Anatomy of the White Sox offseason
Chicago was an active participant in both free-agent market, trade market
CHICAGO -- Here we are, White Sox fans, starting the 2015 campaign as bona fide American League contenders following a monumental winter of trade and free-agent activity. Before we examine where we stand after burning up the Hot Stove season, let's take a look at how we got here.
When last season ended, the Sox brass gathered to strategize their plan of attack for the future in an effort to evaluate where the organization stood and what needed to improve. Among those in attendance were chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, general manager Rick Hahn, executive vice president Ken Williams, manager Robin Ventura, coaches Don Cooper and Todd Steverson and assistant general manager Buddy Bell.
The result of that meeting and subsequent discussions were clear: the White Sox had holes to fill -- perhaps more than they thought -- after two disappointing seasons. The goal? To identify those needs and adhere to Reinsdorf's edict: contend in 2015.
With significant funds freed up due to expiring contracts and two seasons of dealing high-priced veterans with an eye on the future, the Sox gave every indication that they, indeed, would be a major player in both the free-agent market as well as the trade market in order to contend.
"We knew what the marching orders were going to be," Williams said. "And Rick and I kind of joked because we sat in his office and looked at the board and said, 'This is what we want to do. We think if we accomplish X, Y, Z and Z+, we will be back in the mix and contenders again.'"
When all was said and done, the consensus among baseball front-office executives and the news media is that the South Siders were one of the big winners of the winter. Many ranked the Sox as having the No. 1 offseason with their eight impact moves, not surprisingly, the buzz around the Sox over the winter both in Chicago and nationally was off the charts.
"We knocked things off the list in fairly rapid succession," Hahn explained. "We happen to have very high hopes. There's a great vibe around here. There's a level of confidence and expectations and even some swagger."
"We have a little flair to us, and I think our fans are really going to like this team," Williams added. "We've got some entertaining, special players. Expect a hard-nosed, grind-it-out, passionate team."
Hahn gave credit to Reinsdorf for his willingness to give his blessing and move forward with the bold moves.
"None of this happens without the aggressiveness of Jerry Reinsdorf," Hahn said. "He sets the tone at the top of the organization."
The general manager also cited another factor that made the Sox brass comfortable in being so aggressive: the fan's reaction to the deals and the excitement around the city regarding the club's future that translated into positive news at the box office. The transformation actually began with the acquisition of Avisail Garcia from the Detroit Tigers and right-handed pitcher Frankie Montas and others from the Red Sox in a three-team deal before the 2013 Trade Deadline that saw Jake Peavy change his Sox from White to Red.
"The die was cast with that season  being a disappointment fairly early on," Hahn revealed. "This gave us the opportunity to take a step back and assess where we needed to go as an organization and areas we had to get better."
Then, Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton came aboard after the 2013 season, so two more key players were added to the foundation that already included the likes of All-Stars Chris Sale, Alexei Ramirez and the underrated Jose Quintana. As we know, those two new additions worked out beautifully. Abreu, whose acquisition became a reality in large part because of the freed-up money, had a historic season as he made the AL All-Star team and won the AL Rookie of the Year Award. Eaton, who hit .300 and led the league with 10 triples from the leadoff spot, played brilliant center field and added great energy.
With all these key building blocks in place, the Sox identified their needs for 2015 and beyond. They went to work with the check list referred to above, and even exceeded it by adding bullpen depth in Dan Jennings and versatility and bench strength with Emilio Bonifacio and familiar face Gordon Beckham.
With every move calculated toward contending in 2015, here's how the offseason unfolded, with each move hitting the mark.
Nov. 18, 2014: Step one
The fact that the White Sox, who went most of last season without a left-hander in the bullpen, made acquiring at least one accomplished lefty who could be a valuable setup man a high priority. And, in fact, it turned out to be the first big move made in the offseason by Hahn and the front office.
The Sox got their man by signing Zach Duke, a former starter who was brilliant out of the 'pen for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2014 with a 5-1 record, a 2.45 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings pitched. Opposing lefties hit just .198/.267/.302 and righties weren't much better, delivering just .242/.288/.298. With Duke the first one aboard, he was told that the Sox were far from through.
"That was music to my ears, because there's nothing more fun than being on a winning baseball team," Duke said.
Little did he know how much more was to come.
Nov. 25, 2014: The cleanup hitter
With Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn both retiring at the end of 2014, another Sox need was a power bat in the cleanup spot that could protect Abreu, spell last year's rookie sensation at first base and be a clubhouse leader.
A week after the Duke signing, that mission was accomplished as the club plucked Adam LaRoche, an elite hitter who once ran around old Comiskey Park as a youngster from 1989-91 when his dad Dave was the Sox pitching coach under then-manager Jeff Torborg, from the free-agent pool.
In his 11-year career, LaRoche has belted 20 or more homers in a season nine times, more than 30 homers twice, and batted 90 or more runs on four occasions, with two seasons of 100 RBIs. LaRoche hit 26 homers, drove in 92 runs and had a .259/.462/.455 slash line last season with the Washington Nationals
"I've honestly always been a White Sox fan, and I don't just say that," LaRoche said with pride at the time of his signing.
Winter Meetings, 2014 (Dec. 7-11): The 'Mother Lode'
The Duke and LaRoche signings, as important as they are, turned to be the tasty appetizer to what would happen at the annual Winter Meetings in San Diego, where all 30 GMs and their staffs gathered beginning on Dec. 7 to see what deals they could make to improve their respective ballclubs.
It was Monday night when the Sox raised eyebrows by crossing off the next two needs on their master list: right-handed starter Jeff Samardzija and shutdown closer David Robertson, both All-Star performers.
The backstory behind these two prized acquisitions has a fair measure of drama. A White Sox staff party of about 25 -- including Reinsdorf, Williams and Hahn -- gathered for a nice dinner at a local steak and seafood restaurant. But the general manager couldn't relax. He had business to do and found himself walking outside the restaurant to work the phones.
Although unaware of what was to transpire when they arrived, the dinner guests soon got two items of very good news. Hahn's first announcement to the assembled group upon his return to the table was the consummation of the Samardzija trade.
"We got our No. 2 starter lined up!" Hahn exclaimed. Reinsdorf then asked, "Where are we with the other guy?"
A short while later, Hahn had more positive news about that other guy. Robertson, the former Yankee who established himself as one of the best closers in baseball, would also be wearing a Sox uniform. Not a bad night's work.
In Samardzija, the former Notre Dame All-America wide receiver who grew up in northwest Indiana as a Sox fan, the Good Guys nailed down the righty they coveted to slot in between Sale and Quintana. With the Chicago Cubs and Oakland A's last year, he posted a 2.99 ERA with 202 strikeouts and 219 2/3 innings pitched, the second straight year he exceeded 200 in both categories. The presence of the man called the "Shark" gives the Sox unquestionably one of the premier top three rotation starters in the AL.
Robertson, of course, is the key piece to solidify the bullpen. After establishing himself as one of baseball's top setup men, all he did in his first year as a closer last season was replace the great Mariano Rivera with 39 saves for New York.
Before the Sox left San Diego, they made one more key move, obtaining lefty reliever Jennings from the Miami Marlins in exchange for righty Andre Rienzo. Jennings, who gives another solid lefty option in the bullpen to complement Duke, posted a 1.34 ERA in 47 relief appearances in 2014.
Dec. 16, 2014: Surprise!
While most thought the White Sox had reached their financial limit and were done acquiring more pieces to the puzzle, Hahn and his staff never stopped working. Fans woke up in mid-December with the news that an early Christmas present was under their proverbial tree. It was in the form of Melky Cabrera, set to become the No. 2 hitter in the now formidable and revamped Sox lineup and the everyday left fielder. As a Toronto Blue Jay in 2014, Cabrera hit 16 homers, 73 RBIs and had a slash line of .301/.351/.458.
How did the Cabrera signing happen when it was assumed the budget had been exhausted? According to Hahn, Reinsdorf saw how Cabrera fit and how it would be a vital piece in the lineup.
"Jerry is aggressive," Hahn said. "He could smell it and wanted to get this done."
Jan. 8 and 28, 2015: Frosting on the cake
With the big-ticket items all checked off, the Sox still weren't through. In January, they added two valuable pieces to their arsenal by signing Bonifacio on Jan. 8 and announcing the return of Beckham on Jan. 28.
Bonifacio, who played with the Cubs and the Atlanta Braves last season, gives the team an outstanding veteran who can play second base, shortstop, third base and the outfield.
Beckham, of course, is well known to White Sox fans from his five years in Chicago before being dealt to the Los Angeles Angels late last season. Whether as a starter or in a utility role, the Sox former No. 1 Draft pick will give the club quality infield play.
The White Sox gave every indication that the winter would be fruitful, and it certainly was. Through a determined effort to improve, wise assessment, the front office's aggressiveness and the ability to close a deal, the Sox were winners during the 2014-15 offseason. Now, with the season upon us, the club and its fans are looking forward to a winner on the field as well.