GLENDALE, Ariz. – White Sox eneral manager Rick Hahn said last year already that the expectations and scrutiny surrounding Robin Ventura would be turned up a notch. After all, Hahn bolstered Ventura’s roster, raising the stakes for his team, himself and his manager.
Ventura survived despite a 76-86 finish, and now he enters the final year of his contract as a lame duck field boss after Hahn made even more upgrades.
But as Sox camp hopped and skipped into its second week on an upbeat tempo, Hahn insisted Ventura’s status was not an elephant in the room.
“I don’t sense it at all,’’ Hahn said Friday. “Part of that is Robin’s makeup. Robin’s not doing this for economic reasons. He’s doing it because he believes in it, he wants to win for the White Sox organization and he enjoys it. While the contract status may be an external focus, internally it’s about trying to do what we can to win now.’’
Ventura has also played on one-year deals, and given his cool and relaxed disposition, “I don’t sense it hanging over any conversations or the way he or the staff is approaching the season,’’ Hahn said.
Hahn said he is frustrated by three losing seasons in a row, although “we try to take a longer term view of this thing and look at where we were at end of 2013 season, losing 99 games with an older roster locked in financially and a farm system that wasn’t highly regarded versus now, two and a half years later when we feel we’re in position to contend. The expectations have pivoted.’’
So much emphasis has been placed on getting off to a good start. It not only sets the right tone and avoids playing catch-up baseball, it would keep Ventura’s status from becoming an unwanted distraction. The Sox did hire a new bench coach, Rick Renteria, with recent managerial experience with the Cubs.
“But if we get off to a good start there will be a lot of optimism and people fired up to see where this team goes,’’ Hahn said. “Our focus is to get off to a good start. If we fall short of that then we have to assess how to get us back on track as quickly as possible.’’
Ventura was more popular as a player than he is a manager, which generally comes with the gig. Asked if Ventura is better today than he was his first season, when the Sox led the AL Central for much of the 2012 season only to fade, Hahn said, “a lot comes down to personnel.’’
“Managers are as good as the personnel they are given. It’s not fair to compare how he manages in 2016 to 2014 when we were a team in transition. He has improved as a manager. We knew from Day 1 it would be a bit of a growing experience given his [no experience] background. He has advanced and his coaching staff has, too.’’
Hahn likes what he’s seen of camp Ventura thus far. Hahn senses a nice energy in the clubhouse and coaches room.
“Positivity and focus,’’ he said.
So in addition to getting a boost of offense from players like Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie, Ventura received some intangibles that should make his job easier.
“First and foremost we needed to score more runs,’’ Hahn said. “Todd Frazier was at the top of our target list because of his makeup, what he brings on and off the field. Both [catchers] Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro are pros who approach the game the right way, [veteran shortstop] Jimmy Rollins has a long track record of being that type of guy and Brett Lawrie, everybody sees his energy from 10,000 feet away. That was a positive shot in the arm for the clubhouse as well.’’
One more shot, like maybe a left-hand bat for the outfield, would do wonders for Ventura’s roster. The payroll, a shade above $120 million, might have some wiggle room. But not much.
“That can change with trade deadline acquisitions or during spring training,’’ Hahn said.
Ventura, to be sure, will accept any help he can get.