TORONTO -- The Blue Jays say Paul Beeston will remain as team president through the end of this season.
Rogers Communications, which owns the team, announced Monday that Beeston signed a contract extension with the club and plans to retire at the end of the season.
Beeston's contract expired in October. Toronto had made overtures to Baltimore's Dan Duquette and Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox.
Toronto chairman Edward Rogers said the team had been in discussions about Beeston's future since his contract ended.
"There were many rumors flying about, but it would have been inappropriate to comment on such matters publicly," Rogers said. "Make no mistake -- we are elated to have Paul continue to lead the team for this season."
The announcement said the successor to the 69-year-old will start when Beeston retires.
"We will not be commenting on the succession process or timing," Rogers said.
The first employee hired by the Blue Jays in May 1976, Beeston became vice president of business operations in 1977, executive vice president of business in 1984 and president and chief operating officer in 1989. He was promoted to chief executive officer in 1991 and held that position until 1997, when he quit to become the COO of Major League Baseball, a role he held until 2002.
He returned to the Blue Jays in October 2008 as interim CEO, and Toronto took off the interim tag a year later.
Toronto has not made the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1992 and '93 and is the only Major League Baseball team this century to not reach the postseason.
"Strategically, the big thing we're saying internally is, 'One more game,' " said Boyer, the team's senior vice president of sales and marketing, at SoxFest over the weekend. "How do we get people to attend one more game?"
Attendance is always an issue at White Sox games, as the team tries to reverse an eight-year slide that has seen their average attendance decrease by 42.7 percent.
To get 2005 World Series tickets, fans who didn't have season plans had to purchase a one-year plan for 2006. Every year since, the Sox have drawn fewer people compared to the year before.
Boyer, who has been with the team since coming over from the Bulls in 2004, promises that trend will end this season.
"As we stand right now, our season-ticket base is higher than it was at the end of last year," Boyer said.
When asked for specifics, Boyer smiled and said, "Higher."
Considered one of the most disappointing parts of last season, when the White Sox went 73-89 and finished 17 games back in the division, the bullpen had the second worst ERA in the American League at 4.38 and its 21 blown saves were nine more than the Royals and Mariners, who tied for the lead in that category.
But with Nate Jones out for the season with a back and then elbow issue, and Matt Lindstrom unable to close for most of the year, other pitchers were asked to step up and fill the void. Sure, having so many relievers working outside of their typical roles is what led to the struggles, but two pitchers were still able to prove their value moving forward.
Both Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam performed well in a closer-by-committee situation and both will be highly regarded once spring training starts. Free-agent acquisition David Robertson will be the closer, of course, but Petricka and Putnam are solidly in the set-up man mix.
“They were forced to grow,” pitching coach Don Cooper said. “We didn’t know who was pitching the ninth, and then we have injuries to Lindstrom, to Jones. The good news is other guys get opportunities for that and both those guys, I think, handled their opportunities as well as we would have hoped to where now, hey, we can expect a little bit from them.”
Petricka impressed with a 2.96 ERA over 73 innings (67 appearances) and his 14 saves led the club. In that sense, as a rare positive performer from the bullpen it has been hard to hear all the bullpen criticism.
To his credit, though, Petricka isn’t asking those critics to lay off, the analysis of the bullpen’s performance has gotten him to look at himself.
“Yeah, (criticism hurts) a little bit, but at the same time we realized we could have improved,” Petricka said from SoxFest this weekend. “There was a lot that I could have done to make us better. That’s just every year where you have something to work on and you can’t turn away from what you have to work on.
There are the losses he took in six games, and even though he isn’t known as a strikeout pitcher, his 6.7 strikeout-per-nine-inning rate could use some improvement. Those areas, along with the chance to have a second consecutive positive season, have him yearning for spring training to arrive.
“Let’s back that up with another real good year and as far as I’m concerned as a coach, you’re ready to have the career you dreamed about,” Cooper said about both Petricka and Putnam. “Everybody dreams about playing in the big leagues and they got here and they’re doing it. But their dream wasn’t to do it for a year and see you later. Their dream was to have long-term success. That’s my dream as well.”
Selfishly, Petricka hopes to get more closing chances in 2015, but he isn’t complaining about the addition of closer David Robertson, not to mention new left-handers Dan Jennings and Zach Duke.
“Oh yeah, it’s always fun to compete for that kind of job, but a guy like (Robertson), you can’t go wrong,” Petricka said. “I’m just going to do the best I can in the role I am this year and just be ready. You never know what can happen, and sometimes those earlier innings are just as important.”
There is always the battle for the set-up role to look forward to, and with the season he produced in 2014 he has the confidence to make the job his.
“That was a very exciting time,” he said about pitching well in 2014. “You never want the injuries (of teammates), but they’re going to happen whatever team you’re on so you just have to take the opportunity to make the most of it and I feel I did a good job of that. It was just a big confidence-building year. No matter what role I went out there, I held my own and coming into this year knowing my role will be important, it will help a lot.”
CHICAGO -- While Chicago White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia says he lost an undetermined amount of weight this winter, Conor Gillaspie was happy to admit he has gone in the opposite direction.
Thanks to an offseason weight conditioning program, Gillaspie estimates he has gained between 15 and 20 pounds of muscle, which should translate into driving the ball harder.
At face value, it sounds as if Gillaspie is striving to become more of a power-hitting third baseman, but it isn’t as simple as that.
“Honestly I’m hoping that by taking the same swing that I did last year, because I’m stronger, I’m hoping that translates into more power,” Gillaspie said from SoxFest. “It may or may not. We have enough guys that do hit for power on this team now. There are quite a few of them, so truthfully, I think I might be just as valuable getting on base, drawing walks, moving runners.”
The vibe around SoxFest this weekend was that for all the upgrades the White Sox did make, question marks still remain at third base and catcher. The reality is that only so many upgrades can be made in a single offseason.
The White Sox feel that if Gillaspie can continue the growth he started in the 2014 season, including advancements on defense, he can give the club plenty to win with. The same goes for catcher Tyler Flowers, who was much better offensively in the second half last season.
While strength can help Gillaspie improve on numbers like his seven home runs and .416 slugging percentage from last year, he could also use some stamina to help him get through the long season. Gillaspie played at least 130 games for the second consecutive season, but his final two months were a shell of what he did through the end of July.
After a three-hit game at Detroit on July 29, Gillaspie was hitting .327, and was among the top 10 batting leaders in the American League. In addition, he had a .467 slugging percentage after that game.
From Aug. 1 to the end of the season, though, Gillaspie batted just .208 with a .333 slugging percentage.
Still, the resounding consensus when it came to his season was that he showed significant growth, with plenty of areas of improvement available. Gillaspie has been keenly focused on those areas of improvement.
“At the end of your season, you have to look yourself in the eye and just figure out, OK, what did I like, what did I dislike and you have to be honest with yourself,” Gillaspie said. “There are quite a few things I disliked about last year, about myself, about the way I acted, about my attitude, about my confidence. It showed sometimes. But at the end of the day... I feel like I have been open about that and looked in the mirror and said ‘What can I do to fix it?’”
Clearly, Gillaspie is his own toughest critic. Improved confidence was Gillaspie’s goal when spring training started and the first four months of 2014 let him know the power of a positive frame of mind. The added strength will give him an edge of confidence as well.
“I worked really hard to allow myself, with a 2-0, 3-1 count, to drive a couple more balls,” he said. “It’s not that (home-run power) really matters with the lineup we have, but that’s what I wanted to work on so I have and I want to keep working on it. As long as you have put in every ounce of effort you can into your job, at the end of the day if you’re not there anymore and something doesn’t happen the way it’s supposed to be, then you know what that’s just the way it’s supposed to be and you move on.”
His realist view also applies to his new upper body strength. As a line-drive hitter, his new power doesn’t have to show up in how many balls he hits over the fence. It can show in how many more gaps he can reach or how many line drives or ground balls he can get just out of the reach of infielders.
“You can only slug your way up and down the lineup so many times,” Gillaspie said. “When it’s a one- or two-run lead, and you need something done, it is important to have somebody that, ‘All right, I know we do have some unbelievable hitters. Who do I know will do this for us to score that run?’ There is always a guy on every club that has to be able to do that. I do take pride in doing things right and I look forward to hopefully getting more opportunities to contribute.”
There was no crosstown rivalry Saturday, as before each panel discussion tributes were made toward the Hall of Famer.
During a mid-morning panel discussion featuring members of the club's 2005 World Series championship team, radio broadcaster Ed Farmer offered his own tribute to Banks, whom he called a friend. The packed house followed with a round of applause.
"When you talk about Ernie, you have to smile," White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said. "He was always in a great mood. I never heard him complain about anything. He was always upbeat. He always had a wisecrack. I know he was Mr. Cub, but he was really Mr. Baseball. He was really a great, great ambassador for the game."
White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone, who pitched three seasons for the Cubs in the 1970s and was a former Cubs broadcaster as well, also remembered Banks fondly.
"I've never heard anybody say, 'I don’t like Ernie Banks,'" Stone said. "It's like saying you don't like Santa Claus. How can you not like Ernie Banks? He was one of the most lovable human beings that our game has ever produced, and he never lost that child-like enthusiasm."
Banks' positive disposition eclipsed his production on the field, a monumental achievement considering that he hit 512 home runs and had a career .500 slugging percentage.
"I don't believe you're going to remember the home runs; I think he hit 512 of them," Stone said. "You're not going to remember the fact that he was a Hall of Famer because that was obvious to anybody who watched him play.
"I think what everybody is going to remember about Ernie was the enthusiasm he brought to each and every day; the positive attitude that he always had and the lesson in like he taught anybody who cared to listen to him, which was you don't have last season, you don't have last week, you don't have yesterday, you have to look ahead and see what tomorrow brings and tomorrow is going to be a great day."
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, who grew up in the northern suburbs, said Banks meant as much to baseball as he did to the Cubs.
"Growing up, I probably met him more as a kid and outside of baseball," Hahn said. "I spent a little time with him from time to time during Cubs-Sox series. He was just a tremendous ambassador for the game, for the city. His enthusiasm and his passion for baseball is going to be missed. It’s a big loss."
White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton offered his condolences.
"[He was a] Hall of Famer. You look at the statistics that he put up," Eaton said. "And as a person, it seemed like he was top notch. On and off the field, he did it the right way. It's a sad day for baseball, and definitely here in Chicago for South Siders and North Siders alike. He'll be missed for sure."
Rodon not only met pitching coach Don Cooper for the first time Thursday, he threw an indoor bullpen session at U.S. Cellular Field in order to help the two get more acquainted on a business level.
“I spoke with him over the phone a couple of times this offseason and I finally got to meet him, and we worked on it,” Rodon said. “We threw a pen and we got to talking about some things. He’s a great guy.”
The White Sox say they still have not made a decision if Rodon will be targeted toward the major league rotation or the bullpen, but when spring training begins the left-hander will be stretched out as a starter.
It would be easier to move from starter to reliever than the other way around, so it keeps the team’s options opened. To his credit, Rodon isn’t saying what he prefers, he just wants to help.
“Yeah, I’m willing to do whatever,” he said. “I’m just there, they tell me what to do, I show up and I pitch. That’s the way I look at it.”
A year ago Rodon was attending classes at North Carolina State and was just getting started on his senior season. The White Sox made him a first-round pick in the June first-year player draft. He was the third overall selection.
There was even talk that he could be in the major leagues in September, an expedited path that Chris Sale took, but the White Sox eventually nixed that plan.
“You know, that wasn’t up to me,” Rodon said. “The decision was up to them, and I guess they made the right decision. I got some time off, I needed some time off. It would have been nice to be in the big leagues, but it just didn’t happen. It didn’t work out that way.”
He will have his challenges making the team out of spring training. The White Sox look set with a starting rotation of Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija, Jose Quintana, John Danks and Hector Noesi. The bullpen also has two left-handers in Zach Duke and Dan Jennings.
At this point, the odds are strong that Rodon starts the season as a starter at Triple-A Charlotte, remaining just a phone call away if needed.
“He’ll come to spring training and work with all the other starters,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “Whether we adjust that midway through, as far as limiting the length of his outings and then putting them closer together to prepare for a bullpen role, is something we’ll discuss in Glendale (Ariz.).
“Ultimately, we view Carlos Rodon as a member of our rotation. But how he gets there, whether it’s through making starts in the minors and then joining the rotation in Chicago or a stint in the bullpen similar to Chris Sale of Mark Buehrle from previously, we’ll decide in March of April.”
Cooper is in agreement with Hahn.
"We didn’t draft this guy third in the nation to be a reliever," Cooper said. "At some point he’s going to be a starter. We haven’t discussed when is that point. Right now, he’s going to come to spring training, show us what he can do and he’s going to give us all the information we need."
When spring training starts, Rodon will set his sights on the making the major league team, naturally, but he is aware of an important step in that process.
“I’m just here to get better, here to listen, and whatever they have in store for me, obviously I have to do what they say,” he said.
General manager Rick Hahn announced to a packed house during his panel session early Saturday that Vince Coleman will join the coaching staff as a roving base-running instructor. He will be on a one-year contract and will spend time on the major league level as well as in the minor leagues.
“In the offseason we identified wanting to have someone with some base-stealing acumen, and obviously with tremendous credentials like Vince has it’s a means to augment our coaching staff and help draw out a little more from certain players,” Hahn said. “I think a fan asked about Adam Eaton. Certainly, that’s one. And Micah Johnson, wherever Micah Johnson is (playing), he’ll be working with him as well. It’s a real good get in terms of rounding out some of our staff.”
Coleman was the National League rookie of the year in 1985 and a two-time All-Star as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. He stole at least 100 bases in each of his first three seasons, including 110 in 1985, which is a major league rookie record and the ninth-most in a season all-time. He stole 752 career bases.
“Without (Coleman), I was looking at 40 (steals); that's my goal, I want to get back on track and get 40,” said Eaton, who had just 15 steals in 2014 and was caught nine times. “With him, I'm hoping to have more. It's definitely something I've worked on all offseason. I've worked on my quickness and being more efficient, just from my standpoint of what I needed to work on and getting in shape in that matter. I'm excited to work with him and what he has to offer.”
White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams has a relationship with Coleman and was instrumental in bringing him to the club.
“Doug Sisson does a great job in the minor leagues; he works with our outfielders and our baserunners,” Hahn said. “(First-base coach Daryl Boston) spends some time with the base runners in Chicago and has done a good job with it.
“It’s just a matter of bringing in another voice and someone who obviously has base stealing as a big element of their game, not just baserunning. It’s a different approach, element and voice he brings, and everyone is excited about it.”
The 52-year-old Coleman served as a baserunning instructor for the Houston Astros the previous two years. He was an instructor for the Chicago Cubs in 2004 and 2005.
Adam Eaton made such a stir last season, his first in a White Sox uniform, that fans and former players stood up and took notice.
Rowand and Eaton actually met in spring training last year and their chat started what has become a solid friendship.
“I had the ability to sit and watch him play all year long and go out and do the things he said he wanted to do,” Rowand said. “He plays the game right. He has the right approach. He studies guys. He’s a workhorse in the film room, the batting cage and he does things the way that they should be done to have success, and he’s going to have a lot of it.”
That respect goes both ways. It might make the 37-year-old Rowand feel even older, but Eaton said that even as a Cleveland Indians fan growing up, he still had tons or respect for White Sox players like Rowand and Scott Podsednik. But Eaton was still largely a Kenny Lofton guy.
“I was one of those guys that said, ‘Man, I want to be just like them. I want to be the guy who plays the game the right way, that the fan base really falls in love with,’” Eaton said. “The fans really knew them because of the way they played. They may not go, ‘You had a hit there, you didn’t have a hit there,’ it’s like, ‘Dude, I love the way you play the game, you play the game hard.’ So, just growing up, you knew that those guys had that aura about them.”
Even from their first meeting last year in Arizona, Eaton was seeking advice from the last White Sox center fielder to win a World Series.
“We talked last year in the outfield, talking about jumps, talking about outfield stuff, hitting,” Rowand said. “If he ever needed anything, he knows he can call me at any time and I would be there for him.”
And during the season, Rowand was quick to offer constructive criticism via text, like that day Eaton ran into the fence in right-center field at full speed chasing a ball that was well into the stands for a home run. He missed the next few games with a back injury.
“He sent me a text and said, ‘Hey, five rows deep, you just go shut it down. You don’t have to worry about that,’” Eaton said with a laugh. “And right after that he said, ‘But I don’t care. You play the game hard. You play the game the right way, and I love the way you play.’ Coming from him it’s a blessing, because he’s a guy that I worshiped when I was younger.”
Rowand said it didn’t take long last year before he was calling Eaton his favorite player.
“He goes out there and lays it on the line every day for the team to win, and that’s what being a baseball player is all about,” Rowand said. “For me, that was something I tried to do my entire career, and to see a guy go out there and try to do that, it’s not that difficult to see why he’s my favorite player.”
Traded less than a month after the 2005 World Series to the Philadelphia Phillies as part of a deal for Jim Thome, Rowand, one of the key figures of that Chicago White Sox title team, said he's been to U.S. Cellular Field only once sans uniform.
"During the  ring ceremony," he said Friday. "That's the only time I've been to a game there, not playing."
Rowand last played in the big leagues in 2011 after winning another World Series with the San Francisco Giants in 2010. He will return to the Cell this summer when his White Sox title team is honored during a July 17-19 weekend series.
"Nobody looks like they changed," Rowand said. "Look at [former Sox outfielder Scott Podsednik] Pods. He should still be playing. Even Bobby Jenks. Other than a couple more tattoos, he looks the same. He looks good; he could still probably go out and throw about 98 [mph]."
He's not exaggerating. Podsednik looks as if he's still in playing shape. Jose Contreras looks exactly as he did 10 years ago, or about 45. Tadahito Iguchi came in from Japan, where he still plays. He hit .239 with 10 homers in 109 games for Chiba Lotte last season. Jenks had tattoos down his forearms and appeared very happy.
Several players joined White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and team vice president Kenny Williams on stage for a panel discussion later in the evening.
But the group was missing its colorful leader. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who still lives in Chicago, is currently out of the country, but he told the Chicago Sun-Times he will be in attendance for the team's reunion weekend.
Rowand said he wished Guillen and Paul Konerko were there, among others. Konerko was the last active White Sox from the 2005 team, retiring in 2014 after a yearlong farewell tour. Konerko is having his jersey number retired this summer, to go along with the statue the team presented last season.
"It's hard to believe he was the last one," Rowand said. "He did his duty. He's a wonderful teammate, a great guy and player, and to be able to see him go out the way he did, it made everybody who ever knew the guy happy."
What does he miss the most about Konerko?
"His candor," Rowand said.
Back in 2005, no one expected much from the Sox at this point in the winter, but they shot out of the gate and led throughout that season -- giving White Sox fans a season to remember -- before sweating out a late charge from the Cleveland Indians.
Once they got to the postseason, however, they lost only once, sweeping the Houston Astros in the World Series.
"I've played on some clubs with good people, good chemistry," said Podsednik, who hit a game-winning homer in Game 2 of the World Series. "But nothing like I remember here."
"Everybody cared about each other," Rowand said. "Everybody loved each other, and we had squabbles here and there, but it didn’t matter because we were brothers."
The reigning rookie of the year received the most cheers of any player during SoxFest introductions, and his reception was on par with that of Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn.
"Everything they did with the acquisitions in the offseason, wow it's very exciting to see how the offseason worked out for the team," Abreu said through an interpreter.
And after being around members of the 2005 World Series championship team, Abreu sounded inspired.
"My respect for all of them," Abreu said. "Just a few minutes ago I was talking to Jose Contreras. Man, I feel very humbled to be with him. Nobody knows what can happen this season. Maybe it's our turn to be there."
By there, of course, Abreu is talking about the World Series. It seems like a pretty lofty goal since he hadn't even swung at a major league pitch 11 months ago, but his debut season, combined with the roster additions, has the team thinking big.
In anybody is feeling the pressure to win after players such as Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche and David Robertson were added, Abreu isn't one of them.
"No, we don't feel pressure after the acquisitions," he said. "We feel excited and comfortable. I'm more excited about what we can do during the season and maybe it's our turn to be on the big stage."
Abreu didn't just learn last season that he can have success in the major leagues, he also got a major lesson on what it takes to get through the grind of a 162-game season. He looked significantly worn down over the final two months and still managed to bat .317 with 36 home runs and 107 RBIs, with a .584 slugging percentage.
When speaking to fans Friday night, Hahn referenced foot issues that Abreu experienced. It seemed to be a reference to Abreu's ankle issue that cropped up in May and affected him the rest of the season.
The presence of LaRoche, who could play first base a couple of times a week, has the potential to keep Abreu strong all season. But Abreu still will prepare himself as if he will be required to take the field the entire 162-game schedule.
"I'm excited about the depth we have right now," he said. "That is something good and will put us in the position to compete and I'm very excited about that.
"I've been working the same way on my defense. It doesn't matter if I'm playing more or less games because that is part of my game. I have to be a complete player and I can't work less and still be that. I have the same mentality, it doesn't matter who will be on the team. I just prepare myself to be successful and 100 percent on the field."
General manager Rick Hahn made sure there was no confusion with pitchers and catchers set to report to spring training in four weeks.
“At this point, there’s no reason to move off of that,” Hahn said Friday at the team's annual SoxFest of the plan to start Flowers. “Competition is good. It brings out the best in people. And if someone comes in and fights for that job and earns it, I’m sure we’ll be flexible. But certainly we view Tyler as the starter.”
Challengers to the position include players with plenty of major league experience, such as Geovany Soto and George Kottaras, both of whom will come to camp on minor league contracts. The White Sox also have Rob Brantly, Adrian Nieto and Kevan Smith as catching options.
“It’s important to us to try to build up some catching depth, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do,” Hahn said. “We have a nice variety of different types of guys, whether it’s a veteran-type like Soto. Kottaras is a left-handed hitter that really could complement [Flowers], potentially, and obviously some younger guys in Brantly and Nieto, each of whom has options left and conceivably could be fits on a longer-term basis."
Flowers, 28, batted just .241 with a .396 slugging percentage last season but was much improved after the All-Star break.
Reinsdorf admitted that he rarely does these types of public speaking engagements because he is bound to say something he regrets.
It is uncertain if he had any regrets when speaking about the crosstown Chicago Cubs, but he did fire off a memorable zinger toward the National League team to the north.
“I sincerely hope the Cubs do win the World Series --” Reinsdorf said with a straight face, setting off a murmur through the crowd of White Sox fans, "after I die.”
The group, which also came to hear thoughts from executive vice president Kenny Williams, as well as 2005 teammates Geoff Blum, Bobby Jenks and Joe Crede, erupted in cheers. Reinsdorf's jab came less than a week after Cubs owner Tom Ricketts took a shot at attendance issues on the South Side during his team's annual convention.
Otherwise Friday, Reinsdorf was the voice of reason. With fans excited for the approaching season after a winter during which the White Sox added so many proven veterans to the roster, Reinsdorf offered caution.
“I think I was the most excited going into spring training in 2006 because here we had played in the World Series and then added Jim Thome; I really had visions of back-to-back,” Reinsdorf told the crowd. “It’s a funny game. You have to play the games. Not too many people here are old enough to remember 1983, but we won 99 games in 1983 and the only thing we did in the offseason was to add Tom Seaver to the pitching staff. Then we won 74 games. So you can’t get too excited before you play the games.”
Before the games start, though, excitement is all fans have. The optimism has been stoked by additions such as Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche and David Robertson, leading one fan to thank Reinsdorf for the moves.
“Don’t thank me, this is the guy to thank,” Reinsdorf said, pointing to Williams, who works side by side with general manager Rick Hahn. “I set a budget and say, ‘This is it, this is all the money we have to spend.’ He figures out a way somehow to get me to go over where I wanted to go. And then after we get to that point, he has other lies to tell me to make me go even further, and before it’s all over we’re $25 million above where I said yes.”
With a payroll that appears headed north of $110 million, the White Sox have indeed gone above their original spending plan, although perhaps not as high as $25 million over. But as the buzz at SoxFest has shown, the fans are appreciative.
CHICAGO – As expected, the Chicago White Sox's annual fan festival, known as SoxFest, was more of a lovefest, with fans eager to praise rather than criticize the makeup of the team’s roster.
Offseason moves to add proven veterans such as Adam LaRoche, Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson and Zach Duke have resonated well with the fan base. In fact, the annual SoxFest opening seminar featuring the general manager and the field manager was filled with compliments instead of the criticism of the past.
At one point, consecutive fans who took the microphone to ask questions of both GM Rick Hahn and manager Robin Ventura gushed in praise of the team that has been assembled. It even prompted Ventura to ask one of the fans if there was a “man crush” going on between him and Hahn.
“We’ve gotten a lot of outstanding feedback from people -- not just the last few days since we’ve been around here, but over the last two months,” Hahn said. “The letters and phone calls have certainly changed their tone from the middle of the ’13 season, and it’s nice to have that. It’s nice to get the fans to feel the same level of anticipation for the season to start and the high hopes.”
Ventura did get some criticism Thursday at a fan event not connected to SoxFest, with his use of the bullpen being questioned. But even the most reasonable fan could see that his hands were tied on a team without a true closer, one which didn’t have the use of Nate Jones for basically the entire season and which also saw Matt Lindstrom spend a significant amount of time on the disabled list.
The improved roster means Ventura will get even more scrutiny this season, and it’s something he said he welcomes.
“Sure, I think you want that,” Ventura said. “If there isn't [pressure] then you're not playing for the right things. If that's what it is, that's great. I'm not going to act any different or do anything different. That's fine. That's what we're shooting for. You want to have that.”
At the SoxFest opening ceremonies Friday, Hahn and Jose Abreu seemed to get the loudest applause when they were introduced. Also announced to the crowd were eight members of the 2005 World Series champions, including Aaron Rowand, Joe Crede, Tadahito Iguchi and Bobby Jenks.
If the current White Sox team aspires to emulate that '05 outfit, the road will be long, starting with the fight in the American League Central against the Detroit Tigers and the defending AL-champion Kansas City Royals.
“We view ourselves as a contender, absolutely, but at the same time when we started this process midway through 2013, the intention was not to jump up and contend for one season, it was to put us in position for sustained success,” Hahn said. “We feel that we’ve acquired, in most every instance, an important piece for us for not just ’15, but for ’16 and beyond. And at the same time we were able to do this without leaving too big a dent on our minor league system, which is getting to the point now of being able to add guys who are going to contribute at the major league level not just in ’15 but beyond.
“Our absolute belief was that we were going to contend this year. That said, what we’re trying to do is put us in position so we feel that way every year.”
The sense from the SoxFest crowd was that a contending team was in their midst. It led to the profound level of optimism at the downtown event, with that feeling expected to last the entire weekend.
“We knew that at some point we were going to find ourselves in position where it made sense to start stretching and adding and being aggressive on the free-agent market and with our trades,” Hahn said. “Now, in retrospect, fans seem to understand that that process began in ’13, of putting ourselves in position to accumulate a young core to grow together, and merited the additions that we made this past offseason to put ourselves in position to contend.
“The enthusiasm is great and, personally, the things I enjoy hearing most about is the people saying they get it, they understand why the moves were made when they were made.”
Listening to Vin Scully call his at-bats was a thrill, and he cherished the little things, such as seeing the panoramic tableau stretch out behind the Dodger Stadium outfield every time he came to the park.
At SoxFest on Friday afternoon, Ventura recounted that brief period of time during which his adult life and childhood intersected.
Yes, Samardzija has many fond memories about growing up a White Sox fan in northwest Indiana, and he will be asked to recount them all season.
At SoxFest, Samardzija, a Valparaiso High graduate and famous Notre Dame football player, met with waves and waves of reporters, many of whom covered him during his Cubs tenure, which ended with a trade to the Oakland A's on July 4. The Sox landed him in a deal during the winter meetings, much to his delight.
Few players are as easygoing and down to earth as Samardzija, a media favorite on the North Side. Take his first memory of going to a Sox game:
"We had this old conversion van and we popped a flat [tire] about four miles from the exit," Samardzija said. "We're on the Dan Ryan [Expressway], and cars are going about 100 mph zooming past us, and me and my pops are down there on our hands and knees trying to fix the lug nuts. That's my first memory. Then, we went to the game and they ended up beating the Blue Jays. I was watching Carlos Delgado play. I have a lot of fond memories of being a kid, and when this happened all those memories came back and I started to relive them."
Now that's an authentic commercial for Sox tickets.
"We almost died on the Dan Ryan, but we made it to the game. Call the ticket office at "
Samardzija is guaranteed to be on this team for only 2015 -- don't expect another summer sell-off on the South Side -- before he tests free agency. The 30-year-old is making $9.8 million this season and is expected to command a new deal worth well more than $100 million. He has said he will definitely go on the market, not only to fill his bank account, but for the good of the union.
No matter how long he'll be here, the Sox are using him on all of their marketing materials, from ticket-plan mailers to mini-calendars. They made a lot of moves in the offseason to improve an 89-loss team, but Samardzija was the biggest addition.
Immediately after the trade went down, the Sox bought a full-page ad in the Times of Northwest Indiana, Samardzija's local newspaper. The Sox are actively selling tickets to groups from that area, in which his family still lives.
"It's smart," Samardzija said with a smile when told about this business plan. "Smart. I would do the same thing if I was them."
"It's cool," he said. "I'm pinching myself with what's going on and how much they've thrown me in the fold, and I haven't even made a pitch for these guys. So all I can do is pitch the right way and do everything I need to do to return the favor."
That sounds like a fair deal. The Sox only expect him to pitch like an ace along Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.
Samardzija became a legitimate star last season, posting a 2.99 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP in 33 starts for the Cubs and A's. He started twice against the White Sox, pitching nine shutout innings in an extra-inning loss at Wrigley Field. He came to the Cell in September with the A's and threw seven shutout innings in a loss. He's allowed only three runs in 32⅓ innings in four starts against the Sox.
"I'm glad we got him on our side of the field now," pitching coach Don Cooper said. "We've seen him on the other side. He was a tough nut."
A nut that has been a major league starter since only 2012, throwing 608 innings over 99 starts. The past two seasons he's thrown more than 200 innings. With that in mind, Cooper thinks the best is yet to come.
"He's got a chance to continue to climb and really, really get better," Cooper said. "He's good now. Think about it, if he has a good year "
Cooper's face lights up as he starts to think of the millions Samardzija will command as a free agent, before snapping back to reality.
"I'm hoping we can sign him," he said. "I'm hoping he likes what's going on. I'm hoping he sees we're going in a great direction. I hope he realizes, 'Hey, I do live down the block. I grew up here watching.' I hope it all works out."
Micah Johnson, who could end up as the Opening Day second baseman, tops the list. Pitcher Carlos Rodon and shortstop Tim Anderson also got the call.
Other pitchers invited to big league camp include Chris Beck, Tyler Danish and Nolan Sanburn. Additional position players include Dan Black, Courtney Hawkins and Jared Mitchell.
Five of the nine minor leaguers were included in the team's top 10 prospect list as compiled by Baseball America. Rodon (No. 1), Anderson (No. 2), Johnson (No. 4), Danish (No. 7) and Hawkins (No. 9) are considered some of the top talent in the organization.
Non-roster invites are needed for all players in big league camp who are not on the 40-man roster.
Pitchers and catchers report to spring training on Feb. 20, and the first full-squad workout is set to take place Feb. 24.