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The White Sox have their new manager.
Now the hard part begins.
To be clear, “the hard part” means improving on what Rick Hahn called the most disappointing season of his and plenty of other White Sox employees’ careers. Though how much of that is achieved through the high-profile offseason activity of trades and free-agent signings — versus the low-profile offseason activity of players working on their game in batting cages and film rooms — remains to be seen.
Hahn addressed the upcoming offseason only briefly during Pedro Grifol’s introductory press conference last week. But from months’ worth of roster analysis and these few comments from the GM, we can confidently assume that there won’t be an outrageous volume of change coming to the South Side this winter. Any dreams of a complete overhaul for a team that was so offensively challenged, so frequently injured and so disappointingly mediocre in the win-loss department can consider themselves dashed.
“We view this as, still, a championship-caliber core,” Hahn said. “Obviously, we had significant regression across the board in several key players. Job one is figuring out which of those is correctable and how we’re going to get them back on track and performing at levels we previously saw that was reasonable to project them for last season before they fell off.
“If we’re able to accomplish that with numerous players, wholesale changes or a radical shift in direction is by no means necessary. Are there areas we need to improve? Absolutely. We’ve hit on that already, whether it’s regaining our offensive approach or staying healthier. Those are two keys to our success going forward. But improving ourselves defensively, how we run the bases, a little better lineup balance, approach to each at-bat is called for as well.
“Whether that comes from internal improvement or external additions? Ultimately, we’re hoping for a combination of both. But we don’t view this as drastic wholesale changes on the horizon. We need to get these guys back to the level they’re capable of playing at.”
Though Hahn said during his end-of-season press conference in October that he and his front office would refuse to take anything off the table this offseason — including potentially breaking up the team’s young core via trade — his comments last week point in the direction of a winter of tweaks rather than what always seemed unlikely, a blowing up of his carefully rebuilt roster.
As we’ve looked at a bunch, a lot of that could stem from the appearance that the roster is somewhat stuck in place. There’s a core member at just about every position on the field, with plenty of entrenchment in the pitching staff, as well.
The White Sox would figure to have a strong desire to hold onto young stars they’ve already invested heavily in, such as Eloy Jiménez, Tim Anderson and Luis Robert, whose 2022 deficiencies can reasonably be chalked up to injuries. They’d figure to have a tough time trying to move Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal, two expensive players coming off the worst seasons of their careers. They might be willing to move on from franchise icon José Abreu to make room for Andrew Vaughn at first base. And AJ Pollock would seem foolish to decline his player option for 2023, keeping him firmly in the White Sox’ plans.
On the pitching side, Dylan Cease, Lance Lynn and Michael Kopech make up 60 percent of the rotation, and it would be unwise to answer fan calls to get rid of Lucas Giolito, a pitcher with ace potential who they’d be trading at his lowest point in years. Multi-year investments in the bullpen have created a deep but costly group of veterans who, if healthy, could be a remarkable unit. Without health or expected performance — both of which proved to be issues for relief arms in 2022 — the bullpen could appear a sort of albatross.
Even if Hahn and the White Sox believe this roster is one that can shake off the disappointment of 2022 and return to its expected contention-level play in 2023, they might have no other choice, considering how tricky it will be to make any big shake up happen.
But as Hahn said, the outcome is likely to be somewhere in between “drastic change” and merely “running it back.” There’s a vacancy to fill in the rotation. There’s an opening at second base after the White Sox declined Josh Harrison’s option Monday. And there’s room to maneuver in the outfield, especially if Vaughn gets moved to full-time first-base duty and Jiménez’s second-half success as the DH turns into a permanent gig.
Where will Hahn & Co. look to make those kinds of additions? Already, the GM was ripped on Twitter, unfairly, for suggesting that not all problems can be fixed through free agency. His insistence that “we’re not going to just be able to throw money at the problem” immediately became a signal to some fans that the White Sox weren’t planning on even trying this winter. Of course, it’s true that not all problems can be solved through free agency alone, and trades could of course be a path to roster change for these White Sox, regardless of whether they’re interested in boosting what was already the highest payroll in club history — a top-10 payroll in the major leagues — or not.
“You have to get creative,” the rest of that Hahn quote went, “and the trade market may be a more fruitful path for us to go, as opposed to free agency, in the coming months.”
Whether through trades or free agency, there will be some change to the White Sox’ roster this winter. But it’s already clear from listening to Hahn that the biggest and likely most impactful change will have to come from within.
The biggest reason the team disappointed in 2022 was the players failing to play to their potential. But that potential still exists. It’ll be up to those guys — who these White Sox have already spent on — to get the job done in 2023.
Undoubtedly, the stakes are high, with the team’s supposed contention window about to be impacted by expiring contracts and pending free agencies. But Hahn is not about to trade his entire roster, not about to ask Jerry Reinsdorf to spend big money just to make certain players go away. A new manager and mostly new coaching staff will provide resources to help the players rediscover themselves. And while some of these guys have shown the dangers of just wishing for better health, part of playing winning baseball is avoiding bad injury luck.
While you might spend the winter scouring Twitter for trade rumors and free-agent news, know that you might be more likely to find the most impactful White Sox work of the offseason going on in a weight room in Arizona or a batting cage in Florida or a pitching mound in California. Or heck, on a laptop screen in Grifol’s new office.
Drastic change is not likely to come to the roster. So drastic change must come in the form of the existing roster improving if the White Sox are going to be drastically better next season.
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