White Sox Go Back To The Future: Unpacking the Tony La Russa Hire
While the White Sox decision to hire Tony La Russa can’t objectively be labeled a bad one, it’s certainly an odd one with significant risks.
I was in Cooperstown, New York in July of 2014 when Tony La Russa was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Fast forward six years: if you would’ve told me that the guy who was managing the White Sox when I came onto this planet is the current skipper, I would’ve said you’re insane.
In another bizarre turn of 2020, here we are. I wrote recently that much of the concern the fan base has expressed on the hire is overblown. Tony La Russa is a four-time Manager of the Year and three-time World Series champion. The guy does know the job. For the record, I don’t think the hire is a bad one. It’s certainly an odd one with significant risks, however.
I understand the concerns about the hire, particularly given his comments at his introductory press conference relating to the shift in analytics throughout today’s game and trying to bring balance to the game. I am concerned that he will blatantly disregard information at times. I know he’s going to have guys bunting and it’s going to drive me insane. But I know he does understand how to manage a bullpen and put players in a position to win on a daily basis. The man isn’t incompetent or over his head like his predecessor. I still think the decision is a strange one — one that clearly was Jerry Reinsdorf’s and Jerry Reinsdorf’s alone.
Ultimately, I wanted the next manager to be someone who could oversee the entirety of this next competitive cycle. Tony La Russa’s age could be a severe impediment to that. It’s very clear that he will be managing this team as long as he wants to since Jerry will not fire him a second time.
It was very apparent that this wasn’t Rick Hahn’s choice after watching his body language and hearing his carefully chosen words during the introductory press conference. How Hahn will be able to coexist with an owner that told him who he was going to hire and a manager that has a close relationship to that owner (opening up tons of potential for La Russa to use his clout to overrule Hahn) will be an interesting sideshow to all of this.
There appears to be a high level of dysfunction within the organization as a result of this hire, as pointed out by the astute Jeff Passan from ESPN.
Combine those concerns with reports indicating that the White Sox never formally interviewed highly sought-after candidate AJ Hinch, and it makes for quite a messy situation.
This organization has struggled at times in recent years to present a unified message on direction, and this decision just adds more fuel to that fire. The dynamics between members of the front office that were opposed to the hire, the owner, and the manager himself could make for an explosive powder keg we haven’t seen on the South Side since the last days of the Kenny Williams/Ozzie Guillen era.
Another angle that I think needs to be explored a little deeper is how the relationship between Jerry Reinsdorf and Tony La Russa will impact the roster construction and spending plans for the organization this winter and going forward. Pete Hand, famed member of the @fromthe108 family, recently shared some thoughts on this and I believe it’s worthy of further consideration:
Pete raises some very interesting points here. Would a 76-year-old Tony La Russa really come out of retirement if he wasn’t given assurances by his buddy that he would be given the necessary resources to win? I know this flies against my own judgment and what I have observed for all or parts of the five decades I’ve been a White Sox fan, but I legitimately wonder. Could Tony La Russa be the guy to convince Jerry Reinsdorf to stop being so frugal with the team he claims to love and actually act like a major market owner? If he is, indeed, able to do this then the hire will serve a great purpose.
Tony La Russa is coming out of retirement to attempt something no other manager has ever done: guide three different franchises to World Series titles. I can’t think of another reason why he would do this. He ranks third all-time in terms of managerial wins, and as I alluded to earlier, he is already a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Winning that fourth ring with a third different franchise — the one that gave him his start in the big leagues — would be the ultimate feather in the cap.
We know that La Russa’s trusted confidant, Dave Duncan, will not be joining the team as the pitching coach, so any fears that he will simply get the old band back together can be put aside. The construction of this coaching staff will be an interesting one, however. The White Sox have several interesting internal options to serve as pitching coach, most notably Matt Zaleski and Curt Hasler. Zaleski and Hasler have been heralded for using modern age data and techniques to help pitchers like Lucas Giolito, Matt Foster, Jimmy Lambert, and others take the next step in their development. Those factors will likely be taken into consideration, but there’s always the possibility that they look to go outside the organization.
Will the Sox look to tap someone like Joe Espada as a bench coach? Espada spent time as a minor league manager with the Cardinals during La Russa’s tenure. Could he be installed as the heir apparent when Tony finally decides to hang up the uniform for good? Espada most recently served as a bench coach with the Astros, an analytical organization, so this could be a nice blend. If the Sox are able to reach that ultimate goal under La Russa, Espada could then serve as a logical replacement for continuity purposes.
All things considered, the decision to welcome Tony La Russa back to the White Sox family is a strange one in 2020. It’s clear that this decision was a result of one man’s desire to right a perceived wrong from 34 years ago. Tony La Russa will be fine on the job from 7 PM until 10 PM, I have no doubt.
How long he will be able to do this job is a question none of us can answer at this moment. I sure hope he is able to convince his frugal buddy to do what needs to be done in order to field a championship-caliber team. I hope he surrounds himself with people that are fluent in modern era baseball strategy and evaluation techniques. If these things can happen, the panic will be mostly for nothing.
When Kevin Nash joined Scott Hall on Monday Nitro in the precursor to the nWo’s formation in 1996, he famously said, “The measuring stick just changed around here.” That sentiment applies to the White Sox going forward. Tony La Russa is trying to make history as he looks to guide a third different franchise to a World Series title. If he isn’t able to do it, this decision could go down as one of the biggest gaffes in the organization’s history (and that’s saying something). That’s the measuring stick at this point, no pressure.