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October 31, 2012

Inside The Park

What Rick Hahn's Ascension Means for the White Sox

by Bradford Doolittle

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In the midst of the World Series, the Chicago White Sox stole a sliver of spotlight for one fall afternoon with a front office shakeup that apparently actually happened a couple of weeks ago. The press release from the team announced the "promotions" of Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn, though in the former case the use of the term is questionable.

After the news hit, the White Sox held a press conference in the small auditorium where they have most of their notable events. Sports talkers in Chicago discussed the move on the radio. Bloggers weighed in en masse. The front page of the local sports sections had articles and pictures. On the national stage, the move was but a whisper relative to the Cubs' hiring of Theo Epstein last year, and by Saturday even in Chicago the whisper had faded and the spotlight had returned to the next Bears game. That's the reality of the White Sox in the local sports pecking order.

Officially, Hahn was given Williams' former titles as general manager and senior vice president of baseball operations. Williams was named executive vice president, and it's perhaps telling that he replaces no one—his job is a newly-created position overseeing "macro-level issues" regarding all facets of the White Sox operation.

As with most things related to White Sox management, the move was a long time coming. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf—whom Williams referred to as the "grand poobah"—is a doggedly loyal individual, and once a person enters the organization, it's generally for the long haul. Williams had been the team's general manager for 12 years, the fourth-longest continually active tenure in baseball. Hahn, who was one of Williams' first hires, has also been with the club for 12 years. Dan Fabian, who has assisted Hahn with contract negotiations and oversees Chicago's information management system, has been with the team for 27 years. Director of amateur scouting Doug Laumann got his first job with the Sox in 1990. Player development boss Nick Capra has been on board for 17 seasons. You get the idea.

Hahn has a tough act to follow. Williams is an iconic personality who will forever be known as the person who delivered the first World Series title in generations to Chicago, ending an 88-year championship drought in 2005. In terms of winning percentage, Williams came up just short of his predecessor, Ron Schueler, finishing six points shy of Schueler's .527 mark. Schueler also led the Sox to three postseason berths in his 12 seasons; Chicago made the playoffs twice under Williams, with late-season fades costing the team division titles in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2012.

But that World Series title is what will be most remembered from Williams' tenure, and that's the legacy that Hahn has to live up to. The extent to which that is fair is debatable. No one really knows who does what in a team's front office, but with Hahn annually ranking at the top of "best GM candidate in the game" listings and fielding a number of overtures from other teams, his leverage meant that recent White Sox teams in particular bore his stamp. The biggest difference now for Hahn may be that instead of being the quiet guy standing at the end of the dugout, he's now going to be the guy whom everyone bearing a camera, microphone, or recorder chases after every time he makes an appearance. Hahn is now the face of the franchise.

For years that title was a wrestling match between Williams and former, and now unemployed, manager Ozzie Guillen. Chicago obviously has had a lot of good players over the years, and by virtue of seniority and production, Paul Konerko has evolved into a kind of patriarch in the White Sox clubhouse. Respected as he is, Konerko is a low-key person prone to take the high road of a good company man. Diehard White Sox fans love him, but it's debatable just how much of a box office draw Konerko is. The same can be said of most the other players in the clubhouse, notably the more colorful A.J. Pierzynski, who is hitting free agency off a career season at age 35 that may price him out of a White Sox uniform. If Pierzynski leaves, Konerko will be the last man standing from the title team, but he just doesn't have the personality of franchise face.

Williams says that promoting Hahn was his idea, and he had some interesting comments about the changes in front office structures across baseball, saying, "I just thought there was a better and different structure. And the traditional sense of the way baseball departments, particularly, have been set up in the league, I think because of all the demands that are there now, it's tough. I think different structures is the most prudent way to do it."

Williams is likely referring to the think-tank management set-up that is becoming increasingly pervasive across sports. A CEO-like executive oversees a staff of experts that specialize in one or two facets of a team's operation, sets the keynote for the organization, and maintains the power of veto over everything. The day-to-day work is largely left to others, and whereas executives worried about job security might have once shied away from seeking the best and the brightest, now there is a mad scramble for well-trained, innovative thinkers. The former success of the Red Sox probably kicked this evolution into high gear, and it could be the brain drain in Boston's front office that explains the recent struggles there as well as anything else.

Boston product Theo Epstein has set out to set up the latest cutting-edge think tank on Chicago's North Side, and it's perhaps the competition with Ivy League-educated competitors that finally convinced Williams to seek a new way. Hahn fits that bill, though he's not likely to stir the hearts of Chicago's lady-folk the way Theo did in Boston. Hahn is a native of Chicago's ritzy northern suburbs (he lives in the area in which Joel Goodson resided in "Risky Business") and has post-graduate degrees from Harvard Law School and Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of management. Williams' dossier upon being hired by the White Sox was basically built upon the fact that he played in the major leagues.

Hahn himself alluded to the shift in thinking among baseball's establishment in an interesting chat with CSN Chicago's Chuck Garfien. He reminisced about first haranguing Reinsdorf for a job in 1996:

"When I walked into his office, (Reinsdorf) was facing the other way. Using some direct and mildly colorful language, he told me that I was wasting his time. I've got all this education, and why do I want to work as a general manager? He said, 'Just go do something real with your life.' I was able to sort of calm him down after I got over the fact that Jerry Reinsdorf is kind of cursing me out here, which is kind of weird."

Eventually, Reinsdorf sent him a letter, which Hahn framed and has hanging on the wall of his office, and he recounted from memory:

"'I've thought long and hard about our meeting and I won't help you ruin your life. Please lie down before you come to your senses.' After I got over the stunned element of that, I saw at the bottom he said, 'However, if you want to learn about scouting, my offer to let you sit with some of our scouts still stands while you hold down a real job.'"

There is debate about how much autonomy Hahn will have going forward. He inherits the exact same substructure he was a part of as assistant GM, and Williams is still lurking down the hall. In the team's press release announcement, Reinsdorf said, "Kenny raised the idea of promoting Rick several years ago, and we all have agreed that this is the right time to increase the scope and range of Kenny's involvement while he continues to maintain oversight and final approval on major baseball decisions."

On the same topic, Williams said, "The way I look at it is it's Rick's decision until it's not. And when it's not, we have to get in, we have to hammer it out. Just like any corporation, any of your jobs."

How is that going to work? And is it any different than they way other teams run their operation? Hahn noted that the assurance of authority was high up on his list of conditions for accepting the job, and he obviously felt comfortable with the parameters he was given. On the subject of front office structure, Hahn said, "With all due respect to Kenny (Williams), John Schuerholz, any great general manager that sat in this chair before, there's probably a spectrum of 12 abilities or attributes or skills that you need to operate well in this chair.

"On the one end you have the ability to evaluate talent and be involved with the player development side and on the other side, the objective analysis, the data handling, the contracts. Any good general manager needs a facility with all 12, but to be really good you need to know where your strengths and weaknesses lie and surround yourself with good people to fill those voids."

Readers of this site will be no doubt be intrigued by Hahn's reputation as the White Sox's "numbers guy"—a moniker he earned even while the organization as a whole has been perceived to be behind the times when it comes to the integration of modern analysis in the team's decision-making processes. It's a topic that Hahn addressed head-on at last winter's SoxFest, saying that he gets a kick out of the notion that the White Sox ignore sabermetrics and adding, "90 percent of teams are using the same info. We've done well in things like pitcher health and the bullpen."

Hahn does not have a playing background, though his work on the scouting side of the operation has helped him forge a good rapport with the organization's scouting and development staff. Williams rose to prominence because of a reputation of solid player evaluation and will focus more on that area in his new role. What Hahn's ascension might mean more than anything will be a subtle shift of emphasis. Whereas Williams' gut might have told have led him one direction in the past, Hahn's analysis might now lead in a different direction.

That change in emphasis could be put to the test over the winter. Under first-year manager Robin Ventura, the overachieving White Sox led the AL Central for most of the season, with the pitching staff being propped up by almost daily shuffling of pieces back and forth from the minors. That combined with an offense dominated by veterans enjoying better-than-expected seasons to keep Chicago in contention. However, it's a difficult formula to repeat. Adam Dunn's wildly disparate recent performance is a wild card. So is that of Alex Rios, of whom you never know quite what to expect from season to season. Even Konerko may have shown some inevitable signs of aging, with a post-All-Star slash line of .270/.332/.402.

Hahn started his tenure with swift decisions on four key team options. Those belonged to Jake Peavy ($22 million with a $4 million buyout), Brett Myers ($10 million, $3 million buyout), Kevin Youkilis ($13 million, $1 million buyout) and Gavin Floyd ($9.5 million). If all of those options had been picked up, the White Sox would have had about $119.3 million on the books for just 11 players. If none of them had been picked up, Chicago would have been on the hook for $82.3 million for seven players after the buyouts.

Hahn had a tough path to navigate, but he took care of it all on Tuesday, leaving him the rest of the offseason to shape the remainder of the roster. Peavy agreed to a two-year, $29 million extension that will bleed into a third year if certain inning thresholds are reached. The buyout will be spread over future payments from 2016 to 2019. Floyd's option was picked up, while those of Myers and Youkilis were declined. After the dust cleared, the 2013 payroll featured a commitment of $98.5 for nine players. Hahn has already stated that Chicago's 2013 payroll will remain in the neighborhood of $97-$100 million, where it was in the season just completed. Right now, it's a mystery how he's going to keep it at that level.

Hahn also said that that level of payroll is enough to compete in the AL Central, and he's right about that. However for that level of investment to work, the big-money players have to offer production commensurate with their compensation. Last season, that more or less worked out for Dunn and Rios. Counting on that happening again in 2013 might be an iffy proposition, but with limited funds to improve the club from outside, Hahn has little choice but to go that route.

Compounding the problem are the attendance issues that continue to plague the White Sox. Despite Chicago's status as a contender in 2012, it failed to break two million in attendance for the first time in eight years, the season before the World Series title. Through September, the White Sox were routinely out-drawn by the 100-loss Cubs.

"(I) talked about trying to get to a level where we were getting the type of fan energy here in the ballpark like they do in Boston, like they do in New York, like they do in California stadiums," Williams said, referring to one of his new areas of focus. "And for a while we were getting that, but fell off again."

The attendance problems will only get worse if Hahn can't keep the team at a competitive level, which is no given considering its aging and inconsistent core and lack of resources to upgrade. It's both a tremendous challenge and a tremendous opportunity for Hahn, who has been angling for the spotlight for a long time now. His path is one that should serve as an inspiration to any ambitious reader out there who aspires to follow in his footsteps.

“Baseball has always been special to me, and once it became apparent that for whatever genetic reasons I wasn't going to be able to play in the big leagues, my focus changed to playing an impactful role and bringing a championship, ideally, to Chicago," Hahn said. "Quite frankly, when I first joined the organization, I didn't expect to be sitting in this chair. I think it's probably healthy to not aspire to your boss' job, and it was something that we had talked about in the last couple of years that became more realistic. One day, perhaps I'm sitting in another city having a similar conversation, but right now, I can't imagine it being as special to me as being here, having a chance to win for White Sox fans and for Chicago where I grew up."

In many ways, Hahn's ascension is a victory for competence over connections and proof that you don't have to hit the genetic lottery to reach baseball's highest levels of management. However, the gambling, go-for-broke nature of the Williams-Guillen era will be missed from a personality standpoint, and for a franchise struggling for cachet in the marketplace on both the local and national levels, that's no small consideration. For all the lows during that era, the highs were worth all the nonsense.

Hahn's challenge will be to establish a new era of rationality in the White Sox front office while hoping that approach plays well to a fickle fan base. He'll have to work fast, with a winter approaching that could be very long or very exciting. And Hahn has to hope that with his former boss still his current boss, he'll get a legitimate chance to bring some fresh ideas into a well-established organizational culture.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bradford's other articles. You can contact Bradford by clicking here

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