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How Sox' playoff disappointment will impact offseason plans

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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CARLSBAD, Calif. — The Chicago White Sox had six good months. Followed by a few really bad days.

For plenty of fans, the team's disappointingly quick exit from the postseason was enough to define the 2021 campaign. After all, even with a managerial change, offseason upgrades and a year's worth of "World Series or bust" talk, the White Sox won as many playoff games as they had a year earlier: one.

For plenty of fans, that October fate is enough to define the months that follow, too, an offseason dictated solely by what happened against the Houston Astros in the American League Division Series. And considering the White Sox' stated goal is to win a world championship, that's not exactly an outrageous line of thinking. Greater changes have been spurred by less.

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But White Sox general manager Rick Hahn isn't taking quite so narrow a view of his upcoming wintertime work.

How much of Hahn's offseason planning — which will begin to play out at this week's GM meetings in Southern California — stems from the final four games of the White Sox' 2021 season?

Not much, it turns out.

"Certainly the more removed you get from the postseason elimination, the easier it is to have that sort of full-season perspective, which I think is important," Hahn said during his end-of-season press conference Friday. "Obviously those 34 and a half innings were pretty disappointing and left a bitter taste in all of our moths. I don't think because of that we should lose sight of where we are as an organization and what the future looks like.

 

"We were not playing championship-caliber baseball over the first week of October, and we paid the price for it. There are lessons to be learned. ... (But) to read too much into 34, 35 some odd innings, (to say) that we learned 'X' about an immutable truth about this team — it’s a small sample, a bad week.

"We didn't play to our abilities. We know there are areas we need to get better that were on display over those four days, but they were also evident over the course of the six months (during the regular season)."

Now, that's not to say that Hahn will close the door on any moves because of it, either. That hasn't been his operating procedure in the past. And his front office has a recent history of an aggressive approach to the offseason when it comes to players it has its eye on. Look at the November signing of Yasmani Grandal two offseasons ago, set up at the GM meetings, and the big bucks the team gave to Liam Hendriks last winter — or heck, even their pursuit of Manny Machado in 2019.

But indeed, Hahn's right in not charting his offseason course based solely on four games.

"We didn't reach the ultimate final goal, so how can we possibly be satisfied?" Hahn said. "That said, there is a lot of reason for hope and optimism. We like where we are as an organization, the direction we're going. This is what we worked for, to be in a position on an annual basis to have realistic World Series aspirations.

"We obviously have work to do, not just because of free agency and some of the flaws we saw on the roster over the course of the summer and early fall, but because there are ways to get better. You've already heard from Tony (La Russa) on some of the things he and his staff are going to work on to improve us. And those of us (in the front office) have spent a great deal of time formulating plans to make this roster stronger any way we can in the next few months."

There might be some out there who disagree with an approach that doesn't lean heavily on what went wrong in October, and the calls for a starting-pitching shake-up illustrate that. White Sox starters fell flat in the postseason, not one of them lasting five innings in four playoff outings. But during the prior six months, they formed the best rotation in the AL. That's a much larger sample size to work with, and one that convinces that starting pitching doesn't need to be at the top of Hahn's shopping list this winter.

In fact, you can look at the White Sox' roster and come to the conclusion that there aren't that many spots at which to add. Hahn built this team with long-term contention in mind, and because of it, there are long-term fixtures — exciting ones, at that — installed at most every position on the diamond and in the starting rotation. Of course, the GM showed his willingness to make a big win-now move, too, when he dealt second baseman of the future Nick Madrigal for Craig Kimbrel at the trade deadline.

 

It leaves second base as the team's top offseason need. Right field is an area that can be upgraded, too, though Hahn spoke on the promise of youngsters like Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets to be part of the mix there and at other positions, particularly designated hitter. The bullpen looks like it will need to be addressed with several departures, including Ryan Tepera to free agency and Michael Kopech joining the rotation.

And so moves are coming, undoubtedly. Hahn and the White Sox are in the mode right now of contending for a championship, and with that comes a participation in the annual arms race between teams that want to win and win big.

Already, the team has made some early-offseason decisions, picking up Craig Kimbrel's option, declining César Hernández's option and not extending a qualifying offer to Carlos Rodón.

But don't think that the White Sox spent the last month mapping out an offseason that solved what happened against the Astros alone. They've got something bigger in mind than just those four days in October.

"The postseason performance was disappointing. The postseason performance was frustrating," Hahn said. "There's areas where we're going to need to get better. We're going to address them, hopefully, over the course of the next several months and have the coaches address them over the course of spring and into the summer.

"(Being considered a contender for 2022 is) great on Nov. 4. It gives you reason for optimism going forward. But it doesn't change the fact that we have work to do and those chasing us are getting stronger, and we've got to try to maintain pace."

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