injury front for us. Vaughn is just tapping into his potential. He’s young. I think he’s going to cap out at a level where we’re all going to be really happy with him.

“So as a group, we haven’t really clicked together, but there’s a nice core here that can get some things done, we just need to continue to work on it. We’ve got to work. We’ve got to continue to work, they’ve got to continue to buy in, and we’ve got to continue to get creative. It has to happen.”

You told us throughout the whole season how we haven’t seen the real Andrew Benintendi. What is he at his best?

“We’re going to see him next year at his best. He had that hand injury last year where he was rehabbing all offseason, couldn’t get in the gym to do what he normally does. He’s talking about that already, that a big part of this offseason is getting that strength back that he normally comes into spring training with. That’s a big part of his game. The bat-to-ball skills are elite, controls the strike zone. It’s all a matter of now building himself back and having the strength that he’s had in years past, where he comes in and he drives balls because he was able to get after it in the offseason.

“This was a tough year for him, when he had that hamate (bone) and he had another injury. It was a tough year. And I can’t tell you how many times it was a 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock decision whether he could play or not. It happened a lot. I send that lineup out the night before, and it would be like, ‘I don’t know if he can play. I’m going to send it out with him on it. And if he can’t, he can’t, and if he can, he’ll stay on it. I’ve got to send something out. I don’t want to not put him on there and then have to take somebody out and add him.’ I can’t tell you how many times that happened because of his hand. He was hobbling to the All-Star break, and the All-Star break really helped him.

“Knowing what I know, he’s had a good year. And I say that comfortably, and I say that because he deserves for me to say that. He hasn’t complained about it one time, hasn’t talked about it one time. He’s just, ‘If I’m playing, I’m playing. And I’ll play with pain, no problem. I’m playing.’ Even when he wasn’t playing, it was, ‘Hey, if you need me, I’m in there.If you need me, I can play defense.’ A few times, it was, ‘I can play defense and I can run, but I can’t hit.’ He’s a tough kid, he’s a really tough kid.

“We haven’t even come close to seeing the best of Benintendi here, not even close. But we’ll see it.”

Whether it’s about Benintendi or not, a thing that gets asked constantly is: Would that have been a reason to put him on the IL? Or Player X, if they’re dealing with an injury like that?

“If you put him on the IL and after that period it would be fixed. But if you’re going to put him on the IL and after he comes back it’s going to be closer to the same, then play through it. And those are decisions that the players make.”

Even if it’s clearly hampering the ability for them to produce the way they want to and you want them to?

“OK. But produce they’ve produced in the past. You’ve got to weigh in, ‘Does it help us right now, too?’ That production that he’s been giving us has helped us. He’s got 35, 36 doubles. He’s still running a .330, .345 on-base (percentage). He still runs the bases extremely well. You can count on him in left field. He still produces at that level enough to be in the lineup every day.

“When players want to play and they say they can get through it? Let them go. Especially guys like him that have been through it before and played through some stuff before.”

Plenty of mystery right now about what your rotation might look like next year. What is your read on what Ethan Katz is going to be able to do to, come Opening Day, be able to deliver a rotation you can count on?

“Ethan and (Brian) Bannister. Bannister was a great acquisition for us. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I know that Bannister and Ethan together, with Gene and Chris and Josh and them up there acquiring players and doing what they know how to do, we’re going to look better, we’re going to be better. As far as Kopech, him and Bannister have a history back from Boston. That in itself is a positive. This is all based on trust. And when a pitcher has trust in a coach or in a couple of coaches, things just get better quickly. The ability’s there, the talent. He’s performed at a high level in spurts. So I’m really looking forward to seeing what Bannister and Ethan and our pitching department can pull together here, because I know we’ll be better.”

You’ve talked a lot about the time for talk being done, about promising people what’s going to come. The answer’s on the field, right, with wins and losses?

“Which is contradictory to what I’m saying because we’re talking about it, right? You get asked questions, you’ve got to answer them. But it is about wins and losses on the field. That’s what it’s about.”

Where that was going was: If a potential free-agent acquisition is sitting here, or a guy you pick up in a trade, or even the guys in the clubhouse right now, and they want to know, ‘Skip, what kind of team are we going to be next year?’ what would you say to them?

“‘You’re going to enjoy yourself. We’re going to play a good brand of baseball. You’re going to enjoy yourself. We’re going to have a good time winning baseball games.’ And to him, I’ll explain it. To you, I’m done explaining it because it’s about proving it. It’s not about talking about it anymore. But to the player, I’ll explain how. But nobody wants to hear how. They just want to see us do it. That’s the reality of it. And that’s what I would want as a fan. ‘Stop talking to me about how you’re going to do it. I just want you to do it.’”

How important is it to have a good time? We saw this team a few years ago be the pinnacle of that fun on the field, as it’s gone the way it has, with the wins and losses, it hasn’t been that.

“We just never hit a stride. We never hit a winning streak, a good winning streak that was enough to get us back. Losing is no fun to anyone. Having fun, that’s what it’s all about. But it’s also winning. When you’re winning, you’re having fun. When you’re losing, you’re not. And that goes for us in here, for the fans, for you guys, for everybody in the building, everybody that’s watching on TV. Everyone. When we’re winning, everyone’s having fun, asking great questions. The answers are great. Everybody’s smiling. And when you’re losing, it’s not. The only time I’m going to talk about it is when I’m asked questions. Other than that, I’m really not going to dig too deep into it, because it’s about us proving it on the field. That’s what it’s about.

“But I’m really comfortable and excited about Chris and his staff. They’ve done this. Gene Watson’s been a part of four World Series teams. Josh Barfield’s coming from a team that’s going into the playoffs. Bannister’s been a part of winning organizations in Boston, in San Francisco. Chris has been here through it all. He understands it. Through the winning, through some losing. And he’s been running the minor leagues, which you know what I think about that, I’ve talked about it. If you can do that, you can basically do anything in the game. That’s one of the hardest jobs ever.

“I’m just excited to watch them assemble it. And then I’ll get a chance to manage it.”

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