Checking the Boxes: a rock and a hard place

When General Manager Rick Hahn spoke to the media prior to the first game of the current White Sox home stand, he offered the media a quote that hasn’t aged with fans as well as past Hahn-isms. Hahn’s consistency in his philosophical approach to baseball operations has had him giving the media a litany of Hahn-isms including “the good ones have a way of forcing the issue”, “no stone un-turned”, “If I had my druthers…” among others. The latest Hahn-ism, shown in the Scott Merkin tweet below, has reached near meme level in less than a week.

To stress how quickly this quote caught fire, even MLB Pipeline felt the need to poke fun at the White Sox’s GM new rationale for keeping the White Sox top two prospects in AAA.

If you haven’t been paying attention, this is all in reference to the White Sox holding their two top prospects in AAA Charlotte as they have recently outshined the lackluster play of the major league club. Jimenez in particular is dominating Charlotte to the tune of an otherworldly .396/.443/.729/1.173 slash in 106 plate appearances. Kopech, who had struggled in May & June, has really hit his stride of recent, striking out 24 in his last three starts while only walking 2 over that 17 inning stretch. Since Hahn’s comments on the 27th, Jimenez has gone 9-14 with 2 homers and 4 walks.

Sticking with the topic of Rick Hahn’s repeated media quotes, Hahn has been stressing since prior to the start of 2017 season that everyone needs to have patience. Whether he’s talking about a player, the team as a whole, the fans – whatever – it’s been patience, patience, patience. He’s repeatedly said, “We are closer to the beginning of this than the end.” I should note, it’s only in Hahn’s interest to stress patience as it just pushes back the time until he is graded on his performance in this overhaul. Realistically though, Hahn wants to have enough time to gather enough young assets to achieve the “critical mass” – perhaps the most key Hahn-ism – to build a sustainable, annual winner. This critical mass is a theory of obtaining the rights to so many young, talented players that no individual player can veer the plan off course and no individual injury could send the team scrambling. If injuries occur, it’s next man up. You can see this plan coming to fruition as the White Sox have hoarded a variety of relief prospects and accumulated so many outfielders that the minor league managers across the organization have been tasked with making out daily lineup cards carefully tuned for playing time.

All that said, it’s important to acknowledge the state of the White Sox fan base. The fans were stimulated at the start of the rebuild by the fact that the team’s conversion of cost effective assets yielded so many close-to-MLB-ready players that the timeline on the rebuild could be shorter that those of recent memory around the league. That may still be the case. However, the less-than-perfect years from Giolito, Lopez and Fulmer at the big league level and the slew of injuries at the minor league level have returned a lot of fans to a former state of angst.

Surely, the fans getting to see Jimenez come up and wreak havoc on AL Central pitching staffs could reignite the fanbase’s veracity to the South Siders’ rebuilding plan. Seeing Michael Kopech come up to Chicago and light up the radar guns with his 100 MPH fastball could surely ease the tension some Sox fans may have built up watching Chris Sale pick up where he left off in Boston as he looks to be the favorite for the AL Cy Young Award. That’s natural. The Sox have some exciting players in the minor leagues and like most good things, people are going to want see their shiny new toys as soon as possible. But what exactly is best for the organization here?

For me, it’s quite simple. This team is best served keeping Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech in AAA for the entirety of the 2018 season and into the middle of April 2019. Whatever these prospects contribute to the big league club this year is absolutely meaningless on a team on their way to ~100 losses. Not only that, but seeing these guys at the big league level this year comes with the opportunity cost of losing control of these players after 2024 rather than 2025. I imagine it is a pretty safe bet that a full year of these players’ rights in 2025 is more valuable to the organization than a fraction of a year of their rights a year in a 2019 season that is already looking doomed.

For many, the response to my opinion here will be greeted poorly. Many White Sox fans think that holding Jimenez down in AAA for rest of the year is asinine and an opinion that should be confronted with reproach. Others will say this is me carrying water for the front office. Regardless, I think Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams are in a position where they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

They can either A.) Do what the fans want and promote the two prospects. – or -B.) Do what is best for the future and hold the prospects down with the understanding that delaying the start of the service clock on these hopeful cornerstones is the best case scenario for the future. It seems this has come together as the decision that is best for the future would be the tougher play in the public and the easier decision necessitates lessening future control of the players in focus.

That said, it’s probably not as cut-and-dried as I am presenting it to be. There are certainly pros and cons to both courses of action. To me, the most significant pro falls on the side of keeping them in the minor leagues through the entirety of this year. However, it could create a hard-edged image for the Sox in the industry to hold these guys down longer they need to be in AAA – or as Hahn said, “there are still boxes to check.” In any case, if you acted this scenario out, the service time constraint of holding would likely become a focus of the baseball media and I imagine the White Sox would became the evil organization holding back these young players.

Part of the reason that this service time stipulation has became more mainstream knowledge is because of the Cubs handling of third baseman Kris Bryant during the 2014 & 2015 seasons. Theo Epstein opted to keep Bryant in the minors for not only the entirety of his 2014 Minor League Player of the Year campaign but also again to start 2015. Bryant waited in Iowa for a few weeks to be called up so the Cubs could keep his rights for the extra year. That April, Super-Agent Scott Boras levied his weighty influence in the media to put on a full-fledged PR effort to offer all sorts of solutions to the issue that the Cubs and Kris Bryant had popularized. It was clear that Boras’s lobbying wasn’t constructed with the goal of changing the rule for Kris Bryant’s benefit alone. It seemed that the goal for Boras was to put this topic at the forefront of the labor negotiations following the 2016 season and frankly, he got a lot of attention.

So what exactly happened to this rule when the owners and players’ union met to strike a new collective bargaining agreement during the 2016-2017 off-season? Absolutely nothing.

That’s not to say the players’ union didn’t acknowledge it as an issue. That’s not to say the players’ union didn’t work to solve this issue. But given there was no mitigation, the same environment still exists for the front offices to operate in. As such, the baseball operations officials heading up a team on a rebuilding trajectory are incentivized to keep their top talents in the minor leagues as long as possible. While I suppose that could be argued otherwise, at the least, it must be conceded that the timing of players starting their service clocks is far more dependent on the service time checkpoints than it is the readiness of a given player.

Bringing it back to the White Sox and ultimately wrapping this up, Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams are tasked with doing what is best for the future of the club. I think it’s pretty clear that keeping Kopech and Jimenez in AAA is best for the club moving forward if you look at it in a calculated and perhaps callous way. That’s not to say that is what the White Sox will do just that with their two young studs but if they did, how would they be greeted? I imagine they would be questioned by their disappointed fans and face a shellacking from corners of the media whose opinion is likely more rooted in a quick trigger to oppose the big, bad owners than it is rooted in the understanding of the considerations at hand.

For the White Sox, this seems to be a position where they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can talk about checking the boxes and continue to make ambiguous comments on Kopech/Jimenez that Hahn could maneuver his way out of if they ultimately change course but how does this end? Surely, this can be just a moot exercise if the Sox are just waiting to clear a roster spot or two before the team calls up both guys next week. But if that’s not the case, and this saga continues on, I think it only gets uglier before it gets better. While the White Sox could become a lightning rod of scorn by (arguably) breaking the spirit of the law, I could just as easily argue that their course of action would become the standard for executives looking to build operations on a brash, albeit stubborn commitment to winning in the future. A commitment with little regard for feelings if they fly in the face of the end goal. For me, a Sox fan who is a few months from a decade without a playoff appearance, I’ll embrace that stubborn commitment to the future with open arms.

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