White Sox

Improved defense from Alexei Ramirez a key to White Sox success

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Improved defense from Alexei Ramirez a key to White Sox success

BOSTON -- The offense hasn’t been the only reason for a 16-8 July record for the White Sox.

The defense has improved, too.

One of the key figures in the team’s resurgence is shortstop Alexei Ramirez, who in July has looked every bit as sharp up the middle as he did last season when he was an American League Gold Glove finalist. Whereas he stumbled through the season’s first few months and was near the bottom of all qualified shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved, Ramirez has climbed to 15th of 26 at minus-1.

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“It seems like every other inning he’s doing something out there that’s not easy to do,” said 2012 National League Gold Glove winner Adam LaRoche. “I know it’s helping his confidence for sure and no doubt it’s helping us out. It’s been fun to watch -- you wonder what he’s going to do next and he continues to do it.”

Ramirez has brought it all lately after a poor first three months to the season. Not only has his bat come alive, Ramirez has looked focused in the field. He’s resumed making the plays deep in the hole, the diving stops up the middle and the strong throws to first. The impact has been huge for a White Sox pitching staff that was hurt by the team’s poor defense early on as they no longer have to work around as many free outs given away.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans!]

While the White Sox still rank 28th among 30 teams with minus-31 Defensive Runs Saved, according to fangraphs.com, they have improved. In mid-June the White Sox sat at minus-45 DRS and Ramirez has been a key.

“He’s been sharp,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “There were a couple plays in the hole when he came across, guys who can get down the line. He has been playing some fantastic defense for us. You get the guys in the middle of the field, him and (Carlos Sanchez), we’ve turned some double plays in recent weeks that helps you and helps your pitchers and he’s been right there. He’s been on time.”

White Sox add Alex Presley at Triple-A, another veteran outfielder who could factor into 2018 plans for banged-up outfield

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USA TODAY

White Sox add Alex Presley at Triple-A, another veteran outfielder who could factor into 2018 plans for banged-up outfield

Not long after the White Sox brought Michael Saunders into the organization, another outfielder with major league experience is joining Triple-A Charlotte.

Alex Presley — a 32-year-old who played 71 games last season for the Detroit Tigers and has also spent time with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Minnesota Twins, Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers — is the latest addition to the Knights’ outfield. He’s a guy who could potentially be used to help the White Sox outfield, which has seen two Opening Day players go on the disabled list for extended periods of time.

Avisail Garcia is in his fifth week on the DL while dealing with a Grade 2 hamstring strain. Nicky Delmonico is expected to miss the next four to six weeks while recovering from a broken bone in his hand. The White Sox might feel that the collection of Adam Engel, Trayce Thompson, Leury Garcia and Daniel Palka might be enough to get them through those injuries. But the results have not been great from that group. Engel and Thompson are both hitting under .200, while Leury Garcia and Palka have on-base percentages just above .300.

Presley, like Saunders, could be an option for a midseason promotion should he hit well in the minors. He hit .314 with a .354 on-base percentage in those 71 games with the Tigers last season. This year, he was playing in the Baltimore Orioles’ organization, where he hit .275 with a .347 on-base percentage in 26 games.

It’s possible we won’t see either veteran outfielder on the South Side this season (though having Presley here for Elvis Night would be pretty excellent), but it gives the White Sox options should the lack of production from their current crop of outfielders and the injuries to Avisail Garcia and Delmonico keep them out longer.

It’s also quite possible that none of the names mentioned to this point will have a role to play in this team’s long-term future, not an outlandish thought considering Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Micker Adolfo, Blake Rutherford and Luis Alexander Basabe are all still developing in the minor leagues.

Part of Yoan Moncada's development: Hitting better — and simply getting more experience — against left-handed pitching

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USA TODAY

Part of Yoan Moncada's development: Hitting better — and simply getting more experience — against left-handed pitching

Yoan Moncada’s development is one of the most important things at the major league level during this rebuilding, developmental season.

Fortunately for the White Sox, he’s having a fine season at the plate overall. He came into Wednesday’s game against the visiting Baltimore Orioles with a .262/.345/.469 slash line to go along with six homers, 10 doubles and 16 RBIs.

But as good as that might be, Moncada is not a finished product. Remember, this is a guy who was baseball’s top-ranked prospect a year ago, and there are expectations that he will be one of the best players — if not the best player — on the next championship-contending White Sox team.

And so there are obvious things that he needs to keep working on. Most noticeable to fans and observers is that high number of strikeouts. He’s got 55 in 166 plate appearances (one of the 10 highest totals in the American League) and will almost surely shoot past his 74 strikeouts in 231 plate appearances in 2017.

Another area of interest in Moncada’s development is what he’s doing against left-handed pitching, which quite frankly isn’t much.

Rick Renteria moved Moncada out of the leadoff spot against lefty starters some time ago, and the numbers don’t look good overall. As a right-handed batter against left-handed pitching, the switch-hitting Moncada is slashing .154/.244/.231 with three extra-base hits and two RBIs. That’s opposed to a great .302/.383/.557 line as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitchers.

But Renteria is seeing some growth from Moncada, who batted right handed against a lefty reliever during Tuesday’s eighth-inning rally. He didn’t get a hit, but he drove in the game-tying run with a sacrifice fly, progress in Renteria’s eyes.

“I’ll tell you this, the right-handed at-bat yesterday against the lefty was, for me, a real impressive at-bat because that’s the side he’s been trying to work on a little bit more against the lefties,” Renteria said. “To be able to drive the ball and create the sacrifice fly to drive in that run was really big.”

What’s the key, then, to getting at-bats like that against left-handed pitchers on a consistent basis from Moncada? According to Renteria, it’s just a matter of Moncada seeing more left-handed pitching. And when that happens, the skipper added, we could see more pop from Moncada from that side of the plate than we do from the left side, where he’s hit 12 of his 14 career homers.

“He doesn’t have as many at-bats (from the right side) just because he doesn’t face that many lefties,” the manager said. “You need a larger amount of at-bats against lefties to get a sense of where you’re going to ultimately be.

“I still think that he probably has the ability of having more power, even though he has power from the left side, I think he has the ability to have more power from the right side. It’s just a matter of him trying to manage that side of the box without trying to be the same as he is on the left-handed side.

“Very few switch hitters are the same from both sides of the plate. Some show more power from one side, and some show manageability of the barrel. He happens to have manageability of the barrel left handed and power. And I think he can have more power, maybe not as much manageability of the barrel from the right-hand side, but more power and more contact.

“But that’s going to continue with more at-bats against lefties, as many opportunities as we can give him.”

As with most things during this rebuilding season, Moncada remains a work in progress. Strikeouts, hitting from the right side, these are some of the things that he’s working on in a season that because of its disappointing win-loss record affords him the time and opportunity to develop.

White Sox fans are pretty happy with Moncada right now. But they could see a much different — and potential much better — player by the time the rebuilds hits its apex and that contention window opens up.