The silver linings aren’t always a joy to find during this rebuilding season. “Well, at least …” can become a somewhat tired refrain as the White Sox sit at 5-16.
But that’s the reality for the rebuilding White Sox, for whom brighter days surely lie ahead. The stocked farm system keeps delivering news of prospect achievements, and the young players at the major league level are providing their own positive signs for the years that are coming.
The South Siders wrapped a 1-5 homestand Wednesday afternoon with their second straight one-run defeat to the visiting Seattle Mariners. They only had one hit after the third and saw the last 13 hitters go down in order. James Shields walked four more guys to bring his season total to 17 in six appearances. The White Sox starting staff leads the majors with 65 free passes issued.
Well, at least …
Wednesday, it was Yoan Moncada’s leadoff homer in the bottom of the first, a ball that was absolutely crushed into the right-field seats. The distance and power were strong signs for a player expected to be at the center of all that future success. But perhaps of greater note to those who have watched his still-nascent big league career was the fact that the homer came on the first pitch Felix Hernandez threw, a departure from the long at-bats Moncada has been famous for working in his first two seasons on the South Side.
But perhaps it’s just as strong a showing of his hitter’s eye that he was able to do what he did with that first pitch.
“I was trying to be aggressive in that at-bat, swing at the first pitch,” Moncada said. “It was a good pitch for me, and I put the barrel on the ball and made good contact. That was it.”
Moncada, to add luster to this silver lining, has been mashing of late. In the last nine games, Moncada is slashing .333/.421/.848 with eight extra-base hits, four home runs, eight RBIs and eight runs scored. His five home runs rank second on the team, behind only Jose Abreu. And he's just two days removed from coming a single short of the cycle in Monday's win. Yes, he’s also struck out 14 times in the nine-game span, a constant concern for a guy who’s right around the major league lead in punch outs. But he’s also drawn five walks and stolen four bases.
Yes, the White Sox went 1-8 in those contests. But if the 2018 campaign is about developing the players who will power future contenders, then this recent surge by Moncada, one of the rebuild’s biggest stars, ought to please the front office and fans alike who have bought in to the rebuild but remain eager for the strategy to translate into big league success.
“As experience and time give him more opportunity to gain more knowledge of himself and the opponent, and what he’s capable of doing, he’s barely scratching the surface of who he is,” manager Rick Renteria said. “There’s no way that any of us believe in any way, shape or form that he’s a finished product. He continues to develop his skill set, continues to learn, make adjustments as do most players, but one as young as he is, with the skill set he brings to the table, you hope that it ultimately winds up playing really big dividends, which I believe we expect that in the near future.”
“I agree with Ricky,” Moncada said. “I also think that I’m just in the learning process. It’s step by step. I think that I have a lot of talent and I can be a much better player overall. I agree with him. It’s just a process. I try to improve and get better every day.”
An interesting question might be how many leadoff home runs Moncada will have a chance to hit when the oft-projected 2020 lineup takes full shape. Moncada was seemingly entrenched in the leadoff spot when this season began, though Renteria has already moved him out of that spot against left-handers, opting instead to put Tim Anderson at the top of the lineup. Moncada’s got just one hit in only four at-bats outside the leadoff spot, more an indication of his struggles against lefties, against whom he’s batting .130 with 12 strikeouts in 23 at-bats.
Though with his increased power display in the last week and a half, it sparks curiosities of Moncada being more of a middle-of-the-order bat than one that is parked at the top for the remainder of his career.
“He has an extremely good eye,” Renteria said. “Right now, as you see, we’ve mixed and matched him with Timmy now the last two or three days maybe to give him the best chance to have the most positive outcomes possible. We know that right now against righties, he’s very, very good. And right now he’s working on improving his approaches against left-handed pitchers. Seems to me the last couple of days he’s shown some pretty good signs against lefties in his at-bats, contact, swings, approach, and so we’re going to try to continue to develop whatever we need to do in order to maximize the confidence he can gain and the opportunities he gets in any situation.
“And then at some point, I’m sure it will be defined as to what he is ultimately from both sides of the plate and if he’s going to be ultimately a leadoff hitter from both sides of the plate against anybody. His eye says to me that he’s capable of doing that. But sometimes you want to give him the best matchup and you also want to, within the construct of the lineup that you have and the guys that you have, maximize what those guys are capable of doing.”
Moncada and the White Sox both have a long way to go until they transform from 5-16 to the planned contender this rebuilding effort is supposed to yield. But if this season is about anything at the big league level, it’s about Moncada’s development. It’s a small sample size, yes, but of late, Moncada has shown some signs of a guy who could be one of the reasons the South Siders are contending one day.
Michael Kopech blew up White Sox Twitter again Wednesday morning, adding eight more strikeouts to his impressive 2018 total and turning in another strong outing down at Triple-A Charlotte.
Couple that with news that Ronald Acuna, the No. 2 prospect in baseball, is set to make his major league debut with the Atlanta Braves, and the already loud “are we there yet?” style chorus wondering when Kopech will arrive on the South Side grew even louder.
It’s that time of year, when highly rated prospects get called up now that they’re no longer in danger of racking up a year of big league service time, pushing their free-agent clocks back another year. It’s a somewhat confusing situation, even for Chicago baseball fans and observers who went through this not too long ago with Kris Bryant and the Cubs.
The deal is this: The rulebook states a player will accrue a year of major league service time if he spends 172 days on a major league roster in a given year. That’s a lot when you consider that the 2018 season is only 187 days long. So pretty much after two weeks of the season elapse, prospects can get called up, spend the rest of the season on the roster and still not log a year of service time. It’s a handy ploy for teams to squeeze an extra year of team control out of a player.
So what’s all this have to do with Kopech?
Well, if you think the White Sox are simply waiting to bring him up to the majors so they can get an extra year of him down the road — which would be a smart thing to do considering the White Sox aren’t attempting to use Kopech’s services to win this season but rather a year or two from now and then far into the future — you might expect him to be called up soon.
There is this thing called “Super Two” that, were the White Sox sole goal just to delay his arrival to get another year of team control, would need to be taken into consideration. If a player is in the top 22 percent in his class in service time, along with some other stipulations, he could qualify for arbitration a year early. So there’s that to remember, too.
But, of course, there’s the logical notion that the White Sox just aren’t necessarily ready for Kopech to hit the majors just yet. General manager Rick Hahn said repeatedly during the offseason that the needs of the big league team and Kopech’s readiness for the majors will be independent of one another. For example, the White Sox need to figure out who’s going to start one half of Saturday’s doubleheader in Kansas City. It’s highly unlikely the team would rush Kopech to the bigs just because they need a spot starter in an April game against the Royals.
Hahn has stressed that there is no rush to get Kopech — or any other of the team’s highly rated prospects — to the majors. And that makes complete sense. The White Sox are not expected to contend for a championship this season, and if the results of the team’s first 20 games are any indication, they look as though they won’t be. So why give any of these young players anything less than ample amount of time to finish their development at a given level?
It makes sense why fans are so eager. This impressive collection of minor league talent has given this team a bright future. And while the losses keep coming at the big league level, it’s understandable why folks want that future to start as soon as possible.
But Kopech has made just seven starts at the Triple-A level. Eloy Jimenez has played in 24 games at the Double-A level. Many of the organization’s highest-rated prospects are still at the Class A level. The daily reports from the minor leagues are encouraging and exciting. And when Kopech does something like strike out 29 batters in four starts, it might seem like a readymade alternative to a starting staff at the big league level that’s walked 61 batters in 20 games.
But minor league success doesn’t always mean major league readiness. Look just a year ago at Yoan Moncada, then ranked as the No. 1 prospect in baseball. He didn’t make his first appearance in a White Sox uniform until mid-July. That was after he proved that he could dominate Triple-A over the course of 80 games. Kopech looks dominant, yes, but is four starts enough? Hahn said this offseason that using Moncada as an indicator for how the team would handle its other highly touted prospects might be a good way to think.
Kopech figures to be up to the majors this season. Jimenez, who’s spring training was limited by an injury and who didn’t start the regular season right on time because of a different injury, might be a bit further behind. But just because fans don’t see those players right away doesn’t mean they’re not doing exactly what the White Sox want them to do: develop into stars who can make this team a perennial contender. That, of course, takes time.