White Sox GM Rick Hahn on rebuild: World Series title is the only goal

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White Sox GM Rick Hahn has dramatically transformed the fate of the franchise in the past eight-plus months by constructing what many say is the best farm system in baseball.

White Sox GM Rick Hahn on rebuild: World Series title is the only goal

White Sox GM Rick Hahn has dramatically transformed the fate of the franchise in the past eight-plus months by constructing what many say is the best farm system in baseball.

CHICAGO — Sitting in his bedroom in Winnetka, IL, then-11-year-old Rick Hahn would compose letters to the late Dallas Green, who served as the Cubs’ general manager from 1981 to 1987. They included various trade proposals, and to Hahn’s amazement, Green would reply with a handwritten note nearly every time.

Hahn, then a Cubs fan, said he became more enthralled with the position as each letter arrived in his mailbox, hoping to someday be the one forming a roster for an MLB team.

Now, 35 years later, Hahn, as GM of the White Sox, is doing just that, having dramatically transformed the fate of the franchise in the past eight-plus months by constructing what many believe is the best farm system in baseball. That meant shipping away the team’s top talent, but it's also led to a revamped organizational mindset.

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The White Sox ranked 20th in MiLB.com's and Baseball Prospectus’ farm system rankings in March 2016, thanks to a hesitancy to abandon their win-now approach during Hahn's previous three seasons. Then, the team's 23-10 start to the 2016 season generated a false sense of a winning culture, as the Sox went 55-74 the rest of the way.

Something had to change, so a rebuild began.

While Hahn, executive vice president Kenny Williams and owner Jerry Reinsdorf decided on trading starter Chris Sale to begin the overhaul, he said the market at the trade deadline didn’t provide the return they aimed for. Hahn also cited the trio’s frustration with the team’s lack of success in its commitment to deal the southpaw in the 2016-17 offseason.

“In any meeting Jerry Reinsdorf is a part of, he’s the smartest man in the room, so he certainly understood where we were as an organization and the path that had gotten us there,” he said. “With Kenny and I arguing for a significant trade, he understood why.”

Nevertheless, Hahn admitted it was difficult to part ways with the franchise’s all-time leader in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (10.8).

“Normally, hearing praise from your peers (at the Winter Meetings) makes you feel good about things,” he said. “But we both felt a little hollow at the time. You certainly don’t relish letting Chris Sale walk out the door (to Boston).”

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That move spurred three other headline-grabbing deals; Adam Eaton was dealt to the Nationals last offseason, pitcher Jose Quintana shifted up north to the Cubs in July, and a package of third baseman Todd Frazier and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle were shipped to the Yankees later in the month.

Other minor departures included outfielder Melky Cabrera to the Royals and relievers Dan Jennings to the Rays, Anthony Swarzak to the Brewers and Tyler Clippard to the Astros.

Beyond a few more grey hairs, Hahn said his philosophy has changed since first settling into the pressure-packed role. He initially looked to please fans and co-workers alike with flawless trades, heavily critiquing his every move. That's not the case anymore.

“Those (perfect trades) are white whales,” Hahn said. “There’s always a reason not to do something. But ultimately if you have a sound plan, you trust that.”

The future, now

Chicago’s now-elite farm system is one prospect short now that second baseman Yoan Moncada has gotten the call to the bigs.

Moncada owns a .205/.348/.356 slash line in 21 games, along with two home runs and nine RBI. Although his batting average doesn’t stick out, the Cuban native’s eye at the plate is evident, seeing 4.31 pitches per plate appearance.

“He (Moncada) doesn’t try to expand or do damage from what he’s capable of doing, or try to deviate from where’s he’s been successful,” Hahn said. “That’s from a maturity standpoint. A lot of that stuff you can’t teach a guy.”

The club has tried to emphasize plate discipline from the get-go in Low-A. One of the unsung leaders for that approach is Chris Getz, the club’s director of player development since 2016.

Getz played second base for the White Sox in 2008-09, as well as suiting up for the Royals (2010-13) and Blue Jays (2014). He transitioned to a front-office assistant role with the Royals in 2014, learning the player development side.

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Despite Getz's lack of experience in his current position, his own trip through the minor leagues is a major asset for current prospects, Hahn said.

“I don’t want to praise Chris too much to hasten his inevitable departure as a GM when more people notice what he’s doing,” he said.

Meanwhile, Double-A starter Michael Kopech, the third-highest rated prospect within the organization, has showcased plenty of progress; he boasts a 2.87 ERA and 2.85 FIP in 22 starts, along with a 31.3 percent strikeout rate. He even has notched a 0.65 ERA in his past six outings, all of which were quality starts.

Hahn wouldn’t specify whether Kopech would be a September call-up, but he didn’t shut down the possibility.

“He’s (Kopech) really just shown a maturity that you don’t always see from a kid who can out-stuff his competition, but he doesn’t rely on that,” he said. “He’s learning how to pitch; he’s throwing his breaking ball and trusting his changeup.”

The ultimate goal

Kopech represents one of myriad skilled pitchers in the White Sox’s farm system. Hahn believes the club has pinpointed a clear need at a premium position with the likes of major leaguers Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez and prospects Lucas Giolito, Alec Hansen, Dane Dunning and Dylan Cease; four of them were acquired in recent trades.

After witnessing rookie power-hurler Bobby Jenks close out games for the 2005 World Series champions, Hahn said he wouldn’t consider it a disappointment if one or two of them eventually shifted to the bullpen in order to help the team win another title.

“There’s nothing more special than winning a championship in this city,” Hahn said. “This organization has been so great for me, so I won’t personally feel we have accomplished anything until we win it again.”

Hahn wouldn’t set timetable for when the club will contend, yet he said it should happen faster than other teams’ massive rebuilds because of how quickly the White Sox’s farm system was revamped.

Between negotiating trades and watching baseball at all levels, Hahn said he recognizes the difficulty of taking a step back to truly inhale the franchise’s accomplishments within the past year. Nevertheless, his childhood self would be fairly satisfied.

And he hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“Anytime I get a letter from a kid, I try to take the time to write back personally to him,” Hahn said. “It’s my own personal tribute to Dallas Green.”

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