White Sox general manager Rick Hahn

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Spiegel: White Sox Rebuild Makes A Sound, Even If No One Is There To Hear It

Context is crucial amid the ugliest stage of the rebuild.

Matt Spiegel
April 26, 2018 - 11:13 am
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By Matt Spiegel--

(670 The Score) Not everyone is going to love you. You’ve come to terms with this. But not everyone is going to even like you. And among those who like you, some people may just be too busy to come visit. They may be too poor to reload their Ventra card or pay for parking. Hell, some people may be too lazy. Have you seen the options on television at your own home lately?    

So don’t fret, Chicago White Sox organization. I'm here to answer some age-old questions. A tree falling in the forest does indeed make a sound, even if no one is there to hear it.

And a rebuild is still a rebuild, even if no one comes to watch it.

Thursday was a beautiful day to be at the ballpark. I was angry that the press box windows were closed. It was comfortable in the sun for James Shields’ first pitch to the Mariners at 1:10 p.m. Then, when Yoan Moncada led off the bottom of the first with his fifth home run on the first pitch from King Felix Hernandez, I tweeted this picture:

This wasn’t meant to evoke the emptiness of the stadium, nor elicit tired unending jokes about attendance, but of course it did. 

It’d be a lot cleaner and more pertinent to discuss the arc of this White Sox rebuild if these optics could just be disregarded. Maybe context will help.

2018 isn't when the eyeballs are expected. Yes, a lot of people thought the team had a chance to be better, maybe even a surprise contender, and thereby more watchable than this group that has started 5-16. The first few weeks have been dispiriting in that regard. But look to the recent past to remind yourself of how low it can -- and perhaps must -- go.

This is the second year of intentional, transparent White Sox tanking. If MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is reading, I like to call it "not prioritizing winning on the major league level." Also, Rob, if you’re here, fix the blackout restrictions, shorten the season to 154 games using the Dan O’Dowd plan and please apologize to Marlins fans.  

Jeff Luhnow left the Cardinals front office and started the Houston Astros’ ambitious rebuild project in December 2011. In their second year (2013) of "not prioritizing winning on the major league level," Houston was 27th among 30 teams in MLB attendance. In 2014, the Astros were 26th.

No one was watching them on local TV either. And I do mean no one. A week into that third rebuilding season, on April 9, 2014, they made ignominious local television history, as Sports Illustrated explained at the time

According to Nielsen Company ratings, the Astros' Monday afternoon game against the Angels, aired on Comcast SportsNet Houston, received a 0.0 rating in the Houston area. In other words, not one of the 579 TV set-top meters set up by Nielsen in the city to measure local ratings was tuned to the game, a 9-1 Houston loss. Ratings-wise, the game lost to its own pregame show, which got a 0.2, or roughly 4,600 viewers.

Man. More people watched the pregame show than the game itself. Maybe Steve Sparks and Geoff Blum were really good in the studio that day? (Yes, I looked up who the pregame hosts were. I have some time on my hands.)

Luhnow’s Astros took longer to compete than Rick Hahn wants for this White Sox mission. The lessons aren't in the exact timeline, but in ... wait for it ... the process. Yes, the process for Hahn and the White Sox got jump-started by the trades of the last 18 months, but 2019 is still realistically the season in which success would feel like it’s happening in a "bonus year." 2020 is when a losing season and a horrifically empty ballpark would first feel like true disappointment.

In 2014, Joe Altuve probably had room to feel just as unsupported as Jose Abreu does right now. Houston was coming off three straight seasons of winning fewer than 60 games. The ballpark was empty. The Astros’ version of James Shields was Scott Feldman.  Still, rookie George Springer was showing great promise just as Yoan Moncada is now.   

Patience and perseverance was demanded of Altuve, Springer, Dallas Keuchel and Marwin Gonzalez. Their attitudes and makeup are what defined their everyday routines then, just as it is what must define these White Sox. Those attributes will last and enable improvement, until the roster is more full of the kind of talent they deserve to play with. 

When Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert patrol the outfield behind Moncada and Tim Anderson up the middle, it will feel different at this ballpark. Hell, the four of them could shoot the breeze as Michael Kopech strikes out a dozen and doesn’t let the ball get put into play.

And as the White Sox win, there will be fans in the stands. The 2015 Astros were 22nd in attendance and made the playoffs. In 2016, crowds jumped to17th, and they saw an above-.500 team again. And of course, Houston won 101 games, ranked 15th with an average of 29,000 fans per game and won the World Series last year.

These comparisons are pointed out to help keep the focus for White Sox fans where it should be.

Moncada looks absolutely terrific. Robinson Cano saw him play for the first time this week and gushed about how Moncada will become a superstar. I don’t disagree.

Jimenez is healthy, just hit two homers for Double-A Birmingham and should be bound for Triple-A Charlotte soon. I bet he’s in Chicago by August.

Carlos Rodon feels recovered from shoulder surgery and hopes to return to the big league rotation in late May.

Robert is in Chicago now for further examination on his injured thumb and could be back playing at extended spring training by May. It will be fun to follow him as he tears through the system over the next two years.

Kopech has struck out 29 in 21 innings over four starts at Triple-A. He's clearly ready for the challenge of the big leagues. Sensibly, the White Sox will probably wait until the first week of June to bring him up so he clears Super Two status, extending their salary control by one year.

The dugout will progressively be filled, one by one, with worthy teammates.

One of the best stories to come to my attention via the Astros title run was two years old. Altuve had played with 2012 No. 1 overall draft pick Carlos Correa in spring training in 2014 and 2015 in Kissimmee, Florida. Altuve realized what kind of player and person the young Correa was. Correa was sent to minor league camp, then on to Triple-A Fresno. Altuve knew his future double play partner was coming, eventually, and he visualized their future partnership. For two months in 2015, Altuve had Correa’s name written on a piece of athletic tape, affixed above an empty locker near his own.

"I wanted him here," Altuve said. "I was saving his locker."

On June 8 of that season, Correa made his MLB debut, right here in Chicago at then-U.S. Cellular Field, going 1-for-4 with an RBI single off of ace Chris Sale. The next night, he stole a base and homered on his way to winning Rookie of the Month and Rookie of the Year. The Astros won the wild-card game, lost in the American League Divisional Series and you know the rest.

Maybe in April 2020, it’s Jimenez, having just played next to Robert for the third straight spring, writing "LuBob" on athletic tape atop an empty locker. He knows the center fielder to play next to him for the next five years is on his way, and the team may need him in the postseason that fall. This image dovetails nicely with the fact that I believe Robert could become the best of all the young White Sox. The fluidity of his every baseball movement was striking this March, as was the potential power in his frame.

So if you notice the bad visuals of an empty ballpark, skip the jokes. Think of the players, the goals and the context.

The White Sox rebuild is making plenty of noise.

Follow Matt Spiegel on Twitter @MattSpiegel670.