The most talked about man at SoxFest this weekend is the guy who's not here.
When general manager Rick Hahn was introduced to fans during the opening ceremonies, the cheers for the guy who's legitimately excited this fan base with what he's done during the ongoing rebuilding process quickly segued to chants of "MAN-NY! MAN-NY!"
Yes, White Sox fans might claim they're tired of the twists and turns in the unending Manny Machado sweepstakes. They might claim that they're logging off social media until Machado finally picks a team. But he's still occupying more space than anything else in this fan base's collective consciousness.
It was quite obvious the Friday-night crowd at this weekend's sold-out SoxFest was holding out hope for some sort of dramatic announcement, a "Masked Singer" style reveal in which Southpaw, for some reason, was the final one introduced by Gene Honda, only for the mascot's head to be ripped off to unveil "No. 13! Manny Machado!" The crowd would've needed a fainting couch the size of Bridgeport.
And so the consolation prize SoxFest attendees will have to settle for is a reinforcement of the fact that the White Sox are still very much in the hunt and still badly want Machado to don the black pinstripes. As baseball's offseason continues to become more drawn out each and every year, this is perhaps the best they could've hoped for. But it also says plenty about this franchise — which is trying desperately to display its own new normal.
"When this offseason began, I think most people viewed us as a long shot to land either of these premium free agents," Hahn said before the opening ceremonies Friday night, providing a nice reminder that, yes, the White Sox are still chasing Bryce Harper, too. "At one point, Vegas posted the odds of the six or seven most likely clubs to land either of these guys, and we weren’t even listed. The fact that we are now sitting here in a potential position, or at least in a position where if we don’t convert people are going to be disappointed, I think is an important step forward for this organization.
"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's quite the declaration from the general manager, and it serves as a nice reminder to fans who have remained skeptical throughout this process that the White Sox would do enough to include themselves among the front runners for either Machado or Harper.
Of course, this has always been part of these rebuilding plans. But there are fans who feel burned by near misses over the years. There's that playoff drought, too, that's now more than a decade long. And so it's perhaps been a little difficult to convince fans and others who follow the team that the White Sox will do what it takes.
Hahn pointed to the way his front office has operated during this free-agency period — which has reportedly been extremely aggressive — as another example of the organization attempting to smash preconceived notions. It's something the White Sox have done with success in the last two-plus years during this rebuilding process. It's also something that takes doing to achieve.
"The, in my opinion, false narratives about this organization going back several years was everything from that we would never rebuild because the fans wouldn't tolerate it to we would never incur a penalty in terms of signing amateur talent, which we obviously did with Luis Robert. And it was written right up to a few weeks before the (Eloy) Jimenez and (Dylan) Cease trade that we would never make a trade with the Cubs that could potentially help them because of the supposed rivalry between our two organizations," Hahn said. "I'm not sure how many other, so to speak, false narratives about this organization are out there other than they won't spend top of market for a free agent.
"We’d love to disprove that during the coming weeks. We certainly have extended offers that would ruin that narrative, if accepted, but we're not there yet. So if for whatever reason we fail to convert this time around, perhaps that narrative will exist for another year, but we look forward to proving that one false like we have the others."
And that's another element of this whole thing. Yes, the opportunity is there now to add one of the best players in baseball, be it Machado or Harper. But this won't be the only opportunity to do that. Next winter's free-agent class is even more loaded. The White Sox depth of prospects could end up used in a blockbuster trade. And it's possible — Hahn and the White Sox certainly believe so — that Jimenez becomes a player as good as the biggest names available on any winter's free-agent market.
And when those other opportunities arise, Hahn made sure to point out, the White Sox will behave the same way they're behaving now. They're serious about being major players when it comes to adding major players.
"I will be personally disappointed. I will feel that on my on myself if we failed to convert," Hahn said in reference to the team's pursuits of Machado and Harper. "But if for whatever reason we do (fail to sign either guy), we're going to be right back at it again the next time this opportunity arises.
"We've talked from the start, this was about accumulating as much premium talent as possible. ... The last element that we've always talked about was adding premium talent via free agency. We’re making an attempt to do that now, remain hopeful and optimistic that we're able to convert on that. But if for whatever reason we're not, we're going to be right back at it again next year."
This is the new normal for the White Sox as they attempt to make the transition from rebuilding to contending. It might not happen in 2019, but there's too much talent in the minor league system to make the future look anything but bright. Whether Machado brightens that future even more remains to be seen, and it likely won't be seen by the time the White Sox takeover of the Hilton Chicago comes to a close.
But know this: Yes, the White Sox very much want to sign one of the best players in baseball, and yes, they are willing to do what it takes to bring him to the South Side.
If that's the biggest headline that comes out of SoxFest and it still doesn't satisfy, well maybe those raised expectations show a lot more about how far this team has come than most folks realize.