White Sox

White Sox fifth starter battle still coming into focus

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White Sox fifth starter battle still coming into focus

MESA, Ariz. — Erik Johnson and Mat Latos both pitched on Saturday and had mixed results as each right-hander vies to win a spot in the White Sox rotation coming out of spring training. 

Johnson allowed five runs on seven hits in three innings against the Cubs at Sloan Park, and had his fastball sit between 85 and 89 miles per hour, according to a scout. He gave up a solo home run to Dexter Fowler on a fastball low in the zone, and said he’s still working on building up strength in his arm.

“I know I’m not there yet,” Johnson said. “Pitch count-wise I’m getting to where I need to be but as far as innings go, I’d like to achieve more than that. I know the stuff is there. I’m throwing strikes with all of my pitches. The arm strength will come along.”  

[SHOP: Gear up for the season, White Sox fans!]

Johnson felt like he was aggressive in the strike zone and threw some good offspeed pitches, but manager Robin Ventura said the 26-year-old fell behind in too many counts Saturday for those pitches to be effective. 

“You can make quality pitches but if you’re doing it in a hitter’s count and it’s not perfect, you’re going to get hit a little bit,” Ventura said. “It’s a good lineup and you just gotta be better early.”

Latos allowed three runs over four innings of work in a B game against the Texas Rangers in surprise Saturday morning, though all three of those tallies came in the first inning (two on a home run). 

An American League scout who watched Latos’ start told CSNChicago.com it was “pretty underwhelming,” though the right-hander said he was more concerned with commanding his fastball in the relatively laid-back setting of a B game. 

“Most importantly I was worried about hitting my spots and hitting each side of the plate with my fastball,” Latos said. “The one big thing we had been working on in my side sessions was big today, able to keep the fastball to the side of the plate I wanted it to. 

“Earlier in the game I threw a couple real nice two-seamers into some righties. (I) threw one that didn’t move at all, made that mistake and it got hit for a home run. But I settled in after that, everything came out of my arm, easy flow, go through the motions and making my pitches.”

Ventura was in attendance for Latos’ outing and said he was “alright,” though noted the 28-year-old ramped up his intensity after giving up those runs in the first inning. 

“After that, the competition part in him came out, which is good,” Ventura said. “A good outing — B games are going to be a little tough to get going, I think once you get knocked around a bit it helps that.” 

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Latos said he wasn’t going to read into the outcome of his start, instead focusing more on how he felt. 

“I could care less about the results,” Latos said. “Come April, I’ll care about the results. From the way it looked, the first inning cost me but the last three were really good.”

Johnson, Latos and right-hander Jacob Turner, who allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings in his only Cactus League start to date, are battling to win that final spot in the White Sox rotation. All three have had some level of success in the past (Latos had the most, with a 3.27 ERA from 2010-2014) but have struggled in recent years. 

The White Sox have a little over three weeks until Opening Day, with each of those three pitchers getting plenty of opportunities to stake their claim to a gig in the starting rotation. Saturday’s games were just one part of the evaluation process for Ventura, Don Cooper & Co. 

“You have to go out there and pitch well,” Ventura said, answering a question about what Johnson has to do to make the team. “There’s a chance you’re going to make the team, but you just gotta pitch well.”

Avi Garcia's played in fewer than 20 games since April, but could he still attract trade-deadline suitors?

Avi Garcia's played in fewer than 20 games since April, but could he still attract trade-deadline suitors?

Avisail Garcia returned from his latest disabled-list stint with a bang, smacking a three-run home run in the fourth inning Saturday in Seattle.

The White Sox right fielder hasn't even played in 20 games since late April, when he went on his first DL trip, which lasted two months. A second, also featuring an injury to his hamstring, made it two weeks between games.

But when he has been able to step to the plate this summer, Garcia has been tremendously productive. He came into Saturday night with a .333/.347/.783 slash line and a whopping eight home runs in the 17 games he played in between his two DL stays. Then he added that homer Saturday night off longtime Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, giving him nine homers in his last 14 games.

Keeping this up could do an awful lot of things for Garcia: It could make his ice-cold start a distant memory, it could prove that last year's All-Star season might not have been a fluke, and it could keep him entrenched in the conversation about the White Sox outfield of the future, giving the team one of those good problems to have when deciding how he would fit into the puzzle alongside top prospects like Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert.

But here's another possibility: Has Garcia swung a hot enough bat in his limited action that he could be a trade candidate before this month runs out?

The White Sox don't figure to have too many players who are going to get contending teams worked up into a lather. James Shields, Joakim Soria, Luis Avilan, Xavier Cedeno. Those guys could classify as additions that would bolster teams' depth, but they might not be the attractive upgrades the White Sox were able to trade away last summer.

Garcia, though, could be. He might not slide into the middle of the order for too many contenders, but someone looking for a starting corner outfielder might be enticed by the kind of numbers Garcia has put up in June and July, albeit in a small sample size. Teams would also have to consider his health. He's already been to the disabled list twice this season. Teams would certainly have to be confident he wouldn't return in order to make a deal.

On the White Sox end, Garcia would figure to fetch a far more intriguing return package than the aforementioned pitchers, given that he's still pretty young (27) with one more season of team control after this one.

The White Sox have plenty of options when it comes to Garcia. They could deal him now, deal him later or keep as a part of the rebuild, extending him and making him a featured player on the next contending team on the South Side. But with a lot of significant injuries this year perhaps having an effect on when all those highly rated prospects will finally arrive in the majors — not to mention the disappointing win-loss numbers the big league team has put up this season — perhaps it would make more sense to acquire some rebuild-bolstering pieces.

Of course, it all depends on if there are any deals to be made. Do other teams' front offices like what they've seen from Garcia in this short stretch as much as White Sox fans have? We'll know by the time August rolls around.

The White Sox outfield is finally healthy, and it's got a lot to prove in the second half

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USA TODAY

The White Sox outfield is finally healthy, and it's got a lot to prove in the second half

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.