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Q&A: Hahn talks White Sox rebuild

GM discusses offseason trades, Renteria's leadership, Moncada's promise
April 5, 2017

Rick Hahn knows what it's like to end a lengthy drought in Chicago the way the Cubs did last fall, having helped the White Sox win their first World Series title in 2005 after an 88-year stretch without a championship.Now the general manager is in the midst of a rebuilding

Rick Hahn knows what it's like to end a lengthy drought in Chicago the way the Cubs did last fall, having helped the White Sox win their first World Series title in 2005 after an 88-year stretch without a championship.
Now the general manager is in the midst of a rebuilding project with those same White Sox, having dealt away Chris Sale and Adam Eaton this winter to bolster the farm system as the organization looks to the future.
:: General manager Q&As :: caught up with Hahn at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., during the final days of Spring Training to discuss his beginnings as an agent, how the Cubs' title impacts the White Sox, and why Rick Renteria was the right man to manage his team. How did you land your first job in baseball?
Rick Hahn: I was lucky. I actually started looking for a job with a club in about 1993, and ultimately I started working with Leigh Steinberg and Jeff Moorad as a player agent in '98. So it took me five years to land a job even in sports, and then I wound up with the White Sox after the 2000 season. Basically it took me about seven years to get in. Not many guys on the team side start out as agents. What did those two years add to your knowledge base that has helped you working on the other side?
Hahn: I would like to think it created some level of empathy, at least with how a player's mind works and some of the stresses on their side of the game. Certainly from the agent's side, in negotiation and the pressures you feel from wanting to serve your clients and the greater good of the player cause from the union standpoint.
So I'd like to think that it created some level of empathy when we're sitting across the table from a player and his representative. At the same time, it gave me a chance to hone some negotiation skills and the understanding of the CBA and those issues.
PODCAST: Listen to the full interview You've worked with Kenny Williams for a long time. What have you learned most from him?
Hahn: It's a great opportunity for me, because if you look at us on paper, we're awfully different. He came up as a professional athlete, former football player, former scout and player development; I didn't have those kinds of talents. I flamed out in high school and spent most of my time in school, while he was doing these great athletic accomplishments and building up his scouting eye and his player development acumen.
From the start, we were a nice complement to each other in how we went about approaching solving problems. When all things are equal, he likes to go to the videotape and trust his gut on things, what he sees with his scouting eye and his background. Me, I tend to be a little bit more on the analytical side. We've both learned from each other the benefit of that other point of view.
I always said, had I ever left and gone to another club, one of my first hires would have been someone who approaches the game the way Kenny does. None of us are blessed with the ability to handle every element of analysis or every element that goes into this job. You need to know the areas where you need those complementary strengths and get the right people around you. Kenny and I have the kind of relationship where we complement each other in that way. Now that Statcast™ has brought a lot of analytics to the public, do you think it's changing the way that fans are looking at the game?
Hahn: I think so -- and it's neat. It provides an opportunity not only for them to see behind the curtain and understand a little bit of the analysis that is going on in a club's front office, but it also provides ample opportunity for independent research, which is how a lot of this stuff initially got started back in the day. We certainly don't shy away from exploring some of the sites that are out there and some of the research that is published independently. From time to time, you find something that you haven't been looking at or a different way of looking at things that answers some questions for you. I know you're on the other side of town, so I'm not sure if you heard that the Cubs broke this little drought last year of 108 years.
Hahn: I was at the Fall League, so I'm not aware. [Laughs.] Meanwhile, the White Sox broke a pretty lengthy drought of their own back in 2005. How satisfying was it to help bring a championship to the South Side?
Hahn: It was wild. Unfortunately, the whole thing was a blur. Part of it was that my younger son had just been born in July, so I already had sleep deprivation going through the whole experience. The two things that stick with me most to this day are, first, the parade from the ballpark down to Wacker Drive after we had won the championship. Just seeing rows upon rows of White Sox fans lining the streets for the entire length of the bus ride, just how special that feeling was, to see the breadth of how far this had reached and how much it meant to people.
And then when they hung up the banner, knowing that thing was going to fly forever and that you could always feel like you played a small role in getting that thing up there -- that's going to stand the test of time. But it pretty quickly switched to, 'Man, that was a lot of fun. We have to do that again.' We came close at least in the first half of '06 and then we ran out of gas. It's still that great carrot for you out there; you get a little taste of it, you just want to do it more. Does the Cubs' success on the other side of town impact the pressure on you guys to win again?
Hahn: I don't think it does. I don't think it changes the amount of pressure that we feel because we already felt a great amount. It sort of presumes that there's an additional level that we could have gone to that we would be driven to by their success. The fact is that we were maxed out in terms of trying to get Jerry [Reinsdorf] another championship and exploit the opportunities we had with the guys at the top end of our roster.
From an emotional standpoint, from a fans' standpoint, from my kids being surrounded by Cubs fans at school standpoint, absolutely you feel it. From how we go about our baseball operations decisions, we can't let that influence it. We've got to remain focused on putting ourselves in the best position for the long-term, which given the process we started in rebuilding this offseason, as opposed to emotionally or viscerally react to the fact that they're having success on the other side of town. Rebuilding is never an easy process, but how much easier does it get when you can start with the types of packages you received for Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, adding three of the top 20 prospects in the game to your system?
Hahn: It's a nice start. We realize that we're closer to the start of this process than we are to the end. But we are approaching it a little bit differently and we're starting from a little different spot than a lot of the clubs that have had success going through this. We had premium talent available to trade. We still have some premium talent on this roster, and had we been able to convert on similar such trades as we did for Chris and Adam, we likely would have done them.
We realize that we have to get these trades right. We aren't in the position as some other rebuilding clubs were, where their Major League rosters were essentially barren of talent and this was going to be done through the Draft, and to a lesser extent via trade. While the Draft and international [market] are certainly going to be important to us over the next couple of years, we also have this nice, unique opportunity to do trades like we did for Chris and Adam and really jumpstart this whole process. It's imperative that we do it right and we're certainly pleased with those first two major moves, how they played out and helped advance the cause. We know we have more work to do on that. Quintana and Player Page for David Robertson are frequently the subject of trade rumors. Do you expect there will be more trades between now and the end of July?
Hahn: I think there are [opportunities]. Markets change in that there's probably going to be a different pool of teams involved or at least a different motivation level of certain clubs involved as we get closer to the deadline. Needs change, whether it's due to injury or underperformance. Frankly, your evaluation of prospects alters as you get more information on them and how they perform or don't perform at different levels. Just because something hasn't happened here in the last few months or since the Winter Meetings doesn't mean it's not going to still happen.
We do have a unique year going on here; we do have a fair amount of talent -- and veteran talent -- on this roster. [Manager Rick Renteria] and his coaching staff have created this great environment where they're really grinding out each and every day and fighting. Given the talent on the roster, there is going to be the opportunity for the club to perform decently, which is a little different from some rebuilds. Some people look at a rebuild and think you've got to bottom out. If that doesn't happen here, it's going to likely be because the potentially tradable veteran talent is performing well and therefore increasing their value and leading to opportunities to augment the system a different way. Why was Rick Renteria the right choice to be your manager?
Hahn: A lot of different reasons, ranging from his energy and communication skills to, at the other extreme, his background as a teacher. When we made Ricky the manager, we promoted Nick Capra, our farm director, to third-base coach, and Curt Hasler, our Minor League pitching coordinator, to bullpen coach. We then had a staff, starting with Ricky, all of whom had deep roots in player development. We knew this [rebuilding] process was coming and that we were likely going to have a younger roster as a portion of this process and that, frankly, there was going to continue to need to be teaching and development at the big league level.

We wanted to have a staff that was used to setting priorities for an organization, articulating those priorities to players and holding them accountable for meeting those standards. Ricky not only has a background in that and a history of doing that, but has the right personality to help create that new culture and environment around here. It's early and I'm guessing all 30 clubs feel pretty good about where they sit today, but as we judge this upcoming season, we're going to have to be disciplined. In professional sports, the easiest way to judge you is at the big league level. That's what we're most used to -- wins and losses at the big league level. But we have a lot of other things going on here that are going to be more important over the long haul of making this rebuild process work, be right and be sustainable, than how many games we win in 2017.
The coaching staff, the players, they're going to fight every night for every W they can get. But at the end of the 2017 season, our success as an organization, as much if not more so, should be judged upon whether that coaching staff has created the right environment, has been able to implement the right preparation and way of playing the game, utilizing the scouting reports, executing on the field, teaching players and holding them accountable for when they can't. A lot of that's not sexy, it's not easy to quantify, it's certainly tough for a fan to see on a daily basis. It's tough to put in the season video, but those are really fundamental, important changes that have started here and that we're going to continue to build on over the next couple of years. There was a lot of buzz in Arizona about Yoan Moncada this spring. What encouraged you most after getting a chance to see him up close and personal for an extended period of time?
Hahn: The athleticism and the skills jump out at you. Anyone who watches one of our games and gets to see him sees that immediately: the bat speed, the athleticism, the ability to run and the hit tool. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that he's 22 years old and has like 200 plate appearances above A-ball at this point.

There was a very strong work ethic and a very strong desire to be great. A lot of these young kids who have come over and get a fair amount of cash, there's an initial acclimation process to all of sudden having more money than they can possibly imagine. While there's sometimes the spending that comes along with it and the largesse that comes along with it, the key is them becoming refocused or maintaining that focus on what they're trying to accomplish on the field. What we saw from Yoan this spring in terms of his focus and work ethic was fantastic. Very encouraging for his future.

Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for