Behind the Narratives: A Process Underway

Finally, with the Winter Meetings starting on Monday, we have the baseball offseason beginning to take shape. As a baseball nerd, I actually enjoy the height of the offseason as much if not more than the regular season.

Currently, in White Sox circles, the sentiment toward the offseason has been overwhelmingly gloomy and for good reason. The team is coming off its third straight losing season, a feat they haven’t had to suffer through since a 1997-1999 stretch.  Even then, the team won 80 games in two of those seasons. Those in the White Sox fan community have grown tired and there has been the development of what seems to be a narrative-driven sulking fest.

For as long as a I have followed them, the White Sox ownership has been plagued with the label “cheap” by their fan base. Sure, the team dons the great city of Chicago on their chest when they play on the road, but they are and for decades have been the second team in the country’s third biggest market. Frankly, that’s painfully evident by the team being 24th, 28th and 26th in attendance from 2013-2015, but that’s not a rabbit hole I care to go down.

Instead, I want to acknowledge the changes taking place, both with the “cheap” label and the recent end-all, be-all complaint towards the team’s incessant loyalty within the organization. The narrative has become so ingrained in the White Sox fan community, that the knee jerk reaction to the team bringing on former Gold Glover and World Champion outfielder Aaron Rowand as a minor league outfield instructor is to poke fun at ownership. As if every teams’ minor league instructors aren’t full of people familiar with the organization. I will admit, loyalty has certainly been an issue for the White Sox in the past. But if you’re the White Sox, how do you shed that label? Well, you don’t. You win and people will stop complaining. So the White Sox will continue to be labeled and lambasted by overreactions to media headlines until the losing subsides.

Getting to the point, the White Sox have a new-found emphasis on developing homegrown talent. If you follow Rick Hahn’s interactions with the media you’ll notice his rhetoric is littered with quotes alluding to that. When our Rob Young interviewed Rick Hahn on a conference call, Hahn mentioned the need to model off the Atlanta Braves growth of internal talent. We have seen the beginning of that process take place.

International Market

Why the narrative did fit:

For the better half of the first decade of the 2000’s, the White Sox international talent acquisition was hamstrung, to put it lightly, by the bonus skimming and financial manipulation perpetrated by former international executive Dave Wilder. The scandal not only left the White Sox with nothing to show for their international efforts, but it put their chief international executive in jail with a two year sentence and left regional ruin in its wake. Wilder, who was the right hand of Kenny Williams at the time, almost single-handedly retarded the development of the White Sox’ Latin American talent stream. So when loyalty served the White Sox with a terrific black eye, they looked elsewhere to fill the hole it beget.

How the process has bucked the narrative:

Following the 2011 season, the White Sox nabbed the Blue Jays’ Director of Latin American Operations Marco Paddy to join the front office and oversee International Operations. Coincidentally, Paddy started his career with the Atlanta Braves before the Blue Jays acknowledged his work and offered him a promotion. Paddy was well-respected across baseball for his scouting efforts south of the border and as someone whose “other team” is the Blue Jays, I can say their fans were very disappointed when Paddy was lifted from their team to join the White Sox.

Now the name Marco Paddy is not a name that is going to excite fans by any means, because Paddy, and anyone of his likeness, operates in almost complete public ambiguity. Not only that, but when Paddy signs his 16 and 17 year olds of choice, it takes several years for those players to reach the upper levels of the minors. Paddy’s initial signings are just now reaching their 20’s. Paddy has caused some ripples in the last few years with the signings of high-profile July 2nd signees Micker Adolfo and Franklin Reyes. While he’ll need plenty of time before his work can be judged effectively, Paddy made an immediate contribution when he gave a thumbs up on Jose Abreu before the White Sox doled out the largest contract in franchise history to their All-Star first baseman.

Today, all of us at Future Sox know that there are more intriguing guys at the lower levels of the White Sox system than there have been in quite a few years. However, it should be noted that the White Sox do not value the amateur international avenue as much as their competitors. Scouting director Nick Hostetler told me in our conversation that the White Sox had been so bothered by the happenings in the Latin American market they entertained giving up their operation as a whole. Everyone has heard the horror stories of players trying to make their way to states like the one that scared the White Sox off of Starling Marte. Away from the sketchy individuals that have to be dealt with, signing the premier players comes with spending material amounts of money on 16-year-old kids. That’s quite a timeline with plenty of variables that bring on weighty risks. Regardless, there is a great opportunity for teams in the upcoming July 2nd amateur signing period with ten teams restricted from signing players for more than $300,000. Paddy is given great autonomy with his gig and while it would come as a surprise, he can make a sizable contribution this upcoming July if the team feels so inclined.

Amateur Talent:

Why the narrative did fit:

Ever since Kenny Williams left his role in player development and moved up to run baseball operations, the White Sox haven’t ever been confused as a team with a “top” farm system. From the 2000 team that was sewn with homegrown talent up until 2012, the White Sox were usually competitive, and over .500 every season but three. Almost every July the White Sox were in the hunt for players and used prospects as currency more than anything because they couldn’t afford to make the big splashes in free agency. Kenny Williams was famously quoted for his line “you can’t spend a dollar when you only have 50 cents.” As a result, the White Sox put the Rule 4 draft on the back burner to allow for more spending on the Major League roster. Off the record, a White Sox executive told me that the White Sox had remorse for the strategy of drafting low ceiling, high probability college performers who could be had for cheap. Hindsight shows us this strategy, and lack of consideration for the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), left the White Sox in a tough spot following the 2012 season.

How the process has bucked the trend:

Entering to the 2012 season, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement brought changes to the draft that included a “pool system” that was very owner-friendly and significantly increased parity in acquiring top talents. In 2013, the White Sox drafted Tim Anderson and Tyler Danish in the first two rounds. Anderson is the best positional prospect the White Sox have had since Gordon Beckham and Danish is cemented in the top ten of the system. What is more interesting from that draft is the White Sox shrewd use of financial allocation to secure over-slot signees Trey Michalczewski (Future Sox #6 prospect) and recently honored Arizona Fall League MVP Adam Engel, who Nathaniel Stoltz had previously compared to Mike Trout in regards to his build and athleticism. While Michalczewski and Engel were drafted in the 7th and 19th round, those rounds are in no way indicative of their potential and being able to add these types of prospects that late necessitates putting up some cash. So despite the conception of the team being unable to draft, the first draft with Rick Hahn at the helm features plenty of prospects who have since raised their stocks and a new found willingness to spend on domestic amateur talent.

In 2014, the White Sox drafted the best player in the draft in Carlos Rodon and turned around in the second round and drafted a first round talent in Spencer Adams. While those two are the reigning assets from the draft, the prevailing sentiment is that the White Sox spent nearly every dollar they could have spent without forfeiting draft pick in 2015. The once-coined “cheap” White Sox had acted quite to the contrary of the narrative at hand, going over their allotted pool and into the penalty range.

In the most recent draft, the White Sox were able to draft the best college pitcher for the second straight year when they signed Vanderbilt’s Carson Fulmer. However, their ability to bring in a haul of prospects was limited because the team had lost their 2nd and 3rd round picks due to signing a group of free agents that amounted to the fourth largest amount of money spent during the 2014-2015 offseason. Again, inconsistent with the narrative.

Looking towards 2016 draft, the White Sox will have a great opportunity as Nick Hostetler heads the process for the first time. Hostetler, who also moved up the ranks of the scouting world in the Braves organization, has a lot of room to work with given the state of things. From what I have been told, there is little reason to believe the White Sox will sign a compensation-attached free agent so Hostetler will very likely have three top 50 slot values at his disposal which would serve as a sizable injection into the system.

Front Office Composition

How the narrative fits:

Looking at Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn, you can see that Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf allows the people he trusts to have job security. Williams has been with the team for what seems like forever but his role has always been evolving. Hahn has been with the team for nearly two decades as well but has just started his career as a GM. Regardless, both of these executives are big picture. Where the loyalty has changed is with the specialists.

How the process bucks the trend:

I will move to the actual makeup of the front office but I first want to focus on the financial aspect, as the White Sox have been on the forefront of one of the newer the developments in acquiring and retaining executives, a task that costs ownership money. In Chicago, a lot of fuss has been made one who “makes the moves” between Williams and Hahn and besides a few leaks, there’s no feasible way to associate responsibility or blame to either. The information just isn’t out there.

Reinsdorf trusts and respects Williams for his wealth of experience in just about every aspect of baseball operations, along with their longstanding relationship. Hahn, on the other hand, complements Williams for his talents dealing with the media, his more analytically-oriented mindset and in the way he has become one of the shrewdest negotiators in the game. Whether you think they should coexist is irrelevant but what should be noted is how Reinsdorf allowed them to continue to coexist.

When Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts coveted Boston’s GM Theo Epstein, he worked hard to find a way to get him into his organization. In Major League Baseball, most clubs will allow an executive to interview with another organization if the position the potential interviewee is sought for would be a promotion. With General Manager being the principal role of baseball operations, there was seemingly no way for Ricketts to get the Red Sox’s ownership to allow Epstein to interview but Ricketts found a way. He created a new position and added another level of bureaucracy in Epstein’s current position: President of Baseball Operations. That was in October of 2011 and Epstein was the only man with that title across MLB. The next October, Reinsdorf followed suit by promoting his top two executives; Williams to President of Baseball Operations and Hahn to General Manager. The White Sox were the second team to use this maneuver and Reinsdorf had to once again open his checkbook to keep his trusted right-hand man in Williams and his inevitable GM-to-be Rick Hahn.

Another new development in the expansion of the front office on the South Side is the ad hoc position “Special Assistant to the General Manager”, which is the position the aforementioned Marco Paddy holds as well as former slugger Jim Thome among others. Front offices are comprised of a group of individuals who bring unique perspectives to the table but the amount of individuals within the front office has grown in the past half decade. While front office positions don’t have public salaries unless the executive is setting a precedent, Reinsdorf has had no issue adding executives to the payroll to bring in more human capital.

As far as loyalty, the White Sox do have a few former players in their front office and they have people that have held positions for a long time but this is typical for almost every front office across the league that hasn’t recently changed leadership. To be fair, GM’s aren’t made over night, and with a few exceptions, it takes a long career arc to grow into that role. Instead of harking on the fact that Kenny Williams wore a White Sox jersey in the ’80’s, I want to illustrate the changes that have been made in areas of deficiencies.

Baseball Operations Executives, Role and Background:

Kenny Williams – Executive Vice President – Baseball Operations.

Williams played for the White Sox, was a scout, served as a Special Assistant to Reinsdorf, was the VP of Player Development and General Manager prior to his promotion to his current position. Williams oversees all baseball activities and serves as the mesh between baseball operations and ownership.

Rick Hahn – Vice President and General Manager

Hahn is a decorated scholar with an MBA and a law degree. A Winnetka native and New Trier grad, he was an associate at a sports agency when he convinced Reinsdorf to give him a job in the front office and has moved up the ranks to GM over the last 15 years.

Buddy Bell – Vice President and Assistant General Manager – Player Development

Bell had an 18 year career in MLB and managed three teams over eights years. Bell helps handle the level-to-level minor leagues transactions and works on player evaluations.

Jeremy Haber – Assistant General Manager

Haber, like Rick Hahn, has an incredible resume with degrees from some of the country’s best institutions. The recently-promoted Assistant GM got his break in baseball with the Red Sox legal department before Hahn took a liking to him and brought him to Chicago to join the front office.

Dan Fabian – Director of Baseball Operations 

Fabian has been with the White Sox for the better part of three decades after graduating from Notre Dame 27 years ago. Fabian is credited with creating the White Sox data portal which orchestrates their proprietary analytics to support analysis towards player acquisitions, negotiations, arbitration, among other things.

Nick Hostetler – Director of Amateur Scouting

Hostetler got his start with the White Sox as an area scout in 2002 but really gained prominence in the Braves’ organization. When I interviewed Hostetler, he was sure to give thanks to the tutelage he was given by Kansas City GM Dayton Moore as well as high level scouts in the Braves organization. He handled the 2015 draft process from round four on, and will take the reigns as the leader in 2016.

Special Assistants to the General Manager: Marco Paddy, Bill Scherrer, Jim Thome and Dave Yoakum

Each of the special assistants to the General Manager hold different qualities they bring to the team, but the only one with a previous connection to the White Sox is Thome.

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The goal of this piece is to shed some light on some of the things going on behind the scenes, and the process that is taking place. It’s easy to get caught up with the outcome of the last few seasons and assume the team is doomed at every point in the organization, but many commonly raised issues are being addressed.

In any case, the inner workings of baseball operations are both guarded and often too granular in nature to appeal to the masses, but change is happening. Everybody acknowledges that the White Sox have had a keen eye for picking and developing pitchers, but their struggles – offense, positional player development and defense – have overshadowed the positives.

The White Sox have relieved former players Harold Baines and Greg Walker from their hitting coach duties and brought in Oakland Athletics coaches, Todd Steverson and Greg Sparks, and a new organization-wide philosophy. The team has two new heads of the principal amateur talent streams in Hostetler and Paddy (relatively speaking), and showed White Sox fans some homegrown, plus defenders this year in Trayce Thompson, Tyler Saladino and Carlos Sanchez.

I won’t fault any White Sox fan for being upset with team because the play, without a doubt, has been poor. However, I am suggesting the jaded narratives should be put to rest for the time being. People are being held accountable. New faces from all types of backgrounds are getting opportunities to contribute to operations. New precedents are being set annually in terms of spending.

In the end, and nobody wants to hear it, it takes time. The people and activity that represent the changes that have been made need time to make their mark. Maybe these changes will amount to greatness, maybe they will amount to nothing. But in either case, the pervasive constraint is time. The process, front office personnel and young on-field talent are just now getting a chance to jell.

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EDIT: There was an edit to the Buddy Bell portion of the article after the article was published.

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