A most important offseason

Winter re-do: Hahn gets another chance to triumph, as a second consecutive “must” offseason looms. (YouTube)

The winter of 1981 saw new White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn pose a question to general manager Roland Hemond: “How can we change things with this team?”

Hemond’s answer was succinct: “Sign Carlton Fisk; that will send a message.”

With that, Einhorn and Hemond began negotiations with Fisk’s agent, Jerry Kapstein, and on March 19 after three weeks of talks, signed Fisk to a five-year, 2.9 million deal.

As Reinsdorf later said, that signing changed the entire perception of the White Sox franchise: “We were the Rodney Dangerfield of baseball, we got no respect.”

But the White Sox weren’t done. When Philadelphia was ready to let go of slugger Greg “the Bull” Luzinski, the Sox immediately jumped in. For mere cash, the Niles native came back home to provide more power to the lineup. Luzinski’s deal was completed on March 31.

Those two signings, along with the earlier inkings of Ron LeFlore, Bill Almon and Jim Essian and the trade acquisition of Tony Bernazard revitalized a moribund franchise. Even with the summer’s labor impasse that wiped out two months of the season, the White Sox had a winning record, their first since 1977. There was a new energy to the team, and new owners who were spending money fed a promising future, capped off with the 99-win season in 1983.

The White Sox now face another significant and crucial offseason, perhaps their most important since that winter of 1981.

This franchise which has had seven straight losing years, and 10 of the last 13, has shown some signs of the rebuild working. Players like Tim Anderson, Aaron Bummer, Lucas Giolito, Eloy Jiménez and Yoán Moncada have shown signs of breaking out into the elite class. Some help is expected to come up from the minor leagues, namely Nick Madrigal and Luis Robert, around May 1.

But there are still holes to fill, and the White Sox having only $20 million committed to payroll right now have got to get the job done and fill them, which would, as Hemond said in 1981, “send a message.”

Can this front office, which botched the previous offseason dealings with Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, do it? The one that’s given Sox fans such “stellar” acquisitions as Jeff Keppinger, Adam Dunn, Adam LaRoche, John Jay, Yonder Alonso, Jeff Samardzija, Ervin Santana and Kelvin Herrera? History would say no.

But the stakes are very high now, as a fan base that already was angry over last offseason’s failures is losing patience and trust in the organization. Another winter with little to no help for the lineup, especially given the ridiculously low payroll, would send many fans over the edge, off the bandwagon and to the point where they simply no longer trust the front office ever again. And deservedly so.

General manager Rick Hahn raised expectations last year with his repeated insinuations that “the money will be spent,” to the point where he was cutting off questions along those lines at Sox Fest because he was tired of repeating himself, instead making his infamous claim that the Sox would be players and “have a seat at the table.” Hahn can’t afford to talk and then have it blow up in his face again or he risks losing any shred of remaining credibility he may still have.

Some of the expected top free agents have already signed extensions with their old teams and the odds of the Sox inking a Gerrit Cole or an Anthony Rendon are very slim. But there are still quality players out there, not “dumpster dives” that could really help as the Sox look to break through in 2020 and at least pull off a winning season.

First off the Sox need pitching badly, starting pitching to be exact although another two good bullpen arms wouldn’t hurt. On paper the Sox, if everything went right, would already seem to have an excess of pitching but in fact, every single one of the pitchers the Sox are counting on has questions, in some cases multiple ones.

Lucas Giolito went from one of the worst pitchers in the league to an All-Star and one of the best. But who is the real Giolito, the one from 2018 or the guy who lit up the league in 2019? There simply isn’t a long track record of success to inspire confidence yet.

Reynaldo López has shown flashes of brilliance and electric stuff — then in his next outing he can’t get out of the first inning. He simply hasn’t been consistent. Can the Sox count on him learning how to be consistent?

Michael Kopech is coming off Tommy John surgery and has only pitched 14 innings in the major leagues. He’s still raw, and will probably be on an innings limit. The Sox have little to no idea what he can give them moving forward.

Dylan Cease had a rocky first season in the majors. In almost every game he would give up a dreaded “crooked number” inning. Like López, Cease has great stuff and is highly regarded — but can he harness that stuff, learn to avoid big innings and the home run ball, and win? Or will he turn into Javier Vasquez 2.0, a pitcher with great stuff who was his own worst enemy?

Then you have Carlos Rodón, coming off Tommy John surgery and expected back around midseason 2020. Another pitcher with ace talent, but like Kopech Rodón probably will be on an innings limit. Rodón’s entire career has been derailed by one injury after another.

Finally you have Dane Dunning, yet another in the seemingly endless line of Sox pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery. Before he was hurt, Dunning was rapidly moving up the chain and figured to break into the big leagues. Now? Like with Kopech and Rodón, Dunning probably will be on an innings limit, and he hasn’t spent one day pitching in the big leagues to big league hitters.

Every single one of these guys has questions surrounding them, which is why the Sox simply can’t count on everything going right, every pitcher staying healthy, progressing and moving forward. The odds are simply too long for that to happen.

They need to sign two quality starting pitchers, and I’d be even happier with them signing a third one, a rehab case, let’s say, an Alex Wood who can be sent to Charlotte just in case disaster strikes again.

The very last thing Sox fans want to see in 2020 are pitchers like Dylan Covey, Ross Detwiler, Hector Santiago, Carson Fulmer, Manny Bañuelos or Ervin Santana getting starts and sucking the life out of everything.

Pitchers like Steven Strasburg, Dallas Keuchel, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Zach Wheeler, Jake Odorizzi and Madison Bumgarner could be available. Every one of those pitchers could help the White Sox in 2020.

The front office needs to aggressively solve the pitching issue, over and above the other problems facing the club. You can never have enough pitching, especially the way pitchers get hurt today.     

Let’s say for discussion purposes that the Sox go into next season with Giolito, López, Kopech and Cease in the rotation, and sign two more. That gives them six. The five who perform best in the spring open in the rotation. The sixth man is the “swing” man, long relief and spot starter when the doubleheaders pile up; with the Sox having 16 home games in March/April next year, you can bet at least a few of those are going to be rained/snowed out and the doubleheaders will pile up.

This rotation can be changed during the year of course in case of injury or ineffectiveness.

What happens, you say, if the Sox get lucky and every one of those pitchers does well, stays healthy and then the Sox add Rodón and Dunning to the mix at midseason? Well in the unlikely event that were to happen, it would put the Sox in an unbelievably strong position at the trade deadline.

They’d have a surplus of the most precious commodity in the game … starting pitching.

Hello … New York! What? You say deGrom just got hurt and you want Rodon? Great! We want A,B and C. Houston hello! Oh I see, McCullers is going to miss significant time. Geez, that’s too bad. You’re interested in López? Sure, we can talk. But the asking price is A and B. How bad do you want him?  

That’s how the big boys operate, folks, from positions of strength, driving hard bargains waiting for some team to panic. And it always happens; there’s always a team that overpays.

Pitching of course, isn’t the only area of need. This past season and for several years before that, the White Sox offense has been inconsistent at best. Between 42% and 48% of their games the past few seasons have resulted in scoring three runs or fewer. Couple that with shaky pitching and poor defense, and you aren’t going to win many games.

For far too long the Sox have had guys that simply strike out, don’t draw walks and have low batting averages. What that means is that it is much harder for them to string together three-four-five hits in a row to score runs.

Assuming Nick Madrigal and Luis Robert are up with the team around May 1 and that José Abreu is re-signed (and his comments that Jerry Reinsdorf has told him he will be back appear to make this a done deal. Coincidentally, Reinsdorf’s comments basically cut the legs out from under his GM in this regard), the Sox are going to need either a DH or first baseman (depending on where Abreu plays) and a right fielder. Both are power/RBI positions. 

Some players the Sox may be interested in include Nicholas Castellanos (who has always hit well in Chicago), Marcel Ozuna (and some stories at MLB.com have already linked the Sox to him), Yasiel Puig, Kole Calhoun, Starling Marte and Avisaíl Garcia (would the Sox consider bringing him back?).

The available first basemen are not appealing at all, so if Abreu has to play first base again (which also is unappealing) then you have to look at potential DHs to fill an area of need that has been among the worst in baseball for the last several years. But with J.D. Martinez sticking on the Red Sox, it doesn’t leave much that’s desirable among designated hitters, either.

It’s a better group of available outfielders than at any other position of need for the White Sox. Maybe they can sign two guys and ask one, say Castellanos, to move to first base. (That was something Detroit wanted him to do, and he refused without having a new deal in place.)

Signing some guys could also put the Sox in a position to deal some of their up-and-coming minor league talent, to fill a need elsewhere. Blake Rutherford, Steele Walker, Luis Basabe, Gavin Sheets and Micker Adolfo could be traded, assuming they stay healthy and produce at the start of 2020.

The Sox clearly have a need for some positional players along with a pitching need. That’s a lot to ask of a front office, especially this one, but with the committed payroll as low as it is there’s no excuse not to be able to fill every one of them. If Reinsdorf steps in though and limits the budget — if Hahn has to make a choice — pitching has got to be the priority.

One final thought on this offseason. It has been a rough year, more like a rough decade-plus since the start of the 2007 season. For Hahn, Don Cooper, Steve Stone and Chuck Garfien to verbally dump on fans, as they did at various points last season is totally and completely inexcusable — and yet again shows their lack of understanding of the Sox fan base. This organization has always had a streak of arrogance, a belief that “We’re smarter than you. We know what we’re doing, how dare you question us?”

Well, if the organization since 1981 had produced more than five postseason appearances, maybe they’d have the right to think like that.

What they should be thinking is that after the bad baseball basically since the start of the 2007 season, they should be grateful any Sox fan is still interested and engaged enough to get angry instead of being totally apathetic.

Steve Stone, who I consider to be the best analyst out there, really raised eyebrows on Twitter with some of his comments this past year, literally poking the bear and almost trying to incite the Sox fan base for whatever reason.

His comment of a “house taking five years to build” was particularly strange, given that unless you are building a home by yourself even a multi-multi-multi-million dollar home doesn’t take that long to construct. And if you have that kind of money to build that expensive a house, you have the money to hire as many construction people as needed to finish the job in a reasonable amount of time.   

Sox fans were quick to rebut that belief on Twitter by pointing out that the Astros didn’t need five years to rebuild — and neither did the Athletics, Braves, Brewers, Cubs or Twins.

Some fans were concerned that Stone’s comments were reflective of the thinking of Reinsdorf, in much the way Hawk Harrelson used to channel the Chairman. Stone also said on the TV broadcast he didn’t think pitchers today were worth a long-term, extremely rich deal.

If that opinion came from JR and if the Sox again fail to have a successful offseason, with players who actually produce instead of falling off the face of the Earth as soon as they put on that uniform, then the fanbase has every right to leave in droves and simply not care. 

National baseball writer Ken Rosenthal said it best in a column in The Sporting News in 2004: “Chicago shouldn’t just belong to the Cubs.”

The ball is in the front office’s court … we’ll be waiting to see what happens.

Today in White Sox History: October 28

Many of us were there: The 2005 receive a warm welcome from two million happy fans. (Chicago White Sox)

2005 – It was one of the largest turnouts for a championship celebration in Chicago sports history, as nearly two million people lined the parade route in the downtown area/South Side to honor the World Series champions. White Sox players and management addressed the crowd, and Paul Konerko presented the last out/game ball to owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Today in White Sox History: October 5

Curve ball: Michael Jordan’s bombshell cast a Pall over the 1993 ALCS. (@Cut4)

1908 — White Sox pitcher Ed Walsh won his 40th game of the season, as he beat the Detroit Tigers, 6-1. No one has come close to 40 wins since.

1983Cy Young Award winner LaMarr Hoyt pitched a brilliant, complete game six-hitter in beating the Orioles 2-1 in Game 1 of the ALCS. It was the first time since divisional playoffs started in 1969 that Baltimore had lost the first game of a postseason series. It would prove to be the high-water mark for the Sox in the next week.

1993 — Game 1 of the ALCS was a complete, unmitigated disaster both on and off the field for the White Sox. On the field, the Toronto Blue Jays ripped the Sox, 7-3, but by the middle of the game, not one fan cared. Michael Jordan, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch, confirmed reports that he was holding a press conference the next morning to announce his retirement from the Chicago Bulls. Fans at the game and around the city were in shock.

Adding insult to injury, future Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk and Chicago native and former Sox pitcher Donn Pall were turned away by security guards when they attempted to wish the team good luck in the locker room before the game started. The White Sox claimed the rules were set by major league baseball but no fan or media member was fooled by that comment. Most media members felt Fisk was turned away on explicit orders from owner Jerry Reinsdorf. It was an insult Fisk never forgot.

Reinsdorf then took an unprecedented step of apologizing to the team in the clubhouse before the start of Game 2, saying he had no desire to steal their spotlight because of the Jordan situation.

2008 — Making the postseason for the third time in the decade, the White Sox were on the brink of elimination in the 2008 ALDS, but behind strong starting pitching from John Danks they beat the Rays, 5-3, to survive another day. Danks pitched into the seventh inning, with seven strikeouts. A three-run fourth inning set the tone for the Sox in the game, and narrowed Tampa Bay’s series lead to 2-1. 

Today in White Sox History: September 24

Magglio Ordoñez and Frank Thomas celebrate in the Metrodome after clinching the Central (Sun-Times clippings)

Sept. 24, 1919 — A 6-5 win over the St. Louis Browns clinched the pennant for the White Sox. Eddie Cicotte got the win. Shoeless Joe Jackson’s double in the ninth drove in the game- and pennant-clinching run. The Sox would beat out Cleveland by three-and-a-half games for the title and finish with a record of 88-52

Sept. 24, 1961 — Sox star pitcher Billy Pierce won his 186th and final game with the team as he threw six innings of relief in an 8-7 win over Baltimore. Pierce would be traded to the Giants in the following offseason, after 13 years on the South Side.

Sept. 24, 1969 — Sox owner Art Allyn sold the club to his brother John Allyn, thwarting moves made by Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt and Milwaukee’s Bud Selig to buy the team. Hunt wanted to move the White Sox to Dallas, Selig to Milwaukee.

Sept. 24, 1977 — White Sox infielder Jack Brohamer had the game of his life, as he became the second player in franchise history to hit for the cycle. Brohamer went 5-for-5 in the Kingdome at Seattle, with two runs scored and four RBIs in the 8-3 win.

Sept. 24, 2000 — Despite losing to the Twins at the Metrodome, the White Sox clinched the Central Division, beating out Cleveland by five games with a record of 95-67. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf showed up in the locker room and said that “I’m sure all Sox fans are now happy the team made the White Flag deal.”

Today in White Sox History: September 15

Double his pleasure: Lyons was so great for the White Sox, the franchise honored him with two “Days.”

Sept. 15, 1940Ted Lyons Day was held at Comiskey Park. The “Baylor Bearcat” won 260 games with the club and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955. His No. 16 would be retired in 1987. This was the second time Lyons was honored this way, the first time coming in 1933.

Sept. 15, 1964 — In his first at-bat in the American League after many seasons in the NL, pinch-hitter deluxe Forrest “Smoky” Burgess belted a game-tying home run at Detroit. The Sox would eventually beat the Tigers 3-2 in 10 innings, keeping their pennant hopes alive. Burgess would lead the league in pinch hits in 1965 and 1966.

Sept. 15, 1970 — Shortly after taking over as the new director of player personnel, Roland Hemond targeted the man who’d eventually in his words, “save” the franchise. Hemond called Bing Devine to see what the chances were of making a deal for Cardinals slugger Dick Allen. Devine turned him down, but 15 months later Hemond would get his man — from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Sept. 15, 1983 — The White Sox set the franchise record for most runs scored in the sixth inning of a game when they got 11 in a 12-0 win over the Seattle Mariners at Comiskey Park. LaMarr Hoyt got the win, his 21st on the season. The game only lasted seven innings due to rain. Harold Baines had a grand slam, as the Sox cut their magic number down to two for winning the division. The Sox sent 17 men to the plate in the sixth, which saw them get nine hits.

Sept. 15, 1990 — Owner Jerry Reinsdorf fired GM Larry Himes, citing “personality differences.” Himes drafted and signed future White Sox stars like Frank Thomas, Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura and Alex Fernandez. During the press conference announcing the hiring of Ron Schueler as new GM, Reinsdorf issued his famous “point A to point B to point C” comment. Later in a rare radio appearance he was candid on the subject to host Chet Coppock: “The fact is, Larry Himes cannot get along with anybody. You can hardly find anybody in the Sox organization that wasn’t happy when Larry Himes left.”

Sept. 15, 1996Frank Thomas slugged his 215th home run in a Sox uniform, breaking Carlton Fisk’s team record. Thomas homered three times at Fenway Park off the Red Sox’s Tim Wakefield, yet the Sox lost the game, 9-8.

Sept. 15, 1997 — In an 11-10 loss in Milwaukee, Sox rookies Mario Valdez and Jeff Abbott both hit their first big league home runs. Valdez got his in the fifth inning, Abbott an inning later.