What will the next championship-contending White Sox team look like?
That's what we're setting out to determine (or at least make a guess at) this month. Ten members of our White Sox content team here at NBC Sports Chicago put our heads together to try to project what each position on the diamond would look like in one, two, three years. Basically, we posed the question: What will the White Sox starting lineup be the next time they're capable of playing in the World Series?
That question can have a bunch of different answers, too. We didn't limit ourselves to players currently a part of the organization. Think the White Sox are gonna make a big free-agent addition? Vote for that player. Think the White Sox are gonna pull off a huge trade? Vote for that player. We wanted to see some creativity.
Welcome to the starting rotation, and a bit of an explainer on how this worked out. We did have our voters craft a rotation of the future, one through five. We then took the five highest vote-getters, total, and ranked them one through five. It works out nicely as an order, as you'll see over this week, but it doesn't necessarily mean each guy was strictly voted for in a specific spot. The No. 1 starter could have been a No. 3 starter on a specific ballot, but the vote counted the same. Also, we're going to list the same group of "other vote-getters" starting pitchers on all five spots because who knows where they would end up? OK? Moving on.
Our first starting pitcher of the future is Dane Dunning.
Dunning hasn't pitched in a while during his battle against an elbow injury that brought an end to his 2018 season in late June. But before that, what a season it was. He made just four early season starts at Class A Winston-Salem, giving up just seven runs and striking out 31 batters in those 24.1 innings. That earned him a quick promotion to Double-A Birmingham, where he was equally good, posting a 2.76 ERA with 69 strikeouts in 62 innings over 11 starts. All great signs for the now-24-year-old.
But of course that elbow injury is still out there. Rick Hahn provided a bit of an update on that during the GM Meetings back in November.
"Dane Dunning put together a very nice year and had himself some injury issues and knock on wood, left instructional league feeling great and back to the form when he was having success during the course of the season and projects to be part of that Double-A rotation, just as you probably would have expected him to be had he finished the year healthy," Hahn said, "with maybe having to make up for two months of pitching development to get back on pace."
Given the numbers he was able to put up when healthy last season, Dunning has fans excited that he could be a part of a homegrown rotation by the time the White Sox are ready to contend again.
But whether because of the injury layoff or the fact that he's still yet to pitch past the Double-A level, the timing on his arrival in the majors is unknown at the moment. Of course, like with all their other highly rated prospects, the White Sox will allow ample time for Dunning to develop in the minor leagues.
Lucas Giolito. The one-time top-rated pitching prospect in baseball didn't make our rotation of the future, but there's still a really good chance he's a part of that starting staff the next time the White Sox are contending. Giolito now has a full season in the big leagues under his belt, even if things didn't go so hot. He had the biggest ERA in baseball at 6.13 and led the American League with 90 walks. The results weren't what he or the White Sox wanted, obviously, but he got experience that he wouldn't otherwise have gotten if the team wasn't in the current phase of its rebuilding project. Giolito will get every opportunity to turn those bad moments into lessons learned in 2019, and his arrival here before many of the other pitching prospects gives him a head start to develop into an effective major league starter.
Madison Bumgarner. Almost every other vote-getter was an outside addition of some fashion, and Bumgarner might be the biggest name on the list. He's a free agent next winter and would fit the mold of a Jon Lester type addition to polish off this rebuild. Bumgarner has thrown a ton of innings but he's shockingly young, still not even 30 as he heads into the 2019 season. He's a four-time All Star, a four-time top-10 Cy Young finisher and one of the most accomplished postseason pitchers ever, with three World Series rings and a jaw-dropping 2.11 ERA in 102.1 postseason innings. Having a veteran winner like Bumgarner at the top of the rotation would allow the homegrown youngsters to blossom around him. Talk about the cherry on top of the rebuilding sundae.
Gerrit Cole. This would be a different route to take from Bumgarner, as Cole is younger and less experienced in the winning department, but he's undoubtedly one of the best starting pitchers in the game. In his first season with the Houston Astros last year, he posted a 2.88 ERA with a remarkable 276 strikeouts in 200.1 innings. Cole is an ace and would serve in that role if the White Sox wanted to make a real long-term splash on next offseason's free-agent market.
Justin Verlander. A rotation-mate of Cole's and a pitcher with a resume perhaps even more impressive than Bumgarner's, Verlander is also a free agent next winter — the class is absolutely loaded — and though he'll be significantly older than the last two guys we discussed, 36 next month, he's still pitching like one of the best in baseball. Last season with the Astros, led the AL with 290 strikeouts and finished the season with a 2.52 ERA. Who knows how long Verlander will keep pitching like this, but he's a future first-ballot Hall of Famer and would be a sensational addition to an otherwise really young rotation looking to add a get-over-the-hump piece and vault into World Series contention. One thing of note, though? Verlander and Tim Anderson aren't exactly best buds.
Zack Greinke. This one would require a bit of a blockbuster trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, as the longtime division foe of the White Sox is under contract for another three seasons. And what a contract it is: Greinke makes more than $34 million a year, the highest annual salary in baseball history. Greinke's getting up there in age, now 35 years old, but he's still pitching real well. He's been an All Star in four of the last five seasons, including each of the last two. He finished with a 3.21 ERA last season and struck out 199 batters. He's won five straight Gold Gloves and finished in the top 10 of Cy Young voting in four of the last six seasons. That's still pretty darn good stuff. If the White Sox think the contending days are coming quick, trading some prospect depth for the still-dominant Greinke might not be the worst idea.
Chris Archer. Archer could be a free agent next winter. Or he could be a Pittsburgh Pirate for the next three seasons. Or something. Archer's contract has team options for 2020 and 2021, making him perhaps a more interesting trade candidate than a free-agent addition next offseason. Of course, Archer's numbers have been going in the wrong direction since 2015, when he finished in the top five in AL Cy Young voting. He's posted a combined 4.12 ERA over the past three seasons, a stretch during which he's given up 76 home runs. He still strikes out a lot of batters, with 644 Ks in the last three years, and he's only 30 (that's right, Archer is older than Bumgarner). He might not have the resume of the guys listed above, but if the Michael Kopechs and Dylan Ceases of the world can develop into ace-like pitchers, someone like Archer could be used elsewhere in a rotation of the future.
Sonny Gray. It looks like Gray, who could've been had via a trade with the New York Yankees earlier this offseason, is on his way to Cincinnati to be a Red. Of course, he's a free agent next winter, too, and perhaps this voter is looking ahead to Gray as an attractive add after a resurgent 2019. He'll need it after a 4.90 ERA in The Bronx during the 2018 season. Gray's done big things before, though not terribly recently, and could be a nice addition to a rotation that has a potential hole unfillable by a homegrown piece.
Ivan Nova. Another appearance by the voter who thinks the glory days are already here. Nova was acquired by the White Sox in a trade with the Pirates during the Winter Meetings. He's a solid short-term addition in that he brings veteran leadership to the clubhouse and the pitching staff and fills one of two holes in a rotation that came into the offseason with just three arms for the 2019 season. As for how long Nova could stick around, well, he's a free agent next winter, too, and if the White Sox get the progress they hope for from Cease and the healthy return of Kopech, there might not be much need for Nova to extend his stay on the South Side.
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