Mark it down.
Jan. 28, 2018.
The day Nicky Delmonico planted the White Sox flag for the upcoming season, saying on the White Sox Talk Podcast, “We’re going to surprise the world.”
Surprise the world? What do you mean?
“We’re going to surprise everybody. That’s exactly what I mean,” Delmonico said emphatically. “I think that White Sox fans know it. I think we’re going to have a really exciting year.”
It’s the offseason, a time when every player on every team can basically say the same thing without much accountability. Who’s going to go back and check the quotes in eight months, anyway?
For this story, the hope is, we will have to dig them up at the end of September, because there might actually be some weight behind what Delmonico is saying.
The White Sox are not going to win the World Series. They’re definitely a long shot to make the playoffs — though Dan Plesac of MLB Network was the first prominent believer in the White Sox, saying at the Winter Meetings that they could compete for a wild card.
For the record, Plesac grew up a White Sox fan. So did I.
But dig deeper into the White Sox 67-95 record last season, and there was a lot more going on than mere wins and losses.
Take last July and August. The White Sox were terrible. They traded away Jose Quintana, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Todd Frazier, Anthony Swarzak, Melky Cabrera and Dan Jennings. They went a combined 17-34 in those two months. On Aug. 31, they were serious contenders for the worst record in baseball and the first pick in this year’s draft.
But when the dust settled in September, what happened?
The White Sox got better.
They went 15-14 and had their best month since April.
Truth be told, September can be a weird month. There are call-ups getting their first (and sometimes last) taste in the majors. Plus, there are contending teams resting players, which allows also-rans like the White Sox to pick up some cheap wins. So September success can sometimes be fool’s gold.
But manager Rick Renteria saw something different going on with his team that month.
“I think that our players who were with us through September learned a little bit about themselves,” Renteria said during last weekend's SoxFest festivities. “If everybody starts to really look at it, Tim Anderson started to rebound from some of the things he was going through at the time. (Yoan) Moncada started squaring up more pitches in the off-speed category that he was probably swinging through when he first arrived. Those were some of the adjustments we were hoping he was going to make.”
After slashing .105/.261/.263 in his first 12 games in July, Moncada rebounded with .276/.349/.469 and five HRs in September. As for Anderson, he closed the season with his hair on fire. He batted .327 with nine stolen bases in September. He also had 32 strikeouts and just one walk, but hey, you can’t have everything.
“I saw (the players) starting to come together (in September) and understand a lot of their particular roles, specifically the bullpen,” Renteria said.
Let’s get to that bullpen, which was a shambles after the trade deadline. They finished August with a 6.03 ERA, the worst in baseball. But come September, the rocky seas got a whole lot calmer. As a team, the bullpen had a 3.96 ERA that month, not great, but they finished in the middle of the pack in the majors. Look at things a little closer and you had left-handed rookie Aaron Bummer settle down and finish with an 0.96 ERA in September. Gregory Infante had his second straight sub-2.00 ERA month in a row (1.42). Juan Minaya closed the season with five scoreless innings and five consecutive saves.
In the starting rotation, Derek Holland and his 6.20 ERA were DFA’d on Sept. 5.
Mike Pelfrey was still used occasionally as a starter in September — with disastrous results, 17 runs in two starts — adding to the White Sox loss total. Both won’t be in the rotation in 2018.
But three pitchers who very likely will be on this year's starting staff were called up to the majors and did this in September:
— Carson Fulmer: 3-0, 1.64 ERA
— Lucas Giolito: 2-2, 2.23 ERA
— Reynaldo Lopez: 3-2, 4.10 ERA
This season, they’ll be mainly throwing to Welington Castillo, a big upgrade at the catching position from last season offensively and defensively. Castillo had a league-leading 44.4-percent caught-stealing rate in 2017. White Sox catchers were second-to-last at 18 percent. Castillo had the best pitch-framing statistics of his career. He also hit a career-high 20 home runs in only 365 plate appearances.
And sometime next season (possibly as early as May or June), the White Sox will likely bring up Michael Kopech, who has one of the best arms in minor league baseball. The rotation will be young but potentially really good.
The White Sox are stressing patience with their prospects, but if they can press the issue and check all the boxes, they could be promoted sooner rather than later.
“We have an eye on all of them. Some of the things we’ll talk to them about in spring training is to let them know, ‘Hey, we know you’re here,’” Renteria said. “You’re never too far away. Sometimes you think you’re from here to the moon and all of a sudden (a call up) happens and you’re surprised. We don’t want them to be surprised when they get to the big leagues. We want them to be ready and expect to get to the big leagues.”
Eloy Jimenez has only played 18 games at the Double-A level. He says he wants to make the big league club out of spring training. If that doesn’t happen (and let’s be honest, it won’t), he’ll settle for coming up, as he put it, in “the middle” of the season.
If that occurs, you’ll have two of the best minor league prospects in baseball joining a tenacious, cohesive club that follows the lead of their persistent manager.
“We’re not going to be someone that’s gonna let other clubs just walk all over. We took that approach last year,” Renteria said. “We’re not going to put ourselves in the position where we’re going to downplay where we’re at. We’re going to play to high expectations. That’s a fact.
“We want our guys to have fun. We want our guys to exude to the fans that are coming out every single day to play as consistent of baseball that they possibly can. I think we’re getting to that point where people are starting to trust that as a reality.”
After getting called up on August 1, Delmonico took this mindset and ran with it. He set a White Sox record, reaching base in the first 13 games of his major league career. In September, he hit walk-off home runs against the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels, two teams chasing a wild card. For a fan base starving for hope and excitement, the charismatic Delmonico quickly became one of the White Sox most popular players.
But beyond the baseball field, he noticed something really special going on inside the clubhouse that he believes will lead to more victories in 2018.
“I haven’t felt this comfortable in a locker room in I don’t know how long,” Delmonico said. “I think it has to do with up top, with everything going on in the front office all the way down to the clubhouse. I think everybody is on the same page. It’s really fun to come in and play for the White Sox everyday. Everyone is on board with what we have to do and what we want to do. The biggest thing is that we’re here to have fun and play hard. I think everybody has bought into those two things. If you do those two things, you play hard and have fun, you can do a lot of damage out on the field.”
After doing most of their dirty work with the rebuild last season, the White Sox are now starting to trend upward. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers are just beginning their teardowns. Expect some dark days ahead for those teams — and more wins for the South Siders.
How many more? That’s in the eye of the beholder. If they can stay healthy, an additional 10 to 15 wins seems possible. Delmonico obviously goes much further, predicting the White Sox are going to surprise the world.
Get ready, Earth.
Wherever you sit on the “White Sox in 2018” spectrum, it’s tough to deny the talent that has reached the majors and will continue to arrive in the future.
So go ahead, be a believer in the White Sox — even in 2018. They should be better, and better than most people think.
October baseball seems unlikely. But it’s February. It’s baseball. Anything is possible.