CHICAGO – The moment led two colleagues to hug for the first time in nearly two decades of working together. It also created a rough atmosphere in the White Sox’s clubhouse, where high fives were accompanied by hoots and roars.
By the afternoon hours on the day of the MLB trading deadline, the front office was hopeful – but still very nervous – about the potential to acquire the player they’d been targeting for weeks: All-Star Chicago Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel.
“There’s a roller coaster ride that goes with it,” said White Sox GM Rick Hahn as his team prepared to play the Cubs this weekend. “There were times when I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Waiting during the closing season can lead to some sleepless nights, according to Kenny Williams, executive vice president of Hahn and White Sox.
Eventually they got their husband, one of the best rescuers in the game – despite giving up his first home run of the season on Friday, a game-defining three-way shot from Cub’s shortstop Andrew Romine. The Sox still won that day and have a chance to beat their rivals on Sunday night (7 p.m. ET on ABC).
The addition of Kimbrel gives the White Sox instant credibility in October as he joins another all-star closer. Liam Hendriks, in Chicago’s bullpen, which now has a certain depth.
Talks to get a second star across town all began during the MLB drafting meeting earlier last month. During some downtime, Hahn and Williams began to discuss their trading strategy. The White Sox had a huge head start in the American League Central and didn’t want to just add something on the margins.
“I think I asked him (Williams), ‘If we could just win one player who would probably switch, who would it be?'” Hahn recalled. “We both had the same answer, it was Craig Kimbrel.”
In a way, it was a surprising reaction. Hendriks was days away from playing in the All-Star game and the ninth inning was not a problem. But getting the ball to Hendriks was a bit of a problem in the first half. It felt like manager Tony La Russa was relying on fewer and fewer arms in tight situations. flamethrower Michael Kopech was his first choice to get to Hendriks, but the team felt they needed more. Hendriks had been kept informed of the team’s strategies and immediately agreed to bring another one closer. Hahn only wanted the best guy available.
“There are some extremely high leveraged outs that need to be secured for a team that has high hopes,” said Hahn. “We saw him as the man best able to get these important outs, regardless of where they came from.”
On July 9, Hahn made his first call to Cubs President Jed Hoyer. At this point, the Crosstown rivals were on different paths for 2021, with the Cubs clearly looking to retool while the White Sox wanted to win a championship.
The two teams discussed various players in the Cubs roster, including the setup man Ryan Tepera. The Sox actually traded for him a day before the deadline – the starter for the big deal ahead. It was July 20th when Hahn and Hoyer spoke to each other again. The Cubs focused on their request for Kimbrel, and from that moment they knew the Sox would act on him to the end.
“Lots of teams call and check in, but it was clear that the frequency of check-ins and calls was really serious,” said Hoyer.
Hoyer admitted that so many things had happened during that time that he didn’t always come back to people when he wanted to. It added to the insecurity Hahn and Williams felt while waiting for a couple of late night calls that never came.
“I didn’t want to call Rick at 2am,” said Hoyer.
As the deadline approached, optimism grew. Teams focused on second baseman Nick Madrigal as the centerpiece going back to the Cubs. Madrigal is one of the best contact hitters in the game, a huge requirement for his later new team. And his loss wouldn’t affect the White Sox’s chances in 2021, considering he is out for the season with a torn hamstring.
“With so much respect for what Rick and Kenny are doing, it was clear they were doing this for October,” said Hoyer. “You were clear, determined, and aggressive.”
But the deal wasn’t over yet. When the White Sox traded pitcher Jose Quintana to the cubs for those interested Eloy Jimenez and Dylan stops In 2017, Theo Epstein spoke of having to pay a “tax” to do business across the city.
Now the roles have been reversed. The Sox had a tax to get Kimbrel because he’s not necessarily a two-month rental as he has a team option for next year. So the teams agreed on the discharge on the cut-off date Codi Heuer next to madrigal.
The Cubs got two players ready for the Major League while the Sox got the best reliever available. The deal was done.
“It was Kenny, about an hour or an hour and a half before the deal was closed, who said, ‘We’ll hug if we can do this,'” Hahn recalled. “After my last conversation with Jed, I wandered into his office with a big smile and said something like, ‘Where’s my hug?'”
The two won a World Series together in 2005, but this was the first time they’d remembered a hug, and the White Sox players were just as excited when the news spread.
“I was definitely surprised”, first baseman and team leader Jose Abreu said through an interpreter. “Everyone knows the quality of their pitcher and the year they’ve had with the Cubs. It’s better to have him on our side than face him.”
Closing the deal had an added element for the front office. After Hahn was able to keep the team leader after an injury-ridden first half of the season, Hahn wanted to pay tribute to this.
“With everything they went through, with all the injuries, all the obstacles, we almost felt an additional compulsion to reward them,” said Hahn. “To have something, to have someone walk through the door of this clubhouse and say, ‘Okay, they saw what we did, they appreciate what we did, and they went out and got us help. ‘”
Or maybe the longtime White Sox manager was more interested in self-preservation. Hahn remembered a road trip before the deadline in Pittsburgh. He had a book about that Houston Astros where the current White Sox pitcher and former astro, Dallas gaspA few years ago he criticized the front office for not doing anything at close of trading to help the team.
“I saw Keuchel that day on the bus to the ballpark and said, ‘I read that you criticized the reception. I woke up this morning and called 15 people to get something started,'” joked Hahn.
Keuchel told him not to worry, the front office was ‘just fine’.
Hahn met Keuchel again after completing the deal and now felt like he wasn’t going to be a chapter in a future book. The White Sox had caught their husband.
“When I saw him (Keuchel) that day,” joked Hahn. “I said ‘really, we just did this to keep you away from us.'”