It was back on June 7 that Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn first was asked about the possibility of a summer sell-off.
“I really hope I don’t have to sit here in six weeks and eat these words,” he said. “But I don’t foresee us being in sell mode come the (trade) deadline, even with the (poor) run differential.”
A couple of weeks remain before that deadline, but it appears as though the upcoming stretch of games against American League Central rivals will decide whether Hahn needs to make a tough call on the team’s direction.
Monday’s opener of a three-game series against the division-leading Minnesota Twins kicked off the 15-game, eat-or-not-eat stretch, bringing a renewed sense of urgency to the clubhouse.
“The approach is the same,” manager Tony La Russa said before the game. “We’ve known we’re going to finish the last two weeks (before the All-Star break) in our division, seven games against the first-place team, so we’re excited.
“It’s as close as we’ve been as a unit being competitive. It’s the most fun you can have. And they’re good.”
The Twins are indeed good but far from great.
They came into the series with a 45-37 record, 4½ games ahead of the third-place Sox. But they were 18-21 since May 25, failing to take advantage of the Sox’s mediocrity and put some space between them and their most serious rival.
Still, the Twins swept the Sox in three games in Minnesota in mid-April and can separate themselves by the All-Star break if they continue to have Team La Russa’s number.
And if that happens, Hahn might have to rethink this season and dump some unproductive salaries or soon-to-be free agents and try to regroup for 2023.
“I’m not a GM,” closer Liam Hendriks said Monday. “I can’t speculate on what their plans are. But if we go through a tough stretch in these next couple weeks and we’re looking at the possibility of (being) 10 games back in the division, and that’s also out of the wild card …
“There’s a lot of different things that come into it. Obviously we’re not thinking along those lines yet just due to the fact we know we’re in that stage now where this is the make-or-break stage. These (are) the make-or-break games coming through the system now.
“We’ve got what? The Twins, Detroit, Cleveland (and) Twins the rest of the time before the All-Star break? This is a real crunch time for us to make sure we have everything firing and (see) if we can claw our way back. Because if don’t and we struggle a little bit in these next couple of weeks, all of a sudden that kind of division lead looks insurmountable to get back (from).
“We don’t doubt that we can, but it makes it a lot harder and we have to rely on other teams to take care of them as well. And that’s something we don’t want to do.”
The Sox haven’t been in sell mode for quite a while, and it’s unclear which players would be dangled if they fall off the cliff before the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
Pitchers Johnny Cueto — who started Monday and allowed two runs on five hits in six innings — and Vince Velasquez are free agents after the season. But neither would bring back much in return and would be mostly salary dumps.
First baseman José Abreu also is eligible for free agency in November, but the Sox would be reluctant to part with a mainstay of the organization who once said: “If the White Sox don’t sign me, I’ll sign myself.” Abreu is likely here until he retires.
Catcher Yasmani Grandal is owed $18.25 million in 2023 and could be expendable if the Sox are out of contention and some team is willing to gamble he’s healthy. Pitcher Lucas Giolito won’t be a free agent until after 2023, but if the Sox don’t think they can re-sign him, they could begin shopping him around to see his value.
It’s not a scenario Hahn wants to contemplate. And if the Sox start winning, he won’t need to.
But they need to show some urgency if they hope to stop the speculation before it begins. Outfielder Adam Engel, who returned from the injured list Monday along with Hendriks, insisted “urgency” is a “buzzword” created by those outside the clubhouse.
“This team is going to be a really, really good, scary team when we’re all there,” he said. “That’s what we’re all excited for, and to say that we’re more urgent than we were prior (to now), I don’t think would be the right phrasing for it.”
Maybe, but it’s not scary yet. And Engel might not know much about Sox history. This is the organization that invented the term “White Flag Trade” in 1997 when Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf gave up on the season at the trade deadline despite the Sox trailing Cleveland by only 3½ games.
It was Reinsdorf’s call to hire La Russa, and he’ll be the one deciding whether it’s worth the money to become a buyer at the trade deadline for a team that has yet to prove it can win consistently, in spite of its talent.
Will Hahn have to eat his words? And are they empty calories?
It’s going to be an interesting two weeks for everyone involved.