As the opening of the free-agent market nears, generalmanager Rick Hahn doesnt want to guess about where any of the White Sox threefree agents might land.As of midnight Saturday, A.J. Pierzynski, Brett Myers and KevinYoukilis are free to sign with any team they prefer. The team isnt expected tomake a qualifying offer to any, Hahn said. And though their chance to retainplayers is reduced significantly once they become available to all teams, Hahnsaid, he knows the strength of relationships means nothing is certain. I dont want to handicap it because if I were sitting heretwo years ago the last time A.J hit free agency I would have given you a reallow, low number on the likelihood of returning and then at the 11th hour wewere able to work something out, Hahn said. Free agency has a weird way withyour own guys of unfolding. Theres a fair amount of sentimentality on bothsides and you never really know a guy is gone until hes gone.After eight years on the South Side, the decision regarding Pierzynskihas the most sentimentality attached. The veteran catcher also figures to, alongwith Youkilis, be the most difficult to sign. Pierzynski earned 6 million lastseason when he hit a career-high 27 home runs and tied his career-best with 77RBIs. He and Texas Rangers free agent Mike Napoli figure to be thetop options at a premium position. Pierzynskis potential return is alsofurther muddled because the White Sox have a potential replacement in TylerFlowers, who hit seven home runs in limited play and is strong defensively.Whereas the club could be comfortable with Flowers behindthe dish -- though a fracture in his hand will keep Flowers from playing winter ballas the team hoped -- there isnt as much certainty at third base. With thehealth of Brent Morels back still in question and no prospects consideredmajor-league ready, third base seems to be of a higher priority for the WhiteSox. Whether or not they can retain Youkilis, the top free agentat the position in a thin class, remains in question. Though a major leaguesource said the White Sox have indicated they want to speak to Youkilis -- whohad 15 homers and 46 RBIs after he was acquired from Boston on June 24 -- whenits time, they may face too much competition. Youkilis is prepared to signto play either first base or third base and has received a good level ofinterest thus far, according to a baseball source.Youkilis also may prefer to play closer to home in the SanFrancisco area. Late in the season, Youkilis wife gave birth to the couplesfirst child. In early October, the veteran said family would play a significantrole in his decision.Myers, who was 3-4 with a 3.12 ERA in 35 games after he cameover in a trade from Houston, has also probably increased the size of hismarket because he would make himself available as both a starter and areliever.Late in the season, executive vice president of baseballoperations Kenny Williams said the club considered retaining Myers, who had a10 million option, as a starter. Myers, who is 89-79 with a 4.27 ERA as astarter and has a 3.36 ERA and 40 saves as reliever, said he is open to anysituation.Ive got the mentality, I want to pitch, Myers said.Whichever way a team wants me to go Ill do. I think Ive proven I can start.Ive proven I can do both. Hindsight is 2020. Some teams might like me in thebullpen. Some might like me as a starter. Its up to the team.One final -- and potentially gigantic -- factor is how muchmoney the White Sox have to spend. After the team signed Jake Peavy for 14.5 million thisseason and picked up Gavin Floyds 9.5 million option, the White Sox have nineplayers under contract for a total of 89.25 million (7 million of Konerkos13.5 million is deferred). Hahn said Thursday the club will operate on roughlythe same amount as 2012, when they began the season with a 97.669 millionpayroll. With Gordon Beckham and Alejandro De Aza both arbitration eligible,the team has a limited amount of money with which to operate. That may forceHahn to be creative in addressing his needs, including trading players off thecurrent roster.We certainly would like to have them back, Hahn said. Theyneed to see what their market is. It just wont happen as quickly as wed like.Were not closing the door on any of our free agents.
The White Sox are heading into the shortened 2020 season with the same expectations they had back when they thought they’d be playing a 162-game schedule: to leap out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode.
Their ability to do it this year could well hinge on an extraordinarily talented, though plenty unproven, group of young pitchers.
Lucas Giolito broke out in a huge way in 2019, transforming himself from the pitcher with the worst numbers in baseball into an All Star and the no-doubt ace of the South Side starting staff. On Opening Day a year ago, the White Sox were coming off a 100-loss campaign and Giolito was facing legitimate questions about his place in the team’s long-term pitching plan. On Opening Day this year, he’ll be leading the pitching staff on a team with postseason expectations.
“What I see from him is an ability to be an ace,” new White Sox starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, who has a Cy Young Award and a World Series ring on his resume, said of Giolito. “He’s every bit of a horse that you’d want at the top of the rotation. … He’s got all the intangibles you want in a quality major league pitcher that can do it for years to come.
“What I see in him is what I had in myself. … Until you get over that mental edge and push through and have that first good year, you can’t really say too many things out loud. But it’s the inside that really counts, because you’re pushing yourself every day.”
The question now becomes how many additional young arms can join Giolito in emerging as championship-caliber major league pitchers. The White Sox have no shortage of them, and baseball’s months-long layoff allowed time for several of them to make recoveries from Tommy John surgery, giving the team a deep pitching staff heading into the 60-game sprint to the postseason.
The biggest questions surround Dylan Cease and Reynaldo López, who both finished 2019 with some nasty looking numbers. Cease’s results, a 5.79 ERA in 14 starts, can be easily chalked up to him dipping his toes into major league waters for the first time. López, however, seemed to switch places with Giolito, going from the status of the team’s best starting pitcher in 2018 to a woefully inconsistent 2019.
But the White Sox are confident one season will not tell the entire story for either young pitcher, both of whom they see as having front-of-the-rotation potential.
Cease is frequently raved about for having remarkable stuff, and he showed it off at times last season. His finest outing was probably also a pretty good encapsulation of his entire rookie year, when he dazzled for much of his 6.2 innings in Cleveland, striking out 11 batters, only to wind up tagged for four runs. But while he had a tendency to have a brief stretch in each outing define his day for the worse, his performances were often solid when looked at as a whole. And considering he was facing big league bats for the first time, there was a lot to like about what the future holds.
López, meanwhile, had even brighter flashes of brilliance, even if they were fewer and farther between. He struck out 14 Detroit Tigers in April and grabbed a complete-game, 11-strikeout win over the Indians in September. After a mostly dismal first half, he vowed he’d be a better pitcher after the All-Star break and was just that, with a 2.13 ERA in his first six starts of the second half.
Of course, that’s not to paint over the more glaring bad results. He still finished the season with a 5.38 ERA and 35 home runs allowed. The good news? There’s a compelling reason to believe in a Giolito-style turnaround for López in 2020.
Giolito made his transformation, in large part, because of a revamp of his mental approach to pitching. The bad moments that were happening early in his outings would snowball until he had given up a large number of runs, hits, walks or all three. That's not the case anymore. López has spent the last few months, dating back to spring training, talking about his own mental overhaul from the offseason that included talking with the White Sox eam psychologist. Now, he says, he’s in a much better place mentally, better able to shed the effects of a bad result. Who knows how much it will do to lower his ERA, but the White Sox saw just last year how big a difference that kind of approach can make.
“Sometimes, as players, we are struggling with our thoughts, especially nervous thoughts when something goes wrong. And for players that’s one of the bigger challenges, get over it, keep moving forward. It’s not always easy,” López said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I used to think one of the most important things for us, especially for me, was just the physical part of the game. I was wrong. That was one of the reasons I kept failing. Because I wasn’t prepared mentally to face those situations, to face those thoughts.
“I realized that, and that was one of the reasons I stayed here in the U.S. during the offseason and why I approached the team psychologist to work with that, to try to enhance my mind and get rid of all that other stuff and to deal with it in a way I could use it as an advantage and not a disadvantage of my game.
“How that is going to help me, it’s already helping a lot and that is going to help me a lot going forward because now I know how to deal with different situations, now I know how to be prepared for different situations, and that’s a big difference for me. I’m a better player because my mind is stronger and prepared for situations.”
While Giolito and Keuchel provide reliability at the top of the rotation, teams need more than just two guys to form a pitching staff capable of winning a championship. And though Michael Kopech is a big part of the team’s long-term planning, he decided not to play during the 2020 season. That means the fate of White Sox pitching this season could rest on Cease and López even more than it already did.
Fortunately, there’s no need for those two to feel too much pressure, though. As mentioned, the layoff allowed for some full-season reinforcements, three more guys who fall into the category of young pitching that has the White Sox primed to make their leap into the realm of baseball’s contenders.
Most notable among that trio is Carlos Rodón, who’s been around for a while but is still just 27 years old. Like López, his past few seasons have featured plenty of flashes of brilliance, but consistency has eluded him. The bigger hurdle he’s had to climb is health, and numerous injuries have derailed his attempt to settle into the role of the front-of-the-rotation arm his No. 3 draft pick status had the White Sox hoping he’d be.
Rodón has looked good in “Summer Camp,” and he’s as realistic about his situation as anyone. Kopech’s decision not to play this year might make Rick Renteria’s decision an easier one when it comes to a six-man rotation, and Rodón could get a chance to make regular starts for the entirety of the shortened 2020 campaign. With just one year after this one before he’s scheduled to hit free agency, Rodón knows he needs to show the White Sox that he can still be the huge part of their pitching future they long hoped he’d be.
"I feel like there's some stuff I need to prove," Rodón said. "The last few years have not gone the way I wanted them to, obviously. It's kind of unfortunate, injuries and underperforming. This 60-game season, I feel like it will do a lot for guys. Not just me, but other guys around the league — or on this team — wherever, can prove themselves in those 60 games, and I think it will do a lot."
And then there are the two other Tommy John recoverers behind Rodón, Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert, who have also shown well during “Summer Camp.” Whether they’ll have their shot at the big leagues depends, probably, more on how the other six starters on the team perform. But unlike last year, when Rodón went down and the White Sox trotted out a parade of ineffective options like Odrisamer Despaigne and Manny Bañuelos in an attempt to plug the hole, there is legitimate depth this time around. So at the very least, even if Dunning and Lambert don’t end up making big-time contributions to this year’s club, they provide depth that makes the White Sox stronger.
Dunning, especially, could still emerge as a prime piece of the long-term puzzle on the South Side. Rick Hahn talked about Dunning potentially being in the mix to be a part of last year’s Opening Day rotation before arm injuries did away with that idea. Should any one of the arms after Giolito and Keuchel falter in a season where every game means something, Dunning could get his shot.
And there’s even more on the way, though it’s unlikely that prospects like Jonathan Stiever and Garrett Crochet — who were both named to the White Sox “taxi squad” Tuesday — will reach the majors this season. Still, it shows the White Sox are truly built for the long term. Once the contention window opens, the goal becomes not letting it close too soon. And even if Rodón departs after 2021 or Keuchel’s time on the South Side ends with his current contract or further augmentation is needed, the White Sox can make that happen from within as well as from outside the organization.
But this year, the potential is there. The White Sox have the young pitching talent to form a menacing staff, but there are a lot of questions to answer first. If the answers are positive ones, then look out. This team could be the AL Central’s most balanced.
“I really do love the mix of pitching that we have here,” veteran starting pitcher Gio González said. “I think we have plenty of fire arms. … I've been very impressed with Dylan Cease. I think Cease's arm is incredible with how he gets the spin behind the ball.
“Then you've got your Lucas Giolito, and then Lopey. I had Lopey and Lucas when I was in Washington, and I got to see that firsthand. … This rotation kind of fills in all the blanks for all the ones that you have to question whether he's too young or he's too old for this.
“I think the White Sox did a great job with mixing it all together for the young guys and definitely some of the veteran guys that can kind of take the load off with the thinking process.”
Let’s try this again.
Back on March 11, I addressed three questions the White Sox had to answer before Opening Day. It was 15 days before the scheduled start of the 2020 regular season. It was also the first and last column I wrote for NBC Sports Chicago before COVID-19 shut the sports world down.
It’s now 126 days later and the White Sox will (hopefully) begin their season a week from Friday against the Minnesota Twins at Guaranteed Rate Field.
A lot has changed. Spring Training is now Summer Camp. The minor leagues aren’t operating. There’s a thing unofficially called the Schaumburg Sox.
None of that seemed plausible back in March.
Naturally, some of the questions for the White Sox have changed too. Others haven’t. One thing we know hasn’t changed: the high expectations for this team in 2020. In fact, those expectations may be even higher in the 60-game sprint that will begin on July 24.
Before we get to Opening Day though, there are still three big questions to sort out:
When will Yoan Moncada be available?
Moncada has yet to appear at Guaranteed Rate Field since workouts began and was placed on the 10-day injured list last Friday. Teams aren’t permitted to announce if a player has tested positive for COVID-19, but two unnamed White Sox players have tested positive. Moncada and pitcher Jose Ruiz are the only two players on the injured list.
The good news is that both players who tested positive were asymptomatic, which could bode well for a return. At one point, pitcher Lucas Giolito even said to reporters: “Obviously Moncada will be back soon.” Unfortunately, that was a week ago.
At this point, it seems unlikely Moncada will be ready to go for Opening Day, but the sense is that he shouldn’t miss too much of the season. The determining factor will be how long it takes the third baseman to get into game shape.
"I don't know, to be honest with you," White Sox hitting coach Frank Menechino said. "I think 10, 15 at-bats to see where he's at. And then, probably, I'd say 20 at-bats to get him started in the right direction. As far as days, I don't know what he's able to do while he's not here.
"Listen, he's a great athlete, and I think it's going to be sooner rather than later for him. Once he sees his teammates playing, he'll want to get in there. And that might not be such a bad thing. If he's in shape and he's ready to handle the workload, I think he'll get in there pretty quick."
In the meantime, the White Sox have primarily used Cheslor Cuthbert and Danny Mendick at third base with Leury Garcia being an obvious option too when he’s not playing second base. Prospects Yermín Mercedes and Andrew Vaughn have also received work at third base.
Perhaps a bigger consequence of Moncada’s absence is the impact it has on Luis Robert in the batting order. The plan was to have Tim Anderson and Moncada hit 1-2 in the order, but with Moncada out, Robert has either led off or hit second in every intrasquad game the White Sox have played. And he's looked good doing it.
What will the starting rotation look like?
When this column was originally written back in March, one of the three questions was about when Michael Kopech would join the rotation. We now know his services won’t be available at all as Kopech has opted out of the 2020 season. There’s no reason to minimize that blow. He has the most talented arm in the organization and his absence hurts both the White Sox’s playoff chances and his own development. When the team reconvenes for spring training in 2021, it will be two and half years removed from Kopech’s Tommy John surgery, with just one spring training appearance (a very impressive one at that) to account for.
That said, the White Sox do have starting pitching depth and can remain competitive without Kopech. Based on what we’ve seen in intrasquad games, the rotation already looks six-deep and it’s possible it will look like this:
RHP Lucas Giolito
LHP Dallas Keuchel
RHP Dylan Cease
LHP Carlos Rodón
LHP Gio Gonzalez
RHP Reynaldo Lopez
Right-handers Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert could also provide starts and with the amount of pitching that will be carried on the 30-man roster and available on the taxi squad in Schaumburg, “opener” games using the bullpen aren’t completely out of the question.
Will Nick Madrigal be on the Opening Day roster?
The answer to this question in March was that Madrigal was most likely headed to Charlotte, but would certainly be on the White Sox well before July. Well, now it’s July and there are only 60 games in the season. Service time rules still apply and Madrigal is not currently on the 40-man roster, but wins will be at a premium when the season starts and the White Sox could already be without Moncada.
Madrigal has looked good in intrasquad games so far, spraying baseballs all over the field. So maybe the better question is, can the White Sox afford to keep him off the Opening Day roster?
Manager Rick Renteria said he will approach Opening Day like the White Sox are in first place after 102 games played with 60 to go. If that is the case, you’d think he’d want Madrigal in the lineup. Renteria also loves Leury Garcia, who is serviceable at second base, but without Moncada, perhaps the best solution is to have Madrigal at second and Garcia at third.
Sending Madrigal to Charlotte in April for seasoning was defensible. Sending him to Schaumburg in July for intrasquad games is a tougher argument to make.