When he approached White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorfabout his rebuild plan last year, general manager Rick Hahn thought it would be a tough sell. Hahn knew Reinsdorf, who turned 81 in February, wanted to enjoy at least one more Sox championship, and asking for patience from an octogenarian is difficult no matter the request.
But Reinsdorf was receptive from the outset, and now he’s the proud owner of two rebuilding teams, with the Bulls also in Year One of their long-term plan.
“I don’t think 10-15 years ago if he could have drawn it up, he would have said, ‘OK, at age 81 I’m going to have two rebuilding franchises,’” Hahn said. “But in just about every room he’s in he’s the smartest guy in it, and he knows what needs to be done.
“He deserves a great deal of credit for allowing the teams the latitude to do what’s best in terms of their long term health and competitiveness, despite him not really wanting to sit through it.”
Hahn was joking, I think. Either way, Year Two of the Sox’s rebuild is officially underway, and the early results have been encouraging for their much-abused fan base.
Oddly, the defining moment of Year One may have been a foul ball. It came during Yoan Moncada’s first at-bat at Sox Park on July 19, a shot down the right-field line that would have been a home run had it not hooked foul.
“It’s the most excitement I’ve ever seen over a foul ball,” Hahn said with a laugh. “The place was electric on that line shot. It might not be the greatest foul ball I’ve ever seen, but it’s as good as any other. I think he got a standing ovation on that walk.”
Moncada, baseball’s top prospect, was the first of the core players to be called up, unofficially kicking off the new era. It reminded me a little of Javier Baez’s Cubs debut at Coors Field in August 2014, when Baez went hitless in five at-bats before cranking the game-winning home run in the 12th inning.
Baez’s debut gave Cubs fans reason to believe, and their patience ultimately was rewarded with a playoff team one year later, and a World Series championship the next.
The biggest difference is Baez began the revolving door of prospects in Year Three of the Cubs rebuild, while Moncada’s debut was only halfway through Year One of the Sox plan. That suggests the Sox are actually ahead of the Cubs pace in that respect, though no one is planning a World Series parade for 2020 just yet.
Recall that Jorge Soler followed Baez later that summer, and then Kris Bryant and Addison Russell arrived in late April 2015. The Cubs kept Bryant and Russell at Triple-A Iowa long enough to have them under team control for seven years instead of six, which will benefit Hahn when he decides to send flamethrower Michael Kopech back to Triple-A Charlotte at the end of next spring’s Cactus League games to assure a seventh year of his services.
You won’t hear Sox fans complaining when Kopech is not on the opening day roster even if he dominates at Camelback Ranch in March. They are savvy enough to understand the reason why.
And once Kopech arrives, the anticipation will begin in earnest for outfielder Eloy Jimenez, the former Cubs prospect who looks like the organization’s best young slugger since Frank Thomas came up in 1990. Another elite prospect, Luis Robert, is further on the horizon.
“Obviously we view this as having waves of similar talent (to Moncada) coming to Chicago,” Hahn said. “And if there is that level of excitement when each of them shows up, much less when it all starts coming together, it’s certainly a sign there are some exciting times ahead.”
The Sox can be thankful this Thanksgiving for their fans, who bought into the rebuild with open arms. They drew 1,629,470 in 2017, near the bottom of the majors, but it was only a slight drop of 116,823 from ’16 in the final season of the Robin Ventura era.
Cubs attendance at Wrigley Field dropped 135,210 in the first year of their rebuild in 2012, but they still drew nearly 2.9 million for a 101-loss team. The Sox obviously have a much lower season-ticket base. But the walk-up crowds during the summer were strong, and the ones who did show up were enthusiastic.
“That has been the thing that I at least, and I think others, underestimated the most — the level of fan support we were going to experience, at least in the early phases of this,” Hahn said. “There certainly was a concern as we charted out this course, the impact the decision to rebuild was going to have on attendance, and more broadly, revenue.
“In reality, the support has been fantastic. And anecdotally, at least, the fans I’ve talked to or the feedback I get through various means all has been, for the most part, very supportive and understanding of where we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing. (They are showing) optimism about where this is headed.”
Hahn said the Sox were committed to the rebuild no matter what the attendance figures would be, but they also knew there was risk of turning off fans with an awful team. Reinsdorf “felt the frustration of that 23-10 team crumbling” after its hot start in 2016, Hahn said, making the selling of the rebuild easier.
“He understood, and he got it,” he said. “I don’t think he was too enthusiastic to start down this path, but he knew we had to.”
Hahn credited modern technology for helping maintain interest while the major-league product is sub-par. Sox fans can follow the prospects on Twitter, watch videos on You Tube or scan box scores on the internet.
“It makes it a little easier for them to embrace and understand where the areas of progress are being made,” he said. “As opposed to having some GM standing up there and saying ‘Oh, we’re doing a great job of getting all these talented players.’ They can see it with their own eyes.”
The last three World Series winners — the Royals, Cubs and Astros — all have gotten to the top by starting at the bottom, ripping up their rosters and enduring a lot of bad baseball for a long-term goal that wasn’t a certainty to achieve.
The Phillies’ rebuild is stuck in neutral, the Braves’ rebuild seems to be regressing and the Marlins aren’t even calling their rebuild a rebuild, despite shopping National LeagueMost Valuable Player Giancarlo Stanton.
Cubs President Theo Epstein doesn’t believe the glaring successes of the last three World Series champs will convince more owners to opt for the rebuild route.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “There are a lot of teams that have tried it and don’t end up with the title, and lots of teams that don’t take that path who do end up winning the whole thing.
“There are a lot of different ways to get there.”
There is no sure-fire route to nirvana, of course. But the Cubs did it the hard way, and that’s also the path the Sox have chosen.
The second wave is on its way.
Time to jump in.
By Paul Sullivan