As a sell-off of assets took place on the South Side, nothing about the rebuild of the Chicago White Sox played out the way general manager Rick Hahn and the White Sox envisioned it.
Not the lineup, not the managers (plural), and certainly not the pitching staff, which was largely gutted last week after being swept home by the Cubs and falling to 20 games under .500.
Almost none of the arms the White Sox sent packing were supposed to be expendable. Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and Kendall Graveman were all brought or groomed here to be contributors on a World Series-caliber team. Instead, they are now headed elsewhere and are being asked to articulate why such a superlative roster on paper didn’t translate to more wins.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Chicago sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
“It’s hard to put into words," Giolito told reporters last week. "It’s very unfortunate. Obviously, one of the first things that comes to mind is the injury bug that’s plagued this team over the last few years. It's been hard to find a rhythm and consistency with all that kind of stuff going on.”
The rebuilding process hit its first real snag in March 2021 when Eloy Jiménez ruptured his pectoral tendon while leaping for a home run at Camelback Ranch. At a glance, it’s a setback out of anyone’s control, as most injuries are, but the truth was that Jiménez had no business trying to rob a meaningless home run in spring training, and the vibes around the team were immediately thrown off.
One can’t help but think of such moments when Kelly points to the team’s inexperience, and hopes this will serve as a cautionary tale.
“The clubhouse now is obviously shocked,” Kelly said. “Some of these young guys have never seen something like this happen. For myself, I've been traded before. I've seen a team, I’m not gonna say completely blown up, but when there's the right pieces and move at the right time, I've seen teams do it. I've been part of that. And it's a learning experience. And hopefully, it's something that those guys can take, and it should hurt a little bit, obviously. But hopefully, they can realize this is what baseball is if you don't perform. I'm not trying to scare the guys in there, but most of them are young. And now you see this is what it is, so you got to play well. And when you're predicted to play well, and you don't, this is what the consequences are of that.”
White Sox News
Kelly is onto something. The true core of this team came through the organization when the future was brighter than the sun. The optimism was inarguable, with Yoán Moncada, Luis Robert Jr., Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease, Andrew Vaughn and Jiménez earning hype fair and square.
The problem with a core of phenoms, though, is that they haven’t been humbled. That’s not a knock, or even a comment, on anyone’s character. It’s simply what happens when the most important bulk of the team has never experienced the jarring, permanent consequences of failure while being largely rewarded for success they hadn’t yet earned.
Maybe there’s still a shot the players mentioned above can salvage the rebuild, but the era of expectation is certainly over.
Lynn spoke to that point during his exit interview on Friday, and said he thinks this is a good opportunity for the team to regroup and allow younger players to fall into their roles.
“Obviously, when you sign an extension, you make the playoffs in ‘21, you're hoping to keep building,” he said. “When you came here, that was the window. Right now, this is a little step back for the White Sox, because as players we didn't do our job here and make a run as we should have. But they're getting pieces to do what they need to do to build around the young talent that's still here. There's still a lot of talent in that locker room.”
When asked about the team’s path forward, the players who were dealt tried their best to ease the widespread agitation fans have aimed at those in charge at 35th and Shields.
“[Touki Toussaint] has a lot of promise, and he's gonna have the ability to show that he can be a starter in this league, and I think he can be,” Lynn said. “And that's somebody who wasn’t even in the organization a month ago. So they've done a good job of collecting arms here that have some youth to ‘em and the ability with some upside. I know [Ethan Katz and Curt Hasler] are going to do everything they can to make sure that those guys have all the tools to be successful.”
Kelly echoed Lynn’s opinion about the young talent in the system and said that once the deadline is over, players should be excited to flush the first half of the season and move forward with the group they have.
“I’m sure there'll be talks [about how they’re] going to approach the rest of the season, but there's going to be some excitement for the kids coming up. But like I said, hopefully, it's a learning experience all around for everyone,” he said.
Despite the organization’s clear priority to restock the farm system over this deadline period, Hahn has been reluctant to call it a “rebuild.” He tried his best to explain the direction of the team on Tuesday after trading away Jake Burger – one of the lineup’s younger, more effective bats – in exchange for another prospect.
"We still have many impactful talents in Chicago," Hahn said Tuesday after the deadline. "We still play in a division where no one has really run away and hid in. Certainly competing for the postseason is viable in 2024."
White Sox fans have not been shy in their outrage over the “World Series or Bust” window that closed as quickly as it opened. While Hahn said he’s not concerned with “rallying cries and marketing slogans,” Giolito voiced empathy for the anxious fanbase he left behind.
"White Sox fans are a very passionate bunch," Giolito said last week. "The excitement they showed when I first came over here in the trade, welcoming me into this organization, this city, sticking with me through some very difficult times.
“I'm hoping that at some point in the future, they can have a lot more fun watching this team play well.”
In general, the notion that “fans deserve better” is a bit trivial. To root for a team is an emotional gamble, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get your heart’s worth out of the deal. It would also be trivial, though, to suggest the outrage is unwarranted given the team that was so vehemently advertised.
One thing all sports fans deserve is the right to voice their frustration in whichever direction they chose. I say this as the person who posted the Will Smith meme on social media asking if the rest of the American League Central was going to show up before the 2022 season had even begun. While that discourse was mostly just viral internet shenanigans, I took the response from fans genuinely, reflecting on why the arrogant promise of success was out of touch with a fanbase that just endured a first-round playoff exit followed by a lackluster offseason.
Like Kelly had alluded to, maybe the White Sox will use this humbling trade deadline to reflect on their failures and empty promises, too.