White Sox

The rookie and the vet: Rodon, Penny share special friendship

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The rookie and the vet: Rodon, Penny share special friendship

Cell phone in hand, Carlos Rodon is staring at the screen and smirking to himself while sitting in front of his locker at Camelback Ranch. In honor of his teammate Chris Sale's 26th birthday, a sports website has resurrected a YouTube video from a few years ago. It shows the staff ace pummeling the dugout bench and an unsuspecting Gatorade cooler between innings. An impressive display of frustration for Sale, who gave up eight earned runs in seven innings of work. An outburst that makes the equally competitive Rodon chuckle to himself.

For a moment, he considers making the 10-step trip across the clubhouse to Sale's locker and jokingly asking the pitcher if he recommends the meltdown technique. He decides against it. Sale might laugh, he considers. But he might not. And the whole encounter would likely go against Rodon's self-imposed Spring Training rules:

Head down. Mouth shut. Listen. Pitch.

This was his mentality all camp long. Don't ruffle feathers. Ask, never tell. No one wants to hear from the rookie, no matter how soon he might be joining the big league club. No matter how quickly he might be a face of the franchise. Rodon is, of course, the White Sox 2014 top draft pick, the third player selected overall. The expectations are great. But so is the scrutiny, even by some of those sharing this space.

So while he can't avoid the attention, Rodon can minimize his part in amplifying it. He can clasp his hands behind his back in an unassuming stance when the microphones and cameras surround his corner locker. He can answer every inquiry with a courteous and measured response, keeping his voice low. He can repeatedly lean on an us-versus-me mantra: "I'm just here to help the team any way I can."

[MORE WHITE SOX: Carlos Rodon doesn't want Cubs' Kris Bryant hype]

Brad Penny takes slow, deliberate strides as he crosses the White Sox clubhouse in Glendale. His locker is well enough away — a solid 35-step trip — from the likes of Sale and other starters John Danks and Jeff Samardzija. Tattoos peak out from under his shorn T-shirt sleeves, adding to his intimidating presence. Even if the two time All Star's pitching performances lately have been anything but.

It was early in camp when the 36-year old, in his umpteenth Spring Training stint, approached the new kid.

“Hey,” he simply said. “I’m Brad.”

It was as unnecessary an introduction as there ever was. And one that Deloreaned Rodon right back to his childhood in South Florida.

"Holy crap” the starstruck rookie gushed back, "you're Brad Penny. I watched you throw a hundred with the Marlins back in '03."

Rodon was just 10 years old during that playoff run, when the Marlins won their second World Series title.

“Yeah,” Penny laughed. "Shows how old I am, huh?”

[MORE WHITE SOX: Carlos Rodon promotion another win-now signal from White Sox]

Then his eyes brighten as he begins to rave about the 22-year old. 

"He's just a good kid. He's fun to be around, and he's competitive. You know, coming in, a lot of people love to hate the guy in that situation. He got paid a lot of money to do what he's doing, so he comes into a tough spot. I try to make it comfortable for those guys when they come into camp.”

"It's a little bit startling, right?," Rodon notes of the two quickly becoming inseparable. "He’s like a mentor for me, a big brother."

The fact is Penny was happy to offer his baseball insight and perspective to other White Sox players too. He’s at the point in his career where he's comfortable sharing the knowledge he's collected over the last two decades. But the relationship with Rodon evolved beyond the rest, likely because Penny sees a lot of his young self in the rookie.

“I like how he’s handled the hype. And his work ethic,” Penny says. "He’s more polished than I was though. I had the luxury of playing right away, but it also meant I learned on the job.”

And yet, he admits there were situations he could have handled differently. Penny was a fifth-round pick in 1996, drafted by the Diamondbacks. He made his first MLB start for the Marlins in April of 2000. He was 21 years old. Early on, with players like Randy Johnson in the Arizona clubhouse, he too kept his head down, his mouth shut. But eventually he'd earn the reputation of a wild child. Looking back, Penny knows navigating those roads with direction would have been easier than doing so blindly. Which is why conversations between Penny and Rodon extend beyond baseball.

"We talk pitching yeah, but we have a lot of other things in common," Rodon remarks. “I’m a bulldog, and he is too. It was good to have him, good to hear him talk. He's been through all this a few times."

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Penny hopes Rodon doesn’t have to experience all he’s been through on his baseball journey, but he wants him to continue using him as a resource. Down the road, maybe he’ll reveal how he dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness and eventually bounced back well enough to win another World Series ring. But for now, it’s mostly tips to ease the transition from the minors to the bigs. One lesson that stands out — a message about arm angles. Penny told Rodon to never miss an opportunity to perfect a more deceptive delivery. 

“A big thing was pitching with angle every time you play catch. Even if you’re just playing easy toss, it’s important not to be nonchalant. It’s all about angle, get on top of the ball. Work on that every time you have the ball in your hand.”

He also encouraged Rodon to get his mind off the game whenever possible. For Penny, that often means taking his boat out on the water and enjoying the serenity of fishing. The two even dropped a few lines together when they both were reassigned to Charlotte near the end of camp.

Rodon is learning to enjoy that quiet kind of relaxation - mostly because it means spending more time with his childhood hero. But perhaps unsurprisingly, given his age, he would rather relax at home, watching funny internet videos - not unlike the Sale dugout meltdown - when he needs to mentally check out of baseball.

He was actually in the middle of a good laugh session, scrolling through YouTube videos when he got the call that he’d be joining the White Sox. Shortly after, he sent a text to Penny who already had a hunch it was happening.

“He had told me he was bummed because he wanted to visit his family in Raleigh (on the upcoming road trip) and drive his own car there. But the team told him he couldn’t. I figured it was 'cause they were calling him up. But I didn’t say anything.

"When he told me the news, I just said 'Congrats, man. You deserve it.’”

Penny continues, further reflecting on the kid 15 years his junior. His teammate. And friend. Now he's the one star struck.

"Every once and a while, a special arm comes along. He's gonna be good and he's going to be good for a long time. And I can’t wait to watch.” 

Believe in 'Magic': For White Sox, a matter of when, not if, Nick Madrigal starts raking in the majors

Believe in 'Magic': For White Sox, a matter of when, not if, Nick Madrigal starts raking in the majors

When will Nick Madrigal reach the majors?

That, now that Luis Robert's path to an Opening Day roster spot has been cleared by a big-money contract extension, is the most pressing of the prospect-related queries facing the 2020 White Sox, a team that, it should be noted, will be turning its focus away from the minors and toward playing big league baseball in October for the first time in more than a decade.

Not unlike Robert, Madrigal shredded minor league pitching in 2019, playing at three levels and showing just how successful his elite bat-to-ball skills can make him as an offensive producer. He stepped to the plate 532 times and struck out only 16 times.

There's a reason even Rick Renteria is already calling the 22-year-old "Magic."

The general feeling seems to be that Madrigal will start the season at Triple-A Charlotte, though with the waiting game apparently over on the South Side and the intent to win as many games as possible, perhaps a strong showing at spring training will see Madrigal starting at second base in the March 26 opener.

That's a question better answered after the White Sox have been in Glendale for a few weeks.

But Madrigal's goal is clear.

"I definitely want to be in Chicago as soon as I can," Madrigal said earlier this week at the team's hitters' camp out in the desert. "I know they have a plan for me one way or another, but I think that’s the ultimate goal: being in Chicago and winning with that team.

"I know this offseason there’s been a lot of moves, and I’m excited to be a part of that, hopefully, in the near future. The ultimate goal is winning. There’s nothing else at this point."

Madrigal might not have blown the doors off the minors like Robert, who finished with a 30-30 season, but he wasn't fazed by climbing through the system. Madrigal put up good-not-great numbers in nearly 50 games at Class A Winston-Salem but exploded for a .341 batting average and a .400 on-base percentage in 42 games at Double-A Birmingham before batting .331 and reaching base at a .398 clip in 29 games at Charlotte.

That he didn't even reach 30 games in a Knights uniform could signal that the White Sox might prefer a little more seasoning, but he didn't see any problems facing the pitching at Triple-A.

“Honestly, it wasn’t too different at all. There was nothing I hadn’t seen before," he said. "There were some older guys in the league, more consistent arms. I thought it wasn’t anything too different.”

Madrigal's earning high praise all over the place, rated among the best prospects in the game. He's earned rave reviews for his ability on both sides of the ball, picked by team executives (in an MLB Pipeline poll) as having one of the best hit tools and gloves of any player in the minor leagues.

There still might be some skepticism, or perhaps mere curiosity, as to how Madrigal's skill set will translate to the major leagues. Players like him, who focus on making contact and putting the ball in play, are becoming rarer in today's game, which sees a focus on power and launch angle and an acceptance of strikeouts. His manager, one of "Magic's" biggest fans, isn't too concerned about Madrigal finding success once he finally makes the jump to the bigs.

"Watching him swing the bat yesterday, I'm amazed at his bat-to-ball skills. It's incredible," Renteria said Wednesday from Arizona. "He's actually filling out a little bit more. All these guys, we've seen them for the last four years, they're growing up. And even though Magic just joined us last year, you can see a difference in him, physically speaking.

"I think his skill set, in terms of his bat-to-ball skills, as he continues to develop, you may see a ball leave the ballpark here and there. But the fact he can put the bat on the ball and manage the barrel as well as he does, he'll be able to find holes. Continuing to improve upon and cleaning his swing path, staying through the ball a little bit more and still being able to use all parts of the field, his skill set will play. He'll find a way to get on base at a high rate through probably contact and eye recognition, pitch recognition."

Rick Hahn has said that he expects Madrigal to be the White Sox second baseman for the bulk of the 2020 campaign, so even if he doesn't make the 26-man roster out of spring training, keep your eyes peeled for a Madrigal sighting not too deep into the baseball calendar.

This is a matter of when, not if. So the walk-up music folks at Guaranteed Rate Field better start getting ready. Will it be "Magic Man" by Heart? Or "Strange Magic" by Electric Light Orchestra? "Do You Believe in Magic" by The Lovin' Spoonful is, of course, also acceptable.

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Focus shifting to major league White Sox, but they still have some of baseball's best prospects

Focus shifting to major league White Sox, but they still have some of baseball's best prospects

White Sox fans suddenly have reason to stop focusing on the minor leagues.

Rick Hahn's front office has done an incredible amount of work this winter adding impact veterans to the team's young core, and because of it, there are realistic playoff expectations on the South Side. The summer figures to be spent focusing on what Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease are doing at the major league level rather than what the potential stars of the future are doing in the minors.

In other words, the future is here.

But it's worth noting that the White Sox still have some of the best prospects in the game. It's true that a few of the biggest names among that group won't be prospects for much longer. Luis Robert just got a high-priced contract extension that clears the way for him to be in the lineup on Opening Day. While Michael Kopech will be limited in some fashion as the White Sox manage his workload in his return from Tommy John surgery, it's hardly out of the question that he could be a part of the 26-man group that leaves Glendale at the end of March. And Nick Madrigal, Hahn has said, figures to be the White Sox second baseman for the bulk of the 2020 campaign after he reached the doorstep of the majors last year.

The point is, however, that the White Sox core is not done growing. Moncada, Giolito, Anderson and Jimenez all broke out in big ways in 2019, and the veterans added to that group could push the team into contention mode as soon as this season. But Robert, Kopech, Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn are set to join that core, too, expanding it to one the White Sox hope will power championship contenders for years to come.

The Athletic's Jim Bowden ranked Robert as his No. 1 prospect in baseball, picking the 22-year-old center fielder to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award. And that's no stretch after the way Robert lit the minor leagues on fire in 2019. Playing at three different levels, he slashed .328/.376/.624 with 32 home runs, 92 RBIs, 31 doubles, 108 runs scored and 36 stolen bases. He's a true five-tool threat who receives rave reviews that peg him as potentially the best of all the White Sox young talent. MLB Pipeline is in the middle of rolling out their rankings ahead of the 2020 season, and we'll learn where Robert ranks on the site's updated list next weekend during SoxFest. But most recently, Robert was the site's No. 3 prospect in the game.

Kopech still has prospect status despite the fact that he made his big league debut in August 2018. That Tommy John surgery limited his major league experience to this point to just four games, wiping out his 2019 season. Whether he'll be the same elite pitcher that was promised prior to his surgery is one of several important questions facing the 2020 White Sox, but it doesn't seem to be deterring the rankers. Bowden has Kopech as the No. 11 prospect in baseball, and MLB Pipeline ranked him as the No. 4 right-handed pitching prospect in the game. Kopech is said to still be capable of unleashing the blazing fastball that made him such a tantalizing prospect in the first place. The big question now is how often he'll be able to use it, with the White Sox planning to limit him in some capacity. We'll have to wait until spring to find out exactly what those limitations look like.

Madrigal might not spend a long time at Triple-A Charlotte, expected to be manning second base for the big league White Sox for the majority of the 2020 season. But like they did with Moncada, Jimenez and Robert before him, the White Sox have no plans to rush Madrigal to the majors. Bowden has him ranked as the No. 14 prospect in the game, and we'll find out soon where MLB Pipeline has him among second basemen. We already know they think the world of his glove — which was touted as Gold Glove caliber by the White Sox the night they drafted him in 2018 — naming him the second baseman on their all-defense team (he won a minor league Gold Glove for his work last season, too). MLB Pipeline also polled general managers, scouting directors and executives across all 30 teams, and Madrigal's name popped up often, voted to possess the third best hit tool, the third best glove and the highest baseball IQ among all of the game's prospects. The guy struck out just 16 times in 532 trips to the plate last season, so he's obviously doing something right.

Vaughn is receiving similarly rave reviews this winter. Bowden ranked him as the game's No. 35 prospect, and MLB Pipeline might end up putting the White Sox most recent first-round pick even higher, naming him the top first-base prospect in baseball. A slugger whose bat earned high praise when he came out of Cal last summer, Vaughn might not reach the South Side in 2020 like the rest of the guys discussed here. But he does figure to have a similar impact when he finally does. He played just 52 games between Class A Kannapolis and Class A Winston-Salem after joining the organization, hitting a combined five homers at those stops. He's still swinging the bat that launched 50 homers and drove in 163 runs over three seasons in college. That aforementioned MLB Pipeline executive poll? In it, Vaughn was picked as having the second best hit tool in the game. The White Sox just gave Abreu a three-year contract extension that will keep him on the South Side through at least the 2022 campaign, but the 37-year-old Encarnacion could be here as briefly as one year (his contract has an option for 2021), potentially opening up a spot for Vaughn should everything go right in the minors.

And this is without even mentioning guys like Dane Dunning, Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever, who could all wind up playing important roles on the pitching staff.

So while there is plenty of reason for your minor league interest to wane — because meaningful baseball is expected to be happening at the major league level in 2020 — know that the White Sox farm system (at least the tippy top of it) is still worth salivating over. These guys should be on the South Side soon, only adding fuel to the fire Hahn has built this winter.

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