In a dream, new White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn stands before an Iowa cornfield and hears a voice whisper to him “if you rebuild it, wins will come”. He wakes up, uncertain of whom was behind the voice but knowing for sure it wasn’t White Sox VP of Baseball Operations, Kenny Williams. Williams, promoted to his new role this past off-season, racked up a pile of baseball debt before handing the checkbook over to Hahn, a skilled baseball man and White Sox’s assistant general manager for the past 12 seasons. Kenny Williams, who will continue his heavy involvement in baseball operations, forever robbed Peter to pay Paul, gutting an already meager farm system to collect veterans in pursuit of another World Series championship. It worked in ’05 as his veteran team went the distance and swept the now hapless Astros to collect a ring. The ultimate baseball prize was worth what it cost but it solidified Kenny’s mentality of eschewing youth in favor of high-to-mid priced veterans. The strategy hasn’t worked since but the former GM refuses to tear down his ball club and start anew. Across town, the Cubs are in the middle of a multi-year rebuilding process of their own which, at its early stage, seems to be progressing fairly well. But the White Sox challenge is one their north side rivals aren’t faced with. Popular veterans like Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn and Jake Peavy are names the fans recognize and are relied upon to keep the Sox relevant in a two team town. Sox ownership believes a rebuild would cause mass fan defection and result in an even emptier stadium. Rick Hahn must see what his predecessor failed to. Baseball fans are also drawn to wins, not just famous faces. In the new era of baseball, a team built around young stars and selectively signed veteran free agents will result in more victories than an expensive, on-paper all-star team.
Kenny Williams famously told Frank Thomas to “stay out of White Sox business” when the Big Hurt questioned the manner in which the team chose to part company with him. Though Kenny remains in a prominent front office position, it’s time for him to heed his own advice. Let Rick Hahn make day-to-day baseball decisions to ensure the farm system is well-nourished. Williams should offer advice, sign-off on major decisions and be a team spokesman but must cede the driver’s seat to the new GM. Long considered one of the best minds in baseball, Hahn doesn’t really need a rung between himself and the team’s owner. But his devotion to the White Sox and its chairman, Jerry Reinsdorf, prevented him from flying the coop multiple times over the past decade. His extensive education – University of Michigan, Harvard Law, Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management – and baseball experience has allowed him to prove his value across the organization. Negotiating contracts with the likes of Paul Konerko, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Alexei Ramirez as well as finding diamonds in the rough like Bobby Jenks and Carlos Quentin are just some of his front office achievements. The concern remains that Kenny has been in charge for so long that it will be hard for him to relinquish much power. Chairman Reinsdorf must hope that the Williams/Hahn duo will start working much like Garpax have for his Chicago Bulls. John Paxson is an overseer and checks Gar Forman on basketball decisions while stepping out of the media spotlight and giving up some decision-making power to the GM. Can Kenny Williams do the same to help the White Sox get back to respectability in a tough A.L. Central?
The White Sox organization is a mess from the farm system to the south side big club. Baseball Prospectus ranked its farm system 28 out of 30 in this year’s evaluation. Sadly, that rank is up two spots from the prior year but it still doesn’t bode well for the start of Hahn’s reign in Chicago. Bolstering the minor league system should bubble up to the top of his to-do list even though Chicago media cameras remain focused on the happenings at U.S. Cellular Field. There are zero White Sox minor leaguers on the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 list. Hahn’s mission – through the draft and via trade – will be to crack that list and then add to it on a yearly basis. Back in Chicago, the 2013 season looks like a lost cause. The Sox, sporting a sub .500 winning percentage, sit at the bottom of the American League Central with little hope of climbing out. Alex Rios is the only hitter with a respectable batting average/on base percentage. Out of the six hitters with over 200 at-bats – Alexei Ramirez, Alejandro De Aza, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Jeff Keppinger – only Rios is worth his paycheck to this point in the season. Newly signed third baseman Jeff Keppinger has been a bust and A.J.’s replacement, Tyler Flowers, has decent hitting stats for a catcher but doesn’t handle the pitching staff nearly as well as A.J. could. And, Dunn – bad contract and all – still can’t find his way over the Mendoza Line. On the mound, Chris Sale is pitching like an ace but the rest of the starting staff is middling at best. Once young treasures, John Danks and Gavin Floyd, have accrued only 10 starts between them this season. The White Sox roster was built to thrive with trustworthy, veteran hitters and up-and-coming pitchers. With cold bats and wavering arms, the approach hasn’t panned out and it’s time to bring in the bulldozer.
Rick Hahn must be allowed to utter baseball’s dirtiest word to the White Sox faithful. An out-and-out rebuild is necessary to permanently fix the organization. Trade veteran talent for good minor league athletes, sending a bag of cash along with each overpaid vet. The White Sox don’t have the revenues to maintain a high-end major league payroll while concurrently expanding its minor league operation. Year-by-year, Hahn must lower team payroll – currently 10th in MLB – and funnel more money into scouting, analytics and international talent acquisition. The starting lineups will look uninteresting for several years and attendance may drop. But future money will be better spent and when the wins come, the fans will return. A future will be solidified for the south side ball club and its new boss, Rick Hahn. And who knows… maybe there will still be a place for Kenny Williams too.
Will the White Sox stay the course or take a sharp turn in strategy under new leadership? And will Hahn’s brilliance make Reinsdorf realize that Kenny Williams is no longer a vital spoke in the wheel? Or will their strong relationship keep the new management duo in place for years to come? What do you think?