The Chicago White Sox managerial search ended with a stunning pick two years ago when Tony La Russa was brought out of retirement at the age of 76 to try to take them to the promised land.
General manager Rick Hahn issued the announcement, but everyone knew the decision had been made by Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who bypassed his own GM for a chance at a storybook ending — watching his old pal at the helm of a World Series champion on the South Side.
To make a long story short, Reinsdorf’s plan failed miserably, and the Sox regressed in 2022 in what would be La Russa’s last hurrah.
But Hahn finally got an opportunity to pick his own manager this time, thanks to La Russa’s premature exit because of health concerns and Reinsdorf’s decision to take a step back and let his GM do the job he’s paid to do. So Hahn put all his chips on a baseball lifer named Pedro Grifol, picking the Kansas City Royals bench coach as the next Sox manager, according to multiple reports.
While the Sox will call it a “collaborative” effort between Reinsdorf, executive vice-president Ken Williams and Hahn, the success or failure of Grifol will likely land on Hahn’s shoulders. If Grifol can’t turn the Sox around, it could and should be Hahn’s last hire.
Grifol, 52, was not the name most Sox fans were thinking of when they envisioned who would be tasked with getting the team back on track after a .500 season everyone agreed was the worst in memory. There have been worse Sox teams, of course, but perhaps none as unlikable as the 2022 version. It was the way they lost as much as the 81-81 record, coming after so much hype, and with so much focus on the latest La Russa controversy.
In an unscientific poll by The Athletic on who should be named Sox manager, Grifol finished seventh with 1.4% of the vote — just behind MLB.com writer Scott Merkin (2.1%). It should be noted, however, that Merkin had the homefield advantage and higher name recognition after being the first reporter to question La Russa for intentionally walking Trea Turner on a 1-2 pitch. Ozzie Guillén, who also interviewed for the opening, finished second in the poll.
Anonymity is not necessarily a bad thing for Grifol, who already is ahead of the curve by not being a polarizing figure like you-know-who. There’s nothing not to like yet. That’s a step up for the Sox, and the front office probably can use a little peace and quiet after the last two seasons of media and fan focus on La Russa. The players may enjoy the change as well, though the new manager may expect them to run harder and actually earn their way into the lineup by, you know, hitting.
The Sox believe the young core of Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert, Tim Anderson and Andrew Vaughn can live up to their potential and help reopen the contending window.
We’ve all seen them excel at times, so it’s not really a big risk. Grifol’s biggest challenge may be getting Yoán Moncada back to being Yoán Moncada, assuming the third baseman is still on the team. At least no one can be thinking World Series in 2023 after the way this ’22 season unfolded, so Grifol won’t be burdened by the expectations La Russa faced.
When Hahn conducted his end-of-season media availability last month at Sox Park, he listed some criteria the Sox were looking for in the new manager, without really eliminating any possibility. But he summed it up by saying: “Ultimately, we want someone who played a key role in a winning organization, that was an important part of their on-field decision making.”
Whether the Royals still qualify as a “winning organization” is debatable. They’ve finished under .500 the last six seasons, but did go to back-to-back World Series in 2014-15, when Grifol was the catching coach, winning it all in ‘15. Poor management decisions and an unproductive farm system led to a steep decline after the 2015 title, and a 104-loss season in 2018 forced the Royals into the inevitable rebuild 2.0.
Grifol spent the last three seasons of the rebuild as bench coach under Mike Matheny, who coincidentally replaced La Russa as St. Louis Cardinals manager in 2012. Matheny was fired after a 97-loss season in ’22, with a .430 overall winning percentage in Kansas City.
Most observers believed Hahn would go outside the organization for the first time since former GM Ron Schueler hired Florida Marlins coach Jerry Manuel in 1997. That’s what Hahn did, though apparently he didn’t consider Bruce Bochy, one of the best managers of his era, who came out of retirement to manage the Texas Rangers.
The last four Sox managers — former players Guillén and Robin Ventura, bench coach Rick Renteria and La Russa — all had ties with the organization when hired. Grifol might be able to provide an outsider’s view of a staid organization in which either Williams or Hahn made all the big decisions for 20 seasons from 2001-20. Their string was broken in 2020 when Reinsdorf hired La Russa.
Though Grifol has experience in all facets of the game except managing at the major-league level, his decade of work with the Royals is unlikely to stir Sox fans into buying season tickets. That doesn’t mean he’s not the right guy. No one knew Kevin Cash when the Tampa Bay Rays hired him to replace Joe Maddon after the 2014 season. Cash kept the Rays winning and quickly became one of the most respected managers in the game.
No matter who is in charge, Williams and Hahn have work to do to mend fences with many fans who felt Reinsdorf’s insatiable desire to take a mulligan on the 1986 firing of La Russa stunted the young team’s growth.
Hiring Grifol isn’t a huge splash, but he could be just what the Sox need to calm the waters after a stormy season.