Besides Rick Hahn, a quieter Ken Williams also has his fingerprints on the White Sox’ rebuild
Williams, the team’s executive vice president, is ready to enjoy some of the fruits of his labor.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ken Williams would like to set the record straight about his initial reaction to the idea of a White Sox rebuild.
There’s a glow to the Sox these days as their reconstruction project moves into the fun mode, also called the winning mode, not to be confused with the pain a la mode of the last three losing seasons.
Williams, the Sox’ executive vice president, said he was all for a rebuild. So was his partner in wheeling and dealing, general manager Rick Hahn.
“It was reported at the time that I wasn’t,’’ Williams said Wednesday. “It’s funny because I was reading the reports that I was against it, but we were marching down to [chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s] office every day to convince him, and we were doing it together. I could have fought back and contested what people were saying, but it just wasn’t that important to me.’’
He and Hahn eventually wore Reinsdorf down, and the rebuild started in earnest with the trade of pitcher Chris Sale to Boston after the 2016 season. That landed the Sox infielder Yoan Moncada and pitcher Michael Kopech. And away the Sox went — first down and now, it seems, up.
“We’ve gotten this to a position where certainly brighter days are ahead,’’ Hahn said, “and we’re probably talking brighter years, not brighter months.’’
There still seems to be an air of mystery, at least publicly, to Williams’ role with the team. After the 2012 season, he was promoted from general manager to executive vice president and Hahn was named general manager, meaning that Williams was done with the day-to-day grind and the sleep deprivation. That allowed him to scout more, especially the players with the highest upside and price tags.
“There are a lot of things that if I were still the general manager I wouldn’t have been able to do,’’ he said. “Things that play better to my strengths as an evaluator and in my life. Typically at the end of the season, a general manager is just exhausted. Rick feels this now.
“I don’t think I would have gone down to the Dominican Republic to see Jose Abreu [in 2013] if I were still GM. I would have relied on our scouts. In order for Jerry to make that sort of sizable financial commitment, he wants my eyes on it. The same with Luis Robert. The same with some of the trades that we’ve made, and I was able to get eyes on Eloy Jimenez, Moncada, a lot of these guys we have. It gave us a greater assurance as to what we wanted to do and how we wanted to shape the way this thing was going.’’
There is extra pressure associated with deciding whether to sign big-ticket international players. The Sox got a two-day workout with Abreu, as did any team that was interested in the Cuban defector. With Luis Robert, interested teams had only one day each to eyeball the outfielder in 2016. Well, most teams had only one day.
“I snuck in and watched him work out for another team, too,’’ Williams said.
Was that legal?
“There were no signs saying, ‘No Trespassing,’ ” he said, laughing.
Where does one hide at a ballpark in the Dominican Republic?
“There were trees in left field,’’ Williams said.
The Sox’ power structure goes from Reinsdorf to Williams to Hahn. Williams still has final approval on all baseball matters, but he almost winces when he says that because he’s concerned how it might be interpreted. He gushes about his collaborative relationship with Hahn, saying they almost always reach decisions together.
“That guy is one of my best friends, and he’s been one of the best allies,’’ he said. “Last year we sat down. Listen, I know there’s going to come a time where he may want a little more autonomy, the very last say. I wanted to do a check — how are we doing?
“We both walked out of the room knowing that if he didn’t have me and I didn’t have him, we would be looking for the same person. If he or I were to go somewhere else, the first people we would bring on board would be each other. So that’s how well it works.’’
Reinsdorf is famous for his loyalty to employees — infamous, in some people’s eyes. He’s also the Bulls’ chairman, and he has left vice president John Paxson in charge despite more bad times than good. I mentioned to Williams the perception that he, too, has a job for life.
“There are a lot of people over the years that were here that are not here anymore that people don’t see or don’t pay attention to,’’ he said. “But believe me, if some of the higher-dollar things we’ve had to commit to to get to this point, if Rick and I were wrong on them, I don’t think we would still be standing here.
“I’ve never once thought that there’s a scholarship program here. Never once. There’s a history of personnel decisions I’ve made that I’ve been right on, but I still take the next decision as the decision I’d better be right on.’’
Williams remains in the background. Don’t mistake that for being a lesser force in the Sox’ affairs.
“I don’t care that I’m kind of left out of the equation,’’ he said. “The only way this works is if someone’s willing to allow his ego to take a step back. This is me. None of the exterior stuff matters. The only thing that matters is putting this team in the best position possible. Who was it that said ‘a whole lot of things can be accomplished if people don’t care who gets the credit’? That’s kind of the way I look at it.’’