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Liam Hendriks having a conversation isn’t usually a notable occurrence.
Chatting with White Sox brass during batting practice before Monday’s game, Hendriks could have been discussing anything. Heck, he’d already gabbed it up during an on-field TV interview, before which he was talking with Vince Velasquez, departing for a rehab assignment, in the clubhouse. Hendriks likes to talk.
But in the wake of a pregame announcement Monday that the White Sox landed relief pitcher Jake Diekman in a trade with the Red Sox, it was a decent bet that his conversation with Rick Hahn, Kenny Williams and Jim Thome might have involved a mention or two of his former A’s bullpen mate.
“That’s what I love about the front office here,” Hendriks said nearly 24 hours before the White Sox traded for Diekmen. “They ask guys, ‘How is this guy in the clubhouse? How is this guy as a person, this guy on the field?’ … It could be the perfect fit, but the guy can be an asshole and change the morale of this clubhouse.
“We want to make sure anyone who comes fits that mold and gets along with everybody in here. That’s what I love, they come to (you) and talk to (you) and ask about guys and see, if you’ve heard anything or played with a guy, what that clubhouse vibe is.”
Hendriks was phenomenal enough during the 2020 season to earn a free-agent deal with the White Sox worth $54 million. But Diekman was pretty damn good that year, too, posting a 0.42 ERA in 21.1 innings. (That’s one earned run, for all the non-math whizzes out there.) It was Hendriks who eliminated the White Sox from the postseason and brought an end to the Rick Renteria Era on the South Side. But Diekman pitched in all three games of that AL Wild Card Series, untouched by the seven White Sox hitters he faced, two of which he walked.
Walks have been the bugaboo for Diekman this season, his 7.0 walks per nine innings rank as the highest such mark in his 11-year career. Thanks in part to those free passes, right-handed hitters are reaching base against him at a .395 clip. But he figures to help the White Sox, particularly against left-handed hitters. They rank fifth to last in baseball, allowing a .253 average against lefty bats, who only hit .188 against Diekman.
“I know that he can be very nasty,” Tony La Russa said after Monday’s game, a 2-1 loss to the Royals. “He’ll help us.”
The numbers are easy to pore over at this time of year, of course, and the biggest help Diekman can be for the White Sox is being left-handed. After injuries wiped out Garrett Crochet’s 2022 season and have thrown into question whether Aaron Bummer will be back at all this year, the bullpen required an experienced southpaw to make a part of its late-inning mix.
Ask Hendriks, though, and he’ll tell you that any midseason acquisition needs to be one thing above all else: a good clubhouse fit. And though we can look at what the White Sox need on paper, from a between-the-lines perspective, some inside the clubhouse argue the team’s biggest need is a jolt of personality and presence.
“That’s one thing I think is sometimes left on the wayside a little bit but needs to be a much higher focus than it generally is, that personality, that kind of leadership qualities that guys can bring in. One thing we need more than anything is a couple of those guys in this clubhouse,” Hendriks told CHGO earlier this month, “at all the different positions, whether it be starter, whether it be reliever, whether it be position player. We’ve got some guys that can do it, but they need help to not let themselves get worn down.
“I don’t think any team’s ever complete, I don’t think any team’s ever perfect on paper, and you can always make additions, whether to lengthen, add more bench depth, or whatever it is. … My biggest take is always going to be a personality thing, bringing guys into the clubhouse that are good for the clubhouse, can rally the troops.
“I think every team can always use as many of those guys as you can get.”
Well, according to his former teammate, Diekman will fit in just fine with these White Sox.
“He just has the same vibe a lot of the guys in here do,” Hendriks said Monday night. “He can yell at somebody in a very satirical way, but also take it back, which is one thing not everybody can do all the time. He has that ability to kind of joke around with guys and then take it and then give it back. That’s something that this clubhouse does well, and that’s one thing that’s going to mesh really well with us.
“He works out with Bummer in the offseason in Nebraska. He’s played with AJ Pollock in Arizona before. There’s enough guys on here that have either faced him or played with him that everyone pretty much knows who he is. I was texting him earlier that he seems pretty excited about coming here. … I think it’ll be a good fit for both sides.”
Sometimes team chemistry and clubhouse culture can seem like fragile things, especially when someone like Hendriks talks about the possibility of one bad apple throwing everything off. Fans have had a lot of questions about the White Sox’ chemistry and culture throughout this disappointing season. Regardless of reports and rumors about supposed discontent, fans watch a losing team on TV and think that all the fun that was so noticeable in previous seasons has been sucked out of the room.
Losing’s no fun. What a concept.
But the White Sox have maintained that their chemistry and culture remains strong, something that’s observable before games – and during wins. So it’s no surprise it would be such an emphasis from the guys as the front office looks to make additions ahead of Tuesday evening’s trade deadline.
“There’s no question in here. We got chemistry,” Josh Harrison said over the weekend. “Chemistry doesn’t necessarily translate to wins. It can, but at the end of the day, you can have the greatest chemistry and go out and play terrible baseball. You have guys who show up every day pulling for each other, and I don’t think it’s a question of that. Guys are showing up pulling for each other.
“We haven’t played our best baseball. But sometimes we are going up there feeling like we have to be the guy to change it. You have to show up every day and rely on the next man. That has nothing to do with chemistry. That’s the game of baseball weighing down on you and us putting more pressure on ourselves instead of going and playing the game we love and know how to play.”
The same fans extrapolating poor results to a chronic behind-the-scenes problem surely won’t be impressed by the players talking up the clubhouse culture. They’ll be waiting for the wins to start rolling in. So far, that hasn’t happened, at least not enough, and the White Sox were back at .500 after a disappointing performance Monday night in which they mustered only one run against the last-place Royals.
As Hendriks described, he’s been on teams where trade-deadline acquisitions have changed everything, and Hahn’s front office has an opportunity to inject something into a squad that’s stumbled through four months.
Diekman alone might not be enough to reinforce the bullpen. And he’ll do nothing to improve the White Sox’ woeful power numbers, nothing to bolster subpar results against right-handed pitching, nothing to deepen the starting rotation.
So Hahn has to keep shopping.
No one in the White Sox’ employ thinks he’s done yet. And with his team just three games out of first place in the AL Central standings, there’s no reason he should be. That’s a traverse-able path to October, and plenty of teams – including some recent champions – have shown that once you get in, anything can happen.
“At the end of the day, I know that the front office is working hard to try to bring some guys in,” Hendriks said Monday. “I know that we have the right talent in this room, in case we don’t bring anybody in. But we’ve made a move, and I think there’s more to come. But that’s up to those guys up top.”
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