Before the world changed and baseball screeched to a temporary halt this spring, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn stood in the back of the rival Cubs’ Arizona press box ahead of a Cactus League game on the first Friday of March as a bright sun belied the impending coronavirus storm clouds.
The White Sox had just signed slugging third baseman Yoan Moncada to a five-year, $70 million extension, and Hahn, who isn’t exactly Mr. Braggadocious, in his low-key way uttered what we now can ID as perhaps the understatement of the season.
“We can objectively sit here today and feel like we have three of arguably the most exciting young players in the American League under control for at least the next six years,” Hahn said. “And that is a good feeling.”
Arguably? As ol’ Hawk Harrelson would be proud to say, “You can put it on the board! Yessss!”
Good feeling? Good grief. With the long-term ink still practically drying on deals for Moncada, Luis Robert (six years, $50 million on Jan. 2) and Eloy Jimenez (six years, $43 million, in March 2019), Hahn could have simply done a flamboyant mic drop and said, “Architect, out. See ya in October.”
Which Hahn and his team will, notably for the first time since 2008, and likely, for the first of many Octobers to come. One of the most exciting young teams in the game, from Robert’s electricity to Moncada’s versatility to Jimenez’s thump to shortstop Tim Anderson’s magic bat to Lucas Giolito’s no-hit stuff, the lean summers on Chicago’s South Side have yielded to not just a future crackling with promise, but a present that brims with it, too.
“These are young players who are still evolving, who have very likely not reached their ceiling, and who are going to put us in a strong position for a long time,” Hahn said that spring day. “When you start a rebuild, you want to find core championship-caliber pieces who you can build around, and we feel we have a number of those. And a good chunk of those we have been able to extend this window through these contracts.”
Here on the other side of baseball’s unsettling pandemic time out, what we saw during this 60-game drag race of a season is the full-throttle evolution of those young players, pushing the White Sox into the national spotlight perhaps just a tick or two ahead of their expected arrival time. Even with righthander Michael Kopech—another young, key foundation piece—opting out of the season, Chicago’s abundance of riches is on display darn near every night.
During one stretch in August, the White Sox tied a major league record by hammering four consecutive home runs in a game against the Cardinals—fireworks provided by Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, Jose Abreu and Jimenez—Abreu crushed six home runs in one series against the Cubs and Giolito fired a no-hitter against the Pirates.
The White Sox clinched their first playoff spot since 2008 on Sept. 17, when they defeated the Twins in come-from-behind fashion. The White Sox tied with the Rays for the American League lead in run differential. They ranked among the league leaders in OPS.
“It will be great, I won’t lie to you,” Abreu, who debuted in 2014, said of the postseason, speaking over video conference and through a translator. “It will be a dream come true. A result of all the hard work we’ve done over the last few years.”
Abreu, who signed a six-year, $68 million deal with the White Sox in October 2013, has had a front-row seat to the on-target rebuild of Hahn, executive vice president Kenny Williams and Co., hard work that they hope can deliver their first World Series title since 2005.
It was after the 2016 season, a fourth consecutive sub-.500 summer, when the White Sox decided they were stuck in neutral and needed a new path. So they rocked the Winter Meetings that December in Washington D.C., by shipping ace Chris Sale to the Red Sox in a blockbuster deal for Moncada, Kopech, low Class A outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe and righthander Victor Diaz. A day later, Hahn sent outfielder Adam Eaton to the Nationals for righthanders Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning.
Seven months later, at the trade deadline in July 2017, the White Sox deftly recognized the Cubs’ desperation to shake the malaise following their 2016 World Series title and sent lefthander Jose Quintana to the North Side for Jimenez and righthander Dylan Cease. Since then, for the Cubs, it’s brought wisecracking comparisons to their infamous trade of future Hall of Famer Lou Brock to St. Louis in 1964. For the upwardly mobile White Sox, it’s the gift that continues to give.
Aside from the sledgehammer impacts of Jimenez and Moncada, Cease and Dunning have joined Giolito from those deals to bring the rotation along perhaps a bit sooner than expected. Dunning, who entered the season ranked as the No. 8 prospect in the system after sitting out 2019 while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, became the ninth White Sox player to make his major league debut this season and posted a 3.19 ERA in his first seven starts.
“It’s exciting to watch,” said Dave Yoakum, a member of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame, who contributed to the rebuild as a special assistant to Hahn. “The talent that’s out there is pretty impressive. Honestly, I was expecting next year to be the big year for us.
“I like the talent we put together. Giolito is outstanding atop the rotation. (Dallas) Keuchel’s been good. Dunning really has good stuff. All he’s got to do is learn his pitch sequences a little bit, but he’s had some good starts.”
No starter, though, has been as impressive as Giolito, who was blistered for a 6.13 ERA while surrendering a major league-worst 118 earned runs and 90 walks in 2018 but battled back from those confounding days to rise to the top of the Chicago rotation.
After the peak—so far—of his career, Giolito was still remembering those difficult times while assimilating the emotions of his no-hitter. He said “getting my ass kicked over and over” was what forced him to think, learn and adapt in his career to “realize my true potential.” He shortened his arm action and reversed course to become an all-star in 2019.
His wife, Ariana, saved some of the worst social media comments to remind him of how far he has come.
Having worked through it with him, his manager, Rick Renteria, didn’t need reminding.
“I just told him I was extremely happy for him,” Renteria said after the no-hitter. “I don’t have any words. I want to cry. I’m really happy for him.”
What the White Sox have built during the construction phase isn’t simply a group of mercenary individual talents, but a true team that works together, appreciates each other and is coalescing a little bit more each day.
With things going so well this summer, Hahn and Williams sat down with a handful of veteran players just before the Aug. 31 trade deadline for a sort of philosophical discussion. When the White Sox added veteran free agents Grandal and Keuchel to the mix last winter, it was with the idea that they would add veteran leadership to the young group and, at times, be leaned on for input. The executives also picked and chose carefully, remembering well that part of the decision for their new direction emanated from that ugly 2016 season, when the clubhouse was prickly after Adam LaRoche had to be told not to bring his son to work every day in the spring and, later, when Sale went all Edward Scissorhands on the marketing department and destroyed some uniforms he didn’t want to wear.
“We had a very candid conversation about where we are as an organization, the clubhouse culture and the chemistry in that clubhouse,” Hahn said of this summer’s group chat with the trade deadline looming. “I have to say I think we all came out of there very impressed with the environment that’s there on a daily basis and the commitment of those veterans to maintaining that environment and their level of confidence in terms of not only what this team is capable of doing over the next couple of months, but over the next couple of years. That matters to us. That matters in any acquisition.
“Being able to fit into that environment and being able to move this team toward a championship culture, that’s a consideration in all acquisitions. It has been (even) going back to when this whole thing started with the Chris Sale deal.”
After the world changed and baseball made its first tentative steps back to the field, Hahn recalled some early conversations about not taking for granted any of these days in which they were fortunate enough to have baseball in front of them.
“We’re obviously living in a very trying and uncertain time, and we were going to sort of take the approach of trying to have a positive development each day,” Hahn said. “Whether it’s with a player’s on-field development before our eyes, or some sort of change the coaches are being able to effectuate with a player, or with a guy’s health or some sort of acquisition or whatever.
“Each day, we wanted to be able to come here and move closer to that goal of being able to contend annually for championships. The rapidity with which many of these things have happened: Luis Robert’s ability to acclimate himself to the big league level, Lucas’ ability to be able to continue to maintain that elite status in a rotation, Eloy’s further development as a hitter, Tim Anderson maintaining himself as an offensive threat and improving defensively.
“There’s a great deal of satisfaction, not just because of those results and what they mean for the future, but also because we get to see how challenging it is right now for these guys to be able to focus on this day-in and day-out just given the world around us and what we’re asking of them.
“We’ve been able to get those positive moments each day, whether it’s the no-hitter or the four home runs in a row, these momentous events have stood out more than others but all of it has led us to feel really good about not only where we are as an organization now, but where this thing is going to lead us over the better part of the next decade.”