White Sox

After Jose Abreu says 'I would like to stay here forever,' Rick Hahn unsure what path White Sox will take

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USA TODAY

After Jose Abreu says 'I would like to stay here forever,' Rick Hahn unsure what path White Sox will take

If Jose Abreu were in charge of the White Sox rebuild, he’d write his name in the heart of the 2020 batting order, and he’d do it in pen.

“I would like to stay here forever,” Abreu said before the White Sox played their final home game of the season Thursday night. “I would like to play with this team my whole career. But it is a business, and we have to accept and respect what’s in the future. I would like to stay here forever.”

Abreu hasn’t been shy about expressing his desire to be with the White Sox for the remainder of his career, and that’s an outcome that could still very well happen. But as the franchise enters a new phase of its rebuild — one moving on from the glitzy acquisitions of highly touted prospects and moving toward waiting for those players to develop into major league stars — there’s a big question mark surrounding the future of the team’s best hitter.

Abreu is under team control for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, but during his end-of-season press conference Thursday, general manager Rick Hahn seemed to have 2020 circled as the year his rebuilding White Sox begin competing for championships. Will Abreu be on that White Sox team?

The arguments for keeping Abreu past his contract’s expiration date are strong ones. He’s absolutely raked in his four seasons in the big leagues, posting four straight campaigns of 25 home runs and 100 RBIs. Plus, he’s become incredibly valuable to the team off the field, acting as a role model and mentor to the organization’s young Spanish-speaking players. And as his English improves, he’s assuming that role for all the team’s young players.

“(His off-the-field contributions bring) a lot of value, especially in the place in which we're at right now,” manager Rick Renteria said Thursday. “We find ourselves with a lot of young players that are just coming into the major league level. There is a learning curve about what they’re capable of doing between the lines, but then you have someone who’s been here now for four years, who’s maintained a really consistent working routine and has still continued to improve. I mean, this year might be one of his better years of his four years. … Offensively, he's been consistent as you can possibly be. Defensively, he took another step forward, a huge step forward.

“I think during ballgames, on top of that, when there’s a little action going on and they have to talk about something when they go to the meetings at the mound, he’s in there. He is initiating some of those talks. It’s really big to have those guys see someone take something seriously, still be relaxed, he’s also coming into his own himself. He’s becoming more and more relaxed as time goes on.”

But while the positives are many, there are understandable reasons the team might not want to keep a guy who’s been fantastic since putting on the uniform.

First off, Abreu turns 31 in January, and that means his age differs dramatically from that of all the other guys who project to be a part of that 2020 lineup. Abreu’s big league prime might not align with the White Sox championship window.

With that comes the possibility that the franchise could better position itself by moving Abreu in a trade, be it this offseason or next season or the offseason after that or the season after that. Hahn pulled the trigger on deals involving Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, younger guys who could have conceivably been a part of the team’s long-term future. But by moving them, he acquired minor league talent that could keep that championship window open longer.

And so while Hahn didn’t commit to any one direction involving Abreu — and Avisail Garcia, the younger hitter who’s also having a career year and is also under team control for the next two seasons — he laid out the exact situation, a tricky one but one that gives the White Sox options moving forward.

“Both Avi and Abreu are under control for the next two years, through 2019. I think even under the most optimistic projections of our ability to contend, certainly ’18 and ’19 don’t include the bulk of the time when we anticipate having a window open to us,” Hahn said. “So obviously with any player who isn’t controllable through the bulk of that window, we have to make an assessment.

“Is it in our best interest to extend that player, so they’re controllable through that period of time, or do we need to, as we did with other similar extremely talented and very valuable players in the game, explore the trade market and see if we’re more better served moving them in exchange for players who would be under control for that extended window of time we project to have for ourselves?

“They’re both special cases, and there are very strong arguments for them playing roles in 2020 and beyond. Abreu, obviously you can’t say enough about the season he had on the field, but his importance in the role he plays in our clubhouse. Avi is still very young in this game at age 26 and has had his breakout season, and you would have reason to believe that kind of performance is going to become the norm for him going forward. And those are considerations as we make that assessment. Are we better served trying to control these players through the bulk of what we project to be our window, or are we better served as an organization doing what we had to do with Chris, Adam (Eaton), Jose and others?”

You might read it as Hahn refusing to make a public commitment. Or you could read it is a question that doesn’t have one solid answer.

“What I tried to do is lay out the question at hand and the issue at hand, and we have to as a front office make that decision,” Hahn said. “And frankly, on both players, those decisions don’t have to be made this offseason. They’re both controllable through 2019. We have the luxury if we want to play it out another year, play it out another half a year to see if the performance continues, see if the trade market changes. As was the case when we sat here with Quintana a year ago. Yes, he was potentially a trade candidate, but the market didn’t respond the way we had anticipated, so we had to wait. It’s not me just dancing around or being cute. There isn’t a firm answer right now. We don’t know what the options are. One of them conceivably is extending, and we have to wait and see what that cost entails.”

The rebuilding White Sox are blessed with time if nothing else, which means Hahn doesn’t have to make these decisions right away. But at the same time, building a contender for 2020 takes on a much different shape depending on whether Abreu and Garcia are parts of that team.

While it’s unknown how many of the organization’s highly ranked prospects will end up panning out as major league stars, one of the rebuild’s largest remaining questions is what Hahn will do with his team’s best known quantity.

There’s just no telling when an answer will come or what answer that will be.

We do know, though, what Abreu wants: For your No. 79 White Sox jersey to remain relevant forever.

Everything that's gone right this year in the White Sox farm system

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USA TODAY

Everything that's gone right this year in the White Sox farm system

If there’s a sweet spot in the White Sox rebuild, you will find it in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. That’s where first-time manager Omar Vizquel and a surge of talent have quickly burst onto the scene in the Carolina League.  From big names like Dylan Cease, Luis Robert and Blake Rutherford to under the radar types like Jimmy Lambert and Ti’Quan Forbes, Vizquel has been in charge of an overflow of prospects the White Sox minor league system hasn’t seen in years.  

Injuries this year to Robert, Eloy Jimenez, Alec Hanson, Jake Burger, Dane Dunning, Micker Adolfo and Ryan Cordell may have put a damper on your spirits about the White Sox rebuild and the speed in which it will take for the big league club to be good again.  But despite those setbacks, the organizational depth Rick Hahn has preached about and has attempted to create in the farm system is starting to become a reality.

Even after some of Vizquel’s best players like Cease, Joel Booker, Luis Basabe and Bernardo Flores were promoted to Double-A Birmingham in June, Vizquel has inherited a brand new wave of talent from Class-A Kannapolis in the form of Luis Gonzalez, Laz Rivera, Tyler Johnson and Blake Battenfield and they haven’t skipped a beat, excelling in a higher league, creating more late-game drama like we saw from the Dash in the first half of the season.

Here’s 28th round pick Laz Rivera hitting a walk-off grand slam Tuesday night in the 10th inning.

If you want to feel down about the lost development time for Burger, Robert and Dunning, go ahead.  It’s real. Their timetables to the big leagues might be pushed back (although Basabe told me at the Futures Game that Robert “is going to learn very quick.” Store that in the back of your mind when he returns, possibly in the first week in August).  

But if you ask Vizquel about the players he has managed this year,  he believes that many of them are on an accelerated path for the major leagues.

“We’re seeing a lot of explosive players who can go through the system and maybe surprise some people and be in the big leagues a little sooner than people expected,”  Vizquel said in a phone interview.

Who is Vizquel speaking about?  Let’s start with Cease who started the year in Winston-Salem. Vizquel likened him to Justin Verlander.  Yeah, he went there.

“A guy I can compare (Cease) with, I would say he’s a Justin Verlander type.  I was with Justin the last four years in Detroit and obviously he’s one of the most veteran pitchers in the game.  Just the way he handles the situation when he’s on the mound, he’s just amazing. What impressed me about Cease was his composure.  The way he takes the mound every time,” Vizquel said. “Obviously, he’s got a really good fastball that can go up to 98, 99, and he can go to 100 pitches and he still has the strength to go out there in the 9th inning and shut people down.  At his age it’s really tough to find guys like that who can handle the pressure and everything that goes around the pitcher’s mound. And he has that.”

Cease and Basabe both played in the Futures Game.  If Robert wasn’t injured, he very likely would have joined them in Washington, DC.   

Basabe made a big splash in the game, drilling a 102 mph pitch from Reds prospect Hunter Greene deep into the right field seats.   The third player in the Chris Sale trade, Basabe battled a knee injury last season. Healthy this year, he’s showing off all the tools and promise the White Sox were expecting.

“He’s one of those guys who can run balls down in every outfield position.  We used him in every spot. Right, center and left. With his speed and his arm he can play anywhere.  He can hit the ball with power, he can hit consistently for average,” Vizquel said about Basabe. “He can be one of those players who can change the game with one at-bat.  He can bunt, he can hit for power and he can also steal a base. When you have a player that is complete in every aspect of the game, he can be a really good player for anybody.”

Basabe and Joel Booker have both had big comeback seasons.  Booker has been a revelation, raising eyebrows in the White Sox farm system.

“Joel Booker is the most underrated guy we have,”  Cease said during an interview before the Futures Game.

Booker was named the MVP of the Carolina League All-Star Game, got promoted to Birmingham where he’s leading off for the Barons, hitting ahead of fellow outfielder Basabe.

“(Booker) is another guy who has the same tools that Basabe has, except he’s a little faster than Basabe,”  Vizquel said. “I think he wasn’t being mentioned too much in the White Sox organization because there are so many high top prospects here that he probably gets lost in that group of people.  Obviously, when the game starts you can see that he’s one of those players who can bring a lot of attention. He can steal bases, he can hit the ball hard. Even though he’s a leadoff guy he can hit the ball a long way.  He’s a guy who is still learning the game and I think because he hasn’t played baseball that long, people overlook him a little bit, but he’s going to be a great player, too."

When Booker got promoted to Birmingham, that opened up a spot in the Winston-Salem outfield for Luis Gonzalez.  The White Sox 3rd round pick from 2017 immediately became one of the Dash’s best players.

“Luis Gonzalez is one of these guys who can hit in every spot in the lineup.  He’s a good leadoff guy and is very aggressive with the count. He likes to swing the bat.  As a matter of fact, he got mad at me because I don’t let him hit in the 3-hole sometimes. He can tell you that he’s ready to swing at every pitch,”  Vizquel said about Gonzalez who is slashing .306/.349/.449 in 22 games in Winston-Salem.

“He’s a left-handed hitter who doesn’t care if he has a left-handed pitcher on the mound.  He still sticks his nose in there and he’s going to give you a great at-bat every time. That’s who I have at the top of the lineup right now and he’s another player who’s learning the game real quick.  Even in his young age, he looks like a veteran out there.”

But wait, there’s more.  Outfielder Blake Rutherford who the White Sox acquired in the Todd Frazier/David Robertson/Tommy Kahnle trade last July, has quickly made people forget about his struggles in Kannapolis last year (.213/.289/.254 in 30 games).  This year in a higher league, he’s been one of its top hitters (.300/.345/.459), ranking 2nd in RBIs and 4th in hits.

“Rutherford is a guy who is really young too.  I love to have him with runners in scoring position because he can bring an RBI anytime,” Vizquel said about the Dash right fielder who turned 21 in May and is batting .343 with 57 RBIs with RISP.  “He’s a guy who makes contact. He’s going to be good. He’s another great outfielder, not as good as defensively as (Booker and Gonzalez), but he still does have great tools to be out there playing everyday.”

When it comes to starting pitching, Cease, Dunning, Hansen and Michael Kopech get most of the attention in the minor leagues.  But there are some other pitchers making names for themselves this year. Left-hander Bernardo Flores has combined for a 2.56 ERA in 109 innings for Winston-Salem and Birmingham. Since being called up to Double-A, Jimmy Lambert is 3-1 with a 3.13 ERA.  He flirted with a no-hitter in his last start against the Cubs AA team, giving up 1 hit over 7 innings with 10 strikeouts.

“He’s gross,”  Cease said about Lambert.  “He throws his fastball 92 to 95. Disgusting change-up.  He can throw 15 change-ups in an inning and he’ll get 11 swings and misses on it.

Good curveball and slider.  He’s gross.”

Cease and Lambert are now throwing to catcher Zack Collins, who leads the Southern League with a .409 on-base percentage and 77 walks.  The next closest in the league in walks has 53.

We know Collins can hit and get on base.  What about his defense?

“From when I threw to him during spring training to now he’s like almost a new guy,”  Cease said about Collins. “He’s framing well, calling a good game and blocking and that’s all you need from a catcher.”

In Charlotte, there’s 23-year-old reliever Ian Hamilton, who got called up last month and gave up only 2 hits in his first 6.2 IP with 9 strikeouts and 1 walk. His fastball can hit 98 mph and he has a hard slider that can reach 90.  He’s a possible future closer for the White Sox.

He also has a teammate named Eloy Jimenez.  I hear he’s having a big season as well.

In a perfect world, every White Sox prospect listed here will stay healthy, all of them will max out their potential, and in the coming years they’ll win every World Series title from 2020 to 2023.

But life isn’t perfect, especially in baseball.  Too much can go wrong, and often does.

The way to withstand the inevitable setbacks is by stocking your organization with waves of talent.  For a long time, you could only find ripples of this in the White Sox farm system.

Now in Winston-Salem, it’s surf’s up!   The hope is that one day they’ll be hangin’ ten from Kannapolis to Chicago.

For now, Omar Vizquel is handing out longboards to his first-place Dash who have been the class of the Carolina League.  

If he can create a winning culture like he experienced with the Cleveland Indians in the 1990’s, and have that success flow upstream into the big leagues,  the future at 35th and Shields will be very bright.

“I’m glad that I have this opportunity to be involved with all these young bright stars and make a difference and teach them the right way to play fundamental baseball and just play the game the right way,”  Vizquel said. “It’s something that I learned with all my years of experience. I think we’ve been trying to let these guys know how to play the right way and I think it’s paying off.”

Who knew? Stat nuggets from the White Sox pre-All-Star break season

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USA TODAY

Who knew? Stat nuggets from the White Sox pre-All-Star break season

It’s the All-Star Break, so why not take a look back at the first 58.6% of the White Sox season.

 

They may not be contending quite yet, but there have been several interesting moments. 

 

Focusing on the hitters, let’s take a look at ten amazing achievements this season.  And while there may be several to list for some players, I’m going to limit it to one fact per player.  Let’s go.

 

  • On March 29 (Opening Day), Matt Davidson became the 1st player in MLB history to hit 3 Home Runs in a game in March.
  • On April 23, Yoán Moncada (22 years, 331 days) became the youngest player in White Sox history with a double, triple & HR in the same game, passing Tito Francona (24 years, 205 days) on 5/28/1958.
  • Daniel Palka recorded a triple on May 22nd, making him the first player in White Sox history with 3 triples & 3 HR within his first 20 career MLB games.
  • On July 3, Palka (LF) & Avisaíl García (RF) became the second pair of White Sox outfielders to each hit 2 HR in the same game; the other pair? Minnie Miñoso (LF) and Larry Doby (CF) on July 30, 1957.
  • On May 28, Matt Skole became the first player in White Sox history with a home run AND a walk in his MLB Debut.
  • The lone White Sox walkoff Home Run of 2018 was off the bat of a player who hit .116 for the Sox this season (Trayce Thompson on May 3 – he went 14 for 121 this season for the Southsiders).
  • The White Sox have started a game with backto-back home runs four times in franchise history. 9/2/1937, 7/4/2000, 9/2/2017 & 6/12/2018.  Each of the last 2 times, Yolmer Sánchez hit the second home run.
  • On June 23, Tim Anderson became the first White Sox shortstop ever to homer on his birthday.
  • On June 27, José Abreu hit his 136th career HR and passed Minnie Miñoso for most by a Cubanborn player in White Sox history.  He hit one more since.
  • Leury García managed to become the first White Sox player with at least 10 stolen bases (he has 10) without being caught before the AllStar Break since Mike Cameron (13 for 13) in 1997.