White Sox

Improved routine has Erik Johnson ready for second shot with White Sox

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Improved routine has Erik Johnson ready for second shot with White Sox

MINNEAPOLIS — Erik Johnson is back, and the White Sox intend to see what he can bring to the table in his second go-around.

Johnson is one of four players who was promoted (three from Triple-A Charlotte) when rosters expanded to 40 players on Tuesday along with catcher Rob Brantly and utility man Leury Garcia. Frankie Montas, the team’s top pitching prospect, also was promoted from Double-A Birmingham, and both he and Johnson are expected to start in the bullpen.

But, general manager Rick Hahn identified Johnson — who was demoted to Charlotte after five starts in 2014 despite entering 2014 as the club’s No. 2 prospect — as the first in line to get a start this month. Early Tuesday, Johnson was named the International League pitcher of the year.

“It’s a good opportunity,” Hahn said. “No matter what happens here over the next few weeks, he’s already had a great year, unlike last year where it started out rough and he’s sort of playing catch up. He’s already accomplished a great deal in 2015 and should head into the offseason with a great deal of confidence and the feeling that he’s very much back in the mix in being part of a major league rotation in 2016.”

[MORE WHITE SOX: White Sox call up Francellis Montas, three others]

Johnson started 2014 in the rotation but posted a 6.46 ERA in five starts and was demoted. He never made it back even though the team struggled all season and finished with 89 losses, sliding off the prospect map almost altogether.

But Johnson arrived at spring training with a desire “to make moves,” and he’s done that all season.

Had it not been for an extremely healthy season from the White Sox starting rotation, Johnson would have been here earlier as he went 11-8 with a 2.37 ERA and struck out 136 batters in 132 2/3 innings at Charlotte. He was the starting pitcher for the International League in the Triple-A All-Star Game and has been dominant.

Johnson said the key has been identifying a routine and sticking to it.

“It was just learning how my body works the best,” Johnson said. “Just knowing and going through your routine and really getting to know your arm, your body and how you can attack.

“Routine is the biggest thing that leads you to predictability. For me, I know it’s almost a soothing feeling where I can go do my routine and get what I need to get done, so I feel prepared and I feel ready for that fifth day. It’s almost like knocking down dominoes.”

[MORE WHITE SOX: White Sox pitcher Erik Johnson named International League's Most Valuable Pitcher]

Both Hahn and White Sox manager Robin Ventura said Johnson’s routine over the final month could include several starts. Ventura is curious to see how Johnson responds though the White Sox will have to pick and choose spots.

“We’d of course like to get him an opportunity to start at some point,” Ventura said. “Hopefully more than one.

“There’s not probably much of a difference as how we look at it as he looks at it. He’d like another shot at it, see where he’s at.”

Johnson has a pretty good idea where he is and feels ready for any opportunity the White Sox throw at him. He’s felt good all season and looks forward to showing it off at the MLB level.

“It wasn’t one specific game,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t one specific catch or bullpen. It was just kind of getting to know and making adjustments, whether it’s during the game or if it’s midweek, where I can make some adjustments before my next start. Just being able to recognize something that might have come up last game that I need to address and just be ready for the next time out.”

Could Manny Machado's NLCS shenanigans impact White Sox potential free-agent pursuit?

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Could Manny Machado's NLCS shenanigans impact White Sox potential free-agent pursuit?

"It's a dirty play by a dirty player."

That was Christian Yelich, the all-but-sure-to-be NL MVP, describing Manny Machado, who's about to become one of the best-paid players in baseball history, after Game 4 of the NLCS, a game in which Machado once again grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Machado's Los Angeles Dodgers and Yelich's Milwaukee Brewers have played four games in this NLCS, and after three of them, the focus has been on Machado. Not because of his bat or his glove but because of lack of hustle and certain methods on the base paths that weren't exactly on the up and up.

After Game 2, he was criticized for not hustling on a ground ball to shortstop. In something straight out of a public-relations person's nightmare, he defended himself by saying that hustling really isn't his cup of tea. During Game 3, he twice attempted to break up double plays by interfering at second base and was, upon review, busted for it the second time. In extra innings in Game 4, he appeared to intentionally drag his leg across Jesus Aguilar's at first base. That play cleared the benches, got Machado called "dirty" in the Brewers' clubhouse and earned him the reputation of postseason villain.

And so Machado's impending free agency gets to be discussed in a brand new light. There's now more baggage attached to the 26-year-old superstar with a fantastic bat and a stellar glove.

The question is: Will the White Sox, one of many teams that could be mulling a contract offer worth hundreds of millions of dollars, care?

As much as it’s talked about building a perennial contender of the future by developing the on-field skills of their fleet of highly touted prospects, the White Sox brain trust has discussed developing a culture, a way of doing things, to go along with all that talent and all that skill. Unsurprisingly that conversation has focused on the oft-used phrase of “doing things the right way.”

Does what Machado has been doing count as “doing things the right way”? It seems easy to assess that it doesn't. It's far more difficult to determine whether it will end up making a difference or not.

Not hustling is one of Rick Renteria's biggest bugaboos. He sat down multiple players on multiple occasions throughout the 2018 season — starting with Avisail Garcia in a spring training game and including a veteran like Welington Castillo as well as a young star like Tim Anderson — for not running to first base on pop ups and line outs and ground outs. Would Renteria's tune suddenly change if Machado and his preference for not hustling arrived on the South Side in what would surely be the biggest free-agent deal in club history?

Renteria got fired up over the issue at the end of July, when he benched Anderson for not hustling on what the shortstop believed was a line out.

“We tell these guys, don’t assume anything. ... It’s as simple as that, and he understands it. He knows it. We’ve talked about it. He comes out of the box, he doesn’t stand there. But we just reiterated to make sure that you allow the umpires to make the calls and you allow the other clubs to go ahead and ask for reviews. We run.”

But asked about not running out his ground ball in Game 2, Machado shared pretty much the opposite philosophy.

"Obviously I'm not going to change, I'm not the type of player that's going to be 'Johnny Hustle,' and run down the line and slide to first base and … you know, whatever can happen," Machado told The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal. "That's just not my personality, that's not my cup of tea, that's not who I am."

What about Machado's interferences at second base? It was that exact play that sent Anderson into an on-field tiff with umpire Joe West during the second Crosstown series of the season just last month. Javy Baez slid into second base, and Anderson thought Baez did something he shouldn't have, raising his arm to interfere with a double-play turn, that sequence of events ending with Anderson screaming at West on the field. Would Anderson be cool with playing alongside — and potentially vacating his position at shortstop for — an infamous interferer?

And what about being a "dirty player," a villain? The White Sox always seemed fine — heck, they loved it — having one of baseball's greatest irritants in A.J. Pierzynski on the roster. Perhaps no player wore the "villain" title as a badge of honor more than the catcher on the 2005 World Series team. But remember that Pierzynski took the punch, he didn't throw it. Being baseball's version of a "villain" and being a guy who makes dangerous plays that could hurt somebody are two different things.

The point being: Do Machado's actions in this postseason series make him anathema to the "Ricky's boys don't quit" mantra? If the White Sox were to turn a blind eye to the events of this NLCS, would it qualify as a betrayal of their quest to establish a high-effort, high-character culture?

Or do they value that culture so much that they stay away from Machado this offseason?

Here's Rick Hahn from September of last year.

"It’s the culture that Ricky and his coaching staff have been able to create in that clubhouse. I cannot tell you how many various fans have stopped me, or emailed me or mentioned to me that they’ve never been this excited over a 60-win team. Or they’ve never been excited about a team that isn’t going to the playoffs. And I think so much of that is based on how Ricky and the coaches have them playing day in and day out. You see them fighting for 27 outs, you see them prepared every night. Sure, we’re going to get out-manned at portions during this process, but the fight and competitiveness and the style of play is the kind of thing that is going to endure year in and year out. And that is extremely important for us to establish at the big league level for all of us."

Machado's talent would make any team he's a part of more competitive. But for the White Sox, who talk an awful lot about hustling and refusing to quit, perhaps all these postseason shenanigans make it so Machado just isn't their cup of tea.

White Sox Talk Podcast: What it would take for the White Sox to sign Manny Machado

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White Sox Talk Podcast: What it would take for the White Sox to sign Manny Machado

It might be a long shot for the White Sox to sign free agent Manny Machado, but here on the White Sox Talk Podcast, we like dark horses. Chuck Garfien, Ryan McGuffey and Vinnie Duber discuss what it would take to bring Machado to the South Side. Plus, is he "the" guy the White Sox are targeting this offseason? Will the Rockies listen to trade offers for Nolan Arenado a year before he reaches free agency? Plus, Chuck talks about a cost-controlled, All-Star on a rebuilding team that could be an answer at third base.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: