Will fortunes of White Sox first-rounders change in 2020?

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USA TODAY

Will fortunes of White Sox first-rounders change in 2020?

The book now closed on the 2010s, the list of the White Sox first-round draft picks from that decade is a mixed bag.

That’s not to say it’s bad, of course. No list of first-round picks that includes one of the best pitchers in baseball and a batting champion could ever be considered bad. Rick Hahn has been fond of pointing out how much WAR (Wins Above Replacement) White Sox draftees produced during the 2010s to back up the idea that, in fact, it’s quite a good list.

That argument isn’t necessarily representative of the White Sox draftees on the whole, with much of that WAR coming from Chris Sale (45.3 of it, per the Baseball Reference metric) and Tim Anderson (10.2). But failing to hit on every top pick is a baseball-wide problem, not one unique to the South Side. Hence the mixed bag.

Critics will point to the misses that were Keenyn Walker, Keon Barnum and Courtney Hawkins. But even in more recent, more difficult-to-assess drafts, there’s inarguably been a lot of bad luck.

No one is more representative of that than Jake Burger, the 2017 first-rounder who twice tore his Achilles tendon prior to his first full season as a pro, then suffered some setbacks during his recovery. He still hasn’t returned to game action.

“We’re optimistic that an offseason of rest and recovery will finally get these issues behind him,” Hahn said last month. “Those of you who've been fortunate enough to spend some time around Jake, you probably feel a little bit extra for the kid because it's not only the unfortunate health path that he's been on for any professional athlete, but certainly one that you hate to see in a great kid who just wants to be back out there playing.”

Burger is not alone. Being a White Sox first-round draft pick of recent vintage has, at times, been like being a drummer for Spinal Tap.

Zack Burdi, a first-round pick in 2016, has been saddled with injuries in recent years. 2014 first-rounder Carlos Rodon, despite plenty of time in the majors, has had multiple surgeries in recent seasons, including the Tommy John surgery he’s currently recovering from. Carson Fulmer, the 2015 first-round pick, has been healthy but ineffective, routinely thumped by opposing hitters every time he returns to the big league mound.

The jury remains out on Zack Collins, Burdi’s fellow 2016 first-rounder, who had two brief stints in the majors last season after hitting tremendously well at Triple-A Charlotte. But he’s been bumped behind a pair of All Stars on the 2020 catching depth chart, and it’s a question as to whether he’ll make the team out of spring training.

All that said, 2020 could be shaping up as the year in which that string of bad luck for White Sox first-round draft picks comes to an end.

The most obvious reason would be the approaching arrival of Nick Madrigal, the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft who tore up the minor leagues while playing at three levels in 2019. As advertised when he was drafted, Madrigal does not strike out, doing so just 16 times in 532 trips to the plate last year, and plays excellent defense at second base.

It sounds like Madrigal has an uphill battle to make the Opening Day roster, with Hahn saying last month that Madrigal “hasn't necessarily answered all the questions we have for him in the minor leagues.” But he is expected to be the White Sox second baseman for the majority of the 2020 campaign, and the team has high hopes that he’ll join Anderson as a productive first-round position player on the infield.

Not far behind Madrigal is Andrew Vaughn, who the White Sox chose with the No. 3 pick in last summer’s draft. He’s not expected to reach the major leagues this season, but he’s getting a ton of love from talent evaluators across the game. MLB Pipeline just ranked him the No. 16 prospect in baseball.

"He's a very talented kid, and he's talented for a lot of different reasons," White Sox director of player development Chris Getz said during SoxFest. "When you look at the physical ability, especially in the frame that he has, and what he's able to do to a baseball, it's pretty fun to watch.

"But when you sit down and talk to Andrew Vaughn about hitting, that is the most impressive thing. I sat down, and I just wanted to listen and learn from him. It's like talking to a 10-year vet. I say that because he knows exactly what he needs to do to have success. He has a very advanced approach, and I don't think he'll ever waver from it. He knows exactly what he needs to do on a daily basis to have success against a particular pitcher.

"So Andrew Vaughn's a good one. We're happy to have him."

But even if Vaughn doesn’t make it to the South Side in 2020, this season could see a wave of impact performances from recent first-rounders.

Collins might not be in line for much action behind the plate with Yasmani Grandal and James McCann ahead of him on the depth chart, but he still swings a powerful left-handed bat, which Rick Renteria could find valuable off the bench.

Rodon might miss a good deal of time while still in recovery mode, but he’ll return to the mound at some point and could provide a midseason jolt for a starting rotation that while improved would greatly benefit from some added depth.

Burdi struggled in 2019, with a 6.75 ERA pitching mostly at Double-A Birmingham. But should he return to the performance he was delivering prior to his own Tommy John surgery, he could factor into the big league bullpen mix.

Fulmer, too, has the opportunity to pitch out of the major league bullpen. If he can rediscover what made him a top pick in the first place, he would be a prime candidate to fill the role of long man in a White Sox relief corps that doesn’t have one right now.

Again, Madrigal has the best chance to end this string of bad luck — one that might not be as bad as it seems considering Anderson, the team’s first-round pick in 2013, is fresh off a major league batting title — but these guys could all make impacts of some kind during a 2020 campaign with high hopes and realistic playoff expectations. And if they do, that will change the story surrounding the success of the White Sox first rounds in recent years.

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White Sox pitching problems persist in ugliest performance yet

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USA TODAY

White Sox pitching problems persist in ugliest performance yet

That’s no moon. That’s the White Sox team ERA.

Maybe there was a better joke to make after the White Sox were blown up like Alderaan in a two-touchdown loss to the visiting Boston Red Sox on Star Wars Night. But that one seemed plenty appropriate for a team that might have to start holding tryouts for Wookiees and Wampas and any other intergalactic species that might be able to get some outs.

All right, that’s probably enough with the Star Wars references for now.

The fact remains, though, that White Sox pitching to this point has been mostly unsuccessful in 2019. Manny Banuelos getting lit up in a nightmarish, when-will-it-end third inning Friday night was just the latest sore sight, though perhaps there have been none worse. After retiring the first eight hitters he faced, he gave up two-out hits to the next 10. Nine of them scored. Carson Fulmer didn’t fare much better, facing eight batters and getting just one out, a nasty stretch that saw the first six hitters of the fourth inning reach base. Five of them scored.

By the time it was all said and done, the White Sox gave up 15 runs on 20 hits and watched their staff ERA climb to 5.55, the second highest in baseball.

White Sox starters have been the worst offenders, the rotation now in possession of a 6.82 ERA after Saturday’s debacle. None of the team’s starters have pitched well enough to own an ERA below 5.00. Carlos Rodon, who’s on the injured list for the foreseeable future with a significant elbow injury that could result in Tommy John surgery, leads the way with a 5.19 ERA. Everyone else has a worse mark: Lucas Giolito at 5.32, Banuelos at 5.96, Reynaldo Lopez at 6.69 and Ivan Nova at 8.33.

That the rotation contains two pitchers with higher ERAs than the guy who gave up nine runs and left before the end of the third inning Saturday night should say quite a lot.

While the bullpen can hardly claim innocence, they at least have an excuse. The rotation has been unable to log many innings, their 151.2 of them among the fewest in the league by a starting staff. That leads to a taxed bullpen, a tired bullpen, a vulnerable bullpen and ultimately, what we saw Friday night, when infielder Jose Rondon was sent to the mound in just a five-run game.

“It’s hard, man, it’s hard,” Banuelos said of the rotation’s continued inability to go deep into games. “Honestly that’s my goal every time I get the chance to start a game. I’ve been in the bullpen, and I know how that feels. My goal is just every time I get the ball, try to go deep in the game, six or seven innings. Today it didn’t work that way.”

It could be more of the same when Dylan Covey makes his first start of 2019 on Sunday. Though the starter has been determined, manager Rick Renteria has described it as a bullpen day already. That’s hard to do with a bullpen that’s been as overworked as this one, and it’s why Fulmer and Jose Ruiz were optioned to Triple-A Charlotte after Saturday’s game: to make room for more arms.

Covey has been tabbed as the guy to replace Rodon in the rotation. White Sox fans are familiar with Covey’s work as a starter. He put up a 6.26 ERA in 33 starts during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The White Sox, though, are confident things will go better this time around.

It has to, because there’s practically no starting-pitching depth to speak of behind this current quintet. The numbers at Charlotte — aside from highly touted pitching prospect Dylan Cease, whose timeline won’t be altered because of a need at the big league level, per general manager Rick Hahn — aren’t much better than the ones on the South Side.

With nowhere to turn, the White Sox are banking on the hope that going back to the drawing board will work, that attempting to correct what’s made for one brief, high-scoring outing after another will click at some point.

“The guys that we still have left pitching right now, they have the capability of executing,” Renteria said after Saturday’s game. “We'll kind of work and see what we discover through our stuff tomorrow when we're looking at everything. In terms of confidence, these guys have enough stuff to do it. We've seen them do it. It's just a matter of trying to get them to consistently be able to effectively get through a ballgame.”

Maybe that consistency will come, but what if it doesn’t? Fans are certainly tired of this already, just a little more than a month into the campaign. Their wishes for the team to sign the still-unemployed Dallas Keuchel or trade for the apparently available Marcus Stroman are probably unrealistic. But can they be expected to just sit through this for another five months?

The White Sox are still in the thick of their rebuild. That is understood. And the growing pains and losing records the team is experiencing right now were experienced by the teams that have rebuilt before. The Cubs and the Houston Astros went through miserable seasons with plenty of bad pitching and came out the other side World Series champions.

And it’s very possible, if not probable, that the bulk of the rotation of the future just isn’t here right now. Michael Kopech and Dane Dunning are on the mend from Tommy John surgery. Cease is still cooking at Triple-A. Hahn speculated that maybe the team will need to go out and acquire a top-of-the-rotation starter from outside the organization in an offseason to come.

While the White Sox talked of increased expectations before the season began, it’s possible, at the very least when it comes to the pitching, that the waiting game is still very much ongoing and these woeful results are just what happens while the White Sox wait.

But let’s address those increased expectations. They were talked up not by a hopeful fan base but by the players and manager and general manager themselves. The White Sox wanted as much focus placed on the present as there has been on the future in recent years. If there are increased expectations, what is the penalty for not meeting them?

It wouldn’t exactly be shocking to see another year of development, another year of losing at the big league level. And it should be pointed out that even after a hideous performance Saturday, these White Sox are just three games under .500, a big improvement in the win-loss department (at the moment, anyway) from where this team was last season. There are brighter bright spots right now in Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada than there were at any point last season.

But the pitching? Oh, the pitching. It’s been really, really ugly and never uglier than Saturday.

As Renteria so often points out, his players are trying to do the things that lead to better outcomes. They’re trying to be more consistent. They’re trying to do what Ivan Nova said at one point earlier this season: “pitch better.”

But as every Jedi in training knows: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

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Lucas Giolito goes to injured list, Sox bring Carson Fulmer and Ryan Cordell up from Triple-A

Lucas Giolito goes to injured list, Sox bring Carson Fulmer and Ryan Cordell up from Triple-A

Lucas Giolito will miss some time after straining his hamstring in Wednesday's game.

The White Sox placed the right-handed starting pitcher on the 10-day injured list ahead of Thursday's series-opener in Detroit. They also brought up relief pitcher Carson Fulmer and outfielder Ryan Cordell to take the roster spots of Giolito and outfielder Daniel Palka, who was optioned to Triple-A Charlotte on Wednesday night.

Giolito exited Wednesday's start after just 2.2 innings after tweaking his hamstring on a third-inning pitch. He was doing quite well in his second start of the season against the Kansas City Royals, with five strikeouts and no hits allowed before his early departure.

Giolito spoke with reporters Thursday morning in Detroit, saying the strain isn't too serious and that he expects to miss just one or two starts.

As for who will start in Giolito's stead, that remains to be seen. His turn in the rotation won't come until Monday's game that begins a series against the Baltimore Orioles. Fulmer arriving from Charlotte, however, points to Manny Banuelos being taken out of the major league bullpen to start in Giolito's place. Banuelos has had success as the White Sox long man so far this season, with a few effective multi-inning outings under his belt. Fulmer hasn't made a start since the White Sox moved him to the Charlotte bullpen last season but could serve as a replacement long man in the short term. This is Fulmer's second call-up this season, he was on the roster for one day earlier this month, pitching three innings of relief against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Meanwhile, Cordell arrives to take the place of Palka, who picked up his first hit of the season Wednesday after starting in a dreadful 0-for-32 slump. He was sent down after the game with the task of figuring things out at the Triple-A level. While the White Sox could have opted to slide Adam Engel into an everyday role in the big league outfield, it appears Cordell might get his shot at more frequent big league playing time. He was in the starting lineup for Thursday's game against the Tigers. Cordell made the Opening Day roster but only got six at-bats (homering in one and doubling in another) and was sent down to receive some more regular playing time, which he might now get in the majors.

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