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With trade for Kimbrel, Sox send biggest win-now message yet

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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It might have been unusual for those of us who have listened to Rick Hahn talk about his vision for the Chicago White Sox for the past five years.

But in comparison to the last five years, these are unusual times on the South Side.

Of course, Hahn's rebuilding project was long designed to make contention the new normal. And right now, that's what it is, something made incredibly obvious by Hahn's deadline splash Friday, the White Sox acquiring All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel from the Chicago Cubs in a Crosstown blockbuster that brought to mind the José Quintana deal in 2017.

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The White Sox have been making it clear for months now that they're in win-now mode. They lured Tony La Russa out of a decade-long retirement to steer the ship toward the World Series. They traded the promising career of Dane Dunning for Lance Lynn, a then-33-year-old veteran in a contract year. They spent big on free-agent closer Liam Hendriks.

But Friday's move was the most glaring yet that the long-term priorities that Hahn has discussed for years can indeed be put, somewhat, on the back burner now that what the general manager called a "sacred" chance to win it all has arrived. The White Sox are a first-place team with the biggest division lead in baseball. They own one of the American League's best winning percentages and its second-best run differential.

 

And so Nick Madrigal, the team's young cost-controlled second baseman, and Codi Heuer, a potential closer of the future, are gone. And Kimbrel is here to try to add to his jewelry collection.

Win-now mode, indeed.

Welcome to the new normal.

"Parting with Nick Madrigal is not easy. Parting with Codi Heuer is not easy," Hahn said. "We understood going into this process that the only way we were going to secure Kimbrel is by having the clear best offer. In the end, that was the cost. As I discussed with both Nick and Codi during what I'm sure they both felt were surprising phone calls and ones I didn't necessarily anticipate making this morning, we made a conscious decision to prioritize today over the distant future.

"There was always going to come a point in the course of this rebuild process, as we had talked about from the start, when we had the opportunity to win. And we had to respect those opportunities, and we had to do everything in our power as a front office to maximize those opportunities.

"It was essential for us, we feel, to put us in the best position to take the most important final step in this process."

As that trade with the Cubs in 2017 showed, these types of acquisitions come with a cost for contenders. The Cubs got to the NLCS that year with José Quintana in tow. But it cost them Eloy Jiménez and Dylan Cease, now two key cogs in the White Sox own pursuit of a championship four years later.

This time, the Crosstown rivals reversed roles.

The White Sox are the ones trying to create a Chicago baseball dynasty, something the Cubs failed to do, everything coming to a screeching halt the last two days, when they dealt away Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Báez. Despite the obvious arrival of win-now mode on the South Side, Hahn has done the work of trying to set up that long-term contender. Jiménez, Luis Robert and Yoán Moncada are inked to long-term extensions, and Lynn is the owner of a shiny new multi-year deal, not to mention the deep-into-the-future control of guys like Hendriks, Cease, Tim Anderson, Aaron Bummer, Michael Kopech and Andrew Vaughn.

That thinking applies, in a way, to this week, too. Hahn made it clear that getting Kimbrel — as well as second baseman César Hernández, acquired a day earlier in a trade with the Cleveland Indians — was not a trade to address his team's chances in 2021 and 2021 alone. Kimbrel's contract comes with a $16 million team option for next season, as well, another campaign in the thick of the White Sox contention window.

But he also acknowledged that the White Sox will have a front-row seat to the rest of Madrigal's career, which has been slowed by injuries but still is just 83 games old. There's a reason the White Sox spent the No. 4 pick in the draft on the guy, and he's been almost exactly as advertised in his time as a major leaguer, showing off that high contact ability and earning a fan-favorite reputation as "Nicky Two Strikes."

 

"We know we have to watch Nick Madrigal for the next five-plus years in a Cub uniform, very likely making an impact and doing damage at the big league level. That's not going to be easy," Hahn said. "When we sent Quintana there, ... we knew we ran the risk of my kids having to sit through another parade come October. That doesn't sit too well.

"When you do those deals, perhaps the cost is a little bit higher than when you're dealing with someone a little bit more out of sight, out of mind, and isn't necessarily going to come back and haunt your family and your fan base quite as easily."

While that might be tough for the White Sox to swallow as observers, the idea is that it's worth it, that the shine off a World Series trophy would help ease any future pain.

As recently as the beginning of this month, Hahn seemed to have an impossible task in front of him. Injuries ravaged the White Sox lineup, with the team increasingly reliant on bench players and fill-ins to keep preseason World Series aspirations alive. There were seemingly myriad areas he could address with deadline deals.

Instead, the White Sox got some really positive news on their injured stars. Jiménez has since returned from his ruptured pectoral tendon. Robert is on a rehab assignment, not far from his return from a torn hip flexor. And Yasmani Grandal is progressing at a rapid rate from surgery to repair a torn tendon in his knee. The collective reinsertion of that trio into the middle of the batting order — even after knowing that Kimbrel was the deadline splash the White Sox made — will make a bigger difference than any trade haul that could have been acquired.

And so it was the bullpen where Hahn needed to focus his efforts. The White Sox needed relief reinforcements. And boy, did they get them. Ryan Tepera, another ex-Cub, might not be a future Hall-of-Fame closer like Kimbrel, but he's no slouch and currently has the best ERA of his career as another one of the White Sox new late-inning options.

Kimbrel, though, is the star, the screaming headline, not just because he gives the White Sox perhaps the two best closers in baseball in the same bullpen, but because his arrival is the biggest hit-you-over-the-head signal yet that things really have changed on the South Side.

Hahn said before the season started that anything short of winning the World Series for these White Sox would be a disappointment. By swapping Madrigal for Kimbrel, the actions have spoken louder than the words that 2021 is, at the moment, the most important year in his rebuilding project.

 

"We are better today than we were yesterday. We know that. We are better the end of this week than we were the end of last week," Hahn said. "We look forward to Luis Robert continue to progress and joining us over the next few weeks, Yasmani Grandal not too far behind him. And knock on wood, we continue to build on what we’ve done over the first four months, get healthy and acclimate these new players to our clubhouse and put ourselves in a position come October to be a very dangerous team.

"That’s the goal."

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