White Sox

White Sox reverse course, send Micah Johnson to Triple-A

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White Sox reverse course, send Micah Johnson to Triple-A

In a surprising reversal, the White Sox have sent Micah Johnson to Triple-A Charlotte on Thursday.

The club, which is off today after it won the second of three games in Milwaukee on Wednesday night, announced the move two days after saying they would stay patient with their rookie second baseman despite his early struggles. Fellow rookie Carlos Sanchez, 22, is expected to join the team Friday on the road when it begins a three-game series against the Oakland A’s.

While Johnson has fared well at the plate, his defensive play and base running isn’t at the level the White Sox want.

[MORE WHITE SOX: White Sox option 2B Micah Johnson to Triple-A]

“Obviously from an offensive standpoint, (Johnson) was contributing,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “But from a defensive standpoint, he wasn’t quite as consistent play-to-play as we needed him to be at the big league level and as we expect him to be in the future. He also had a couple of questionable baserunning decisions, which I think is a part of being young and things, much like the defensive side of things, will get ironed out with repetition.”

On Tuesday, Hahn gave Johnson, who has a .270/.333/.297 slash line in 83 plate appearances, a public vote of confidence, noting the club needs to produce its own talent on an annual basis to sustain success.

But in that night’s game, Johnson, who is last among 23 qualified second baseman with minus-8 Defensive Runs Saved, according to fangraphs.com, dropped a pickoff throw. He also ran into an out at third base, the third time he has run into one this season along with a pickoff and two times caught stealing in five tries. Tuesday’s performance came on the heels of a play Monday where Johnson and shortstop Alexei Ramirez didn’t convert what appeared to be an easy double play, which cost Jeff Samardzija an extra run in a 10-7 loss.

[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans!]

“We’re not going to show all our cards, or reveal that we’re going to make a change in the coming days,” Hahn said. “I don’t think that’s real productive to maximize a player’s performance. At the same time, we have consistent conversations with our players about where they sit and what we’re expecting. And while I’m sure Micah was disappointed with the ultimate decision, I don’t think he was surprised that it was a possibility or didn’t foresee it as a possibility.”

Though Johnson entered spring training as the favorite to win the starting job, Sanchez made himself a strong option as he produced a .425/.489/.425 slash line with six RBIs in 45 plate appearances. The performance was good enough to earn Sanchez a spot on the Opening Day roster.

Sanchez, who is thought of as a glove-first infielder, has proven he's a capable defender during his short time in the majors. He also carried over his hot start at the plate to Charlotte, where he hit 344/.368/.466 with two homers and 17 RBIs and was twice named the International League player of the week.

[MORE WHITE SOX: Jose Quintana pushes White Sox to a much-needed 2015 first]

Sanchez, who already has 107 major league plate appearances is expected to take over as the starting second baseman while Gordon Beckham and Emilio Bonifacio stay in their utility roles, Hahn said.

“Carlos is going to bring a little bit more defensive consistency,” Hahn said. “Solid base running. He’ll be a tough out for us. He’s going to help stabilize that position.

“We do like the fact that he is a kid that got an extended taste last year and that at the start of the year he got beat out for his job, but as opposed to hanging his head, he went down and worked his tail off and obviously had a great amount of success.”

Hahn believes Johnson, 24, is capable of success in the majors. He compared the move to the demotions of Aaron Rowand and Joe Crede and said Johnson just needs more repetition.

“We still think (Johnson) has a very bright future and he’s going to have a long and successful big league career,” Hahn said. “There are just some elements of his game that we want him to work on consistently at the minor league level and get ironed out prior to having him back in Chicago.”

This is an interesting development, given what Hahn said Tuesday:

"There’s a balance. It’s important for us to build something sustainable to introduce our own young talent on a pretty much annual basis. The Braves did that on that long run of theirs, every year adding a homegrown piece that became a mainstay to their core as it evolved. That’s where we want to get to. We anticipate and hope we’re going to follow a model like that and have our own homegrown talent integrated in. At no point do we expect those guys to carry the load, so to speak. So our expectations for Micah and Carlos now in the rotation is on Day 1, you have to show up and you’re responsible for this. It’s a matter of performing up to their ability and showing progress and our ability to project out that they’re going to be the type of player their capable of being and they’re best served doing that at the big league level.

 

"It is a good problem to have. We’d much rather have options, especially at premium positions and Carlos is doing a great job. If and when the need arises in Chicago, we know that Carlos at the very least will provide quality defense and be a tough out. There’s some elements of Micah’s game you can’t replicate. The pressure he puts on a defense in the way he’s able to disrupt a pitcher’s rhythm which helps the hitters behind him when he’s on base. Which is why he’s here now and he’s the right guy."

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

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USA TODAY

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

This season, Matt Davidson became the fourth player in MLB history to hit three home runs in a season opener. It definitely raised a few eyebrows, especially after Paul Konerko noted during spring training that a 40-home run season and an All-Star selection isn’t out of the question for the California native. After clobbering nine home runs (seven of them coming at Kauffman Stadium) in his first 21 games, anything seemed possible.

Unfortunately it didn’t quite turn out that way, though he did rack up his second straight 20-homer season. But it’s hard to argue that 2018 wasn’t a success for Davidson — mostly because of the swings he didn’t make.

Everything else aside, Davidson walked as often as Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in 2018.

OK, the more meaningful comparison would be Davidson to himself.

What stands out is his walk rate. One hundred fifty three players had at least 400 plate appearances in both 2017 and 2018. Among them, Davidson had the second-highest increase in walk percentage this past season.

Consider this: In 2017, Davidson and Tim Anderson became (and still are) the only players in MLB history with 160-plus strikeouts and fewer than 20 walks in a season.

Davidson, while logging 20 more at-bats in 2018, had the same number of strikeouts, 165, but he increased his walk total from 19 to 52. Give him credit for that. It’s a tough adjustment to make at the minor league level let alone in the major leagues. The increased walk rate brought his on-base percentage from .260 in 2017 (well below the AL average of .324) to .319 in 2018 (a tick above the AL average of .318) and pushed his overall offensive production from 16 percent below league average (as measured by his 84 weighted runs created plus, or wRC+) to four percent above league average (104 wRC+).

And I haven’t even mentioned the most fun aspect of his 2018 season: He pitched! And he pitched well.

Thirty pitchers took the mound for the White Sox in 2018, all of whom made at least three appearances. And only one of them didn’t allow a run: Davidson.

He topped out at 91.9 MPH and had as many strikeouts, two, as baserunners allowed in his three innings of work. The two batters he struck out, Rougned Odor and Giancarlo Stanton, combined for 56 home runs in 2018. They combined for 89 home runs (and an MVP award) in 2017.

In his career, Stanton had a combined 16 plate appearances and zero strikeouts against Barry Zito, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka and Edwin Díaz. He struck out in his one plate appearance against Davidson.

Davidson is one of just three players with 20 or more home runs and at least three mound appearances in a season in MLB history:

— Babe Ruth (1919): 29 home runs, 17 games on the mound
— Davidson (2018): 20 home runs, three games on the mound
— Shohei Ohtani (2018): 22 home runs, 10 games on the mound

Facts are facts. Davidson is actually serious about expanding his role on the mound.

“To be honest, I would love to maybe explore that idea,” he said in July. “Pitching was a dream. As a young kid, everybody wants to hit that walk-off homer, right? I was the guy striking that guy out. That’s how I first loved the game. My favorite player was Randy Johnson and doing that.

“So, it’s something I would be interested in. I don’t know if the game would necessarily allow that or something like that. It’s something that is really close to my heart is pitching.”

Whether or not it ever happens, Davidson’s 2018 was all about finding ways to increase his value. For the White Sox, that’s a good problem to have.

With Astros eliminated, let's rank their free agents by possibility of coming to White Sox

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USA TODAY

With Astros eliminated, let's rank their free agents by possibility of coming to White Sox

The Houston Astros will not win back-to-back world championships this October.

Eliminated by the Boston Red Sox in Game 5 of the recently concluded ALCS, the rebuilt Astros still remain the model for rebuilding teams like the White Sox. But with their first post-championship season ending without another ring on the fingers of homegrown stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, among others, the most pertinent topic involving the Astros when it comes to the White Sox is Astros players now hitting the free-agent market.

There's a number of them, and some are very, very good. The White Sox figure to be more active this winter then they were last offseason, with Rick Hahn already saying the team will be making pitching additions, a no-brainer with Michael Kopech slated to miss the entire 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. And Hahn has said the White Sox will be "opportunistic" when it comes to other types of additions, as well.

So could any of these soon-to-be former Astros land on the South Side? Maybe. Here they are, ranked by such a possibility.

1. Charlie Morton

The White Sox need starting pitchers. Kopech's out until 2020, and James Shields, should the team opt not to bring him back on a new contract, will be a free-agent departure. That's two holes that need filling, and Morton could fill one of them. I know what you're thinking, "Dallas Keuchel is also a free agent, why isn't he No. 1 on this list, you fool?" More on him in a bit. Right now, we're talking about Charlie Morton.

Morton is hardly the most rebuild-friendly pitching option out there at 35 years old. But Morton's been very good for the Astros over the past two seasons, making 55 starts, striking out 364 guys and posting a 3.36 ERA. His fastball velocity is as high as it's been in his 11-year big league career and he's coming off two straight playoff runs, so maybe he could teach these young White Sox a thing or two about playing winning baseball — he did close out Game 7 of the World Series last fall.

The biggest problem might be that he's not too far removed from different results when he played with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when his numbers weren't nearly as good as they got when he went to Houston. Would another change of scenery mean a different kind of performance?

What kind of contract Morton will get on the market remains to be seen, obviously, but it's kind of a mystery at this point, as he's coming off a couple great years but is getting up there in age when it comes to multi-year deals. He could be a fit for the White Sox should they want just a one- or two-year option while they wait for Kopech to return to full strength and for Dylan Cease to make his way to the major leagues. But should this recent success continue, he could be a valuable option on a White Sox team making the transition from rebuilding to contending, too.

2. Marwin Gonzalez

The White Sox have a bit of a quandary in that they are still waiting to find out what they've got in a lot of their young players. With so many prospects and even young players at the major league level yet to fully finish their development, it's tough to say where the holes on future White Sox teams will be. And that's made all the more difficult by the rash of injuries sustained by White Sox prospects in 2018.

A good way to plan for future unknowns is to have a guy you can plug in just about anywhere, and that's what Gonzalez is. During the 2018 regular season, Gonzalez played everywhere on the field besides pitcher and catcher: 73 games in left field, 39 games at shortstop, 32 games at second base, 24 games at first base, three games at third base, two games in center field and one game in right field. He played one game at designated hitter, too, in case you were wondering. He appeared at six different positions in 2017, when he finished in the top 20 in AL MVP voting. That versatility should make him a hot commodity this offseason.

The question marks come from Gonzalez's bat, which was excellent in 2017 but not nearly as good in 2018. After slashing .303/.377/.530 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs for the world-champion Astros in 2017, he got more playing time in 2018 and his numbers dropped to a .247/.324/.409 slash line, 16 homers and 68 RBIs for the AL runners up. So which batch of results would you get if you signed Gonzalez? That's the question facing teams this offseason. (To help assuage fears, however, Gonzalez just wrapped a solid postseason in which he batted .333 with a pair of homers, a pair of doubles and nine RBIs, not to mention a .389 on-base percentage.)

But for a team with as much unwritten future as the White Sox have, wouldn't it be nice to have a plan for every eventuality — and to have it all in the form of one guy? While Manny Machado and Bryce Harper grab all the free-agent headlines this winter, perhaps the White Sox could slip in and convince Gonzalez to help another transition from rebuilding to contending. He was a part of two 100-loss teams in 2012 and 2013 and along for the ride to the top of baseball's mountain. That's some good experience to have.

3. Dallas Keuchel

Now we arrive at Keuchel. Would the soon-to-be 31-year-old former Cy Young winner be a good fit for the rebuilding White Sox? Absolutely he would. Signing him to a long-term deal would not only solve a pitching problem in 2019 but it would provide a safety net should Kopech, Cease or whoever go through the to-be-expected growing pains that young players go through in their first tastes of the major leagues. He would be an anchor of future rotations with plenty of young arms around him.

Signing Keuchel — who has a combined 3.39 ERA and 278 strikeouts over the last two seasons — would be similar to the Cubs' signing of Jon Lester, a proven veteran climbing aboard a team heading toward a bright future, and his experience and talent could help them reach that future faster. Like Gonzalez, he experienced back-to-back 100-loss seasons in 2012 and 2013 and also got a World Series ring as the Astros completed their journey from the bottom to the top.

But being a good fit is only half the battle for the White Sox. A lot of other teams, including good ones capable of pitching a win-now roster, are going to be vying for Keuchel's services this winter. And while he might not be the No. 1 starting pitcher on the free-agent market — that's expected to be Clayton Kershaw, if he opts out of his current contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers — he's going to be no lower than the No. 3 starting pitcher on the free-agent market. Most of the contending clubs in the game are likely to have starting pitching on their shopping list, teams that can pitch present-day success and the ability to win a championship in 2019 against the White Sox promise of planned success down the road. And then there's the financials on top of that. Hahn has said the White Sox will have the financial flexibility to do what they need to do, but will it be enough to outbid baseball's biggest spenders?

Keuchel would obviously be a good fit for the White Sox. But the competition is going to be really stiff.

4. Tony Sipp

Sipp, a 35-year-old reliever who White Sox fans might remember from his days as a Cleveland Indian, was excellent for the Astros this season, posting a 1.86 ERA and striking out 42 guys in 38.2 innings during the regular season.

But while the White Sox could use bullpen help — their 4.49 relief ERA ranked 23rd out of 30 major league teams — that performance kind of elevates Sipp from the level of sign-and-flip guys they've acquired in recent seasons. Sipp might not be under the radar enough for the White Sox to take a flier, get a good few months and trade him away for a prospect.

Spending the kind of money Sipp might command on a 35-year-old reliever in a season where you're not expected to compete might not make for a good match.

5. Brian McCann

Yeah, the White Sox don't need Brian McCann.