Cat Garcia was reporting from SoxFest all weekend. Her first article for The Catbird Seat is a recap of Rick Hahn and Robin Ventura's comments on the state of the White Sox. Follow her on Twitter @TheBaseballGirl.
Rick Hahn is right.
There was a true sense of optimism at the Hilton Chicago last January for SoxFest 2015. The White Sox were deemed the offseason winners by many baseball people as well as media, and making dramatic moves for pitchers such as highly touted free agents Jeff Samardzija and David Robertson raised the hype around the team to new levels. That feeling was not overlooked at the annual fan convention last January.
But a year later, after the dust had settled on what could have potentially been one of the most successful White Sox seasons since 2005, but ended far from it, Sox fans filed into the annual gathering with a more refined sense of optimism. General Manager Rick Hahn and Manager Robin Ventura met with the media to answer questions prior to the convention’s opening ceremonies.
“As you guys will no doubt recall a year ago at this time, there was a fair amount of optimism not only in the front office, but among the fanbase as well as throughout the baseball community in terms of evaluating what we were able to accomplish last offseason,” Hahn told the media during his opening preamble on Friday afternoon.
“Frankly, as we sit here today we feel we are a stronger team now than we were at that time,” he continued. “Obviously, some of the players, some of the things we were counting on last year did not quite measure up to their potential, which does not mean that that’s going to continue to be the case.”
Hahn pointed out that the statistics favored the White Sox going into last season.
“Ken Rosenthal picked us to win the World Series, Joe Sheehan, who is an old Baseball Prospectus stathead guy, picked us to win 92 games,” Hahn cited.
Things just didn’t play out on field the way they did on paper, and fans as well as the media sought answers. Hahn said he believes this team has made significant upgrades offensively by introducing some fresh faces into the infield and backstop mix.
“As we sit here today having added a significant piece at third base — a very difficult position to address — in Todd Frazier,” he said. “We feel we’ve upgraded offensively at second base with Brett Lawrie and altered our catching situation to the point where we feel the net of it is going to be much improved … so as we sit here today, I certainly feel better than I did even a year ago when there was that optimism.”
Much of that optimism Hahn is referring to was also due to the fact that by SoxFest 2015, much of the “heavy lifting," as Hahn called it, was already finished. There is still just about one month left before the full squad reports to training camp, and Hahn seems to be letting the everyone know that he is making use of every day.
“I don’t view us as a finished product” Hahn said. “Just because a few guys come off the board or just because it’s SoxFest, doesn’t mean that we’re not continuing to pursue different avenues and try to get better.”
Comments such as these imply that this team could still be under construction. “It doesn’t matter if we acquire a guy while we are at the Opryland hotel in Nashville or a week later” Hahn said of his time at the Winter Meetings this past December, “Because all we need to do is have this thing in place by Opening Day.”
SoxFest may put us within arms reach of our favorite players, but Opening Day is still a ways off.
“There are a few specific spots on the roster where we feel we can improve, and if the right situation arises for us to do that we’re going to try and continue to pull off some of those deals,” Hahn said. “There’s always another move you can do to solidify yourself.”
When asked whether or not there was any truth to the reports that the White Sox were not looking to sign outfielders for deals longer than three years, Hahn sternly responded “There is absolutely no hardline, dogma limit on contract terms with free agents,” putting the rumors to rest once and for all.
“The reason that we didn’t sign any of the players that thus far have signed elsewhere at the end of the day was not about any contract term limitations, we had numerous talks with various perimeters and various structures right up until the day or day before these players wound up choosing their ultimate destinations.”
One matter that could hinder the addition of an outfielder such as Dexter Fowler or Ian Desmond is the draft pick attached to both, due to each of them rejecting their respective qualifying offers.
“The draft pick with any guy who receives a qualifying offer is a real consideration.” Hahn said.
But Hahn is always quite inconspicuous in his pursuits, and “real consideration” is not a hard no. It’s obvious that the White Sox have shown interest in and pursued various outfielders this offseason, which is evidence enough that the organization sees the outfield as an area that could benefit from an upgrade.
When approached about the team’s interest in Fowler as a remaining free agent, Hahn simply responded “He is a free agent.” Hahn was later pressed about the issue again by a fan, “Frankly, I’d rather disappoint you with this answer, and convert on a targeted free player then tell you exactly what I’m thinking and potentially jeopardize getting something done.” he responded. “We are interested in guys that make us better.” Hahn quipped.
Hahn also implied that part of the reason for the lack of success in signing free agents this offseason was mainly due to matters outside the organization’s control.
“Players who reach free agency, who obviously worked hard in their career to get to that point can choose where they want to go,” Hahn said in response to a fan who mentioned his desire for the team to have acquired Cespedes. “Any of these players who decide ultimately that they want to return to where they came from, I just have to respect that and tip my hat to them. Doesn’t mean that we’re not going to continue to try and get it done, and I assure you the players that you’re talking about, there were conversations right up until the day they signed where they signed.”
Whether or not the White Sox were looking to execute a total rebuild has remained a question all offseason, but Hahn put any lingering suspicions about this idea to rest on Friday.
“When we looked at where we were as a club, having Chris Sale under control, Jose Abreu, Eaton, Quintana, Rodon through the prime of their career, our inclination was not to start a five-year clock so to speak, and instead try to do what we can to put ourselves in the best position to win with that core.” Hahn continued this by saying that if for whatever reason it doesn’t work out this year it will “100% will be on the table again about whether it’s the time” to execute a rebuild. “We just felt we were closer to winning that ring, which is the ultimate goal, by keeping the core we had in place as opposed to stripping it all the way down.”
With the departure of Paul Konerko prior to last season, the status of the White Sox clubhouse culture was brought up and addressed by manager Robin Ventura.
“Konerko wasn’t there last year,” Ventura said. “I think when a guy has spent as much time here as Paulie, for a couple years before he leaves, everybody kind of backs away from even knowing that they could be a leader on the team because, he’s the guy.”
Ventura went on to say that the front office has been “doing their homework” when acquiring new members for this ballclub, and notes that Frazier and Lawrie have the ability to be strong contributors in the clubhouse as much as they do on the field. “That’s the attractive part of going out and getting these guys” Ventura said. “They’re very confident personalities.” Rick Hahn added of Lawrie and Frazier. “It’s not the sole reason you go out and get a guy, but it’s a factor … those intangibles are really important when we target a guy.”
There were attempts made to reconstruct a strong veteran leadership presence in the clubhouse last offseason as well. “Last year, we targeted guys to try and fill that role.” Hahn said, “But when a guy is struggling initially, it’s a little tough for him to take that leadership role if [he’s] not carrying [his] own.”
During this discussion, Hahn pinpointed how Adam LaRoche had been targeted for a leadership role last season, “It’s kind of tough for him to stand up, or get on a guy when he’s not living up to his potential.” he said. “By the second half, I would say Melky was probably the epicenter of that clubhouse, he obviously started slow, it took him a little while, but once he got going he was a little more flexible, he let the personality show, and became a huge presence.”
The optimism for 2016 was cautious and rational from this front office and managerial staff over the weekend. Fans were calm and collected at the podium during each seminar, which came as somewhat of a surprise considering how sour thing were for this team last season, in spite of how well tailored they looked heading into April.
All White Sox fans can do now is wait, and hope that baseball’s unpredictability swings in favor of the South Siders for the first time in quite a while.