CARLSBAD, Calif. – The theme resurfaced after the White Sox’ quick exit from the playoffs this year: Experience.
The Astros had more playoff experience than the White Sox, and it showed in the American League Division Series. Just like a lack of experience in 2020, when the White Sox made the postseason for the first time in over a decade, helped sink the young squad against the A’s in the three-game wild card.
“Look, I know there's arguments you've got to sort of slowly progress your way through this thing,” Hahn said last month, “almost like you've got to get the experience and have the disappointment and then the following year you can go deeper and then after that you're in a position to win. I hope that's not true.”
Of course, the team on the other side of town was able to flip a surprise trip to the 2015 National League Championship Series into a Cubs World Series title the next year. But markets, and therefore teambuilding strategies, shift quickly in a copycat league like MLB.
The White Sox tried to bypass a slow buildup in the last phase of their rebuild the last couple years by adding veterans like catcher Yasmani Grandal, closer Liam Hendriks and starting pitchers Lance Lynn and Dallas Keuchel, all with robust postseason resumes. The club even fired manager Rick Renteria after the 2020 season and brought in Tony La Russa, who has three World Series rings.
The playoff results were similar in back-to-back years: single series exits. So, as the team digested the disappointment of World Series aspirations cut short this October, talk of a familiar foe came up in video conference after video conference wrapping up the season.
"Every year, you gain more experience, with every game you can experience, with every postseason you can experience,” veteran first baseman José Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo in a Zoom press conference. “As a team, as a young team, as we are, the experience is a key. It's very important because in a postseason run, you need experience to manage all the situations that are going to arise during a postseason game.
"It's something that is really valuable. Last two years, we haven't gotten the results that we were looking for. But we've been gaining that experience that is going to put us in a way better position for next year, hopefully, to get deeper into the postseason.”
The question remains, does the final phase of a rebuild necessitate a gradual accumulation of playoff experience for a young core, or is there a way to expedite the process?
NBC Sports Chicago posed that very question to general managers at the GM meetings outside of San Diego last month. Here’s what a handful of them, with clubs in a wide range of team-building stages, had to say:
Tigers GM Al Avila: “It's a very good question. That's why a mix of young players and some veteran players that have been through it is good. And yet, last year’s a good example: We were not a playoff-bound team, we made some improvements. Guys like (veterans) Jonathan Schoop and Robbie Grossman were part of that process. When our young players saw how Grossman takes his at-bats, how he prepares for that, I think it was eye-opening for some of these guys. Miguel Cabrera, same thing, the way he prepares for a game.
“So, sometimes the veteran guys that have gone through it, that experience rubs off on those young players. So, that combination of a veteran guy that's been through it and the young players that are still learning but they have obviously that youth excitement, that's a great blend. And I think that's an important part of building a winning team.”
Marlins GM Kim Ng: “I don't think there's any way to expedite it. It’s experience. Think about all the things that you've experienced, and the decisions that you make now are very different than how you would have made them five years ago, right? You have so much more information. You know how guys are going to pitch to you. You know what you do in this situation. You know how your teammates are going to behave in front of you, behind you in the lineup.
“I just think that experience is the true teacher. We can have coaches as good as we can have them, who are part of that process, teammates who are great and are also part of that process on a peer level. But really, experience is the best teacher.”
Astros GM James Click: “Sometimes there's teams that just show up in the postseason, and they just go all the way and they don't have a lot of postseason experience on them. And then there's some teams that – you could look at the Astros back in 2015. They got one series worth of experience and then two years later, they win the World Series. So, does that count is enough experience to get you there? I don't know.
“I think it's a tough question to answer. Having been around our guys at the Astros, I have more of an appreciation for the experience that they have. They just remained so cool and calm throughout the whole thing, these incredibly high-pressure games. I don't know how to put a finger on it, but it certainly seemed like it had some value to us. But I wouldn't be surprised at all if the White Sox have a really good and really deep run next year. They're incredibly talented, and they're very well positioned for a while.”
Hahn: “I don't know if I personally subscribe to the notion that you have to sort of slowly make incremental gains in October, but if that is the case, we should be well positioned to make such a gain next year.”