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White Sox’ trade-deadline decisions will depend on ability to compete in playoffs, not just for AL Central crown

Vinnie Duber Avatar
June 20, 2023

On Memorial Day, Rick Hahn sat in front of reporters, with his team 11 games below .500 but the division crown still within reach, and said that it was too early to determine whether the White Sox would be buyers or sellers come the trade deadline.

Monday, Hahn, with his team in the exact same situation, said basically the same thing.

These weeks were supposed to tell Hahn and the White Sox’ front office something, supposed to tilt their thinking in one direction or the other. But the same frustratingly poor play has continued, the good moments present but far from consistent. Still, this team owns a record far worse than the massive disappointment of 2022. Still, this team could very realistically win the AL Central.

With the White Sox stuck in the same spot, the multiple roads Hahn & Co. could travel before Aug. 1 all remain in front of them.

But Monday, there was a difference, of sorts. It wasn’t that Hahn changed his tune. But he did change his tone a bit.

The Twitterverse latched onto Hahn’s admonition of MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, who in a Monday-morning appearance on The Score suggested Pedro Grifol could be on the hot seat and even fired after his first year at the helm on the South Side. Considering Hahn’s done nothing but shift blame away from Grifol as the team sputtered to a horrid start and placed it, publicly, on himself, this was a strange suggestion, and Hahn said a phone call with Heyman resulted in the national reporter admitting he was simply speculating.

But the more consequential part of Hahn’s media session Monday was that the White Sox will need to be a lot better than merely in the hunt to win a bad division to justify a “buy-now” approach a month and a half from now.

“The goals have always been higher than just making the playoffs,” Hahn said, a regularly used refrain during the team’s rebuilding days, when Hahn was focused on constructing an annual winner as opposed to a team that could have one good season before falling back into — dare I use that word? — mediocrity. “If we’re able to turn this around and get ourselves in a position to win this division, given that we are currently 11 under, we are obviously going to be playing pretty damn good baseball for the final two, three months of the season, which would give us reason to believe that the postseason performance could be better.

“Making the playoffs is important. But the goals are loftier than that. And when we judge ultimately what happens as we get much closer to Aug. 1 than we are now, how we project our ability to not only win the division but to make an impact in October is going to factor in.”

It’s not a huge difference, of course, and there was plenty of talk from Hahn and Grifol on Monday about belief in a talented team and the possibility of a turnaround. But it would seem that the prospect of winning the division alone would not be enough to make these White Sox full-blown sellers. There would need to be a convincing argument that a division title could turn into something bigger come October.

The Central-leading Twins started Monday at .500, and it wouldn’t be ridiculous (outside the fact that a lot can change in three and a half months) to suggest that they’d be hard-pressed to make noise in the postseason. The White Sox, currently, are 11 games worse than that.

You do the math.

But considering that two and a half months of mostly disappointing baseball have failed to completely jettison the White Sox from the list of division contenders means that one and a half more months of it could result in the same, just as the weeks since Memorial Day have done nothing to change their situation.

Considering those long-held goals of long-term contention, would the White Sox straight up forego contending for a division title in 2023 to better their chances at doing so — and doing so more consistently — in 2024 and beyond?

According to Hahn, it’s not an impossible end point for the team’s still-undecided approach to the trade deadline.

“That could happen,” Hahn said. “Speculation at this time of year, leading up to Aug. 1, that’s the nature of the beast. That’s going to happen. That’s what makes part of it exciting and accessible for fans. You can speculate on any sort of pivot between now and Aug. 1.

“In the end, it’s going to come down to an assessment of: How realistic are this club’s chances of getting to October and doing something? And then, what is the market? What is the return available to us if we make certain moves? Do they reinforce ‘24? Do they reinforce ‘25? How prudent it is to focus on those dates in the more distant future versus the more immediate?

“It’s reasonable to speculate about all of that. But there’s a lot of time left before that market really plays out.”

And so, the White Sox are where they have been, only now with less time to force Hahn and the front office to push toward this October. A two-win road trip through Los Angeles and Seattle extended the team’s string of lost series to three straight, and they returned home for a matchup with the Rangers, who started Monday tied for the third-best record in the sport.

Will that turnaround ever come?

“I think everyone in that clubhouse thinks this division is up for the taking,” Grifol said. “Nobody seems to be running away with it. Five and a half games back is certainly a number that’s attainable. Maybe three or four weeks ago, we were nine and a half back. We’ve made up four games, and we haven’t played our best baseball. So we’re extremely optimistic this thing will click for us.

“Everybody in that clubhouse is optimistic that we’re going to put this together, and we’re in striking distance of where we want to be. Should we be better? Probably. But we’re not. This is where we are. We can only look at where we’re at, continue to work and play baseball the way we feel like we can.”

If that happens, Hahn & Co. might find reason to bolster the roster in an attempt to secure a playoff spot. Rejecting such an opportunity, even in favor of a strategy of improving the long-term health of the organization, could prove costly. After all, postseason appearances have never been in ample supply on the South Side.

In 123 years, they’ve played past the end of the regular season all of 11 times. Adding to that list might not mean a trip to the World Series, but it’d rank as one of the more successful seasons in franchise history.

Hence the trickiness of making these impactful decisions under these circumstances.

“(Since Memorial Day) we’ve treaded water, but we’ve yet to really go on that run,” Hahn said. “We’re going to need that run here in the next few weeks before we get up against Aug. 1.”

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