***NOTE: Full audio of the interview will be released as a podcast in the next few days***
General Manager Rick Hahn has been spending much of the off-season hunkered down with the White Sox front office, working angles on free agents, trade targets and roster machinations. Press conferences and interviews have been somewhat rare, outside of the Winter Meetings. When he is speaking with the press, the questions Hahn fields have been primarily focused on MLB-level free agents, especially the Big Two, along with roster construction and queries about the direction of the team for 2019.
I was fortunate recently to get some time with Rick. But we didn't talk about Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, and we only brushed by the 2019 big league club in passing. We didn't even talk much about specific prospects, with a couple exceptions. The goal was to dig into the system, the process, and the direction of the rebuild from a talent acquisition and player development point of view. So instead of trying to build a theme or narrative here, I'll just lay out what he had to say on some key topics, point by point. These are just snippets of the full interview.
On the international market
The White Sox have been in the "penalty box" for the past two July 2nd signing periods for foreign prospects. That means they've been unable to sign anyone to a bonus of more than $300k, thus missing out on most of the premium talent. In fact they've been trading away spending rights in exchange for pro prospects as a result.
I asked if having the two year pause presented any particular advantage or disadvantage going into the 2019 period (when the penalty limits are gone). The short answer was no, but that the club does feel well-positioned for the 2019 class. The longer version included some insight into how the scouting cycle works works:
I don't know if it gives us any advantage, but we certainly have been preparing for this for a few years. Quite frankly, it's pretty remarkable how early before the July 2nd where a player is eligible to sign, the scouting process begins. So regardless of the penalty box or not, you are still planning for 2-3 years out. Marco [Paddy, who leads the team's international scouting] and his staff and our international scouts are really in the process of evaluating 13 and 14-year-olds. Which is just stunning, being the parent of a 13-year-old...
And even when we were still in the penalty box, I should make clear that Marco and his guys are still going through the normal process. They knew we are very likely not going to be players on many of the players they are seeing because they will wind up signing for above three hundred thousand. But that doesn't mean that we won't be able to acquire those players down the road, and we want that information in our database to go back and compare the progress and our projections.
Further on the international market, Hahn said they were open to going in the opposite direction they've taken recently, instead seeking out more signing rights space to grab more talent than their designated pool would allow if Marco Paddy and his staff had some conviction on a player worth going after that way. But he added that as of this moment, they already have a good idea who they are going to get and their general price points, and it doesn't seem like going over in 2019 is likely. The market is still, of course, fluid.
One other note on the non-US markets. I asked about the apparent lack of international signings in the White Sox system from areas outside of Latin America, such as leagues in Japan, Korea, Australia and others. The South Siders haven't signed anyone direct from those markets since Po Yu Lin in 2006, as far as I can find. I wondered aloud if the team had anyone in place in the Far East or other locales to even scout such players, to which he had this response:
We do, we have boots on the ground, for lack of a better description, in the Far East, that provide us White Sox-owned reports. We also like every other team subscribe to statistical and video services that provide us further reinforcement on those leagues as well... premium type guys, guys who might be more than say a low six-figure guy... of course would get cross-checked.
On player development and the current setup
With Hahn and the rest of the team's front office leaders touting the development of a more sustainable talent model, I had some questions about some of the changes that may be occurring in the way the farm is run. Using a topic I wrote about recently as a jumping-off point, I asked if the impending increase in international talent flow along with some of the crowding issues were prompting discussion of the White Sox adding a 7th US affiliate. More than half of the MLB teams now have that. Apparently the Sox have indeed explored this, and he went a step further than just a potential addition (see the bolded, emphasis mine):
We’ve talked about that a decent amount. We’ve talked about altering our current composition as well as adding to it. Chris Getz, our head of Player Development, feels comfortable at this time about the number of spots we have and how we have them allocated. Having been in the penalty box the last two years, having had a little more college-heavy drafts the last few years, we haven’t quite felt that strong need for the additional lower level affiliate. But it is certainly something we could pivot to at some point in the future.
A pet topic of mine, I wanted to get Hahn's take on the subject of minor league pay. There's been a steadily increasing recognition among media and the fans that the conditions most minor leaguers live in day-to-day, as a result of stunningly low salaries, are a problem. We've written on this a number of times, starting with this piece from 2015 pointing out it was not only legally and morally tenuous, but also probably not the right business decision. Knowing Hahn couldn't speak to the legal side of things nor was likely to make a moral stand on the subject when speaking in his professional role, I asked if the White Sox were doing anything within their current restrictions to improve the situation. Here's part of his response:
Clubs including the White Sox are doing what we can in certain elements of the minor league experience to help make it more comfortable and improve performance of our players. And as you said, those two primary areas are in housing and perhaps even more importantly, nutrition. We’ve taken over our supply of food, it comes only from White Sox-sanctioned menus and suppliers, whether at home or on the road. We’ve also augmented, outside of the specific per diem the players receive, we’ve actually created a separate account for all the food in both home and road clubhouses, well beyond what it was in previous years. It was a bit of an antiquated system in terms of how it was run, especially at the lower levels. You had these clubbies who had a number of responsibilities, none of which are simplistic, responsible for feeding players on the road. And more often than not that meant a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or some sort of fast food, carry-out, pre-game or post-game. And that was simply because of ease, of habit, and affordability. All of which was understandable based upon the structure that was in place. We’re certainly not alone in trying to address this, and ameliorate it for the players, and try to put them in a much better position to perform by improving their diets. But we like other clubs see it as a pretty high priority item in recent years and one where we are continuing to improve.
Moving to the coaching and training side, I asked about the team's recent hire of Matt Lisle. it seemed at first glance a nod to the recent surge of recognition that some of the best analytical and coaching talent may be found in the college or even private practice realms. So I asked if the hiring of Lisle was indicative of any sort of shift in philosophy or addition of a new track or department within the White Sox:
I don’t know if I view it as a different track, or just the evolution of things. As Trackman has grown, and the availability of large data throughout the minor league system has become more readily available, we’ve adapted. We added Everett Teaford prior to last season on the pitching side, and he helped work with all of our pitching coaches and directly with our arms on the use and analysis and implementation of that data. And, how to maximize performance based upon what that data was showing. And this season yeah, we added Matt Lisle to do something similar on the hitting side. It’s cliché, but, it’s really just looking through the other lens of the binoculars. It’s something that works in conjunction with our coaches and our more subjective evaluation side of things. It’s really just putting us in the best position to use the available data to provide the best holistic picture of what a player is currently capable of doing, and means of improving them going forward.
On roster construction and managing the balance of talent
Less than a month ago, the Rule 5 Draft was conducted. Prior to that, the White Sox had to make some tough calls on who to protect on the 40-man roster. For the second year in a row, their apparent gambles in leaving some potential picks exposed have paid off, as the Sox haven't lost a player in the MLB phase of the draft since 2015.
I wanted to know how the team goes about making decisions on who to add to the 40-man each fall. I was expecting something vague in response to this query, but got a specific, multi-part plan of attack (forgive the long quote here, but it's worth it):
It’s kind of a three-pronged test, with the first two being more important than the third. The first level or threshold is, do we think this player is going to get taken? That logic is pretty simple; if you don’t think that player is going to wind up getting taken there’s really not too great of a need to protect the player. The second one is, whether you feel if they were taken that they’re capable of surviving and contributing on a 25-man roster for an entire season. Now that obviously varies. When you’re talking about a team selecting the player, that’s perhaps in a position to win and let’s say, they’re looking to round out their bullpen. Or they’re looking for a 4th or 5th outfielder who might bring some speed and defense skills that would balance them out, it’s a little easier for them to protect a player and carry the player for a full season. If it’s a toolsy outfielder, that’s probably not going to go to a contending team to carry them for an entire season on their active roster. The third element, which I said was a little less important, is how would we feel if in fact they were taken and they did survive for the entire season. Would it leave a void in the system? Would we be unable to replace, or really hurt from a depth standpoint?
In terms of this specific off-season's decisions, the team did have some concern around reliever Zach Thompson being selected. And in fact Hahn added that he wouldn't be surprised if Thompson had a role to play on the 2019 White Sox. But they also felt they had a deep core of right-handed relievers behind him. Next year's 40-man decisions, as nicely laid out here by Sox Machine, will likely be even tougher. And that connects nicely with the next words from Hahn.
I prodded a bit about how the Sox plan to handle balancing uneven talent streams across positions and roles. The farm is currently quite deep in outfield and pitching talent, but less so at some other positions. Like playing Tetris, as some of the key pieces get closer to the main block, it will be harder and harder to avoid uneven results. How will that be addressed, and is it time to start addressing it now?
In short, the Sox feel that while those sorts of re-allocation exercises are an eventuality, it isn't something they feel motivated to move on just yet. The way the GM described it, there are still viable possibilities all over the diamond, and they'll know more a little further down the road. He did add though that the Sox had reached out to, and been reached by, other clubs on possible prospect-for-prospect trades. There's no apparent drive to move on those for need-based reasons, but if the right move presented itself, they'd be open to it.
One thing Hahn made clear in terms of roster construction and role-specific talent streams was that none of that would effect their draft philosophy (BPA ad infinitum) nor their main focus in prospect talent acquisition. On the latter, Rick described the core mission as this:
Acquiring premium talent and premium positions. For us from an offensive point of view that means catcher, short, second and center field, and from a pitching standpoint that means guys who can project to be front end starters.
That was followed by an acknowledgement that naturally, some players won't hit their ceilings, and others will slide down the defensive or role spectrum in both cases. In other words, some of this will work itself out, and for the rest we'll tackle that when the decisions start to effect the major league rosters.
The interview also covered the new rules in play for Cuba, pitching versus offense in a rebuild philosophy, what is riskier in the free agent space, the toughest jobs in scouting, and more. To hear the rest, look for a podcast with the full audio, coming out soon.
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