White Sox

The youngest coach in baseball manages some of the White Sox top minor leaguers

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MiLB.com

The youngest coach in baseball manages some of the White Sox top minor leaguers

Most minor league managers have graying sideburns, wrinkled skin and a birth date well before 1980.

They’ve been through the battles of baseball and life, placed in rural dugouts across the country to teach the younger generation how to play the game.

But in a town outside Charlotte, North Carolina, the White Sox are bucking this trend with a fresh-faced millennial who one day could be sitting in a major league manager’s office with his name on it.

Justin Jirschele is the manager of the Kannapolis Intimidators, the White Sox Class-A affiliate.  At 27 years old, he is the youngest manager in all of professional baseball.  

Jirschele (pronounced JIRSH-ah-lee) goes by “Jirsh” to those who know him and who play for him, which last season included top prospects like Jake Burger, Alec Hansen, Dane Dunning and Dylan Cease.

When Jirschele played the game, he was a guy every team would have wanted.

Not for his speed: He never stole more than four bases in a season during his minor league career. Not for his power: He didn't hit a single home run in 622 career at-bats.

But because he treated every game like it could be his last.

“I never took a play off. I never took an at-bat off,” he said.

This was his mindset even in his very last minor league at-bat for the Birmingham Barons in 2015.

“I remember walking up and I said out loud to myself, ‘This is it. Do something.’ I’m getting the chills right now thinking about it.”

Jirschele knew his playing days were over. So did the White Sox. They signed him out of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. Nobody else wanted him. Over the next four seasons, he played for five White Sox minor league teams. The results on the field were overwhelmingly average.

Then one day, Nick Capra, then the White Sox Director of Player Development, came to Jirschele with an idea and an offer that would change his life.

“He asked, ‘Are you ready to start coaching yet?’ Jirschele recalled. ‘And I looked at him and went, ‘What do you mean?’”

The White Sox offered Jirschele a job to be the hitting coach for the Grand Falls Voyagers, the team’s rookie league affiliate.

“I was in shock. It was the end of May, the season was still young. I was at three different levels. I started at Winston-Salem, went to Charlotte and came back to Birmingham. It was a whirlwind. When he first said it, my first feeling was excitement. That kind of told me right there that it was the right time to do it.”

So Jirschele took the job.

He was 25 years old.

Then he went out and took that final minor league at-bat for Birmingham, which turned out to be a fitting conclusion to his playing career.  

“I think it was the second pitch, right down the middle and I was tardy, hit it off my fist, a dribbler to the shortstop and I bet you I ran as hard as I had in my entire life. It wasn’t that I was fast, but I was running as hard as I possibly could to first and I don’t think there even was a throw I hit it so soft, perfectly past the pitcher.  I just said to myself, that’s it right there.”

An infield dribbler for a base hit to close his playing career.

Coaching made sense for Jirschele. His father, Mike, is the third base coach for the Kansas City Royals. He won a World Series in 2015. His older brother, Jeremy, is the head baseball coach back at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Pretty soon, the younger Jirschele would be leading a team of his own.  

In 2017, the White Sox gave him the managerial job with Kannapolis. Sure, some of his players would be around the same age, but the White Sox looked past the birth date on his driver’s license and recognized a person who was wise beyond his years.

“It was identified early on that he has the leadership qualities we look for in a manager regardless of his age,” said Chris Getz, White Sox Director of Player Development. “He has good baseball knowledge, good communication skills, a willingness to learn and adapt, and carries out a consistent message. We feel lucky to have him and think he has a bright future ahead.”

Although the ages of the Intimidators players ranged from 19 to 25 years old, it didn’t matter that their manager was slighty older than them.

“Never once had an issue with the age thing,” Jirschele said about his players. “I think from Day 1 when I showed them the respect like I’m not going to be the guy that’s two years older than you hammering things down your throat, I’m going to have that respect and you’re going to show it back.”  

While the White Sox prospects spent the season developing their playing skills, Jirschele was honing his managing skills, which go beyond what happens on the field. A big part of the job is handling issues that arise off of it.  

“It’s a long grind season and there are so many things that are going to come up non-baseball related to where you might be in that clubhouse and you might feel alone,” Jirschele explained. “You might feel like you’re on an island all by yourself even if you’ve got three best friends that are going to stand up in your wedding one day, you might not feel comfortable talking to those guys about that.  Come on in, we’ll talk about it at 12:30 in the afternoon or 7:30 at night or midnight. I tell the guys you’ve got my phone number.  Call or text no matter what time if you need to talk.”

Following his thirst for managing knowledge, Jirschele often reaches out to his dad for late-night phone calls, rehashing the game that night. He’ll even text an opposing manager, like Patrick Anderson, a friend who has managed the Hagerstown Suns, the Nationals Class-A affiliate for the last four seasons.

“He’s a guy I could pick his brain about things," he said. "Once the series was over I’d send him a text and ask, ‘Why did you do this?’ At the end of the day we’re all in it together and first and foremost it’s all for these players and making them better each and every day and doing whatever we can to get them to the top. But at the same time we’re developing ourselves as well along the way.

“I’m sure I annoy a lot of people of asking questions but that’s how you learn. I was brought up that way.”

Jirschele’s impressions of some White Sox top prospects he managed last season:

Alec Hansen: “When he takes the ball, you feel like you have one of the best chances in the country to get a win that night in minor league baseball.  His stuff is just off the charts.”

Dane Dunning: “It would be the 8th inning, he wanted that complete game and he wouldn’t be too pleased with me coming out there to take him out, but you want that.  You want that out of a competitor on the mound every 5 days. He’s definitely a guy you want in the foxhole with you, no doubt.”

Micker Adolfo: “He has a special, special arm.  I don’t know if there’s a better one right now.”

Jake Burger: “Looking forward, the ceiling is unbelievably high for him. 100 percent no doubt in my mind, someday he will be a captain in the big leagues.”

Like many of his players, Jirschele left an impression with the White Sox in his first season as manager. He helped lead the Intimidators to their first playoff berth since 2009 and their first trip to the South Atlantic League championship since 2005.

Earlier this month, the White Sox named him their Minor League Coach of the Year.

“First and foremost, it means we had good players this year. It’s those guys between the lines,” he said. “As coaches, we can’t go out there and pitch. We were fortunate to have a great group of guys. We came up a little short (winning the championship), but we got there and it was fun.”

Once upon a time, Jirschele’s dream was to make it to the majors. That dream still exists.  Just now instead of having his own baseball card, he wants to get to the big leagues holding a lineup card.

“I think I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t a goal, but at the same time I don’t worry about it. I know I’m 27 years old," he said. "I’m just fortunate to have the job I do right now with the White Sox. I go out and do my job every single day and the rest will just take care of itself.”

White Sox Talk Podcast: Playoffs? Dan Plesac says White Sox could compete for wild card in 2018

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: Playoffs? Dan Plesac says White Sox could compete for wild card in 2018

Playoffs?

On Day 1 of the Winter Meetings, MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac joins Chuck Garfien on the White Sox Talk Podcast to talk about the White Sox rebuild. Plesac raves about the team's future, talking at length about White Sox prospects Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, and goes as far as saying that the White Sox could compete for a wild-card spot in 2018.

Plesac also uses his incredible photographic memory to recall specific at-bats he had in career against Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield, Cal Ripken, Rafael Palmiero and Mo Vaughn.

You’ll also hear White Sox general manager Rick Hahn speak with reporters about trade talk picking up since arriving at the Winter Meetings. And A.J. Pierzynski talks about being named a White Sox team ambassador and wanting to call a game this season alongside Hawk Harrelson.

It's all below in the latest edition of the White Sox Talk Podcast:

White Sox leaving door open for activity at Winter Meetings, even if staying quiet looks more likely

White Sox leaving door open for activity at Winter Meetings, even if staying quiet looks more likely

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — To trade or not to trade?

That seems to be the question for Rick Hahn at this week’s Winter Meetings.

The rebuilding White Sox don’t have to do what they did a year ago, when they exploded out of the rebuilding gates with a couple of huge trades, shipping Chris Sale to Boston, sending Adam Eaton to Washington and bringing back a boatload of highly rated prospects in return. The foundation was laid, and now the time has come to sit back and let all that young talent develop.

But the biggest mystery of the week is whether Hahn & Co. will be active or stay quiet. Will they trade their assets to once again bolster the farm system or simply play the waiting game?

It seems the White Sox are leaning toward having a quiet Winter Meetings this time around. But that doesn’t mean the guy who dealt away Sale, Eaton and Jose Quintana in the last 12 months is closing any doors.

“If we’re able to find a similar match in the coming days we’ll move on it, but at this point my common theme of needing to be patient needs to be reiterated — not necessarily for White Sox Nation but for those of us up in the room,” Hahn said Monday at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort.

“I’d be lying to say that you don’t feel the impact of being down here. You know that deals are taking place. You know that teams are more serious, that free agents are coming off the board. The focus of not only White Sox fans but all of baseball is on these four days here. I’d be lying if I said we were impervious to the desire to show some fruit of our labors down here.

“That said we’re pretty good at taking a longer term view. We’ve got in a good pace of doing that in the last year plus. So we have enough sensible people in that room that will stop anyone from doing anything too impetuous here in next few days.”

Just because the White Sox might be in a position to stand pat and let their minor league talent continue to cook doesn’t mean they’ve been absent from the barrage of trade speculation that’s flown through these Winter Meetings like a certain local airborne elephant.

Most of the Sox-related chatter has involved Jose Abreu, the team’s best hitter who in 2017 became the fourth player ever to hit at 25 homers and drive in 100 runs in each of his first four major league seasons. Reports have simultaneously suggested that the White Sox are unlikely to deal the slugger and that he’s being pursued by multiple teams. Hahn did not announce one way or the other which way the team will go with Abreu, prudently keeping multiple possibilities alive.

And if nothing else is a certainty about the Abreu question, it’s that he gives his general manager plenty of options. Of course Abreu’s bat makes him a strong trade candidate. But his value as a team leader and mentor to younger players in the White Sox clubhouse is also extremely valuable. And at this stage in the rebuild, the White Sox might see more value in the latter, making a trade increasingly unlikely.

“It's very tough to quantify,” Hahn said, speaking of Abreu’s off-the-field value. “I think all 30 clubs can put some sort of cash value on what he does between the white lines, using whatever metrics you favor and coming to generally the same area. The sort of softer-science side of things, the example he sets in our clubhouse, the work ethic, the way he plays the game, the way he represents us in the community, that’s really tough to quantify and it’s something we value. It’s something the organization has valued for years on various players, whether it’s (Paul) Konerko or (Mark) Buerhle or others come to mind immediately. And it probably makes it a challenge at times to overlap with another club that doesn’t quite fully know what to make of that, because they haven’t had the opportunity to have them yet.”

In addition to being a strong argument as to why the White Sox would benefit from keeping Abreu on the South Side, it’s also a possible explanation as for why a trade just won’t happen. Surely, as reports have indicated, it would take a big package to pry Abreu away, and in asking for that sizable return package, the White Sox are perhaps thinking of things that other teams are not considering. To trade or not to trade when it comes to Abreu? The answer is never no for Hahn. But you can plainly see why it’s been reported that a deal is unlikely.

Of course Abreu isn’t the only thing on Hahn & Co.’s minds this week. Avisail Garcia has been speculated about as a potential trade chip. And then there are the necessary additions the team needs to make to its starting rotation and its bullpen.

When it comes to free-agent activity in general, the White Sox were one of the first teams to make a move this winter, inking Welington Castillo to a two-year deal (with a possibility for a third) at the beginning of the month. That was a somewhat surprising signing, the rebuilding White Sox adding a win-now type player coming off a career year offensively and defensively.

So maybe the White Sox front office could surprise with more signings like that or it could make more expected additions, like adding veteran starting pitchers to help balance out a young rotation, or bullpen arms to make up for the many trades made involving the relief corps during the 2017 season.

Regardless of what the direction ends up being, Hahn said that the team was expecting those moves to come later, only for the Castillo signing to get things started early. And now, baseball-wide, activity is in full swing at the Winter Meetings.

“It’s funny because we did think a fair amount of whatever our free-agent activity that would be for the White Sox this year would be closer to the holidays or perhaps first of the year based on how previous markets have unfolded. But we had the opportunity to sign Welington Castillo, one of the first free-agent signings of the year,” Hahn said. “Coming down here it did seem like it would be a quiet market at least as of a week ago, but now based on our conversations in the last three or four days, it seems some of the players in that category are starting to move as well.

“So I can’t give you a great answer on the timing other than to tell you that we initially thought it would be a late-developing market and we were ready for that, but if the opportunity, as it did with Castillo, arises to do something that improves us, we’ll move on it.”

And so one day into these Winter Meetings, the door remains open for some White Sox activity. To trade or not to trade? To sign or not to sign? To stand pat or not to stand pat? Those questions don’t have answers yet, and that’ll keep things interesting.