White Sox 2021 grades: Evaluating Tony La Russa and Rick Hahn

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Sox grades: Evaluating Tony La Russa and Rick Hahn originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago White Sox' season ended in disappointment, much earlier than hoped.

But the team accomplished plenty during the 2021 campaign, winning the American League Central crown and playing playoff baseball on the South Side for the first time in 13 years. After years of rebuilding, there was indeed progress toward achieving the franchise's ultimate goal of winning a World Series championship.

At the same time, the expectations of reaching that goal this year were realistic back in the spring, and the White Sox fell well short. A sour AL Division Series loss to the Houston Astros resulted in the same number of postseason wins as the White Sox had a year earlier, before a managerial change and roster upgrades.

RELATED: Sox offseason: 5 questions facing Rick Hahn's front office

So how should we judge these South Siders?

If we're just handing out grades for those four games in October, not many would receive a passing mark. But a baseball season is not four games long, and though the group disappointment was huge following a quick playoff exit, most of the players excelled during the regular season, setting up reason to believe that the White Sox can improve in 2022 and move closer to a championship.

Here's a person-by-person review of the 2021 campaign, wrapping up with the manager and the general manager.

More grades: Rotation | bullpen | infield | outfield

Tony La Russa: A-

La Russa landing back in the South Side dugout was downright shocking. And with it came an endless stream of questions, most of them centering around how the 76-year-old Hall of Famer would mesh with the "Change the Game" White Sox players after a decade removed from a managerial role.

La Russa called the vast majority of those questions legitimate ones and vowed to prove himself to the fan base and earn the trust and respect of his players. The answers to those questions ended up being, from the perspective of those groups La Russa was trying to win over, very positive ones.

White Sox players had nothing but great things to say about the skipper, citing the family-style atmosphere he created, praising that he allowed them to be themselves and appreciating that he backed them completely. Team leaders José Abreu and Tim Anderson led those vocalizations, with Anderson gushing about their behind-the-scenes relationship and Abreu filmed playfully hugging and kissing La Russa as the White Sox closed in on the division championship.

Fan opinion remained mixed, unsurprisingly, and after a particularly stormy opening month or so, La Russa received the same type of criticism that any manager does, especially in the postseason, from which the White Sox made a disappointingly quick exit. But the fans seemed to appreciate the same things the players did, turning his sprinting out of the dugout to defend Abreu from the Cleveland Indians into a Twitter meme and chanting "TO-NY! TO-NY!" as he argued with umpires after Abreu was hit by a pitch against the Houston Astros.

In the end, no person gets graded based on the team's ultimate success than the manager, and that seems to hold especially true with La Russa, whose sole purpose for being the White Sox manager was to take them to the World Series, where he's won three championships in his incomparable career. He didn't do that in 2021, though after making it known he'll be back in 2022, he'll obviously have another chance.

This season, La Russa did quite the managing job, his team winning the American League Central crown in a runaway despite numerous significant injuries to key players. It was the franchise's first division title in 13 years, a fact seemingly lost in the team's disappointing postseason performance. Of course, that performance is part of the story, too, and La Russa won the same number of playoff games in 2021 that Rick Renteria won a year earlier.

Rick Hahn: A-

Quite simply, the White Sox being in the position to disappoint with a first-round playoff exit was only possible because Hahn rebuilt the roster into a legitimate World Series contender.

It doesn't mean that he can kick back and watch what happens for as long as the contention window remains open, and he showed at the trade deadline that he has no intention of doing that.

But as frustrating to fans as the ALDS was, the White Sox were only there in the first place as a result of Hahn's rebuilding effort. Lucas Giolito, Yoán Moncada, Eloy Jiménez, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech all came over in those rebuild-launching trades in 2016 and 2017. Luis Robert was signed to his international free-agent deal in 2017. Andrew Vaughn was drafted with the No. 3 pick in 2019. And after adding veteran heft to the roster in the form of Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks, the White Sox were division champs with World Series aspirations.

Indeed, Hahn's trade-deadline splashes did not end up going well, but in the moment, the deals appeared to be exactly what the White Sox needed. Craig Kimbrel was an All-Star closer with World Series credentials and figured to give the White Sox a menacing bullpen that could mow through opposing lineups. But Kimbrel didn't fare well in the transition from closer to setup man, and he was an unreliable option when the time came. César Hernández was a Gold Glove second baseman who was swinging an uncharacteristically powerful bat. His offensive production fell off a cliff after switching AL Central clubs.

But the silver lining to 2021 ending in disappointment is that the White Sox are well positioned to return to the playoffs next year and in the years to follow, a direct result of Hahn's work. Jiménez, Robert and Moncada remain locked up on team-friendly deals. And plenty of the rest of the roster will remain intact moving forward.

Hahn's task for the immediate future becomes being a part of the arms race in the American League. The ALDS showed a significant gap between the White Sox and the Astros, the team that ended up winning the pennant. That's what the White Sox would like to do, and if they're going to do that, they'll need to be better than the Astros and the rest. To do that, upgrades will need to happen, not because the roster isn't a very, very good one but because the teams around the White Sox will continue to get better, too.

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