Tangible, visible, hit-you-over-the-head obvious signs of progress have at times seemed hard to come by for the rebuild-loving legions watching the White Sox on a nightly basis during this developmental 2018 campaign.
That’s not to say there haven’t been tons of positives throughout the organization. Those who sprung for the MiLB.TV package have been able to see every Eloy Jimenez home run, and people around the baseball world found out just how fantastic Dylan Cease has been when he represented the organization at the Futures Game.
But the inconsistencies of Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, the strikeout-heavy first full major league season from Yoan Moncada and the early season demotion of Carson Fulmer have left those watching the big league team praying for some sign that things are improving.
Enter Michael Kopech.
The news that the team’s top-ranked pitching prospect, one of the top 15 prospects in baseball, will make his major league debut Tuesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field must have seemed like an oasis in a 31-games-below-.500 desert when it was announced Sunday afternoon.
It’s sure to make for an even more hyped atmosphere than the one that greeted Yoan Moncada last July, when the No. 1 prospect in the game made his debut in a White Sox uniform. And while the architects of this rebuilding effort know the inner workings of the organization like no outsider ever could, they’re going to be part of that atmosphere Tuesday, too, part of a celebration of progress coming to the South Side.
“As focused as we have been, the front office and even White Sox fans, on the future and progress we feel we’re making, we’ve also been tested,” general manager Rick Hahn said on a conference call Monday morning. “We’ve talked about, going back to last offseason, this would very likely be the most difficult year of the rebuild and the patience this year would require would be a challenge for all of us. So I do think it’s important to try and enjoy these moments along the way where you do see that progress.
“We can talk all we want about how we’re only in Year 2 and that it is going to take time and there is a bright future ahead of us, but we’re all human, we’re all sports fans, we all want to see progress along the way. That has nothing to do with the timing of making a move like this, but when a move like this does occur and when the developmental reasons line up accordingly, we all should take a moment to enjoy the progress and excitement that comes.”
Those paying close enough attention knew what Hahn cautioned prior to the beginning of the season, that this was going to be the hardest part of the rebuild. Tom Petty said it first, to be fair, that the waiting is the hardest part, and that’s what 2018 was always going to be for the White Sox, a waiting game. The incredible amount of talent Hahn brought into the system needed time to develop, and in many cases it still does.
And so during that waiting came what fans and observers have seen on a nightly basis at the major league level. For the young players who are still slated to be key pieces of the team’s long-term plans, we’ve seen growing pains and the continued development that comes in the bigs. In certain cases, we’ve seen players who are fighting to make themselves a part of the long-term plans and players who simply won’t end up being a part of those long-term plans.
But few players are expected to have as a big a starring role as Kopech, hence the excitement surrounding his promotion. He’s tantalized with his last seven starts at Triple-A Charlotte, posting a 1.84 ERA with a ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio — 59 punch outs and only four free passes — over his last 44 innings.
While fans have been clamoring for promotions — be it of Kopech or top-ranked prospect Eloy Jimenez — for months, it’s taken this long into the season for a big one to come to the major league team. That, too, has all been part of the plan. Hahn mentioned multiple times throughout the year that how the team handled Giolito and Lopez a season ago could be a kind of template for how they handled Kopech this season. And while all three are different pitchers dealing with their own developments, Kopech will make his debut one day away from the one-year anniversary of Giolito’s White Sox debut.
In the end, though, Kopech’s promotion is the manifestation of the patience Hahn said everyone involved with this organization — him and his own front office included — had to practice this season. The White Sox waited until they knew Kopech was absolutely ready. They didn’t make a promotion to better a team that wasn’t contending for a playoff spot or to please an antsy fan base hungry to see progress happen as soon as possible. Baseball players constantly say that it’s all about execution. Well, Hahn and the White Sox executed their plan exactly how they wanted.
“Outside noise or emotion or even passion or excitement for seeing the rebuild progress has nothing to do with our decisions in terms of the timing of promotions,” Hahn said. “Each of these decisions are motivated by what’s best in terms of putting both the organization and the individual player in the best long-term position to reach their potential.
“We knew the 2018 season would be a challenging one and one in which we were going to have to not fall prey to outside influences or the influence of outside factors beyond what’s best for the organization and what’s best for our players’ long-term development. It’s going to require patience. I think you’ve seen that we’ve exhibited that this season, and we’re going to have to continue to do that throughout the coming weeks and months.
“The short-term gratification that would come from eliminating white noise or promoting a high-profile player just isn’t worth it when you consider the long-term benefits that come from us just showing the requisite patience that is required to put these guys in the best long-term position to succeed.”
Now it’s time for Kopech to execute his own plan and meet the huge expectations he has for himself and that Chicago has for him.
But for those watching the big league team, this is the hit-you-over-the-head sign of progress you’ve been waiting for, a tangible sign that the rebuild is moving forward.
The Bears didn’t immediately know the severity of Leonard Floyd’s hand injury following Saturday’s 24-23 preseason win over the Denver Broncos, but merely the fact that it happened brought to the fore a concerning question.
What do the Bears do without their ostensibly No. 1 pass rusher?
Last week, we wrote that Floyd is the most important member of the Bears’ defense in 2018, but for that to be the case, he has to be able to stay on the field. And that hasn’t been part of his resume — Floyd missed four games his rookie year due to concussions and six games last year thanks to freak knee injury. Not only do the Bears need Floyd to be productive, they need him to be healthy, too.
The best-case for the Bears is that Floyd’s hand injury won’t lead him to miss any time once the regular season starts Sept. 9. But in the event Floyd does have to miss time, there’s a wide-open competition to see who will start next to Sam Acho in Green Bay. And that’s where we’ll start our review of where some key position battles stand after the Bears’ third preseason game:
1. Outside linebacker: Isaiah Irving vs. Kylie Fitts vs. Aaron Lynch vs. Kasim Edebali vs. Elijah Norris
Irving didn’t do much on Saturday, and neither did Fitts, who didn’t record a pressure or a sack on 16 pass rushing snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Lynch didn’t play against the Broncos and hasn’t practiced since suffering a hamstring injury the first day of camp. The Bears took a one-year flier on Lynch back in March to see if reuniting him with Vic Fangio — his defensive coordinator his rookie year with the San Francisco 49ers — would nail a low-risk, high-reward type addition, but the injury issues that plagued him the last two years haven’t gone away. His Week 1 roster spot is hardly assured, and the Bears will have to see him at least practice, if not play, before they determine if he’s worth keeping on cut-down day.
But that being said, this group of outside linebackers looks underwhelming. Irving has flashed at times, and so has Fitts, but neither has produced in the last two preseason games (Irving missed the Cincinnati game with an injury).
Edebali could be a guy to watch in this battle, though. He had a sack on Saturday as well as a pressure and a tackle for a loss, and as recently as 2015 had five sacks with the New Orleans Saints. But the 29-year-old only played 102 defensive snaps last year with the Broncos and Lions and needed to try out to make the Bears back in May. Could he be a diamond in the rough? Sure. But counting on him, or Norris — an undrafted free agent — to be a significant part of this outside linebacker rotation could be dangerous.
The Bears were already likely to be looking at acquiring another outside linebacker, either by trade or waiver claim, before Floyd’s injury. Depending on the severity of it, those efforts may have to be doubled.
2. Center: Cody Whitehair vs. James Daniels
The Bears haven’t characterized this as a true competition yet, and until further notice remain committed to keeping Whitehair at center. A poor center-quarterback exchange that led to a safety on Saturday was the fault of Mitch Trubisky (“I just dropped it,” he said) and otherwise Whitehair’s snaps were not a problem.
While the Bears may seem a little hard-headed regarding Whitehair sticking to center, this coaching staff is going to play the five best offensive linemen it has in Week 1. If Harry Hiestand believes his offensive line will be better off with Daniels at center and Whitehair at left guard, instead of Whitehair at center and Eric Kush/Earl Watford at left guard, then that’s how this thing will shake out.
This coming week will be telling for the Bears’ Week 1 plans. If we see Daniels all of a sudden elevated to the first team offensive line, that’s probably the combination of five we’ll see rolled out in Green Bay. The Bears need to establish continuity up front, preferably by kickoff on Saturday.
3. Defensive end: Jonathan Bullard vs. Roy Robertson-Harris vs. John Jenkins vs. Bilal Nichols vs. Nick Williams
With Akiem Hicks held out, all five of these players got some run with the first-team defense on Saturday.
Robertson-Harris had another strong game, recording a sack on which he used his length and strength to stay with Broncos guard Ronald Leary and stretch his arm out to bring quarterback Case Keenum to the ground. He was credited with half a sack, too, and for what it’s worth he leads all defensive players with 3 1/2 preseason sacks and is second with six hurries. The impact he’s made this preseason has pushed him from being a rotational piece to, potentially, being a Week 1 starter.
The Bears like Bullard’s steady play and his ability to play anywhere on the defensive line, and while Robertson-Harris could be in a position to start over him, he should play plenty this year.
That leaves, likely, two open spots down the depth chart for the remaining three defensive linemen here (Jenkins, Nichols, Williams). Nichols has two sacks and three hurries, not that the fifth-round pick was ever really on a roster bubble, but that production has confirmed some of the things the Bears saw in him coming out of Delaware. Jenkins has played all over the place but would be a natural replacement for Eddie Goldman should something happen to the fourth-year nose tackle. That leaves Williams as, likely, the odd man out here if the Bears choose to keep six defensive linemen.
4. Cornerback: Marcus Cooper vs. Doran Grant vs. Kevin Toliver II vs. Michael Joseph vs. John Franklin III
As things stand right now, four cornerbacks are locks for the Week 1 roster: Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Bryce Callahan and Sherrick McManis. LeBlanc is probably on the roster, and had a solid game Saturday despite fielding two punts inside the five-yard line (Nagy wasn’t too worried with that after the game, saying LeBlanc was only returning punts because of lack of bodies to do so).
So that leaves, realistically, one spot open for five guys. It was worth noting Grant and Toliver were the first two cornerbacks to come in off the bench, and both got some reps against the Broncos’ first-team offense. Rookie wideout Courtland Sutton burned both of them, with Sutton drawing a pass interference foul near the goal line on Grant and then beating Toliver on a quick strike up the seam for a touchdown.
Toliver, though, led the Bears in snaps played and gave up one yard after the three catches he allowed. Cooper didn’t play, while Joseph did and recorded six tackles.
This is a battle that’ll likely come down to the last preseason game, or be pre-empted by a waiver wire transaction on cut-down weekend. The edge right now may be to Toliver, depending on how Ed Donatell and Vic Fangio grade his performance on Saturday.
5. Wide receiver: Marlon Brown vs. Javon Wims vs. Bennie Fowler vs. Tanner Gentry vs. DeMarcus Ayers
It’s worth noting that Brown received plenty of work with the first-team offense on Saturday, though his only catch (a 30-yarder) came with Chase Daniel in the game. The 6-foot-5, 214 pound Brown does have some special teams experience in his career and caught seven touchdowns for the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted rookie in 2013, but hasn’t played in the NFL since 2015.
Wims still may have the upper hand in this group just based on him being a draft pick, but more than likely this spot will come down to who 1) Has the biggest upside as a receiver and 2) Can successfully contribute on special teams. Production on Saturday between Wims, Fowler and Gentry was relatively equal, while Ayers missed the game due to an injury. Like the cornerback battle, this will go down to the last week of preseason, most likely.