The outfield the White Sox thought they'd have all season long is finally back together.
Avisail Garcia came off the disabled list ahead of Saturday night's game in Seattle, bringing an end to his second DL stint of the campaign, both of which involved hamstring injuries. Garcia's return came a day after the return of Nicky Delmonico, who had been on the DL with a broken hand since mid May.
Here we are 96 games into the season, and Garcia has logged just 35 games, with Delmonico playing in 38. Leury Garcia had his own lengthy DL trip and has played in only 59 games. Daniel Palka, the replacement for any variety of those injured outfielders, has played in 66 games. Adam Engel, the Opening Day center fielder who is once again struggling with the bat (he entered Saturday with a .215 batting average), is the lone outfielder to see action in an overwhelming majority of the team's contests. He's appeared in 86 of them.
At the dawn of the second half, though, everyone's healthy again. But as is the case with most positions on the current big league roster, how long into this rebuilding franchise's future will those players be occupying those spots?
Outfield is one of a couple areas in which the White Sox have incredible depth. Eloy Jimenez is the No. 2 prospect in baseball and gets a deserved amount of attention (he hit two home runs in Friday night's game down at Triple-A Charlotte), with Luis Robert generating plenty of excitement, too, with his high ranking and oft-discussed tool set. But those two headliners are hardly the only guys angling for a spot in the White Sox outfield of the future. There's Micker Adolfo, Blake Rutherford, Luis Alexander Basabe, Luis Gonzalez, Joel Booker and more all developing down in the minor leagues.
Will all those names make the current crop of White Sox outfielders, finally healthy, irrelevant? And if so, how quickly?
Garcia came into the season as the White Sox reigning All-Star representative, but health isn't the only area in which he's had bad luck this season. He had a very slow start at the plate, slashing just .233/.250/.315 with one homer in 18 games before hitting the DL for two months in late April. Of course, after returning from that first layoff, he was excellent. Garcia slashed .333/.347/.783 with eight homers in just 17 games between June 22 and July 8 before hitting the DL again.
Garcia still has plenty to prove if he wants to be a part of the White Sox long-term future, chiefly in the form of consistency. Some of his numbers in 2017 were among the best in the American League, but can he do that again? Injuries have wiped out his ability to show he can do it over the course of another full season, but the remaining two months and change of the 2018 campaign will be the perfect opportunity to show the White Sox, not to mention the rest of the league, that he is a dependable long-term piece. If he can do that, the White Sox could find offseason suitors or interested parties at next year's trade deadline to swap Garcia for a rebuild-improving package. Or they could opt to extend him. His team control runs out after the 2019 season. Remember: He's only 27 years old.
Delmonico was another player embarking on a "prove it" campaign when 2018 began, and the broken hand sure didn't help him out in that department. But he managed to impress enough to get into the long-term conversation in only two months of action last season. Perhaps he could do the same over the final 60-plus games of this season.
If he's going to impress enough to do that, though, he'll have to shake off his own not-so-great beginning to the season, when he slashed .224/.333/.302 with only one homer in 37 games. In Friday's second-half opener, he went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts.
Can any other members of this outfield do enough to keep themselves among the possibilities as the wave of prospects starts washing ashore on the South Side? For has hard as he's hit the ball — his nickname maybe should be "Exit Velocity" — Palka's managed just a .234 batting average and a .280 on-base percentage to go along with his 12 homers and 33 RBIs. Engel has still struggled to show he can do much offensively to complement his great defensive abilities. The player with the best case to stay in the conversation, at this point, might be Leury Garcia. The White Sox love his versatility, his ability to play both infield and outfield, and he's been on an offensive tear since returning from his own month-long layoff, slashing .338/.348/.477 in his last 20 games. Maybe he garners some interest as the trade deadline rapidly approaches?
Jimenez — slashing .319/.373/.594 with five homers in 18 games since being promoted to Triple-A — is coming. If he keeps this pace up, he'd figure to be a lock to play for the White Sox before the end of this season. But Rick Hahn has talked about the importance of Jimenez getting at-bats in Triple-A, and the 30-games-under-.500 White Sox are in no rush to bring up reinforcements before their development dictates it.
So there might be an increasingly limited window in which this crop of outfielders has the opportunity to prove its worth in the White Sox long-term plans. Injuries that have slowed things down for Robert and Adolfo have increased that opportunity for the current big leaguers, too. But as Basabe showed in last weekend's Futures Game, there's no shortage of outfield prospects knocking on the door. So for the Garcias, Delmonico, Engel and Palka, now's the time to impress.
The White Sox staging a second-half surge and vaulting into the playoff race seems … unlikely.
This season was always going to be about rebuilding and development at every level of the organization, so while the team’s 33-62 record at the dawn of the second half can certainly qualify as disappointing, it shouldn’t count as completely surprising.
But with the unique opportunity to watch the future of the franchise develop right before their eyes, South Side baseball fans still have reasons to pay attention to what happens over the team’s final 67 games. Here are five of those reasons.
1. Will the real Yoan Moncada please stand up?
The first-to-arrive star of this rebuilding process has had a streaky go of things in his first full season of big league baseball. He started cold, got hot, hit the disabled list, got really cold and finished the first half on a two-week tear that saw him slash .356/.453/.644 over his final 12 games heading into the break. There were seven extra-base hits, seven RBIs, eight walks and 11 runs scored in that span, too.
So which Moncada is the Moncada the White Sox are going to get in the second half?
This guy’s got huge expectations after being dubbed the No. 1 prospect in baseball last season, and he won’t be the last White Sox prospect to graduate to the majors and then have his every action on the field picked apart. Fair or unfair, that’s life for Moncada until he can produce consistently. But he might be about to do just that.
What he needs to clean up is the abundance of strikeouts — his 130 of them are just two off the big league leaders — and his mistakes in the field, where he ranks third in baseball with 15 fielding errors, the most among second basemen. Are those developmental growing pains or will Moncada be the kind of player who hits really well, strikes out a lot and makes a lot of errors? It’s worth watching the rest of the season to answer that question.
2. When Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez come up, you’ll want to be there
Perhaps the biggest question entering the 2018 season was when the White Sox would promote their two highest-rated prospects to the major league roster. The answer to that question is a lot more complicated than it was back in spring training, but there’s still a good chance of seeing both of these guys on the South Side before time runs out on the regular season.
Kopech has had a tough season at Triple-A Charlotte, nothing that’s mirrored the breeziness with which he dominated the Double-A level in 2017, when he punched out 155 batters in 22 starts. The strikeouts are still there this year — he’s got 131 of them in 19 starts — but he’s walking a lot of guys and has had some bad outings when it comes to runs allowed. All in all, it’s left him with 58 walks and a 4.29 ERA at this point in Charlotte’s season.
From a results perspective, things have gotten better of late. He’s got a 2.53 ERA in his last six starts, a 2.33 ERA in his last five, and he rebounded from a four-walk, four-run, three-inning outing with two gems, giving up a combined two earned runs, walking only two and striking out 20 hitters in his two most recent starts.
Of course, Rick Hahn has suggested all along that results do not necessarily translate to big league readiness and that the White Sox are waiting for Kopech to show them specific things to earn his ticket to the majors. Has that happened yet? One would figure that if it had happened, Kopech would be here by now. Still, a full season in Triple-A, working through issues and pitching to a different type of hitter than he saw last season in Double-A would figure to yield at least a September promotion for one of the game’s top pitching prospects.
Jimenez looks more likely to move through Triple-A at a good clip, however injuries have limited his at-bats this season, and he’s only got 269 of them on the season between Double-A and Triple-A. He’s played in just 17 games at Charlotte, recently returned from a stay on the disabled list.
But he’s undoubtedly swung an impressive bat at both levels. He got promoted after slashing .317/.368/.556 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs in 70 games at Birmingham. He’s got a .297/.357/.484 line at Charlotte with three homers and seven RBIs in those 17 games.
Again, the box scores aren’t the only thing the White Sox are looking for, and Hahn has talked about the importance of getting Jimenez at-bats at the Triple-A level. But if he keeps raking, Jimenez would figure to see some big league time prior to season’s end.
3. Deadline (and beyond) deals
Hahn has already said he expects a quieter trade deadline for the White Sox this summer after what happened a season ago, when he dealt away a good chunk of the roster including much of a high-performing bullpen.
It’s not difficult to see why he thinks that, considering the team — a year further along into its rebuilding effort — simply doesn’t have as many tradeable or desirable assets on the major league roster.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to trade away, though, and be it prior to the end of this month or in a waiver deal prior to the end of next month, it’s worth seeing what the White Sox can get for the likes of James Shields, Joakim Soria and middle relievers like Luis Avilan and Xavier Cedeno. None of those guys figure to command the kind of returns Hahn got a year ago in the seven-player swap with the New York Yankees or the crosstown trade with the Cubs.
Look, perhaps, to the trades that sent Anthony Swarzak, Melky Cabrera and Dan Jennings out of town as a better predictor. Those kinds of returns — Ryan Cordell, A.J. Puckett and Casey Gillaspie — might not excite the imaginations of fans and observers. But rebuilds are full of surprises, and anything that Hahn could get has the potential to have an impact on the White Sox future.
Need proof? Look at the August trade that sent Miguel Gonzalez to the Texas Rangers. The return piece in that deal, the not-very-heralded Ti’Quan Forbes, is having a nice season at Class A Winston-Salem this season.
4. The next steps for Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez
After Moncada, the major league players whose developments are most important for the future of this team are Giolito and Lopez, two potential pieces of the rotation of the future. The competition for spots in that rotation figures to be steep with all the pitching prospects still developing in the minors. But Giolito and Lopez can give themselves an upper hand with strong performances to finish out this season.
Giolito has struggled during much of the campaign. He’s still the American League leader in walks, with 60 of them in his 19 starts. He’s still got an ugly 6.18 ERA, thanks in large part to three outings with at least seven earned runs allowed. But there have been flashes of brilliance, too, some very recently. Giolito’s final two starts to close out the first half were good ones. He combined to allow two earned runs on just five hits over 13.2 innings. Without a doubt, his best back-to-back performances of the season.
Giolito’s had good starts before, only to follow them up with not-as-good ones. And he’s walked at least three batters in each of his last four starts. But Giolito’s confidence has seemingly never waned throughout this trying campaign. If he can build off how he closed out the first half as the second half starts, he’ll be looking more like the guy who impressed so much during the final month of last season and during spring training earlier this year.
Lopez, meanwhile, was perhaps the pitching highlight of the first half for the White Sox, though even he owns an ERA close to 4.00. That number has climbed steadily since his remarkable start to the campaign: He had a 4.87 ERA over his final 12 starts after owning a 2.44 number after his first seven.
Lopez has seemed more capable of righting the ship, for the most part, than Giolito this season. But it’s not crazy to suggest that both guys could be in for big second halves after going through their respective growing pains over the seasons first three and a half months. The prospects are coming, though, and they’ll need to step up their games if they want to claim a spot in that rotation of the future.
5. Who will be this year’s Nicky Delmonico?
Delmonico joined the White Sox on Aug. 1 of last season, and by last winter he had some eager White Sox fans penciling his name into their 2020 lineup projections. That’s thanks to how impressive he was over the final two months of 2017, when he posted a .373 on-base percentage with nine homers and 23 RBIs in just 43 games.
Delmonico’s luck hasn’t been as good this season. In addition to failing to replicate those numbers in the season’s early going, a broken hand has kept him out for all but 37 games. But the idea of someone unexpected coming up and surprising is still alive. Who could that be this season?
Daniel Palka’s tried his hardest to be that guy. Though he’ll have close to a full season under his belt by the time October rolls around, he’s done some things that could warrant future consideration with 24 extra-base hits in 65 games. His averages aren’t close to as high as Delmonico’s were in his limited time last season, but he’s obviously got some pop.
How about Delmonico again? Fans have perhaps soured on his future prospects in the White Sox outfield after his slow start — and with Jimenez, Luis Robert and Micker Adolfo on the way — but Delmonico has returned from his stay on the disabled list and like Avisail Garcia did earlier this year, he could return with a bang.
The aforementioned Cordell seemed a candidate for this title earlier this season, though he’s been dealing with his own injury woes.
Certainly there will be surprises, though. That’s how baseball seasons and rebuilding efforts work. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll almost surely have an unexpected name to talk about this offseason.