White Sox’ winter of discontent

Spring training is almost here to wash away 2022 and this past offseason.

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Dylan Cease and other White Sox pitchers and catchers officially report to spring training Wednesday.

Dylan Cease and other White Sox pitchers and catchers officially report to spring training Wednesday.

Charlie Riedel/AP

“Pitchers and catchers report to spring training” are seven therapeutic words that freezing baseball fans yearn to hear and serve as a welcome reminder that spring, and baseball, are near.

But many White Sox fans are turning a cold ear as the Sox approach the first day of camp Wednesday. The disappointment of 2022, a draining campaign helmed by 77-year-old Tony La Russa until he left the team for medical reasons Aug. 30, was followed by a rather unfulfilling offseason that included signings of left fielder Andrew Benintendi and right-hander Mike Clevinger but not much else. Jose Abreu, one of the franchise’s most productive hitters and a fan and clubhouse favorite, was allowed to leave in free agency.

While the Cubs held their fan convention, the Sox did not, giving no specific reason. The more vocal fans grumbled more.

It has been a harsh winter.

On Jan. 9, closer Liam Hendriks announced he has cancer, adding a layer of real-life gloom. And on Jan. 24, it became known that Clevinger is under investigation by Major League Baseball for allegations of domestic abuse of his 10-month-old child and the child’s mother. The former brought about sadness and emotion. The latter sadness and rage.

On paper, the Sox will enter 2023 as a contender in the American League Central, which they won in 2021 for their first division title since 2008. They have stars such as Tim Anderson and Dylan Cease, past All-Stars Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Yasmani Grandal and Benintendi, and potential stars in Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez and Yoan Moncada, who should arrive at camp with chips on their shoulders after last season’s bust. They also have a new manager in Pedro Grifol and a revamped coaching staff.

But the usual anticipatory buzz around spring doesn’t seem to exist, thanks in large part to the Clevinger news, even though the Sox didn’t know about the investigation when they signed him.

At the winter meetings in San Diego in December, Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Sox fans’ faith in the organization would have to be earned after a .500 season in the thick of a contention window. Flash back to when Hahn earned Chicago Person of the Year accolades in 2017 and Sporting News Executive of the Year in 2020 as the Sox’ front-office face of the rebuild that rejuvenated a fan base going all-in on the plan. It all seemed to be working splendidly in the abbreviated 2020 season when the Sox snared a wild-card berth for their first postseason appearance since 2008.

They lost the best-of-three series and fired manager Rick Renteria before chairman Jerry Reinsdorf brought La Russa out of retirement believing he would do better, despite knowing of La Russa’s second DUI. La Russa won in 2021 then oversaw a retreat to 81-81 in 2022, a season marked by questionable decisions, odd lineups and leadership issues that did nothing to polish La Russa’s Hall of Fame legacy.

The team, ravaged by injuries and sapped by a lackluster look on the field and in the dugout, fell out of favor with fans, who chanted “Fire Tony” and hoisted “Sell the team” signs.

Grifol, 52, was hired Nov. 3 as the organization’s 42nd manager, and on his shoulders falls the front office’s hope for a turnaround. Despite no managerial experience, Grifol’s arrival was largely received as a breath of fresh air signaling a needed restart with new coaches Charlie Montoyo, Jose Castro, Chris Johnson, Eddie Rodriguez and Mike Tosar.

Motivated by last season’s failures, players approached offseason workouts and preparation bent on a turnaround. But the front office appears to be leaning on rookies to man second base and right field and has done little besides sign Benintendi to a franchise-record $75 million contract and Clevinger to a one-year, $12 million deal. With Clevinger, who denied the allegations, still under investigation, it’s not known whether he will be at camp, and his status is unclear. League policy prevents the Sox from disciplining Clevinger now.

Day 1 for pitchers and catchers is Wednesday. The first full-squad workout is Feb. 20.

In Arizona, the sun will be shining brightly. The Sox desperately need the warmth.

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