GLENDALE, Ariz. — One by one, the top prospects in the White Sox organization made their way to the main hallway at Camelback Ranch. They stood in front of large, iconic photos that line the hallway — memories of better times, such as DeWayne Wise’s miraculous catch during Mark Buehrle’s perfect game and El Duque’s lights-out relief appearance at Fenway Park during the 2005 NLDS and John Danks’ stellar outing during the 2008 “blackout” game.
The hallway was a perfect setting for these interviews — a link closing the sizable gap between an exciting, championship past and a promising future. After all, 2008 was the last time the White Sox made the playoffs.
“We’ve made it no secret that as part of this rebuild, we are trying to change the culture and the environment here,” general manager Rick Hahn told WGN Radio.
It’s a culture that is now more about player development, and less about winning on Opening Day. It’s an environment that stresses progress and preaches patience.
Which is why over the course of two days, four of the White Sox’s top prospects — the “Charlotte Four,” if you will — stood in front of reporters with a hint of disappointment in their faces, but a world of understanding in their voices as they discussed getting demoted to minor league camp.
“I thought I would make the team,” pitching prospect Reynaldo Lopez admitted. “It was kind of surprising when they told me I wouldn’t make the team, but I have to keep working hard.”
“I’m not disappointed at all,” Lucas Giolito, who came over with Lopez in the Adam Eaton trade, said. “I’m young. I’m 22 years old. There’s still a lot to learn. There’s still a lot to do.”
Lopez and Giolito were joined by pitcher Carson Fulmer and second baseman Yoan Moncada for their spring training “exit interviews” with reporters. The four of them will start the season together at Triple-A Charlotte, even though all four spent a short time in the majors last season.
“Getting the taste of the majors makes you hungry to want to get there and stay there,” Giolito said.
For now, the White Sox hope that hunger promotes further development in the minors, despite the excitement that exists around the league about their respective futures. Moncada is ranked as MLB.com‘s No. 2 prospect in baseball. Giolito is No. 11, Lopez is No. 46 and Fulmer is No. 71. And that’s just the first wave of prospects. Pitcher Michael Kopech is No. 16 and catcher Zach Collins is No. 81, but both will start 2017 at lower levels.
The “first four” will all have a chance to join the White Sox in Chicago this season, but Hahn is making it clear that none of them will be rushed. He had this message for all of his top prospects when he assigned them to minor league camp:
“This is a long-term process for us. Proving us ‘right’ isn’t going to happen in your next start or in your next at-bat, and it’s probably not even going to happen this year. And it certainly isn’t going to happen because one of you does something. It’s going to be because of how this group comes together.”
That’s a big reason why the four of them are going to Charlotte together, where they can develop as a group. As for Kopech, he may not be far behind, but he’ll start either in High-A or Double-A.
“We’re not going (to rush them) this year. That’s not where we’re at,” Hahn said. “We have the luxury of allowing Lucas Giolito or Kopech or Lopez or whomever develop at their own natural pace and have them come to Chicago once they’ve answered just about all the questions you had for them at the minor league level and they’re ready for the challenge at the big league level.”
So where does that leave the 2017 Chicago White Sox? Well, for the first time in a long time, “winning now” won’t be the priority on the Southside. Hahn revealed that the organization came to the conclusion in late-June of last year that it was time to rebuild.
“Jerry (Reinsdorf), Kenny (Williams) and myself had a number of honest conversations trying to be as objective as possible about where we were as a club, not only in ’16, but more importantly, what did we have going forward in 2017?”
They looked at the prospects in the organization, the cash available and the trade pieces available “to continue down this path of patchworking this thing together,” as Hahn put it. The conclusion? It was time to stop patchworking.
It wasn’t the first time the White Sox had considered a full rebuild. Hahn said they talked about it in 2007, 2010 and 2013, but it wasn’t until last summer that Reinsdorf “blessed exploring this path.”
How many games the White Sox win 2017 will likely depend on how deep the organization dives into this rebuild. For now, that starts with Jose Quintana, who threw 5.2 perfect innings Thursday in Glendale before finally giving up a hit. That performance came on the heels of six dominating innings for Columbia in the World Baseball Classic, a game Hahn wasn’t even watching until he started getting texts from rival general managers.
“I was out in my backyard smoking a cigar and occasionally checking Twitter. Then my phone started blowing up as he was dealing,” Hahn said.
Hahn continues to field phone calls about various trade possibilities, but much like the patience he is showing with his new prospects, the GM isn’t going to make a deal until his demands are met.
Of course, there’s little doubt that patience will be tested, both by Hahn and the fan base that likely won’t be watching a winner this summer.
“The fact of the matter is, we are going to be tested at some points over the course of this season and possibly and likely very well into next season as well,” Hahn said. “And by that I mean, in pro sports, we are all judged, and we judge ourselves most naturally by wins and losses at the highest level — at the big league level. Those may be a little bit scarce at times as we go through this process.”
The hope is the process leads to much bigger returns in the future. The kind that can add more iconic photos to that hallway at Camelback Ranch.