Chicago dogs: Jose Abreu latest example of how White Sox screwed up their tanking rebuild

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Credit: Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

For a clinic on baseball tanking in the modern era, look no further than Theo Epstein’s Chicago Cubs, the OG big-market tankers of 2012-14 that set the stage for the 2016 championship parade to end all championship parades.

It doesn’t forgive what is a vile process for multiple reasons — especially when the same big-market team tanks twice in a decade as the Cubs now have.

But it worked.

Now take a walk on the other side of town for just as reliable a clinic on how to screw up the easiest, least-innovative, laziest, most self-serving, job-preserving way to rebuild.

Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn — who once called the Cubs’ process a “masterfully done rebuild” — was all in on the blueprint by the time the Houston Astros followed the Cubs with their own tanking-to-the-top run in 2017, if not quite promising similar results.

“I do think perhaps it helps the fan base understand a little bit about what the process looks like, where other teams have been and the path they took to get to the ultimate goal of winning the World Series,” Hahn said during the general managers meetings in November 2017, less than a year after trading Chris Sale to the Red Sox in the Yoan Moncada-Michael Kopech deal in the initial stages of the process.

“Certainly we saw it in Chicago; many fans saw it first-hand with the Cubs,” Hahn added. “Houston’s another example. Kansas City before them. There’s certainly more and more examples in the game in the last several years that help sort of show fans a path and justification for what we’re doing.”

How’s that tank job working for you now, White Sox?

Fruits of Chicago White Sox tanking

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The Chicago White Sox are on their third manager since Hahn said those words, firing Rick Renteria after reaching the playoffs in 2020, making the foolish and ill-fated decision to hire Tony La Russa out of a decade-long retirement for two seasons of deteriorating results and now face the mortality of their competitive window up close and personal with a first-time manager (Pedro Grifol) and top-heavy, uninspiring roster.

Maybe they’ll shock the world and play deep into October this year and extend that window.

But the calls from the fan base and media already have begun over whether this team needs a reboot — or a re-reboot considering the process that got them here. And the more likely best-case scenario for this year’s team would be a division title in a flawed division and early playoff exit.

In other words, a repeat of 2020 and 2021 — which involved exactly one playoff win each year, before they fell on their faces last year despite lofty expectations. 

The latest sequence underscoring one of the most poorly executed tank jobs during baseball’s Decade of Tanking involves allowing the heart and soul of both their lineup and clubhouse — José Abreu — depart via free agency and eventually backfilling with a late-offseason signing of Andrew Benintendi.

“Sometimes when you’re at a place where maybe you’re not being respected to the point where you think you should be, you just have to go somewhere else,” Abreu told Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times during an interview last week in Florida that got emotional at times.

“It hurts,” the Houston Astros’ new first baseman told Greenberg, who described “emotion flooded across [his] face” as he spoke.

The Chicago White Sox, who supposedly remain in a win-now — if not must-win — mode, offered Abreu a two-year deal to stay, but were unwilling to go to the three-year, $58.5 million level it took for the World Series champs to land him.

But even more than the White Sox’ unwillingness to stretch to keep an All-Star core piece of their competitive puzzle in place, Abreu described a problem with the White Sox internally the last couple years:

“I think sometimes talking about the past can bring a lot of animosity, but I think the best way I can put it is just that we weren’t a real family. And I’m hoping maybe [the White Sox] can get to a situation where a lot of the guys there that do deserve to be in a good situation, they can have it there and be able to win.”

He didn’t mention La Russa by name, but it’s no secret in the Chicago sports community that the Hall of Fame manager did little to elevate the talented roster he inherited and more likely contributed to the squandering of this competitive window.

And it doesn’t all fall in Hahn’s lap — especially that part of it.

Gordon Wittenmyer, MLB expert and former beat writer for NBC Sports Chicago and the Chicago Sun-Times. Get Gordon’s latest Sportsnaut Exclusive today!

As with most businesses, it starts at the top.

Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf took the hiring process out of Hahn’s hands when it came to the team hiring Reinsdorf’s old manager from the 1980s out of retirement in a move read by most as a way to right a 35-year-old franchise wrong.

That might have been the least of the gaffes in executing the tank job that seemed to hum along perfectly through the tear-down process that netted the young core — including a 2017 trade that sent José Quintana to the Cubs for current ace Dylan Cease and dynamic slugger Eloy Jimenez.

Chicago White Sox failure to land seasoned vets

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Sam Greene via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Chicago White Sox plan as it originally was mapped out among top team officials years ago was to include the Sox versions of Cubs free agent signings Jon Lester ($155 million) and Jason Heyward ($184 million) — in other words, the critical big-ticket, championship veterans to put the process over the top and kick down that door to late-October.

Instead, Reinsdorf never loosened the pursestrings as promised, with the Sox settling for the likes of Dallas Keuchel and Yasmani Grandal for fractions of the price — and less return (even after discounting Heyward’s disappointing return for the Cubs).

Benintendi’s five-year, $75 million deal, by the way, is a new franchise record — just ahead of Grandal’s four-year, $73 million deal three years ago.

This is a team that should have been in the market for Yu Darvish, Zack Wheeler or even Gerrit Cole when they were free agents, and Xander Bogaerts or Trea Turner this winter — if they were serious about their plan, and winning.

Instead, Keuchel wound up released last year; Grandal was one of their worst 2022 performers; they didn’t have close to enough depth to compensate for injuries anywhere on the roster; they had trouble catching the ball when they were healthy; and their unwillingness to go all-in at any point of the process leaves them watching Abreu walk and top teams in the AL run laps around their competitive efforts.

Meanwhile, they didn’t fix their catching problems, their depth problems or much of their overall fielding problems over the winter.

It leaves them counting on improved team health and the upgraded glove and lefty bat of Benintendi for the difference this year between .500 and a playoff berth.

Oh, that and starter Mike Clevinger’s one-year, $12 million deal that already is said to be providing mostly buyer’s remorse within the organization, even after MLB decided not to suspend him after an investigation under the league/union joint domestic violence policy.

Maybe the commissioner’s office should turn its attention to the many ways the Chicago White Sox have screwed up their tank-job rebuild and actually work with the union in a joint effort to incentivize others to steer clear of trying the same methods again.

If Rob Manfred and his crew can install a pitch clock with as much success as they’ve shown this spring, anything’s possible, right?

Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.

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