The White Sox are about to embark on a crucial offseason.
They need a new manager, and it does not stop there. They need to do something to the roster to ensure that what just happened – a team with World Series expectations falling flat on its face and disappointing on a completely unanticipated level – doesn’t happen again.
In the moments after Tony La Russa announced his health was preventing him from returning as the team’s manager in 2023, Rick Hahn informed that team brass had already begun discussions on who the next manager should be. And given the repeated examples of where this team fell short this season, it’d be no surprise to learn that discussions about what sort of changes to make have also taken place.
Hahn didn’t get mighty specific in talking about those upcoming changes, refusing to name any potential candidates for the manager’s job or talk about individual players on the roster and what the future holds for them. But he did do a lot of talking about what went wrong and what comes next.
Here’s what we learned about the big decisions facing the White Sox this winter:
Criteria in place for manager search, and former White Sox aren’t favored
The White Sox have gained a reputation for being insular, for handing the managerial job to only people they know and know well: Ozzie Guillén. Robin Ventura. Rick Renteria. La Russa.
Hahn wished to move away from that two years ago after Renteria was fired, talking up the importance of outside perspectives. It didn’t play out that way, of course, with Jerry Reinsdorf attempting to right an old wrong by bringing La Russa out of retirement.
This time, Hahn hopes to do things differently, even if the criteria sound an awful lot like what they were – or were supposed to be – the last time this job was open.
“The right candidate is someone who has recent experience in the dugout with an organization that has contended for championships,” Hahn said, later clarifying that doesn’t limit the team to former managers, but that seems to be the preference. “Ideally, it’s someone who is an excellent communicator, is someone who understands the way the game has grown and evolved in the last decade or so. But at the same time, obviously, respect for old-school sensibilities is going to be important, as well.”
And just like Hahn went out of his way to eliminate Guillén from the running to be Renteria’s replacement, he again emphasized his desire to do away with the organization’s tendency to stay within itself.
“Having a history with the White Sox, having some sort of connection to White Sox DNA is by no means a requirement,” he said. “I think we are going to use this opportunity to get different perspectives, new ways of looking at things, a little different from those who have been a little more insular to the organization.”
Hahn said that doesn’t apply to Miguel Cairo, who stepped in for La Russa under unique circumstances and did enough to, according to Hahn, earn an interview for the job he’s performed for the last month.
But it seems you can forget about Guillén, forget about A.J. Pierzynski, forget about Paul Konerko and Jim Thome and even Willie Harris.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to play out this time.
Hahn expects this managerial search to be different from last
Hahn laid out all those criteria the last time there was a managerial search, and it ended up not mattering at all. La Russa, of course, checked almost none of those boxes, but he got the job anyway. Reinsdorf’s desire to make up for the 1980s firing of his good friend La Russa overrode all those bullet points on Hahn & Co.’s wish list.
Bluntly, Hahn said when La Russa was hired that he was surprised how things turned out. He’s not planning for any of those kinds of surprises this time.
“I think this will be a different process than the last time around,” he said.
Surely, though, he’s not expecting any White Sox fans to hold their breath on that one.
Doing away with long-held narratives about the team has been a hallmark of Hahn’s rebuilding project, and this will be another he’ll need to knock down, with plenty of complaints already littering social media bemoaning that Hahn will once more not have as much say as he should have.
Though fan gripes alone will not change the structure of the front office, it does seem that the same decision-making group that has existed for years will be in place for this managerial search, as well.
“Similar to probably just about every major decision since I’ve been around here over the last 20-odd years, in the end, it’s a collaborative process. And ideally, Kenny (Williams), Jerry and I come up with a consensus,” Hahn said. “I’ll be leading the process. I’ll be the one having these initial conversations here over the coming months. There will be a number of people being part of these conversations: Jerry, Kenny, Chris Getz, Jeremy Haber. We may have some former players involved, as well.
“It’s really a matter of getting the best opinion of someone and in the end, making a recommendation and all being on the same page.”
Hahn still believes in talent of this group
While far from saying that he doesn’t think big changes are needed – he took care to point out just how many areas need to be improved on this team – Hahn defended a current group of players that more and more fans want to see broken up.
Reminders that the roster remains an incredibly talented one likely only serves to spotlight just how disappointing this season, still in danger of ending below .500, has been. But Hahn complimented his players anyway, pointing out that it hasn’t been a long time since they were the talk of the baseball world.
“I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact of where this team was one and two years and even six months ago,” he said. “Two years ago, after our first berth in the playoffs, we were a young, dynamic, exciting team that played with an edge and that people knew were coming for them. Last year, despite the injuries, we managed to win 90-plus games and get our way clear of the division by 12, 13 games in the end.
“Six months ago, just about every objective measurement, and much less the subjective predictions, had us running away with this division. Obviously, what happened over the last six months is the most relevant and recent information, which exposed some areas we need to simply get better (in). But I don’t want to lose sight of the talent that is in that room.”
Those calling for a major redesign of the roster ahead of 2023 aren’t likely to get their wish, not because of anything Hahn said Monday but because of just how tricky something like that would be to pull off.
But Hahn also believes in this group enough to use their presence as a reason the roster shouldn’t get completely blown up.
“It’s more a point about not throwing out the baby with the bath water,” he said. “It was a disappointing year. We all need to get better in multiple facets. There needs to be … manager and staff changes and personnel changes, we know that.
“It’s easy at the end of a disappointing season to say you’ve got to burn it to the ground. I think that’s not where we’re at as an organization. There’s a good amount of talent there. There’s talent that’s performed at an elite level. We’ve got to figure out a way to get them back to that level and augment accordingly.”
No (public) decision on José Abreu
There have been fewer upcoming-offseason topics hotter than what happens with Abreu, slated for free agency after nine years in a White Sox uniform.
The last time Abreu was heading toward free agency, he couldn’t stop saying how badly he wanted to return to the South Side. This time? Not so much, with comments in spring training mentioning a possible end to his White Sox tenure sparking season-long speculation he might retire – or that he might not spend his entire big league career with one team.
Abreu has again been terrific at the plate this season, even if it’s come in different fashion than years past. His power numbers are way down, but he’s among the AL leaders in hits and has a batting average and on-base percentage near the best of his major league career.
But with a glut of first-base/DH types, Abreu strikes many fans as the easiest piece to remove from a difficult Jenga tower for Hahn to navigate this winter. Allowing Abreu to either hang it up or move on to another team would free up first base for Andrew Vaughn. It would also yank one of the best offensive players out of a lineup that failed to score many runs this year.
Though Hahn refused to discuss individual players, he had a little to say when asked about Abreu.
“He’s been exemplary in terms of what you want a White Sox player to be for nine years now in a White Sox uniform,” Hahn said. “No matter what the future holds for him, here or elsewhere, I don’t think you are ever going to hear anyone with this organization say a bad word about José. Nothing but admiration and respect for the professionalism and the way he’s carried himself on the field and off the field.
“How it fits going forward, that remains to be seen come this offseason. Obviously, there’s only so many different ways that you can fit various players on the roster, and José returning would have a ripple effect on others. But we’ll have to wait to see how things unfold and make those decisions accordingly.”
Again, hardly an emphatic stance one way or the other, though the love fest of 2019 is far from being replicated this time around.
Decision on White Sox coaches will wait for new manager
As much furor was directed at La Russa this season, his coaching staff did not escape fans’ ire. Of course, whether they’ll escape with their jobs or not remains to be seen.
There is precedent for the White Sox making an immediate end-of-season announcement on a member of the coaching staff, with Don Cooper relieved of his duties when Renteria was fired at the end of the 2020 campaign. But that didn’t happen this time, not with any of La Russa’s assistants, including hitting coach Frank Menechino, the target of many fan complaints as the team sputtered offensively all season.
Instead, it will be up to the new manager to weigh in on the staff.
“We’ll ultimately make decisions on the coaches with the new manager,” Hahn said. “We certainly have some talented coaches on our staff, and when the time comes to discuss staffing with the new manager and get his input at that time, we are going to have opinions on how guys fit. And we expect the new hire to have his own opinion, as well, and own desire for what they are looking for in a coaching staff, and that will be weighted accordingly when the time comes.”
So no insight on what the future holds for Menechino or anyone else. No insight on whether the team’s desire to get new perspectives when it comes to the managerial job also applies to the coaching staff, where guys like Joe McEwing and Daryl Boston have been employed by the White Sox for literal decades.
It would seem a safe bet that Ethan Katz wouldn’t be going anywhere, not after working magic on Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodón and not before having an opportunity to save Lucas Giolito’s career for a second time.
As for Menechino? Hahn did bring up the hitting coach when discussing the offensive results of this season, which the GM pegged as the biggest reason for the team’s lack of success, though not in the way most fans want to hear.
“I think the message was the same, if not very similar, to what was delivered in the past,” Hahn said. “Frankie was hitting coach when we had three Silver Sluggers in 2020 and (when we were) fourth in the league in weighted runs created last year. There’s been success with this group, including these coaches.
“Why things deviated is something we’re going to have to spend a little more time talking through individually with the players, with the coaches, and trying to get as objective a read as we can as to why we fell short.”
Breaking first-base/DH logjam could be offseason priority
Though Hahn refused to talk much about specific players and what specific positions would be addressed this offseason, he acknowledged the idea that there might be too many of one kind of player on this roster, specifically players who are best suited for either first base or designated hitter and not much else.
Vaughn and Gavin Sheets are first basemen by trade, though with Abreu entrenched at first and injuries aplenty, both have been shuffled to corner-outfield spots the last two years. Eloy Jiménez’s success as a DH this season – though he’s hoping to return to left field in 2023 – has perhaps removed another possible spot for Vaughn and Sheets. And given the White Sox’ defensive shortcomings, there’s a wonder as to whether some rearranging is necessary this offseason.
Hahn mostly chose to compliment the efforts of both young players but admitted it might be a good idea to find them a more natural spot.
“Gavins Sheets deserves credit for playing new positions at the big league level on the fly,” Hahn said. “(He has) dramatically improved. He’s become a decent major league outfielder despite the fact that he’s a first baseman at heart. Andrew, we talked last year (about) how much was put on his plate, given his development path, the pandemic and the position change.
“Finding them roles more suited to their natural skill set is one way to potentially get this team better and more advanced in the areas I mentioned (including defense).”
White Sox will at least consider breaking up core via trade
Hahn has always said he and his front office don’t take any move off the table.
That philosophy will apply this offseason, as well, as the White Sox look to improve but face some potentially tough decisions on guys they assumed would be a part of this team for years to come. It might be the only way to solve some of the issues on this roster, as much as it would deviate from Hahn’s original rebuilding plan.
“You absolutely have to be open to that,” he said. “We’re not going to just be able to throw money at the problem (with free agency alone). So you have to get creative, and the trade market may be a more fruitful path for us to go, as opposed to free agency, in the coming months.
“You want to make sure you’re comfortable enough to make those tough decisions about players you have signed or developed or traded for and you don’t get caught in some sort of bias in favor of what we thought we put together. But I am confident we will be able to evaluate opportunities that come along over the next few months objectively with the goal of getting us right back in contention for ‘23, even if that means cutting into guys we previously thought were going to be with us for an extended period of time.
“We’ll be open minded.”
That doesn’t mean such a move will happen, but the White Sox must consider all avenues and it looks like they will at least consider.
Many fans on social media latched on to Hahn saying “we’re not going to just be able to throw money at the problem,” reading into it as some sort of admission that the White Sox weren’t gearing up for an active offseason and were preemptively taking themselves out of the running for expensive free agents. That’s not what Hahn meant, of course, and the “just” was perhaps the most important word in that sentence, one that people apparently glossed over. Hahn was indicating that free agency cannot be the only way in which the team can improve.
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