White Sox

The good, the bad and the mixed: What went right and what went wrong for the 2017 White Sox

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USA TODAY

The good, the bad and the mixed: What went right and what went wrong for the 2017 White Sox

The White Sox lost 95 games, and yet their general manager described himself as pleased with certain aspects of the 2017 season.

He isn’t wrong to be.

Welcome to life in a rebuild.  

There’s undoubtedly analysts and fans who rightfully have questions about the direction the White Sox are headed. They traded almost all of their top players for unproven prospects who come without any guarantees. There’s no promise this will work. The White Sox haven’t proven anything yet, and it’ll likely be a few seasons before anyone knows if they’ve executed it.

But as crazy as it sounds, the White Sox had a good season that has begun to generate optimism from the fanbase. Whether it’s the number of trades Rick Hahn completed, the talent the team accumulated, how young players developed or several other reasons, the White Sox had plenty of positives this season. Here’s a look at what went right, what went wrong and what could have gone better.

The Good

1. Hahn traded almost everyone

What seemed impossible in December and more difficult in May was suddenly complete several days before the Aug. 1 nonwaiver trade deadline. When the White Sox started 2017 with Jose Quintana on the roster after trading Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, some thought Hahn had overvalued Quintana. Then Quintana struggled through May, and the volume of those questions significantly increased. But everything was reduced to a whisper when the White Sox traded Quintana to the Cubs on July 13 for a package featuring elite prospect Eloy Jimenez. Hahn then spent the next six weeks trading everyone, completing his work with an Aug. 31 deal that sent Miguel Gonzalez to Texas. In all, nine players were traded during the season.

2. New kids prospered

Not everyone had great seasons, but many of the top prospects acquired since December took large steps forward. Lucas Giolito rediscovered his confidence. Reynaldo Lopez and Yoan Moncada forced the issue and fared well in the majors. Michael Kopech and Jimenez developed into elite prospects, and Dane Dunning continues to look like a steal.

3. Prospecting went well

Nowhere was the staggering amount of talent acquired by Hahn more evident than the farm system’s top-30 rankings. Even as Giolito, Lopez and Moncada graduated, the White Sox still have six prospects remaining on MLB Pipeline’s top-100 list. Ten on their current top-30 list have been added via trades since December. Three more came from the 2017 draft.

But the biggest move, one that signaled to fans the White Sox are serious about rebuilding, was the May signing of Luis Robert for $52 million. The penalties they faced — the $26 million tax and two years of international signing restrictions — weren’t enough to dissuade them from signing Robert, who is currently ranked No. 22 in MLB Pipeline’s list.

4. Foundation laid

Nearly as important as adding talent is making sure it’s fostered in the proper environment. Hahn thought manager Rick Renteria would instill the appropriate atmosphere and hired him.

The White Sox are ecstatic with what Renteria has done. Hahn and the front office have recognized those efforts all season long, praising the team for its unrelenting attitude and unwillingness to quit.

5. Older players developed, too

Tommy Kahnle went from project to setup man almost overnight and keyed a trade that brought Blake Rutherford and Ian Clarkin over from the Yankees. Avisail Garcia finally released his untapped potential and turned into an All Star and a potential trade chip. And Yolmer Sanchez found a new level and ensured himself a lot of future plate appearances.

The Bad

1. Carlos Rodon’s future is uncertain

The hope was Rodon would develop into a 33-start, 200-inning pitcher this season. Instead the White Sox have more questions about if Rodon will ever reach his potential. Rodon appeared to be unaffected by the bursitis in his left biceps that cost him three months when he struck out 9.9 batters per nine over 12 starts. But what Rodon’s future holds after he had arthroscopic surgery last week is anyone’s guess, even if the White Sox are optimistic he’ll fully recover.

2. Starting pitching gambles flop

Ten starts in, Derek Holland looked like a find and a potential trade candidate. But his fastball velocity dipped and his ERA soared, leading to Holland’s release last month. Rule 5 pitcher Dylan Covey showed some signs in his final two starts but struggled much of the season. Still, don’t be surprised if the White Sox follow a similar formula next season and try to convert a rehabbing pitcher or two into trade candidates.

3. The injury bug hit hard

Rodon wasn’t the only important player sidelined for a large chunk of the season. Nate Jones was limited to 11 games, Zach Putnam pitched in seven before he and prospect Zack Burdi had reconstructive elbow surgery. Catcher Geovany Soto was hurt twice and never got going. Leury Garcia’s breakout season was slowed by injuries, and even Avisail Garcia missed time with finger and knee soreness. It was hoped Charlie Tilson would take over in center field, but he didn't play a single game this season.

Mixed results

1. Anderson struggles before rebounding

Shortstop Tim Anderson’s ascent was derailed for several months as he struggled to cope with the May shooting death of his close friend, Branden Moss. Anderson made far too many errors and had a .608 OPS before he sought a grief counselor and turned around the toughest season of his life. After making 22 errors in 80 games, Anderson made six in the final 65. He also produced a .793 OPS in his final 54 games.

After baseball punishes Braves, one ranker says White Sox have game's best farm system

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USA TODAY

After baseball punishes Braves, one ranker says White Sox have game's best farm system

The White Sox farm system is baseball's best, according to one of the people making those rankings.

In the wake of Major League Baseball's punishment of the Atlanta Braves for breaking rules regarding the signing of international players — which included the removal of 12 illegally signed prospects from the Braves' organization — MLB.com's Jim Callis tweeted out his updated top 10, and the White Sox are back in first place.

Now obviously there are circumstances that weakened the Braves' system, allowing the White Sox to look stronger by comparison. But this is still an impressive thing considering that three of the White Sox highest-rated prospects from the past year are now full-time big leaguers.

Yoan Moncada used to be baseball's No. 1 prospect, and pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez weren't too far behind. That trio helped bolster the highly ranked White Sox system. Without them, despite plenty of other highly touted prospects, common sense would say that the White Sox would slide down the rankings.

But the White Sox still being capable of having baseball's top-ranked system is a testament to the organizational depth Rick Hahn has built in such a short period of time.

While prospect rankings are sure to be refreshed throughout the offseason, here's how MLB Pipeline's rankings look right now in regards to the White Sox:

4. Eloy Jimenez
9. Michael Kopech
22. Luis Robert
39. Blake Rutherford
57. Dylan Cease
90. Alec Hansen

The youngest coach in baseball manages some of the White Sox top minor leaguers

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MiLB.com

The youngest coach in baseball manages some of the White Sox top minor leaguers

Most minor league managers have graying sideburns, wrinkled skin and a birth date well before 1980.

They’ve been through the battles of baseball and life, placed in rural dugouts across the country to teach the younger generation how to play the game.

But in a town outside Charlotte, North Carolina, the White Sox are bucking this trend with a fresh-faced millennial who one day could be sitting in a major league manager’s office with his name on it.

Justin Jirschele is the manager of the Kannapolis Intimidators, the White Sox Class-A affiliate.  At 27 years old, he is the youngest manager in all of professional baseball.  

Jirschele (pronounced JIRSH-ah-lee) goes by “Jirsh” to those who know him and who play for him, which last season included top prospects like Jake Burger, Alec Hansen, Dane Dunning and Dylan Cease.

When Jirschele played the game, he was a guy every team would have wanted.

Not for his speed: He never stole more than four bases in a season during his minor league career. Not for his power: He didn't hit a single home run in 622 career at-bats.

But because he treated every game like it could be his last.

“I never took a play off. I never took an at-bat off,” he said.

This was his mindset even in his very last minor league at-bat for the Birmingham Barons in 2015.

“I remember walking up and I said out loud to myself, ‘This is it. Do something.’ I’m getting the chills right now thinking about it.”

Jirschele knew his playing days were over. So did the White Sox. They signed him out of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. Nobody else wanted him. Over the next four seasons, he played for five White Sox minor league teams. The results on the field were overwhelmingly average.

Then one day, Nick Capra, then the White Sox Director of Player Development, came to Jirschele with an idea and an offer that would change his life.

“He asked, ‘Are you ready to start coaching yet?’ Jirschele recalled. ‘And I looked at him and went, ‘What do you mean?’”

The White Sox offered Jirschele a job to be the hitting coach for the Grand Falls Voyagers, the team’s rookie league affiliate.

“I was in shock. It was the end of May, the season was still young. I was at three different levels. I started at Winston-Salem, went to Charlotte and came back to Birmingham. It was a whirlwind. When he first said it, my first feeling was excitement. That kind of told me right there that it was the right time to do it.”

So Jirschele took the job.

He was 25 years old.

Then he went out and took that final minor league at-bat for Birmingham, which turned out to be a fitting conclusion to his playing career.  

“I think it was the second pitch, right down the middle and I was tardy, hit it off my fist, a dribbler to the shortstop and I bet you I ran as hard as I had in my entire life. It wasn’t that I was fast, but I was running as hard as I possibly could to first and I don’t think there even was a throw I hit it so soft, perfectly past the pitcher.  I just said to myself, that’s it right there.”

An infield dribbler for a base hit to close his playing career.

Coaching made sense for Jirschele. His father, Mike, is the third base coach for the Kansas City Royals. He won a World Series in 2015. His older brother, Jeremy, is the head baseball coach back at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Pretty soon, the younger Jirschele would be leading a team of his own.  

In 2017, the White Sox gave him the managerial job with Kannapolis. Sure, some of his players would be around the same age, but the White Sox looked past the birth date on his driver’s license and recognized a person who was wise beyond his years.

“It was identified early on that he has the leadership qualities we look for in a manager regardless of his age,” said Chris Getz, White Sox Director of Player Development. “He has good baseball knowledge, good communication skills, a willingness to learn and adapt, and carries out a consistent message. We feel lucky to have him and think he has a bright future ahead.”

Although the ages of the Intimidators players ranged from 19 to 25 years old, it didn’t matter that their manager was slighty older than them.

“Never once had an issue with the age thing,” Jirschele said about his players. “I think from Day 1 when I showed them the respect like I’m not going to be the guy that’s two years older than you hammering things down your throat, I’m going to have that respect and you’re going to show it back.”  

While the White Sox prospects spent the season developing their playing skills, Jirschele was honing his managing skills, which go beyond what happens on the field. A big part of the job is handling issues that arise off of it.  

“It’s a long grind season and there are so many things that are going to come up non-baseball related to where you might be in that clubhouse and you might feel alone,” Jirschele explained. “You might feel like you’re on an island all by yourself even if you’ve got three best friends that are going to stand up in your wedding one day, you might not feel comfortable talking to those guys about that.  Come on in, we’ll talk about it at 12:30 in the afternoon or 7:30 at night or midnight. I tell the guys you’ve got my phone number.  Call or text no matter what time if you need to talk.”

Following his thirst for managing knowledge, Jirschele often reaches out to his dad for late-night phone calls, rehashing the game that night. He’ll even text an opposing manager, like Patrick Anderson, a friend who has managed the Hagerstown Suns, the Nationals Class-A affiliate for the last four seasons.

“He’s a guy I could pick his brain about things," he said. "Once the series was over I’d send him a text and ask, ‘Why did you do this?’ At the end of the day we’re all in it together and first and foremost it’s all for these players and making them better each and every day and doing whatever we can to get them to the top. But at the same time we’re developing ourselves as well along the way.

“I’m sure I annoy a lot of people of asking questions but that’s how you learn. I was brought up that way.”

Jirschele’s impressions of some White Sox top prospects he managed last season:

Alec Hansen: “When he takes the ball, you feel like you have one of the best chances in the country to get a win that night in minor league baseball.  His stuff is just off the charts.”

Dane Dunning: “It would be the 8th inning, he wanted that complete game and he wouldn’t be too pleased with me coming out there to take him out, but you want that.  You want that out of a competitor on the mound every 5 days. He’s definitely a guy you want in the foxhole with you, no doubt.”

Micker Adolfo: “He has a special, special arm.  I don’t know if there’s a better one right now.”

Jake Burger: “Looking forward, the ceiling is unbelievably high for him. 100 percent no doubt in my mind, someday he will be a captain in the big leagues.”

Like many of his players, Jirschele left an impression with the White Sox in his first season as manager. He helped lead the Intimidators to their first playoff berth since 2009 and their first trip to the South Atlantic League championship since 2005.

Earlier this month, the White Sox named him their Minor League Coach of the Year.

“First and foremost, it means we had good players this year. It’s those guys between the lines,” he said. “As coaches, we can’t go out there and pitch. We were fortunate to have a great group of guys. We came up a little short (winning the championship), but we got there and it was fun.”

Once upon a time, Jirschele’s dream was to make it to the majors. That dream still exists.  Just now instead of having his own baseball card, he wants to get to the big leagues holding a lineup card.

“I think I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t a goal, but at the same time I don’t worry about it. I know I’m 27 years old," he said. "I’m just fortunate to have the job I do right now with the White Sox. I go out and do my job every single day and the rest will just take care of itself.”