White Sox

White Sox see improved defense making a big difference

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White Sox see improved defense making a big difference

SAN DIEGO — The emotions and superlatives attached to the White Sox defense haven’t been the same this spring as they were last season.

The exasperated looks on the collective faces of the coaching staff have been eased for now. The words crisp and clean have often been associated with the team’s play. And the phrase “quality of the work” is commonly tossed around in every discussion about the defense.

The White Sox haven’t made any outrageous claims. They’ve made no promise to be the next coming of the Kansas City Royals or even an elite defense. An average unit would suit them just fine. And as they head into the regular season next week, the White Sox are confident they’ll be much better than the team that finished 2015 at the bottom of all defensive metrics — the one that constantly frustrated manager Robin Ventura and his staff.

“I don’t teach them to make errors, believe me,” Ventura said.

While the offense was number one on Rick Hahn’s offseason fix-it list, the defense also had to be addressed before this season. The club finished 28th in Defensive Runs Saved at minus-39 and was last in Ultimate Zone Rating with minus-39.5 last season, according to fangraphs.com. Those figures were far behind league leaders Arizona (59 DRS) and Kansas City (50.9 UZR).

In layman’s terms, the team’s defensive shortcomings translated into outs handed away and far too many extra pitches thrown by White Sox pitchers. Along with a dormant offense, the team’s defensive woes put the White Sox in a hole out of which they could never quite climb.

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“Things kind of snowballed,” pitcher John Danks said. “We were struggling to get us off to quick starts in the games, so it’s making these guys maybe press a little bit at the plate and it carried over into the field.”

The team’s woes extended everywhere.

Conor Gillaspie committed 12 errors in 52 games at third, rookie second baseman Micah Johnson struggled, shortstop Alexei Ramirez was one of the worst defenders in the first half and the outfield was downright atrocious.

Too many games to count were lost by porous defense.

“When you go through stretches like that where we were defensively, you find out a lot about individuals, you find out a lot about a ballclub,” third-base coach Joe McEwing said. “Every guy went out and prepared the best they possibly could and we didn’t get it done. We learn from it, turn it into a positive and move on.”

How they’d move on was a tricky component for Hahn. Improving the offense was a must after the team scored three or fewer runs in 82 games.

But Hahn didn’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul and sacrifice offense for defense.

The team’s main target, third baseman Todd Frazier, brings both — something the White Sox haven’t had for far too long. Not only did he blast 64 home runs the past two seasons, he’s an outstanding defender.

After eight seasons of Ramirez, the White Sox have moved on with Jimmy Rollins and Tyler Saladino. They won’t get the explosiveness that Ramirez possesses, but the duo is “steady” according to an AL scout, and that’s plenty.

One area the White Sox may sacrifice a little defense for offense is at second base. Brett Lawrie isn’t as smooth defensively as Carlos Sanchez, but packs more punch and the team is confident he’ll handle the transition from third.

So far, the White Sox are pleased with how Lawrie has handled the switch.

“I’d call (the infield defense) pretty fringy across the board, but not poor,” said the scout.

[MORE: Todd Frazier knows the best is yet to come for White Sox]

The outfield’s fortunes have changed dramatically with the March signing of center fielder Austin Jackson, “a sneaky good move,” according to pitcher Chris Sale.

The White Sox were 26th in outfield DRS and 29th in UZR last season.

But they had to surrender their best defender, Trayce Thompson, in the Frazier deal. The loss of Thompson almost made Jackson a necessity and the White Sox signed him two weeks into camp on a one-year deal worth $5 million.

While Adam Eaton is surely better than the numbers he produced last season suggest, Jackson has a longer track record and is as smooth as they come in center. Moving Eaton to a corner also reduces the amount of time that Melky Cabrera and Avisail Garcia will be on the field, which vastly improves the outfield defense.

“I wasn’t the biggest fan of (Jackson) when we played against him because it seemed like every time I’m sitting on the bench and see a ball smacked … he gets to it,” Sale said. “You don’t ever see him dive because he’s fast enough to get to the ball. He like goes into a different speed.”

But it’s not just the skillset that has improved.

The work ethic also has.

Hahn said both McEwing and Ventura have been impressed with how the team has approached each workout the same and stressed the quality of work. Frazier said the team routinely competes against each other in the workouts for small prizes in order to keep it lively and loose.

“Robin and Super Joe noted just how tight the whole drill ran and what a breath of fresh air it was to sit back and watch professionals who know exactly what they’re doing and what the expectation is and being able to execute,” Hahn said.

[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans!]

Hahn knows the team won’t be without its hiccups. Occasionally, a blunder is going to cost them a game.

But the overall product should be better.

Of the 17 errors committed by the White Sox in 29 games this spring, only four have come by players guaranteed to make the roster (Frazier has two and Rollins and Saladino have one).

Really, that’s all the White Sox think they require with the pitching they have.

“I haven’t seen anything but guys making the plays, which is what we need,” Danks said. “We have the guys capable of making the play. But definitely the routine plays, the balls that off the bat you think to yourself, ‘That’s an out,’ those are the plays we need made. Any highlight play after that is gravy.”

Jace Fry, who still hasn't allowed a hit, is penciling his name into the White Sox bullpen of the future

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USA TODAY

Jace Fry, who still hasn't allowed a hit, is penciling his name into the White Sox bullpen of the future

The White Sox best reliever through the first 42 games of this rebuilding season? Undoubtedly, it’s been Jace Fry.

With Rick Renteria’s bullpen hardly the most reliable relief corps the game has ever seen, Fry has been a revelation, starting his 2018 campaign with 7.1 scoreless innings over six appearances.

And now things are getting a bit more dramatic for the 24-year-old lefty, a guy who’s been through a pair of Tommy John surgeries. He pitched some high-leverage ball in Saturday night’s 5-3 win, sitting down all four hitters he faced in the eighth and ninth innings while protecting a two-run lead.

“I was ready the whole game, just waiting for my name to be called,” Fry said. “But it was awesome getting in there in the eighth inning, even getting the first guy in the ninth inning. After I got him I was kind of hoping he’d let me keep going.”

Renteria uses his bullpen in a non-traditional manner, one that perhaps he thinks is a way of the future or one that’s a result of his lack of dominant options out there. Whichever it is, he doesn’t really have a closer but rather a host of guys he uses in those high-leverage situations, whenever they might come during the late stages of a game. Joakim Soria, Nate Jones and Bruce Rondon have all been used to get big outs late in games, and Rondon threw a scoreless seventh Saturday, with Jones getting the game’s final two outs for the save.

But it could be argued that most difficult outs were recorded by Fry, who put away the visiting Texas Rangers’ fourth, fifth and sixth hitters before getting the seventh hitter to strike out to start off the ninth.

Renteria steered away from dubbing Fry one of his new high-leverage guys after the game, but why wouldn’t Fry be in that mix? All he’s done since joining the big league squad earlier this month is get outs. He’s got 10 strikeouts, hasn’t allowed a hit and has just two walks as the lone blemishes on an otherwise perfect season line.

“It just happens to be that it was the eighth inning and the ninth that he pitched,” Renteria said. “I think he’s looking very comfortable in those. It happens to be the eighth and ninth we needed him. He’s been very, very effective. He’s been commanding the strike zone very well, confidently approaching his hitters. He’s got pretty good stuff.

“He’s able to command the zone. Along with that nice breaking ball he’s got to lefties and righties, it’s pretty effective. But he’s continuing to show you he’s capable of coming in and getting some pretty good hitters.”

Fry has been a rarity this season in that he’s appeared to be a candidate for a long-term spot in the White Sox bullpen. Jones would perhaps be the only other guy coming close to qualifying for that, mostly because of his team-friendly contract that keeps him under control a few more years, but he’s had some rough moments, even with his ERA dropping to 3.50 on Saturday.

Fry, though, is young and is dealing at the moment. He even got a shoutout as a potential long-term piece from general manager Rick Hahn earlier this week.

“Take Jace Fry, someone we haven’t mentioned when we’ve had this conversation the last couple of weeks,” Hahn said Thursday, discussing the positives he’s seen during this developmental season. “He’s shown up here and shown that he’s made some progress in his last stint in the minors and now, at age 24, seems like he’s ready to take that next step, and pencil his name in as part of what we’re building here going forward.”

There’s a lot of season left, and no one’s expecting Fry to keep batters hitless and opposing teams scoreless from now through the end of September. But this is a nice development for the rebuilding White Sox at the moment, a guy who’s giving them at least one name to put into that bullpen of the future.

How long can he keep this thing going? As long as he keeps getting ahead of hitters.

“Having the success is awesome, but I realize it’s the plan, the plan of attack,” Fry said. “I’m going out and throwing Strike 1 and getting ahead. Actually doing it, seeing it and having the process work definitely creates more confidence. Once you go back to the blueprint of baseball, Strike 1 is everything.”

Carson Fulmer's demotion and the current state of the White Sox rotation provide several rebuilding reminders

Carson Fulmer's demotion and the current state of the White Sox rotation provide several rebuilding reminders

Carson Fulmer getting sent to Triple-A following Friday’s game might be, to this point, the biggest development this season on the South Side.

Fulmer doesn’t carry the same expectations as higher-rated prospects like Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen or Dane Dunning, but this is a top-10 draft pick who the White Sox still believe can play a significant role in their bright future. And he’s struggling. Badly. Once his ERA jumped up past 8.00 thanks to his third straight brief and run-filled outing, the White Sox made the decision to send him to Charlotte.

It leaves the White Sox rotation looking like this: James Shields, a struggling Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Hector Santiago and either Chris Volstad or the recently summoned Dylan Covey.

Four of those guys (Shields, Santiago, Volstad and Covey) don’t figure to play a role in the team’s long-term future, and Giolito is dealing with his own significant struggles, leading the American League in walks heading into his Saturday-night start. Lopez has been the rotation’s bright spot, but even he watched his ERA climb more than a full point after allowing six runs in two innings his last time out.

It’s not a great state for the rotation to be in if you, like the White Sox, have your sights set on the long-term future of this team, though it probably won’t look like that for too much longer. Still, it provides a few valuable reminders about not only this rebuilding effort but rebuilds in general.

This season is about development, and this is what development looks like

For better or worse, this is what development looks like. The White Sox own baseball’s worst record, and general manager Rick Hahn has been among the large number of White Sox fans to voice their disappointment over play that has been sloppy at times.

Fulmer’s struggles fall into the same category and serve as a reminder that growing pains like this are going to happen. We’ve seen it with Fulmer. We’ve seen it with Giolito. We’ve seen it with Lopez. Heck, we’ve seen it with Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson, too.

But more than wins and losses, this is what this season is about. Hahn calls it “the hardest part of the rebuild” because it features guys getting lit up and games being lost. The hope is that Fulmer can figure things out in the minors and that Giolito won’t require a similar demotion to right his ship. And if everything turns out all right, then this will be an easily forgotten chapter in both of those players’ development.

In the moment, though, it’s another reminder that rebuilds take time and that the waiting game provides minimal fun.

Each player’s development has a different trajectory

Just because Fulmer is getting bumped down to Triple-A doesn’t mean he can’t still turn into a successful major league pitcher. Player development and rebuilds aren’t linear, as rebuilders like to say. And to expect every prospect to travel in a straight line from potential to big league stardom doesn't make much sense.

“We reiterate, ‘It’s not the end of your career,’” Renteria said Saturday. “This is simply a reboot, a reset. Ultimately, I think after the initial shock for any player, they settle down and they understand exactly what’s going on when you look at it logically and look in the mirror. I think it’s easy to logically look at it and say, ‘I need to work on x, y and z.’

“This is a good kid with a really positive attitude and a lot of confidence. I think he’ll look in the mirror and go, ‘You know what, I got things I can work on, I’ll settle in and get over this initial bump and get to work.’ Those are the guys that end up giving themselves a chance to return sooner rather than later and have success.”

Not all prospects pan out

The other side of that coin is the reminder that not every single one of the White Sox wealth of prospects will pan out. Hahn & Co. have prepared for that and built up an incredible amount of prospect depth, but when someone doesn't live up to expectations, it will be painful.

This isn’t to suggest that Fulmer, specifically, won’t pan out, but it’s to point out that not everyone will. That’s a crowded-looking rotation of the future with Kopech, Hansen, Dunning, Fulmer, Giolito, Lopez, Carlos Rodon and Dylan Cease all competing for those eventual five spots. Rather than the White Sox having to make tough decisions about who will be left out, certainly a possibility, the developments of those pitchers might make those decisions for them.

Renteria is confident that Fulmer will be back in the big leagues, and there’s little reason to think that this is the end of Fulmer’s opportunity. But not every top-10 pick reaches All-Star status.

The future is on the way

The current starting rotation might have fans asking why the heck it looks like it does. But a month or two from now it will look drastically different.

Rodon makes his first rehab start Saturday at Class A Kannapolis as he battles back from shoulder surgery last fall, and he shouldn’t be too far away from providing a serious jolt to the starting staff. Not to mention, he’s a guy who as good a chance as anyone as grabbing one of those front-end spots, and with him in the rotation, things will look a tad more futuristic.

Same goes for Kopech, whose promotion figures to be coming at some point this summer. Given the hype and the expectations there, his arrival will obviously be a really big deal.

But regardless of the results either Rodon and Kopech put up in their first tastes of major league action in 2018, they’ll make the rotation into something that way more closely resembles the rotation of the future. There’ll be plenty of development left for the Hansens and the Ceases and the Dunnings in the minors. But a rotation featuring Rodon, Kopech, Giolito and Lopez looks a lot different than one featuring Shields, Santiago, Covey and Volstad.

Patience. It’s not much fun. But it’s necessary to build a contender.