“If you needed last year to have a chip on your shoulder, then you got one.”
Damn straight, Lance Lynn.
The White Sox faceplanted in 2022, an extraordinarily talented group stumbling to a massively disappointing .500 record and missing the postseason after being pegged as a preseason World Series contender. Clubhouse leaders described the root cause as confidence turning into cockiness, that showing up expecting an easy repeat of the runaway division championship in 2021 ended up being downright crippling.
The team brought in a new manager. It handed out the richest free-agent contract in club history. But it mostly placed its faith in the same group of players who collectively struggled a year ago. And because of it, the fan base can be described as skeptical, at best, and loudly pessimistic, at worst.
So when the White Sox showed up to spring training a month and a half ago in Arizona, there were two words uttered more than any others:
“A lot of guys are coming in ready to prove something, prove we’re not just this talented team that’s squandering away (an opportunity), that we’re a talented team that can put it together and go out and do our thing,” Lucas Giolito told CHGO last month. “That being said, we’ve got to go and do it.
“Talk is kind of cheap, at this point. After what happened last year, which was such a disappointment, it’s important that we stay focused, work every day on what we’re trying to improve and go out and win games. That’s really it.”
Yes, that’s really it.
White Sox fans gleefully chugged the Kool-Aid ahead of last season, believing that Rick Hahn’s carefully rebuilt roster was destined for championship glory. But when that didn’t happen – and in spectacular fashion, at that – opinions swung wildly to the other end of the spectrum.
In other words, there aren’t many folks camping out along a possible parade route these days.
Not, at least, until these White Sox give them a reason to.
And plenty around the game have taken a similar approach. You’re unlikely to find the White Sox projected to do much, certainly not to win the AL Central after the Guardians outworked everyone en route to their own runaway title last summer. With the AL East packed with talented clubs, there aren’t many projecting the White Sox to sneak into October as a wild card team, either.
So, again, prove it.
“Whatever, honestly. I don’t care. Project whatever, we’ve got to play games,” Ethan Katz said last month. “There’s a lot of teams that have done really well and the projections weren’t good, and a lot of teams that were projected to do well and didn’t do well. We’ve got to play 162 games. Our guys will be ready and play hard and give everything we have, and at the end of the day, hopefully we’re in a really good spot.”
“Hopefully we’re in a really good spot” is not exactly marketing material, but the pitching coach’s comments were part of the unsurprising confidence from White Sox employees that things will be much different this summer on the South Side. With Pedro Grifol replacing Tony La Russa in the dugout and a mostly new coaching staff brought in to help the players rediscover what had them on a championship trajectory in the first place, the team believes it will provide that incentive for folks to not only show up to the ballpark but to regenerate big expectations.
Again, though, that will take a lot of proof.
Eloy Jiménez had one of the most productive second halves in baseball last season but only after another months-long absence due to injury. Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal had miserable offensive seasons and are in desperate need of bounce-back campaigns, as is Giolito. Lynn, Tim Anderson and Luis Robert Jr. also had their seasons derailed by injuries. The White Sox are starting a rookie in right field and gave the everyday second base job to someone who’s never played the position before in the majors. And Liam Hendriks’ status is still up in the air as he undergoes treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
That’s all before mentioning that José Abreu, the franchise icon who even in his age-35 season was the team’s top hitter, was not brought back and now plays for the Astros, the defending champs who the White Sox start the season against this week in Houston.
So yeah, to say that a lot has to go right for the White Sox to get Hahn’s long-term plan back on track is putting it mildly.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. And for all the warranted skepticism within the fan base, it’s difficult to argue that the team’s confidence is entirely misplaced. The ingredients that spurred so much excitement about this team a year ago still exist.
For their collectively disappointing production in 2022, this lineup is still chock full of potential. It’s not at all hard to envision Jiménez, Anderson, Robert, Moncada, Grandal, Andrew Vaughn and the newly inked Andrew Benintendi forming one of the more fearsome offensive units in the league, should health allow. And even without Hendriks, the pitching staff is kind of loaded, with Lynn and Dylan Cease each posting top-three Cy Young finishes in the last two seasons, Giolito and Michael Kopech still boasting star potential and the bullpen claiming plenty of back-end type arms.
What needed to change – in addition to rediscovering the bats – was the mindset. The team was fundamentally poor last season, with defensive miscues, base-running blunders and undisciplined hitting defining the season from start to finish. Hendriks and Abreu both hammered home the idea that the team did not approach the season the right way, either, and it was noticeable.
“Sometimes it’s not how much talent you have but how you can put it together as a team,” Elvis Andrus, who arrived as a midseason fill-in at shortstop and was brought back this spring as the starting second baseman, told CHGO last month. “When I came, I think that was the only thing I saw. There’s a lot of talent here, but when things started getting tough, everybody started pulling their own way instead of getting together. That’s for us the biggest key as a team, be united in those tough situations that are going to happen during the season. I feel if we can do that, we’re going to become a better team.”
That’s why, despite Benintendi getting paid more by the White Sox than any free agent ever, Grifol will go down as the team’s most important addition of the offseason. He already had the players talking differently early in the spring, surely helped by their desire to not repeat the mistakes of 2022.
Regardless of the cause, though, the same guys who were bombastically predicting big things years ago – calling each other “the next Mike Trout” and “the Babe Ruth of our generation” – are more focused on the immediate, more devotees to the most used cliche in sports of taking things one day at a time. It’s a cliche, but it might be exactly what the doctor ordered for this group that got way too ahead of itself last year.
That same talent is still there. Just because the White Sox were assailed by injuries last year, just because guys had down years, doesn’t mean everything needed to be scrapped. And that’s why Hahn & Co. traveled the path they did this offseason. Now it’s on the players to, well, prove it.
“For us, it’s just to engage, be united, pulling the rope one direction,” Andrus said. “You can be blind and listen to the names (on the White Sox’ roster) and you’re already like, ‘Wow, they’re going to win.’ It’s about believing.
“I’m a big believer in that. I’m always positive. I don’t really care about the league and other teams. I only care about our clubhouse and our guys. Do our best and do everything 100 percent. And if we do that, we’re going to win. We know that.”
So, White Sox, start your engines. The 162-game marathon starts now. After months to think about how much last year stunk, prove-it time has arrived for the South Siders.
Let’s see what you’ve got.
“Oh, I got a sense of the (fans’) anxiousness in (my introductory) press conference,” Grifol said last month. “I understand it. I get it. We’re expected to do some things. We’re not going to shy away from expectations. They are what they are, they’re here. I’m not going to hide them.
“We didn’t perform to our expectations last year, changes were made, and I’m not going to hide from expectations. And the (players are) not, either. They know what they have to do.
“We know what we have to do.”