LAS VEGAS — Pedro Grifol will manage the first game of his career against the World Series champion Houston Astros on March 30, probably after a ring ceremony that should inspire the White Sox manager and his team to play out the same scene.
What Grifol’s starting lineup will look like that day behind Cy Young Award finalist Dylan Cease, maybe the first easy choice of Grifol’s career when he names his Opening Day starter during his first spring training, is something of a mystery four days after Grifol was hired.
At the general managers meetings this week, perhaps Sox GM Rick Hahn will reveal a hint about the plans he, Grifol and vice president Ken Williams have for the roster now that Grifol is in place and the hot stove will commence.
Grifol takes over after two seasons of Tony La Russa including a disappointing 81-81 season in 2022, with a core of the roster intact, although Jose Abreu, Johnny Cueto, Elvis Andrus and Vince Velasquez became free agents Monday. But with Cease, Michael Kopech, Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito returning from the rotation, Liam Hendriks and Kendall Graveman and other veterans and maybe healthier versions of left-handers Aaron Bummer and Garrett Crochet (Tommy John surgery) in the bullpen, as well as position players Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Andrew Vaughn back, Hahn remains bullish on what was put together in a rebuild that has netted two unsuccessful playoff appearances.
“We view this as still very, a championship caliber core,” Hahn said Thursday. “Obviously we had significant regression across the board in several key players. Job one is figuring out which of those is correctable.”
And how to get the underperformers back to levels that were “reasonable to project them for last season before they fell off. If we’re able to accomplish that with numerous players, wholesale changes or radical shift in direction is by no means necessary.”
Improvement hinges on “regaining our offensive approach” under a to-be-named new hitting coach and Grifol, himself a former hitting coach in the minor leagues, and staying healthier, Hahn said.
“Those are two keys to our success,” he said. “Improving ourselves defensively, how we run the bases, a little better lineup balance, [better] approach to each at-bat is called for as well. Whether that comes from internal improvement or external additions, we’re hoping for a combination of both.
“But we don’t view this as drastic wholesale changes on the horizon. We need to get these guys back to the level they’re capable of playing at.”
Cuban outfield prospect Oscar Colas would provide a left-handed bat to a right-hand heavy lineup, and with center field abilities, upgrade right field defensively. Pinning hopes on an unproven rookie coming out of spring training has risks, however.
Re-crafting a balky configuration that includes defensively challenged outfielders Jimenez, Gavin Sheets and Vaughn — the latter two converted first baseman -is one thing, even if Abreu walks away.
“We had a few guys playing out of position last year just out of the way the roster fit together,” Hahn said, “and then driven more significantly due to the injuries. We want to avoid that. We want to get to the point where we have guys playing in a role they’re more suited for and if that means we have to make some alterations from the roster from the outside [via trades and free agency] that’s the route we’ll have to go.”
Anderson’s $12.5 million option was exercised, as expected, and 35-year-old second baseman Josh Harrison’s $5.625 million option ($1.5 million buyout) was not. Left fielder A.J. Pollock has a $13 million player option or $5 million buyout to choose. The Sox don’t have any qualifying offers to consider, and as for arbitration eligibles, Giolito, Cease, Kopech and Reynaldo Lopez will be tendered contracts, Danny Mendick and Jose Ruiz probably will and Adam Engel might not.