The White Sox are rebuilding on the fly, the way Jeff Samardzija once hoped the Cubs would be able to compete now while still building an elite farm system and planning for the future.
The White Sox didn’t whiff on the international free agent they absolutely had to have (Jose Abreu). They signed their manager to a long-term extension, leaving no doubt who’s in charge (Robin Ventura). They recognized the value of clubhouse leadership and brought back a franchise icon (Paul Konerko).
The New York Yankees blew away the Cubs (and the White Sox) and grabbed Masahiro Tanaka with a seven-year, $155 million megadeal. The Cubs are on their fourth manager in the last five seasons. There’s been so much losing and roster turnover that Matt Garza made playing on the North Side sound like a prison sentence, with Samardzija up next for parole.
Samardzija vs. Abreu becomes the most interesting matchup on Monday night at Clark and Addison.
Samardzija (0-3, 1.98 ERA) grew up in Northwest Indiana, watching Ventura and Frank Thomas and going to games at Wrigley Field. He can do a good Hawk Harrelson impression. He’s joked about how much he loves pitching on the South Side, because the steel mills in the background smell like home.
Yet Samardzija appears to be the one on his way out of the Cubs-Sox rivalry, sometime before the July 31 trade deadline, while the Cuban first baseman with the six-year, $68 million contract looks like the fixture, an MVP candidate and the city’s most dynamic highlight-reel player.
The White Sox are a flawed team that lost 99 games last season, but at least they have a chance to make it interesting this summer, the valuable experience/adrenaline rush the Cubs won’t be giving Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo this year.
“If you look at where they were at the end of last year (and) see where they’re at this year, somebody’s got to get some credit over there,” Samardzija said. “They did some pretty good things. I think they probably realized that they weren’t that far away from where they want to be. Just sometimes with injuries and the way the balls bounce throughout the year, you can find yourself out of it in August.
“They still had a really good team last year. It just maybe didn’t come together for them. And now this year, you see they added a couple guys and they’re kind of right back where they expected to be.”
The White Sox are hanging around in the American League Central at 15-17. Abreu leads the majors in homers (12) and ranks second in RBIs (34). Just wait until it heats up and the balls really start flying at U.S. Cellular Field.
The 27-year-old slugger has transformed the White Sox, energizing Cuban players Alexei Ramirez (.856 OPS) and Dayan Viciedo (.913 OPS) and taking the heat off Adam Dunn (.909 OPS) and Tyler Flowers (.345 average).
“It sounds like they got a good one,” Samardzija said. “I don’t know if you’d technically qualify him as a rookie. He’s got some major competition experience. ‘Rookie’ is kind of just a label because he hasn’t played in the big leagues before.
“You always know when you pitch against the White Sox, they’re usually throwing out their pretty potent lineup. You got Dunn, Konerko, Ramirez, Viciedo and now throw Abreu in it — they definitely have some pop.”
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn interviewed with the Cubs brass for the job that went to Theo Epstein in the fall of 2011. As a graduate of New Trier High School, the University of Michigan, Harvard Law School and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Hahn was smart enough to understand how he fit into the search process.
After Hahn got promoted from assistant GM in October 2012, he downplayed the Chicago media speculation and diplomatically said of Theo-mania: “I think they were pretty singularly focused from the start.”
Last July, Hahn helped engineer the three-way trade between the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers that yielded Avisail Garcia, who’s out for the rest of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Another potential young core outfielder acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks over the winter — Adam Eaton — is on the disabled list with a strained hamstring. So much will depend on the health of Chris Sale’s left arm.
It hasn’t translated at the box office yet, because the White Sox are second-to-last in the majors in attendance, averaging 16,873 per game. The White Sox still get jealous of all the media attention the last-place Cubs (11-18) receive now.
The buzz won’t be the same as it was during the Ozzie Guillen/Lou Piniella/Carlos Zambrano/A.J. Pierzynski years, but Samardzija still gets up for the White Sox.
“It’s always exciting to get to pitch in these games,” Samardzija said. “Where we’ve been the last couple years, we’ve kind of had to circle other games on our calendars that have been big games for us. Definitely the White Sox and Cardinals games are always big. You look forward to these big games.”