By Bruce Levine–
ORLANDO, Fla. (CBS) — Despite coming off a season that featured their lowest attendance total since 1999, the White Sox believe their fans are whole-heartedly invested in the team’s rebuilding process.
General manager Rick Hahn and other team officials time and again have heard encouraging feedback from most of the fan base in the past year since they embarked on a rebuilding process with the trade of left-hander Chris Sale to the Red Sox last December. Losing seasons from 2013 to 2016 elicited an exasperated response from fans, but that wasn’t the case as Chicago went 67-95 in 2017.
The losing was expected. With that understanding, attention was often diverted to the up-and-coming talent in the minor leagues, even if that didn’t translate with ballpark attendance. The White Sox drew just shy of 1.63 million fans in 2017, their lowest total since they had an attendance of about 1.34 million in 1999.
“You saw a lot of in-game updates about our affiliates and what the minor league players were doing this past season,” Hahn said. “The technology and video content out there probably makes it easier to embrace and get more excited about what is coming. They can see it with their own eyes. That is different than in the past, when you might get an update on the paper once a week what minor leaguers were doing. We make a trade for a guy in A-ball and you (media) and the fans can read a scouting report online right away. The fans can see it with their own eyes and embrace it more easily.”
An announcement by Hahn on Wednesday figures to give the fan base another rush come February. Young outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert will both receive invited to big league camp in spring training, Hahn confirmed. Third baseman Jake Berger may join too.
“It is a good thing for them to see what it is like from top to bottom and hearing from (manager Rick Renteria) and the staff before they head back to the minors,” Hahn said. “I think it will be a fairly exciting camp as we give these young guys an opportunity to be in a big league environment.”
The White Sox’s PR and communications team has done a masterful job of selling their young prospects, providing regular updates and making them available to speak to the media. Eight games of the Triple-A Charlotte Knights were also broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago, giving fans a chance to become better acquainted with players they’ll see soon enough in Chicago.
“From what I saw and underestimated the most, the number of fan support we have been getting in the early stages of this,” Hahn said. “That was certainly a concern as we charted out this course. We worried the impact it would have on attendance and more broadly revenue. Despite those concerns, we were committed to doing what we felt was right for the long-term health of the organization. We knew there were some risks. In reality, the support has been fantastic. There seems to be a lot of optimism about were this thing is headed.”
Second baseman Yoan Moncada, right-hander Reynaldo Lopez and right-hander Lucas Giolito were the high-profile players to make their White Sox debuts in 2017. And even late bloomer Nicky Delmonico was a known commodity to fans by the time be was promoted to the big league club.
The engaging personalities of Jimenez and 21-year-old right-hander Michael Kopech, who finished last season at Triple-A, will be a storyline to follow as well. Hahn fielded a question comparing Jimenez to fellow Dominican Republic native and former Red Sox star David Ortiz from a personable and talent standpoint. Hahn pointed out he’d like to see Jimenez win as many championship rings as Ortiz.
Hahn’s mind also wandered back to last July, when Moncada received a raucous welcome from White Sox fans in his debut. It was encouraging for Hahn and team officials to see.
“He got a standing ovation on his first walk,” Hahn said. “That is great. Hopefully, it is a little taste of other things to come. We view this as having several other waves of similar talent coming through Chicago. That would mean there are some exciting times ahead.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.