White Sox

White Sox: Alexei Ramirez relieved after hitting 100th home run

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White Sox: Alexei Ramirez relieved after hitting 100th home run

Alexei Ramirez was so relieved to join Jose Valentin as the only White Sox shortstop to hit 100 home runs that he hit another in the nightcap on Saturday.

Off to what he has described as a slow and “frustrating” start, Ramirez broke out with five hits in eight at-bats on Saturday, including a home run in each game of the team’s doubleheader. His two-run shot in the second inning of the second game gave the White Sox the lead in a contest they won 8-2.

“Yes (I was relieved), and I feel happy also because it’s part of the reward and the help that many people put in me,” Ramirez said through an interpreter. “My coaches, my family, all the people that are helping around me during the years. It means a lot for me.”

[SHOP: Buy an Alexei Ramirez jersey]

“It means a lot because it’s part of the work that I’ve been doing here for years. To hit the home run was a relief or something good. I’m happy for that.”

Valentin hit 136 homers in his five seasons with the White Sox.

Ramirez had gone 161 plate appearances in between homers.

If 2018 was all about 'learning experiences' for young White Sox, what did Lucas Giolito learn?

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USA TODAY

If 2018 was all about 'learning experiences' for young White Sox, what did Lucas Giolito learn?

We heard a lot about "learning experiences" during the White Sox 100-loss 2018 season.

It was Rick Renteria's way of describing the to-be-anticipated growing pains for highly touted players spending their first full seasons in the major leagues. Fan expectations were high for the likes of Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Yoan Moncada, and by very few measures did those players — some of the first of the organization's bevy of prospects to reach the South Side — live up to those expectations.

But that doesn't mean that those players' seasons were devoid of value. Renteria, the White Sox and the players all expect these "learning experiences" to have long-term benefits. In other words, it's the struggles now that will help these players succeed and create the planned perennial contender on the South Side.

So if those "learning experiences" were so valuable, what did these guys learn?

Giolito finished his first full season in the bigs with a 6.13 ERA, leading baseball in earned runs allowed and leading the American League in walks. What did he take from what looked from the outside like a disappointing season?

"I think I learned the most from my worst starts this year, the ones where I didn’t make it out of the first, didn’t make it out of the second," Giolito said before the end of the White Sox season last month. "Just going out there not having the right mindset from the get go and allowing the game to speed up on me really quickly, there’s maybe two, three, four games where that happened. And obviously I came out of those games upset and frustrated, but now looking back on them from this perspective at the end of the season, I really learned the most from those.

"Entering every single start, I get roughly 32 of them a year, make sure that I’m prepared, I’m ready to pitch, my routine is set and I’m following it to a ‘T.’ And over the second half of the season, I started to put up better numbers, put up more competitive starts just through that process of earlier in the year grinding and grinding and not doing well. I learned a lot about myself in that process as a pitcher and as a competitor."

Certain numbers don't exactly show a drastic improvement from one half of the season to the other: Giolito's ERA prior to the All-Star break (6.18) and after it (6.04) were pretty much the same. He had a much improved August (3.86 ERA in six starts) and a rough September (9.27 ERA in five starts).

But again, the 2018 season wasn't about what the numbers look like now. It was about what those numbers will look like a year or two or three from now, when the White Sox make their transition from rebuilding to contending.

"You go out there and you don’t get the job done, you’re knocked out of the game early, looking back on it, it’s like, ‘Now I know what doesn’t work.’ And I’m able to make those adjustments and the changes to the routine and the changes to mindset and things to be able to go out there," Giolito said. "I’m not going to have my best stuff every day. Some days I might not feel right and might be battling myself a little bit. But it’s being able to make that quick adjustment, not letting the game speed up. That’s the biggest thing.

"At this level, you go out there and you’re not feeling right in the first inning, it might be three runs, four runs on the board before you even know it. And I think getting that experience, getting to pitch every fifth day for an entire season and having a ton of downs and starting to figure it out more toward the end, it’s gaining that experience and learning what works and learning what doesn’t."

Throughout the season, Renteria complimented Giolito for the pitcher's ability to move on from rough beginnings to starts and turn in a five- or six-outing despite the early trouble. Giolito did a good deal of that throughout the season, with longevity during starts rarely being an issue, even if the run totals were high. Only six of his 32 starts in 2018 were shorter than five innings, and the percentage of his starts that lasted six and seven innings increased from the first half of the season to the second.

And then there are the walks, and there was a significant decrease in the amount of guys Giolito was putting on base between the first and second halves of the season. He walked 60 batters in 103.1 innings in the first half for a BB/9 of 5.2, compared to 30 batters in 70 innings in the second half for a BB/9 of 3.9.

So there were positives for Giolito to take from his 2018 campaign.

"The second half of the season, bouncing back from what I was doing. Cutting down on the walks, starting to pitch better, pitch more consistently. Even games when I wasn’t sharp, I was getting hit around, not doing so well, I did a better job of at least giving the team a chance, getting a little bit deeper into the game," he said. "So I’d say those are some of the highlights, learning from the mistakes and learning from the failures and within the season being able to make the right adjustments to be more successful."

On Opening Day, Giolito talked about how different a pitcher he was more than a year after joining the White Sox organization. One full season in the big leagues, and Giolito is again a different pitcher. It's that continuing evolution that the White Sox hope will make him a mainstay in their rotation of the future.

"More experience, more mature. I’m no longer really fazed by the big situation. If I get into trouble in the first inning, I’m not worrying about it or thinking about it or how I screwed up the last at-bat, last pitch, I walked a guy, gave up a double, whatever it might be. Now, what’s in the past is in the past, even when I’m out there," he said. "If I mess up a couple pitches, I know the adjustment to make and I’m going to do my best to make that adjustment without it taking a couple innings or even never making the adjustment the entire start, which is what was happening through April, May, June.

"Just getting that experience and learning to make those adjustments on the fly. I’d say that’s what I’m really taking away from this year."

Chuck Garfien's top five free agents the White Sox should target this offseason

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USA TODAY

Chuck Garfien's top five free agents the White Sox should target this offseason

At the end of the 2017 Winter Meetings, I asked Rick Hahn a question that has been brewing around the White Sox ever since they started the rebuild two years ago.

How much are you thinking about the big free-agent class of 2018 when things can really get exciting for the White Sox?

“It’s certainly been on our minds. It’s been discussed, “ Hahn replied that day. “We expect things to be a lot more interesting a year from now.”

How interesting will it get? We don’t know for sure. A lot might depend on how much they believe their prospects developed in 2018, as Hahn explained in the same interview.

“A year from right now, we’re going to know a lot more about the timelines of (our) prospects,” Hahn said. “Which ones are more likely than not to be able to contribute sooner rather than later and reach their ceilings, and where in the organization we are going to have some depth that perhaps has to be moved or to fill in either via trade or via free agency. So we’re going to know a lot more a year from now about how quickly we’re going to get to where we want to be.”

To which I responded, “So, you’re going to sign Manny Machado?”

Hahn laughed.

Well, here we are. The next offseason has arrived for the White Sox. Here are some free agents who will be great fits for the White Sox next season and the future. Some are home run swings, others are singles and doubles. The first one is the grand slam.

1. Third base: Manny Machado

This is the dream scenario, probably a pipe dream, but Machado checks all the boxes for the White Sox. He’s a 26-year-old superstar, a charismatic franchise player coming off the best season of his career. Though he has stated his desire to play shortstop, Machado says he will play third base “for the right team,” according to Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports.

The White Sox have very little on the books over the next five years. If they want to pay him $40 million a year, they have room to do it. Is it wise to give that much money to a single player who would represent 40 to 50 percent of your entire payroll? Probably not, but players like this rarely become available. His signing would plant a flag and send a message to the rest of the league that the White Sox have arrived. Baseball would be electric on the South Side. In theory, it’s a no-brainer. In reality, he’s probably signing with the Yankees. But you can dream!

Backup plan: Josh Donaldson

Donaldson’s market will be interesting to watch this winter. He’s coming off two injury-plagued seasons (played in a total of 165 games), but when healthy he’s one of the best hitters in the game. He will be 33 years old and made $23 million in 2018. Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon are set to be third base free-agent options in 2020, so keep that in mind. The White Sox don’t have much on their payroll for next season. If Donaldson is willing to sign a one-year deal to prove he’s healthy, play in a hitter-friendly ballpark in the American League and try for a bigger contract the following season, I’d pounce. He’s an immediate difference-maker in the lineup. You make Yolmer Sanchez a super utility guy. Daryl Boston can blow his whistle at Donaldson to celebrate the signing.

2. Outfield: Adam Jones

When I asked Eloy Jimenez in 2017 on the White Sox Talk Podcast how good of a baseball player he wanted to be, he answered, “Like Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Adam Jones. Superstars. That is my dream.” If Jimenez thinks that highly of Jones, why not sign the free-agent outfielder to a one- or two-year deal and let him mentor the White Sox future star? Jones will be 33. He had 15 home runs and 63 RBIs in 2018, his lowest totals since 2008, but he’s one of the most respected players in the game and will bring the White Sox added value for what he brings off the field. Former Orioles manager Buck Showalter said this about Jones this season: “His example of how to play the game has meant more than anything.” The White Sox will have a bunch of young outfielders coming up from the minors over the next couple years. I can’t think of a better veteran to have on the roster to show them the way than Jones.

Backup plan: Curtis Granderson

The South Suburbs native keeps on truckin’. At 37 years old, he slashed .242/.351/.431 in 2018. Like Jones, he’s cut from the James Shields leadership cloth. He made only $5 million this year. He can play in front of his friends and family. You can have UIC Night at the ballpark. Sounds like a win-win.

3. Starting pitcher: J.A. Happ

With Michael Kopech not back until 2020 and Shields a free agent, the White Sox have two spots to fill in the rotation. As great as it would be to sign someone like Dallas Keuchel or Patrick Corbin, a smart plan here is to sign a veteran like Happ as a bridge to when you have pitchers like Kopech, Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning ready to compete in the majors. After the Yankees acquired him from the Blue Jays this summer, Happ went 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA. That might keep him in New York, but if they’re trying to sign Machado and either Corbin or Keuchel, even the Yankees might not have money left for Happ.

Backup plan: Gio Gonzalez

He was drafted by the White Sox, traded by the White Sox (for Jim Thome), acquired by the White Sox (for Freddy Garcia), traded again by the White Sox (for Nick Swisher). Why not come full circle and sign Gonzalez as a free agent? Then trade him again. Seriously, he would be a solid option for the rotation. He finished sixth in Cy Young Award voting in 2017.

4. Relief pitcher: Adam Ottavino

The White Sox currently don’t have a true closer in their bullpen. They might not contend in 2019, so spending big money on a closer wouldn’t be the most prudent decision to make from that standpoint. However, there are a bunch of free agents available this offseason (Jeurys Familia, Craig Kimbrel, Cody Allen, Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, etc.) and fewer options are expected on the market next offseason. Do the White Sox go all-in on a closer this winter so they’ve got someone reliable at the back end of the bullpen for 2020 and beyond? Tough call. Not just for a closer, but for setup men, too. These are tough, risky waters to swim in. Hahn knows it.

“The prices to go out and build a good, proven bullpen right now are awfully steep. That’s coming for the White Sox in the coming years. That’s the part that scares me,” Hahn said in our interview at last year’s Winter Meetings. “We’ve got to be right on those. When you’re betting $14 to $20 million on a seventh-inning guy, you better be right.”

From an age standpoint, Familia makes sense because he’ll only be 29 years old next season. His 1.8 WAR is the second highest among relievers in this free-agent class, second to Ottavino’s 2.0. Familia had 51 saves in 2016. But is he the pitcher you want to hitch your wagon to for the next four years? Maybe.

To me, the safer bet is Ottavino, who wasn’t the Rockies' closer last season (he had six saves) but definitely has closer stuff: 112 strikeouts in 77.2 innings. He also had a 2.10 ERA in 34 innings at Coors Field. The dude throws filth. He’ll be 33 years old, so he’s probably not a long-term answer. The White Sox could make Ottavino the closer until one of the young arms like Zack Burdi is ready. If that doesn’t work out, trade a prospect to get a closer by 2021. I agree with Hahn. The high-end bullpen market scares me.

Backup option: Familia

5. Can’t beat him, sign him: Michael Brantley

Brantley is exactly the kind of hitter the White Sox need: a patient, on-base guy who doesn’t strike out (60 in 631 plate appearances in 2018), is left-handed, can hit for power and is a doubles machine. In 17 games against the White Sox in 2018, he slashed .343/.400/.567 with four home runs. Because of his injury history, will he get anything more than a two-year deal? That’s the question. Try to sign him for two years as a bridge until all your outfield prospects are MLB ready, bat him second behind Yoan Moncada and in front of Jose Abreu and Eloy Jimenez and watch this offense take off. He’s a hitter who makes everyone around him in the lineup better. The Indians' offense would be worse without him. Another win-win.

Backup plan:  Eduardo Escobar

Ever since the White Sox traded him to the Twins for Francisco Liriano in 2012, Escobar has seemingly made it his mission to make the White Sox pay for it, especially this past season: .333/.423/.733 with four HR and 11 RBIs in 12 games. Thankfully, the Twins traded him to the Diamondbacks at the deadline to limit the damage. Now he’s a free agent, he’s coming off a career season, and he can play third base. Honestly, I’m just hoping he signs with a National League team so the White Sox only have to face him in Interleague play.

So there you have it. My free-agent targets for the White Sox. It’s much easier to write about free agents than sign them. We don’t know how aggressive the White Sox will be this offseason, but one thing seems certain: That day is coming. Stay tuned.