The White Sox have a new front office structure, but with the same cast of characters, will anything really change?
The White Sox have a new front office structure and the shuffling has created a South Side trinity.
Owner Jerry Reinsdorf is the Wallet, recently promoted executive vice-president Kenny Williams is the Mouth, and, taking over as the new general manager, is Rick Hahn, the Brain. The three will work together, just as they've done for the past 12 years, but with their responsibilities divided up a bit differently than they've been in previous seasons.
The structure is a bit unconventional, but it will likely work for the White Sox despite the reconfigured decision-making constellation. Reinsdorf's role hasn't changed. He'll remain a vocal yet supportive owner, and with any luck, one willing to open his wallet to strengthen the team rather than locking the funds away in favor of a period of low-cost rebuilding. As the new VP, Williams will leave the day-to-day operations to Hahn, but still have the final say in decisions. Beyond that, Williams' responsibilities aren't clear, though it sounds like he might turn his attention towards marketing and attendance issues for now. Hahn, who has arguably been the brains of the operation for much longer than he's held the title of GM, will take over the day-to-day operations, which includes scouting, coaching, player development, and negotiating.
Williams alluded to the coming change several times this season, as it became obvious that the rigors of running the team were turning him gray and cranky (to be fair, he's been the latter for awhile). Fortunately for him, Hahn was one prospect he never let get away. Though he has interviewed for other GM positions over the years, Hahn's deep roots in Chicago and the South Side have kept him from leaving. Hahn is regarded as one of the better negotiators in the game, and the Sox are lucky that he was willing to take a back seat to Williams for so many years even though he had options elsewhere. This offseason is Hahn's opportunity to prove he's not only the best guy for the job, but also able to bring real change to the way the organization does business... that is, if that's what he wants.
Without being a fly on the wall during a meeting it's difficult to assess how decisions are really being made. Does changing the driver of the bus prevent it from going off the cliff, or did Williams cut the brakes back in 2007 with Reinsdorf and Hahn's blessing, and now they're just coasting towards an inevitable plunge? In his first press conference as GM, Hahn blandly toed the company line: He said he wanted to win a World Series. He hinted he had tough decisions to make about players, especially ones with sentimental value to the organization. None of it was revelatory; it was exactly the speech you'd expect him to make, but he was (presumably intentionally) vague enough that it wasn't clear what his approach this offseason would be.
There's a chance that nothing changes under Hahn and the White Sox stay the course, continuing to deplete the farm system in favor of immediate gain and spending on free agents even when they swear they are rebuilding. Can a man so deeply part of the organization be expected to depart radically from its well-established ways, or does his elevation suggest mere continuity? The answer remains to be seen, but there's a chance the new boss isn't the same as the old boss and Hahn, who is known for his business sense and negotiating skills (something Williams lacks), could finally be in the position to bring positive change to an organization that's stumbled to make smart moves with the future in mind.
I started this piece on Tuesday afternoon, not knowing when it would be available to read online; Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on my editor Steven Goldman's area and he had been without power, Internet, or a reliable cellphone signal since Monday evening. When I began, the obvious question was how Hahn might handle free agents and players with team options, especially in comparison to how Williams might handle them. I wondered if Hahn, who is reputedly more rational and less emotional than the Williams-Reinsdorf combo, might deal with players like Jake Peavy and A.J. Pierzynski, who have not only baseball value, but also sentimental value to the franchise.
In my outline, I had four assumptions:
1. Hahn would let Peavy go for obvious reasons. He was expensive, and the team would likely be rebuilding, after missing the postseason again. I know there were sources a few weeks ago that said the White Sox didn't intend to pick up his option, but I had a hunch that if Williams, a sucker for a good pitcher, was the deciding factor they would keep him.
2. Hahn would reason that Brent Morel isn't the solution at third, and because of positional scarcity, they'd exercise the $13 million option on Youkilis. It would mean overpaying a player that had had some bumps last season, but it would also mean having greater stability and offensive potential at the hot corner than Morel can provide.
3. The White Sox would exercise the option on Gavin Floyd, not because they need him for the rotation, but because they need a player of his caliber as trade bait.
4. Hahn would work out a deal to keep A.J. Pierzynski for two more seasons since Tyler Flowers has a broken hand, is still unproven as a regular, and the White Sox don't have a backup. Hahn worked out Pierzynski's 2010 deal in "10 to 15 minutes," so I figured it could happen again.
By 5:15 p.m., I had a cramp in my finger from hitting the backspace button to delete the paragraphs I'd written about how this offseason might go with Hahn in charge. When Hahn's first moves as GM were announced that afternoon, there weren't any more "what ifs? " but a few more "what the hells?" The White Sox re-signed Jake Peavy to a two-year, $29 million deal and declined options on Youkilis and relief pitcher Brett Myers. They also exercised their $9.5 million option on Floyd. It's not that these moves don't make sense, but that It's a Williams signature move to spend on pitching at the expense of fielding and hitting, especially when the White Sox already have enough arms for a rotation.
The season after their 2005 World Series, the White Sox had the third-best offense in the baseball thanks in large part to strong performances from Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye. Since then, the Sox have failed to recruit players that can not only hit, but can also get on base with regularity. They've focused on a home run offense to the exclusion of other skills, and despite finishing third in the majors in home runs this season, they ranked 23rd in True Average (TAv). To put it another way, this season they ranked seventh in the AL in on-base percentage, but were fourth in isolated power (ISO). Over the past five seasons, the White Sox were 17th in the majors as measured by TAv, and once again, their ISO of .159 during that span was more impressive than their team OBP (.326).
The mixed showing of the offense stands in stark contrast to their pitching performance, where they ranked eighth in Fair Run Average (FRA) over the last five seasons. The White Sox bullpen has been fantastic as well, ranking fourth in the majors by that same standard. No one would question that great pitching is an asset, but offense and pitching are a delicate balance. Williams, and perhaps now Hahn, have tipped the scales too heavily in one direction, and if they keep going the lack of hitting will be insurmountable.
That said, no one should get upset about Jake Peavy -- the White Sox got a good deal -- and it's likely that they've exercised Floyd's option only so they can retain him long enough to deal him. There's still a chance that the White Sox could work out a deal with Youkilis at a rate lower than the option, and there's no word yet on whether or not Pierzynski will return, but now there's a chance the Trinity sends them both off to the free agent market. The biggest revelation of these moves is that the three men in charge moved quickly to make a decision on several key players today that are in line with how Williams ran the organization in past seasons -- the kind of moves that have helped the Sox marginally while ignoring bigger roster gaps in the process.
Williams certainly made some great trades during his tenure. In 2006 he traded Freddy Garcia to the Phillies for Floyd and Gio Gonzalez. Though the White Sox never reaped the benefits of Gonzalez before trading him, Floyd has been durable and pitched 948⅓ innings in five seasons. In the same season, he sent Brandon McCarthy and minor leaguer David Paisano to the Rangers for John Danks, Nick Masset, and Jacob Rasner, which might have been the best trade of his tenure. There were some frustrating moves over the years that have left the team considerably weaker, especially where the farm is concerned: According to Baseball America's 2012 organization rankings, the White Sox were dead last in prospect value. While Peavy has finally worked out, they gave up four prospects for a player with an expensive, extended contract who made just three starts that season and 38 in three years.
The biggest critique of the Williams era is that his moves were aggressive, but also shortsighted. With few prospects because in recent years the Sox have been uneven in the amateur draft at best, Williams was making trades out of a rapidly dwindling, non-replenishable stock. Now, the only vehicle for strengthening the team is signing free agents because unless the White Sox are willing to deal major league talent (and they might be with Rios and Floyd), trades just aren't possible.
If Hahn really is the Brain of this trinity, and the Wallet and the Mouth let him do the thinking, then his job will be to find a way to balance short- and long-term success by putting a team that compete on the field without further leveraging the barren farm to accomplish that goal. It's a tall order, and in the immediate future it will mean overspending to fill current roster gaps while strengthening the team's hand in international scouting and the draft. Hahn has plenty of time this offseason to prove that Williams isn't pulling the strings from his new chair by making moves that depart from Williams' priorities. Hopefully he shows some independence, because a couple more seasons of status quo will completely erode any chance the Sox have of competing.