Interview With Rick Hahn & Buddy Bell - Recap & Analysis - Part 1

I was privileged enough to be included on a conference call interview of Rick Hahn and Buddy Bell with a number of White Sox blogs on Tuesday. While I didn't record the conversation verbatim, I took notes as best I could and I believe there was a lot to be learned from what each White Sox executive had to say. Here's the first part of what Rick Hahn said and what I took away from it - the conclusion and Buddy Bell's interview to follow in subsequent articles.* 

*All of this is my best attempt to capture what was asked and answered. The bulk of it will be paraphrased, and I will only use quotes when I'm confident that it is as accurate as possible. 

Question 1Rob, from the excellent FutureSox, kicked things off by noting that the farm system has improved under Rick Hahn's stewardship, and asking about its place as a priority in the organization.

Hahn's AnswerThe White Sox GM acknowledged that this was indeed a priority, but that the overall goal is winning in Chicago. The two main functions of the farm system are developing talent for its own sake and alternatively to provide the team with trade assets. The goal is sustainable improvement. Hahn said that he doesn't want the team to have 88-90 win burst single seasons, but rather a 1990s Braves-esque run of long-term success. Hahn cited three specific things as reasons for the boost - 1. Marco Paddy, whom Rick Hahn said was tasked with re-starting their work in the Latin scouting from scratch; 2. Higher draft picks, a "silver lining" to the unfortunate reality of being bad; and 3. the new CBA. 

My Reaction: Throughout the whole conversation I was not surprised that everything Hahn said made a lot of sense. One of the notable features of his tenure so far as GM is that I can almost immediately see the logic of what he is trying to achieve. Kenny Williams' moves, on the other hand - although extremely creative, and more successful than he is perhaps given credit for - sometimes took a while to understand (or...were never really intelligible). 

I was really surprised to hear the comment about the 88-90 win single season bursts being undesirable. While I am really happy to hear it, and it's an easy thing to say, in one sense, it's also a refutation of a lengthy period of the team's recent past. For the bulk of Kenny Williams' tenure - especially the second half - we saw the fitful and uneven competitiveness of an organization that had virtually no contributions from the farm system, and a team seeming to operate in pursuit of winning 85-87 games and hoping the division fell into their lap. Unsurprisingly, that plan yielded one playoff appearance in 10 years. 

I like that Hahn is willing to use the Braves as the example of what you would want. People often ding them for "only" winning one World Series in a stretch of over a dozen years of division titles, but I'm pretty sure White Sox fans would take that in a heartbeat.

Question 2. I asked about the Front Office's willingness to sacrifice both a 2nd and 3rd round pick in order to sign David Robertson and Melky Cabrera respectively - whether that was a result of having the first round pick protected, whether they want to cash in on their current core now, whether it was the players themselves, etc.

Hahn's Answer: He began by agreeing that having the first round pick protected is a huge factor in being willing to do this, although he pointed out that last offseason they also had their first round pick protected and chose not to sacrifice a second rounder. Hahn said that in trying to make these particular moves they decided the acquisition cost was worth it, and specifically said that once you've punted the second round pick it's that much easier to lose the third rounder. This offseason, the talent was available, and with the young core that they have the timing was right. Moreover, he added that both Melky and Robertson had very unique skillsets that fit the team's needs / wants amongst free agents. 

My Reaction: Okay, in a way it was a dumb question, because obviously they are going to think about all of these things when they make the move; rather, in a way it was asking him whether any one of these factors in particular held greater weight than the others. Perhaps it's instructive that he lead by saying that having the first round pick protected is huge.

Two other things stood out to me about this:

1. Describing David Robertson's skill set as unique in free agency. Some of us here have internally speculated as to whether there's something about Robertson in particular as opposed to other relievers that makes the White Sox think he's a better bet than other relievers. Melky was the only real affordable left fielder on the market that provided the things the White Sox need. There are different "flavors" of LF, so to speak, (e.g. a Khris Davis Profile v. Brett Gardner's), and Melky was the one the White Sox needed. In theory, a good reliever is a good reliever and if they can get the outs great. Rafael Soriano is still out there, for example. This continues to lead me to believe that Robertson has a profile they are more comfortable betting on than some others. I am inclined to agree with this assessment.

2. Hahn entirely volunteered the diminishing penalty of subsequent draft pick sacrifice. I didn't mention it as a factor in my question, and I wasn't sure which way that would cut, because while obviously a 3rd round pick isn't as valuable as a 2nd round pick, giving up the picks also cuts into your pool of money to sign your picks under the new CBA. I wasn't sure if after a certain point you would have your ability to sign top flight first rounders slightly compromised by giving up multiple lower picks, but the value of the pick itself is what was given primacy in Hahn's answer here.

Question 3. Jim Margulus of SouthSideSox asked if the presence of Beckham means that guys like Saladino or Sanchez are going to languish in AAA and whether that was a concern.**

**I've done a number of these types of calls with Jim Margulus and he is so awesome on them. I love the questions he asks.

Hahn's Answer: While this is generally a concern or at least something to consider, it isn't an issue with Saladino or Sanchez (I believe he referred to him as "Sanchie"). Saladino, he pointed out, is coming off of a significant injury, and although he was really great in Spring Training, and although he could handle the part-time Beckham role, Saladino should be getting at bats every day. Hahn still believes he has a ceiling where he can be an everybody player, not just a utility guy, and that if he doesn't turn out to be an everyday player the utility option will always be there. Thinks Saladino could benefit from 200-300 PAs in AAA before coming up. "Looks great, coming on strong."

My reaction: I like the perspective here of trying to maximize value. I also like thinking about Gordon Beckham's $2 million contract as an investment in being able to protect players from doing what, say, Leury Garcia did last year - get destroyed at a level they aren't ready for because you need a cheap utility guy. Let Beckham do it, because he can and he's had his chances, and let him buy time for people who haven't had their shot yet.

4. Andrew of GrabSomeBench brought up the topic of Kris Bryant and gaming service time, and used the example of Micah Johnson with the White Sox.

Hahn's Answer: The service time system was the result of collective bargaining between ownership and the players union, and as long as the parties comply with those rules nobody is really in a position to complain. With regard to Micah, that's not something being considered. If Micah Johnson wins the 2B job and is the best option for the team to win on Opening Day, then he is going to be the Opening Day starter.

My reaction: I understand that Micah is just the best equivalent to this situation that the White Sox have, and that he obviously isn't a prospect of Bryant's caliber. The angle that this was collectively bargained for stood out to me here. If the Players Union thinks the system is unfair, then that's something that's going to have to be addressed - but ramming an exception through doesn't seem to be like the right way to do that. 

E: However, as was pointed out to me, Bryant (and other non-40 man roster members) are not represented by the MLB Players Union and frequently have their rights sacrificed. 

I also took this to mean that Spring Training was essentially being used as a competition for the 2B job. It's hard to say that Micah Johnson hasn't won it, if that's the case. I was surprised, though - I expected the team to agree with Keith Law's assessment that he needs a little more time in AAA before he's ready, but this is another datapoint toward the conclusion that "Micah is the 2B right now."

Question 5. Jim Margulus - If the 2B is going to hit 9th, does that change the skill set that you're looking for out of that position?

Hahn's Answer: This isn't influencing the organization's process on picking the 2B. Pretty much no matter what the plan was to have this position hitting low in the lineup. It's good to have rookies hitting low in the order - they need to get acclimated to the big leagues anyway and work their way up. If it's a bat first guy that's still true, and if it's a glove first player he'd be batting down there regardless.

My reaction: Like I said, Jim asks really interesting questions - a new way to approach the problem of picking the winner at 2B, but it turns out this isn't the deciding factor.

To be continued...

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