White Sox

Beckham has renewed confidence heading into 2012

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Beckham has renewed confidence heading into 2012

By Jim Owczarski
CSNChicago.com

It started with a few flips the first week of December.

The ball would hang for a moment, be gone in blink.

Flip, blink, flip.

If you feel it, you know it.

Gordon Beckham felt it. More importantly, he knew it.

Its back.

The eighth overall pick of the 2008 Major League Baseball amateur draft made his debut 364 days later following a whirlwind minor league career that took him from Kannapolis to Charlotte in 52 games and from Charlotte to Chicago in just seven more. He hit .322 with 25 doubles and seven home runs in the minors, with an OPS of .894.

We just monitored him, said Jeff Manto, the White Sox minor league hitting coordinator at the time. He was in such a good place when we got him. He didnt need anything.

Beckham was sure, confident.

He had it.

The 22-year-old was fresh out of the University of Georgia where he finished up his junior season hitting over .400 with a school record for home runs and total bases. In three years with the Bulldogs, he had struck out just 120 times.

He burst onto the scene playing a new position with the White Sox -- third base -- and was a leading candidate for American League Rookie of the Year despite missing the first two months of the season. He finished his rookie campaign hitting .270 with 14 home runs and 28 doubles. The future was bright.

Somewhere along the line, however, he began to lose it.

The 2011 season ended with Beckham going hitless in eight of his final 12 games, finishing the last two months hitting .198 with 40 strikeouts.

He found himself behind in the count in 211 of his 499 at bats and struck out 111 times. He hit just .230 on the season with a .296 on base percentage and .633 OPS.

It was gone.

He packed up his things.

The Sox had missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, and it seemed as if the 24-year-old phenom, who was once deemed untouchable in trade talks, was now at a career crossroads.

I dont ever want to feel that way again, he said.

Fllp, blink, flip.

In December, Beckham rediscovered it.

He maintains his swing had never changed, that its too easy to just say hes going back to what worked for him at Georgia and in 2009. But somewhere between then and 2011, something broke down.

I had to be perfect, he said. Theres a million ways to describe that but I had to be perfect in my load and the way I hit and if it wasnt perfect, I didnt hit.

He placed no blame on former hitting coach Greg Walker. He put it all on his own shoulders, or more telling, his own head.

The reason I struggled last year was I swung at bad pitches, he said. What causes that? Well, thats caused from a little bit of uncertainty, a little bit of anxiety, trying to go up there and get a hit every time is not an easy thing to do.

Then the proverbial snowball began to roll.

I let it beat me down last year, Beckham said.

New Sox manager Robin Ventura could relate. He was a college star at Oklahoma State and spent just 129 games in the minor leagues before being called up in 1989. Only he collected just eight hits in his first 58 plate appearances. In 1990, he went 16 games without a hit at one point and didnt crack the Mendoza line for good until mid-June.

Kenny Williams knows where Beckham's coming from, too. The GM joked during Sox Fest his career was all downhill after his first major league plate appearance.

Hes a really talented kid, Ventura said of Beckham. I just want him to go play and not worry so much about whats expected of him and try to go to the plate and go 10-for-20 when all you can do is go to the plate, try and have a good at bat, and see what else happens.

Williams took it a step further, saying all he expected out of the now 25-year-old second baseman is to play to win, and to have fun. So much so he made the statement twice.

The success will be there at the end if he just lightens up a little bit on himself and it goes back to being a game, Williams said.

That positivity, along with Beckhams rediscovery taking mere flips in December, has helped him rediscover what was missing.

Legitimately, yes, he said. You dont usually think youre going to get something like that but yeah, absolutely (I found it). By the way the bat is coming through the zone, the way the bat is lagging. Obviously its just flips and were getting loose and stuff like that, its not 95 (miles per hour), but it will hold up. What Im doing now will hold up. It just feels like Im getting to the point where my bat is just flying through the zone in the right way.

Standing off stage following a seminar, Mantos eyes lit up when he heard of Beckhams renewed confidence, how he could just feel that it was right, that it was back.

Thats how I know Gordons minds right, said the new Sox hitting coach. Im a feel coach, Im a mental coach. Thats important to me and its important to the swing. I believe to get to the major league level, you have mechanics already. To hear Gordon think about the things we used to talk about in the minor leagues, its good that hes remembering those things.

Beckham exuded confidence at SoxFest, an air that reminded many but most importantly, himself of the player he was a few short years ago.

I lost a little confidence last year, but recently Ive really felt like myself, moreso than Ive ever felt like myself in the last two years, he said. I feel like Im back to being that confident guy that can really go out there and carry people sometimes when Im doing well. Im kind of back to that situation. I feel good about where Im at mentally. Physically I feel good. My swing is the thing its there.

You know it when you see it, and you can feel it and its there.

Beckham is confident again, mentally, and in his swing. Now, hes ready to show it.

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

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USA TODAY

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

This season, Matt Davidson became the fourth player in MLB history to hit three home runs in a season opener. It definitely raised a few eyebrows, especially after Paul Konerko noted during spring training that a 40-home run season and an All-Star selection isn’t out of the question for the California native. After clobbering nine home runs (seven of them coming at Kauffman Stadium) in his first 21 games, anything seemed possible.

Unfortunately it didn’t quite turn out that way, though he did rack up his second straight 20-homer season. But it’s hard to argue that 2018 wasn’t a success for Davidson — mostly because of the swings he didn’t make.

Everything else aside, Davidson walked as often as Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in 2018.

OK, the more meaningful comparison would be Davidson to himself.

What stands out is his walk rate. One hundred fifty three players had at least 400 plate appearances in both 2017 and 2018. Among them, Davidson had the second-highest increase in walk percentage this past season.

Consider this: In 2017, Davidson and Tim Anderson became (and still are) the only players in MLB history with 160-plus strikeouts and fewer than 20 walks in a season.

Davidson, while logging 20 more at-bats in 2018, had the same number of strikeouts, 165, but he increased his walk total from 19 to 52. Give him credit for that. It’s a tough adjustment to make at the minor league level let alone in the major leagues. The increased walk rate brought his on-base percentage from .260 in 2017 (well below the AL average of .324) to .319 in 2018 (a tick above the AL average of .318) and pushed his overall offensive production from 16 percent below league average (as measured by his 84 weighted runs created plus, or wRC+) to four percent above league average (104 wRC+).

And I haven’t even mentioned the most fun aspect of his 2018 season: He pitched! And he pitched well.

Thirty pitchers took the mound for the White Sox in 2018, all of whom made at least three appearances. And only one of them didn’t allow a run: Davidson.

He topped out at 91.9 MPH and had as many strikeouts, two, as baserunners allowed in his three innings of work. The two batters he struck out, Rougned Odor and Giancarlo Stanton, combined for 56 home runs in 2018. They combined for 89 home runs (and an MVP award) in 2017.

In his career, Stanton had a combined 16 plate appearances and zero strikeouts against Barry Zito, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka and Edwin Díaz. He struck out in his one plate appearance against Davidson.

Davidson is one of just three players with 20 or more home runs and at least three mound appearances in a season in MLB history:

— Babe Ruth (1919): 29 home runs, 17 games on the mound
— Davidson (2018): 20 home runs, three games on the mound
— Shohei Ohtani (2018): 22 home runs, 10 games on the mound

Facts are facts. Davidson is actually serious about expanding his role on the mound.

“To be honest, I would love to maybe explore that idea,” he said in July. “Pitching was a dream. As a young kid, everybody wants to hit that walk-off homer, right? I was the guy striking that guy out. That’s how I first loved the game. My favorite player was Randy Johnson and doing that.

“So, it’s something I would be interested in. I don’t know if the game would necessarily allow that or something like that. It’s something that is really close to my heart is pitching.”

Whether or not it ever happens, Davidson’s 2018 was all about finding ways to increase his value. For the White Sox, that’s a good problem to have.

With Astros eliminated, let's rank their free agents by possibility of coming to White Sox

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USA TODAY

With Astros eliminated, let's rank their free agents by possibility of coming to White Sox

The Houston Astros will not win back-to-back world championships this October.

Eliminated by the Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the recently concluded ALCS, the rebuilt Astros still remain the model for rebuilding teams like the White Sox. But with their first post-championship season ending without another ring on the fingers of homegrown stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, among others, the most pertinent topic involving the Astros when it comes to the White Sox is Astros players now hitting the free-agent market.

There's a number of them, and some are very, very good. The White Sox figure to be more active this winter then they were last offseason, with Rick Hahn already saying the team will be making pitching additions, a no-brainer with Michael Kopech slated to miss the entire 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. And Hahn has said the White Sox will be "opportunistic" when it comes to other types of additions, as well.

So could any of these soon-to-be former Astros land on the South Side? Maybe. Here they are, ranked by such a possibility.

1. Charlie Morton

The White Sox need starting pitchers. Kopech's out until 2020, and James Shields, should the team opt not to bring him back on a new contract, will be a free-agent departure. That's two holes that need filling, and Morton could fill one of them. I know what you're thinking, "Dallas Keuchel is also a free agent, why isn't he No. 1 on this list, you fool?" More on him in a bit. Right now, we're talking about Charlie Morton.

Morton is hardly the most rebuild-friendly pitching option out there at 35 years old. But Morton's been very good for the Astros over the past two seasons, making 55 starts, striking out 364 guys and posting a 3.36 ERA. His fastball velocity is as high as it's been in his 11-year big league career and he's coming off two straight playoff runs, so maybe he could teach these young White Sox a thing or two about playing winning baseball — he did close out Game 7 of the World Series last fall.

The biggest problem might be that he's not too far removed from different results when he played with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when his numbers weren't nearly as good as they got when he went to Houston. Would another change of scenery mean a different kind of performance?

What kind of contract Morton will get on the market remains to be seen, obviously, but it's kind of a mystery at this point, as he's coming off a couple great years but is getting up there in age when it comes to multi-year deals. He could be a fit for the White Sox should they want just a one- or two-year option while they wait for Kopech to return to full strength and for Dylan Cease to make his way to the major leagues. But should this recent success continue, he could be a valuable option on a White Sox team making the transition from rebuilding to contending, too.

2. Marwin Gonzalez

The White Sox have a bit of a quandary in that they are still waiting to find out what they've got in a lot of their young players. With so many prospects and even young players at the major league level yet to fully finish their development, it's tough to say where the holes on future White Sox teams will be. And that's made all the more difficult by the rash of injuries sustained by White Sox prospects in 2018.

A good way to plan for future unknowns is to have a guy you can plug in just about anywhere, and that's what Gonzalez is. During the 2018 regular season, Gonzalez played everywhere on the field besides pitcher and catcher: 73 games in left field, 39 games at shortstop, 32 games at second base, 24 games at first base, three games at third base, two games in center field and one game in right field. He played one game at designated hitter, too, in case you were wondering. He appeared at six different positions in 2017, when he finished in the top 20 in AL MVP voting. That versatility should make him a hot commodity this offseason.

The question marks come from Gonzalez's bat, which was excellent in 2017 but not nearly as good in 2018. After slashing .303/.377/.530 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs for the world-champion Astros in 2017, he got more playing time in 2018 and his numbers dropped to a .247/.324/.409 slash line, 16 homers and 68 RBIs for the AL runners up. So which batch of results would you get if you signed Gonzalez? That's the question facing teams this offseason. (To help assuage fears, however, Gonzalez just wrapped a solid postseason in which he batted .333 with a pair of homers, a pair of doubles and nine RBIs, not to mention a .389 on-base percentage.)

But for a team with as much unwritten future as the White Sox have, wouldn't it be nice to have a plan for every eventuality — and to have it all in the form of one guy? While Manny Machado and Bryce Harper grab all the free-agent headlines this winter, perhaps the White Sox could slip in and convince Gonzalez to help another transition from rebuilding to contending. He was a part of two 100-loss teams in 2012 and 2013 and along for the ride to the top of baseball's mountain. That's some good experience to have.

3. Dallas Keuchel

Now we arrive at Keuchel. Would the soon-to-be 31-year-old former Cy Young winner be a good fit for the rebuilding White Sox? Absolutely he would. Signing him to a long-term deal would not only solve a pitching problem in 2019 but it would provide a safety net should Kopech, Cease or whoever go through the to-be-expected growing pains that young players go through in their first tastes of the major leagues. He would be an anchor of future rotations with plenty of young arms around him.

Signing Keuchel — who has a combined 3.39 ERA and 278 strikeouts over the last two seasons — would be similar to the Cubs' signing of Jon Lester, a proven veteran climbing aboard a team heading toward a bright future, and his experience and talent could help them reach that future faster. Like Gonzalez, he experienced back-to-back 100-loss seasons in 2012 and 2013 and also got a World Series ring as the Astros completed their journey from the bottom to the top.

But being a good fit is only half the battle for the White Sox. A lot of other teams, including good ones capable of pitching a win-now roster, are going to be vying for Keuchel's services this winter. And while he might not be the No. 1 starting pitcher on the free-agent market — that's expected to be Clayton Kershaw, if he opts out of his current contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers — he's going to be no lower than the No. 3 starting pitcher on the free-agent market. Most of the contending clubs in the game are likely to have starting pitching on their shopping list, teams that can pitch present-day success and the ability to win a championship in 2019 against the White Sox promise of planned success down the road. And then there's the financials on top of that. Hahn has said the White Sox will have the financial flexibility to do what they need to do, but will it be enough to outbid baseball's biggest spenders?

Keuchel would obviously be a good fit for the White Sox. But the competition is going to be really stiff.

4. Tony Sipp

Sipp, a 35-year-old reliever who White Sox fans might remember from his days as a Cleveland Indian, was excellent for the Astros this season, posting a 1.86 ERA and striking out 42 guys in 38.2 innings during the regular season.

But while the White Sox could use bullpen help — their 4.49 relief ERA ranked 23rd out of 30 major league teams — that performance kind of elevates Sipp from the level of sign-and-flip guys they've acquired in recent seasons. Sipp might not be under the radar enough for the White Sox to take a flier, get a good few months and trade him away for a prospect.

Spending the kind of money Sipp might command on a 35-year-old reliever in a season where you're not expected to compete might not make for a good match.

5. Brian McCann

Yeah, the White Sox don't need Brian McCann.