White Sox

All-Star Avi: Avisail Garcia's turnaround with White Sox earns him spot among baseball's best

All-Star Avi: Avisail Garcia's turnaround with White Sox earns him spot among baseball's best

Avisail Garcia is heading to Miami for the All-Star Game.

That’s not something many White Sox fans would’ve expected heading into this season after Garcia put up a few mediocre years since coming over from the Detroit Tigers in a 2013 trade. But after an offseason of hard work and a half-season of stellar offensive production, the team’s big bat of the future is finally its big bat of the present.

“I feel happy,” Garcia said Sunday. “It’s an honor to represent the White Sox in the All-Star Game. It’s an honor for me. It’s another blessing. I just have to keep working and can’t wait for that moment.

“I believe in myself. And you know, I know I work hard trying to improve myself, my career. Like I said it’s another blessing. When you work hard and believe in yourself, I think you got a really good chance to be where I am right now representing the White Sox in the All-Star Game. I feel blessed for that.”

Garcia flashed plenty of potential when he first came to the South Side in the three-team deal that sent Jake Peavy to the Boston Red Sox and Jose Iglesias to the Tigers. In his first 42 games in a White Sox uniform during that 2013 season, he hit .304 with a .327 on-base percentage.

But in the three full seasons that followed, Garcia had plenty wondering why he was such a high-profile acquisition in the first place. In the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons, he combined to slash .250/.308/.380, striking out 300 times.

Then came the work.

This past offseason, Garcia explained, he got to work, hitting the gym and the cage to transform himself into the hitter the White Sox thought he could be.

“I lost weight first of all. I worked on my hitting. And all that stuff, wake up every day at like 5 a.m. to go to the gym and work hard. And then go back home in the afternoon and then go to hit like three times per week,” Garcia said. “All that work is coming together.”

The work has definitely paid off. Garcia is slashing .318/.362/.512 in 75 games this season with 11 homers and 51 RBIs. He’s one off his 120-game total in home runs from a season ago and has already matched the RBI number from 2016. His current OPS of .875 is more than 140 points above his previous career high.

“He played some winter ball last year and I spoke to him over the winter. He talked about wanting to improve himself as a player,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. “There's never been a doubt this kid's driven to try to perform and excel. I hope it's something that's going to be here and he'll continue to move forward into the future in terms of the consistency. Maybe he's scratching the surface right now, finally starting to get to grips with who he is as a player and what he's doing.”

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Now all that work has earned Garcia a place on the American League All-Star team. Not that he was expecting that to happen.

“I just take one day at a time,” Garcia said. “I don't like to think what's going to happen. I just think right now. We have to be like that because we're focused for the game. Whatever happens outside happens. It's work. When you work hard and when you play hard, you don't have to think about it. It's going to come along. You just have to be focused and play hard every day, try to do your best and give 100 percent on the field.”

While the joy of being included among baseball’s best at the All-Star Game was apparent — Garcia sported a huge smile when he spoke about his All-Star jersey hanging in his locker — the biggest message Garcia’s selection sends is the change in his standing when it comes to the White Sox rebuild.

While the team always envisioned this type of production as a possibility, fans and observers — not known for their patience — weren’t sold on Garcia as a long-term piece through the last three middling seasons. With the rebuild underway, many were hesitant to include Garcia in their lineup projections for two or three seasons down the road.

This All-Star season has likely changed many minds. Garcia, just 26, can now easily be envisioned in a batting order alongside the likes of Yoan Moncada, Zack Collins and Luis Robert.

“It’s just maturation,” Renteria said. “All players, after a certain point in time, you start to feel comfortable at the big league level. We’re hoping that this is the beginning of something that he will continue to be able to push forward and maintain some consistency throughout the rest of his career. There’ll be some ups and downs, but for the most part I think he’s coming to understand who he is as a player and he’s trusting it. Hopefully that continues.”

“It’s big. I think a lot of people believe in me, like myself. I appreciate that,” Garcia said. “I thank god for those people that believe in me. I know who I am, what kind of person I am. I know what kind of player I am. I have to keep working and try to get better every day, every year, and try to improve.

“I want to have success here. I would like to stay here for a long time. That's why I'm trying to do my best every day, every year. I'm trying to improve, trying to do my best so I can be here for a long time.”

With All-Star validation, being on the South Side for a long time suddenly seems a lot more realistic.

“First time,” Garcia said, “hopefully there's many more to come.”

Winter Meetings wrap: Why the White Sox left San Diego without a top-of-the-market free agent

Winter Meetings wrap: Why the White Sox left San Diego without a top-of-the-market free agent

SAN DIEGO — “We belong at the table in these negotiations, we belong as part of negotiations for premium talent. And regardless what happens over the next several weeks with either of these two players, we plan to be at the table and continue to attempt to convert on these guys.”

That was Rick Hahn in January, talking about his front office’s pursuits of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, the two biggest names on last winter’s free-agent market and two guys who landed $300 million contracts. Neither, obviously, is playing for the White Sox. But Hahn set forth expectations last winter that the White Sox were going to try to land that kind of top-of-the-market talent.

Fast forward to the current free-agent cycle, and the biggest names on the market have all signed. None of them signed with the White Sox. The Winter Meetings saw a tidal wave of spending, with Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon all coming off the board, all inking huge deals that figure to transform their new teams (or old team, in the case of Strasburg).

The White Sox, meanwhile, headed home with nothing more to show for their efforts than Nomar Mazara. No word came from any of the usual baseball news-breakers connecting the South Siders to Cole, Strasburg or Rendon.

Why not?

Hahn spent this week, and has spent his media availabilities this offseason and in the months prior, talking about fit. The White Sox are looking for players who fit their long-term plans. The 2020 season might be the year the long-awaited transition from rebuilding to contending comes. It might not be. So the White Sox are searching for players who align with a contention window far into the future.

And that’s an admirable goal. The White Sox should stick to those plans. They’ve suffered too much to make a handbrake turn to try to rush things, certainly at the expense of their bright future. That’s completely understandable.

But didn’t Cole, Strasburg and Rendon fit into that box? Aren’t they the type of premium talents Hahn has talked about wanting to add to a burgeoning young core? Wouldn’t the long-term deals they got insert them right into that contention window?

“Probably a guy the fans see out there and see fits with what we're doing and, ‘Hey, they should pursue him,’ maybe we did,” Hahn said Thursday. “Maybe we have extra information where it shows that would’ve been a fruitless pursuit in the end, just based on the player’s preference for where they want to be, league or locationally. Perhaps it’s something that we did get after and just weren’t able to convert on.

“We obviously operate best when there’s less noise around what we’re doing. Certainly we recently showed that on (Yasmani) Grandal. It would be temporarily nice or fulfilling for me to stand here and say like, ‘Yeah, we didn’t go after Player X because we knew for a fact this thing about why he wasn’t coming here,’ or, ‘We did go after Player X and we came up short.’ That might satisfy some sort of desire to show that we were active if people didn’t think we were.

“But I would hope after all this time that people understand our approach tends to err on the side of being aggressive. And if there’s a high-quality player that seems like a fit for us, we probably went down that path to some extent, and if it didn’t wind up converting, there’s usually a pretty good reason why.”

That quote hit the Twitterverse not long after it left Hahn’s mouth, and the reactions were, generally, less than favorable. Plenty saw it as an excuse. But while vague, there’s a lot of truth in those words.

The White Sox cannot control everything when it comes to free-agent pursuits. They can control how much money they offer, but as we saw with Zack Wheeler, that doesn’t always win the day. Wheeler spurned the White Sox richer offer to please his family and pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Cole, meanwhile, was long expected to choose between a preference for the West Coast or his childhood fandom for the New York Yankees. It helped, of course, that the Yankees offered him a stupifying contract. Strasburg was long expected to return to the Washington Nationals, and that’s just what he did, with folks wondering if there was any consideration given to pitching somewhere else.

Those are mighty difficult things to overcome, and they could have made the White Sox — and plenty of other teams — jumping into the fray a potential non-starter.

“More often than not, early in the process, you hear why it’s a potential non-fit for either side,” Hahn said Monday, speaking in the wake of Wheeler’s decision. “Again, that doesn’t mean anything was mishandled or anything was wrong with this. In the end, when offers are on the table and it's decision time, guys can make that decision based upon any factor that they view as important. You’ve got to respect that. And they’ve earned that right.”

That’s not really supposed to make anyone feel any better. As Hahn often says, you either sign the guy or you don’t.

What’s probably got some fans stewing as much as the eventual free-agent destinations is the White Sox complete lack of attachment to Cole, Strasburg or Rendon in the typical stream of rumors that flows during baseball’s busiest week. As Hahn mentioned, all being quiet doesn’t mean the White Sox weren’t pursuing those players. But after years of discussing financial flexibility, the team seems to have the economic means to play in the deepest end of the free-agent pool, so it’s not unreasonable to expect to hear about it doing so.

"The money will be spent,” Hahn said in February, after Machado picked the San Diego Padres. “It might not be spent this offseason, but it will be spent at some point. This isn’t money sitting around waiting to just accumulate interest. It’s money trying to be deployed to put us in best position to win some championships.”

With that in mind, plenty assumed the White Sox would be able to afford even the gargantuan contracts that went to this winter’s three free-agent superstars. But simply having money to spend doesn’t mean they believed Cole was worth the $324 million he got from the Yankees. It doesn’t mean they believed Strasburg was worth the $245 million he got from the Nationals. It doesn’t mean they believed Rendon was worth the $245 million he got from the Los Angeles Angels.

That’s where that discussion of fit comes in again. It’s easy for us to see a player and believe him a fit for what the White Sox are building. But we’re not the ones defining the fit. The White Sox are. And while they might have pursued all three, might have wanted to pursue all three, might have been willing to back a truckload of money up to all three, it’s also possible that, for whatever reasons, they didn’t see them as the same kind of fit they see other players at different price points.

The lingering notion that the White Sox shy away from handing out long-term deals to pitchers is likely more of a general caution than the edict it’s often portrayed to be. It’s also not reserved to the White Sox.

“In general, the investment in a position player is less risky than an investment in a pitcher,” Hahn said. “Those things vary. We are talking just about generic players, you generally err on the side of a position player being less risky.”

“Is anybody worth $300 million?” USA Today’s Bob Nightengale said Tuesday on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “Say the White Sox signed Gerrit Cole, it doesn’t make them an automatic winner. He’s a good pitcher, but hey, good pitchers get hurt, too.”

OK, so what about Rendon? The White Sox were willing to offer a reported $250 million in guaranteed money to Machado last winter. Rendon got less than that to play for the Angels. Of course, Machado’s free agency came before Yoan Moncada blossomed into the team’s best all-around player at third base. Machado was 26 during his sweepstakes. Rendon is 29. These are not necessarily defenses, they are simply truths.

“As a general thought, when you are making a long-term commitment, doing that to a player who is in their mid 20s, in general, is a more appealing alternative then doing that with a player who is in his 30s at the start of the contract,” Hahn said. “Everyone is familiar with aging curves and risk and how that balances out as you get older. So yeah, the idea of devoting big money to someone who is younger versus older is certainly more appealing.”

And then there’s the clarifying Hahn did on those “money will be spent” comments from 10 months ago. Basically: That money doesn’t all have to be spent in one place to make the White Sox better.

“I think it would be awfully foolish to say we're going to go out and spend whatever the amount of the offer (to Machado) was immediately,” he said Wednesday. “The point of that comment was there's other ways for us to allocate this money, and it's going to be allocated toward player acquisitions.

“You could argue some of it went to Grandal, you could argue some of it went to the Eloy (Jimenez) extension or re-signing (Jose) Abreu or whatever we have coming down the pipe next.

“That offer was over an eight- to 10-year period, so to say it's all going out the door in Year 1 just because it's sitting there, maybe, but it's got to be for the right players.”

None of this will satisfy the critics. And that’s a product of the frustrating on-field success of the big league team during the rebuild and the expectations that came into this offseason. The White Sox pursued the talent at the top of the free-agent market last offseason, so they must be willing to do the same thing again this winter, right? They might have. But it didn’t work out, and now there are two offseasons where fans wanted Machado and Harper and Cole and Strasburg and Rendon and watched all those players go elsewhere.

It’s important to remember the White Sox did sign Grandal, that they do still have that young core that broke out in a big way in 2019. The future is still blindingly bright, and Hahn & Co. see that. It’s why they remain so committed to their long-term plans — because they could very well work.

Those plans might mean that the consolation prizes for teams that didn’t land one of the top three prizes on the free-agent market aren’t quite as appealing fits. It’s not as easy as just moving down to the next name on the list. The White Sox are being picky, and they can afford to be picky. Not adding a huge free agent — and, again, remember they did sign Grandal — doesn’t mean Moncada and Jimenez and Tim Anderson and Lucas Giolito are suddenly all bad. The future is snowballing for the White Sox, in a good way, and the melting process is nowhere near starting.

Yes, the South Siders left San Diego without Cole, Strasburg or Rendon. Perhaps it wasn’t for lack of trying. Perhaps they weren’t able to get past the bouncer, no matter how big the checkbook was. Perhaps they didn’t see these guys as good fits. Perhaps they saw these guys as expensive in a way that would jeopardize their carefully laid plans.

The biggest takeaway from this week: Those plans are the driving force for these White Sox. Do not, for any reason, expect them to deviate.

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White Sox Talk Podcast: Guest appearance Hall of Famer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson

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NBC Sports Chicago

White Sox Talk Podcast: Guest appearance Hall of Famer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson

Ford Frick winner and Hall of Famer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson joins Chuck Garfien on the podcast.

(3:15) - People that have congratulated Hawk on his induction, including some people you would never guess

(12:24) - Origin of some of your favorite "Hawk-isms"

(15:29) - Great story about the late great Harry Carey

(18:46) - His life growing up in Savannah, Georgia

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

 

White Sox Talk Podcast

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