Even at the height of the White Sox’ rebuild, there was always someone willing to predict the team would win the World Series.
Nicky Delmonico – now the hitting coach at Class A Winston-Salem – posted on social media that the team would add a trophy to its collection in 2019, a season in which the White Sox ended up losing 89 games. The following year, with more reasons to be hopeful, James McCann announced the team’s goal on Day 1 of spring training: “It’s not just get to the playoffs, it’s win a World Series.”
In the wake of a massively disappointing 2022 season – one defined by, according to Liam Hendriks and José Abreu, confidence turning into cockiness – how about someone lays off the “World Series or bust” talk? Maybe showing up before speaking up should be the new strategy on the South Side?
Well, it seems to be.
“We have goals,” Pedro Grifol said in the early days of camp, “we’re just not going to talk about them right now because we have the next five days to get through. After that, we’ll talk about the next five days, 10 days. We’re going to take this in pieces. We’re not going to look to the middle of the season, the end of the season.
“I told them, ‘We can’t win a championship in the spring, but we can lose one in the spring if we’re not prepared.’ I truly believe that.”
The old “one day at a time” approach – a cliche as old as sports – is nowhere near as good for clicks and retweets as preseason bluster about marching all the way to early November. But it might be a winning message to usher in a new era.
Though he won’t be taking any swings or throwing any pitches, Grifol was undoubtedly the White Sox’ biggest offseason addition, the front office placing its faith in the effect of a regime change over a dramatic remaking of the roster. That decision still isn’t sitting well with some fans, who are thrilled to be rid of Tony La Russa after last season’s .500 finish but wanted to see a big shake up to Rick Hahn’s carefully rebuilt club.
But Grifol has very much made his presence felt in Arizona, nearly every player describing a new energy and a new way of doing things.
“He’s very big on culture and what that phrase embodies. He’s trying to get that Chicago White Sox pride back,” Elvis Andrus told CHGO. “It’s huge. Every successful team does it on a daily basis. I think that is something the team kind of got away from last year.
“Spring training is a great time to start working on that, getting that pride back. ‘We’re here for a reason, we’re a really good team, and we’re going to show you.’ He’s bringing all those thoughts and those mentalities to the team early on. We have to keep working on it, but they’re right on point.”
Grifol’s emphasis on the present over the future has taken hold, and players sounded like parrots, at times, when answering questions about the team’s expectations this year. It’s not that they don’t think they can win; Grifol has spent as much time talking about how good these White Sox are as he has the right way to approach the season. But the new manager’s message is obviously ringing true with the guys who assumed they could waltz to another division title after running away with the AL Central in 2022.
The combination of Grifol’s new voice and some learned humility is driving the expectations in a very different direction than we’ve come to expect from a long-confident group of White Sox players.
“Any guy’s going to stand up here and say, ‘Our team can win the World Series.’ Right?” Lucas Giolito told CHGO. “But I don’t really want to say that, especially considering what Pedro told us on Day 1. Why sit here and set all these goals and lofty expectations on Day 1 when we’re literally in February and we have a whole spring training to get through, then we have a whole season to get through? Why don’t we set the goal for today, or set the goal for the next five days? What are we going to do over the next five days to get better? I’d rather keep things more in the present.
“That (short-term thinking) has always worked really well for me in the past. I was really excited when Pedro brought that up. I’ve been around long enough where I’ve seen meetings Day 1 of spring training where it’s like, ‘We’re going to win the World Series!’ And it’s like, ‘OK, well how are we going to do that?’ And now it’s, ‘Oh, we’re going to do that by these five days, these five days, these five days, these five days.’ I think that’s a much better way to approach it.”
The White Sox came shooting out of their rebuilding stage by taking Tim Anderson’s lead and emphasizing fun over all else. And it worked. Throughout the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, you could hear the guys laughing and shouting at each other in the empty stadiums. That continued into 2021, the White Sox making back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in franchise history.
But when the losses piled up in 2022, that fun disappeared. Hahn sent out a midseason search party to locate the team’s lost swagger. It never returned, and the postseason streak ended before it truly began.
Grifol might be what the White Sox need to return to winning, but don’t expect him to be the guy to bring the fun back by himself. He’s not exactly messing around.
“I’ve got my joking side, but you might not see it that often,” Grifol said. “I just take this part of it really serious. This is important. This is our preparation. This is our foundation. This is how we build our identity and our culture, and I take it really serious. … These are the little things, these are the things that matter.
“You might catch me smiling once in a while.”
It’s probably why Andrus – a definite ingredient in bringing the fun back to the South Side – pointed to Grifol’s objective as restoring pride rather than restoring swagger.
But even if the smiles are few and far between from the man running the show, the players are ready to follow his lead.
“I told him that he’s the captain of this ship and the captain of the ship has the right to take it where he wants to. That’s what a captain does,” Kendall Graveman said. “For him to be our captain, we’re all on board with him. I think he’s going to treat everyone fairly, as he mentioned to us he will, and he wants to create an identity (of who) we are as a team.
“This is his first time as a manager. I believe in him. … I believe he’s the right guy for the job.”
White Sox fans probably felt that way, too, after Grifol’s introductory press conference, when he promised the kind of atmosphere and play that fans spent the summer screaming about on social media. Regardless of who deserved the blame, it was hard to miss the White Sox’ base-running blunders, defensive mistakes and offensive disappearing act. And it drove South Side baseball fans crazy.
Grifol’s promises in early November sounded like they were tailored to fans’ complaints.
“Here’s some of the things you can expect from the 2023 White Sox,” he said after getting the job. “We will communicate. We will be fundamentally sound. We will play with passion, pride for this uniform. … We will respect the game, our fans, and earn their trust. We will be prepared to control the strike zone on both sides of the ball. We will work hard and play winning baseball every night. We will definitely hold each other accountable.
“We’ve got to improve defensively, obviously, and I feel that fundamentally we’ve got to improve. I go back to the intensity level and the energy that we got to bring to our preparation. This is a very good club. It’s a club that’s prepared to win, to do great things. Personally, I’m going to be a stickler for the preparation, the energy. It’s going to get us where we want to go. These guys are going to come to play every single night.”
The seriousness with which Grifol has started his mission is readily apparent. Apart from the lack of yucks, you can tell how focused the man is on every day’s objectives. That all sounds somewhat overwrought when describing a bunch of grown men going to baseball practice, sure. But Grifol emphasized the heck out of drills in the early stages of camp. That’s not a shot at any previous administration, as plenty on Twitter took videos of those drills to be. Rather, Grifol’s daily summaries of pitcher fielding practices and sliding drills put the spotlight where it belonged, on what was important in his head. His focus on five-day increments struck as a motto.
Not exactly as inspiring, perhaps, as “World Series or bust,” but maybe more effective.
Players spent the first two weeks talking about the intensity of camp – something Grifol foreshadowed in his early media sessions after first getting the job – and the new energy surrounding the team. Joe Kelly, who’s been in the major leagues for a decade, has on numerous occasions described how different this camp has been for him, recently telling USA Today’s Bob Nightengale this year’s spring has been “the most intense spring I’ve been part of” in recent years.
The guys were obviously motivated by what went wrong last summer, and the team’s social-media accounts were rife with offseason workout videos of Yasmani Grandal and Oscar Colás. Guys like Luis Robert Jr. and Yoán Moncada spent the opening days of camp talking about how differently they trained this winter than in winters past. Giolito and Eloy Jiménez showed up looking a lot different, physically.
It brings us back to expectations, which as Hahn said remain high. They should remain high. This was a team that was pegged to be a championship contender a year ago, rightfully so, and even after a year looking like the Monstars stole their talent, this is mostly that same collection of very promising players.
“I think we have high expectations for ourselves,” Michael Kopech told CHGO. “I think we will always have high expectations for ourselves because if we don’t, we’re lowering the bar, we’re lowering the standard. And we’ll never do that for ourselves. We want to be elite amongst the elite, and in order to do that, the goal is World Series every year. And if we fall short, that’s disappointment.
“In order to fulfill our expectations, there’s really only one goal in mind, and I think everyone in the clubhouse has that in mind.”
That’s more like it, right? But don’t think Kopech is singing a different tune than his teammates or his new skipper. The point is that the White Sox are still expecting to win the World Series. But they have learned by now – whether through Grifol’s preaching or through the embarrassment of last season – that those goals need to be looked at in a different way.
If that different way can take root and grow over the next seven months, if they can stick to the five-day plan and mirror their manager’s intensity, then going from .500 to World Series contenders won’t seem ridiculous at all.
“We can come in here, and we obviously can’t win a World Series right now. But if you come in and you’re lackluster and you have no effort or energy, you can lose it early,” Gavin Sheets told CHGO, another echo of the Grifol approach. “We haven’t been like that. It’s been a lot of work, a lot of intensity from top to bottom.
“I think that’s going to be the new model around here all year.”