White Sox

White Sox: Trusting the process, Jose Abreu busts out of his slump

White Sox: Trusting the process, Jose Abreu busts out of his slump

BOSTON — After slogging through the season’s first two months with a brittle .686 OPS, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu finally appears to be breaking free of the worst slump of his brief major league career. 

Entering Tuesday night’s contest against the Boston Red Sox, Abreu is hitting .348 with a 1.008 OPS through 17 games this month. He has four home runs in June — he only had six in April and May — and his go-ahead two-run double in the 10th inning of Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel on Monday earned the White Sox a much-needed win. 

Abreu hasn’t completely erased his first 53 games of the season, which saw his OPS bottom out at .675. His slash line is up to .267/.325/.440 but well beneath his career .296/.357/.521 mark. But hitting coach Todd Steverson saw Abreu stick with the right approach — it’s not as simple as him making good contact once for everything to click — throughout his early-season ineffectiveness, which has allowed him to re-emerge as a force in the White Sox lineup in June. 

“One knock doesn’t make a season and one knock doesn’t make an average go (up) 30 points, either,” Steverson said. “As anybody will understand if you watch this game long enough, this game’s a process. One game isn’t going to give you 100 points. We play every day, or almost every day, for a reason, and that’s to continue the process. 

“He’s done well on the process, he’s getting better, there’s still more left in there.”

Manager Robin Ventura said Abreu’s pitch recognition has improved over the last few weeks, leading to the 29-year-old Cuban slugger swinging at better offerings. Opposing pitchers battered him on the inner third and in off the plate during the first two months of the season — he’s always struggled to do much with those pitches — but as opposed to years past, Abreu wasn’t able to take or fight those pitches off with much effectiveness. 

In June, Abreu’s done a better job at working opposing pitchers into missing out over the plate, where the 6-foot-3, 255-pounder can extend his arms and slam line drives to every field. Kimbrel tried getting Abreu to chase low and out of the zone on Monday, but missed with a 2-2 fastball low and down the middle that Abreu ripped into right for his game-winning double. 

“During the whole at-bat I was trying to find his fastball because I know he has a very good fastball,” Abreu said through a translator. “I also was thinking of his curveball — I was trying not to swing at a bad pitch, especially his curveball because I know he throws the curveball down in the zone. I was able to battle and at the end find a fastball to put the barrel on the ball and get a base hit.” 

Abreu had gone through slumps before in his first two years with the White Sox, but those lasted days or weeks, not months. While the White Sox got off to a hot start (23-10) without him steering the middle of their order, Abreu’s powerful presence was sorely missed during the early part of a stretch that’s seen the team fall under .500 and to fourth place in the American League Central.

The White Sox lineup has yet to fire on all cylinders — third baseman Todd Frazier is hitting .125 with a .561 OPS in June — but getting Abreu back on track is a good start. 

“I think it’s perseverance,” Ventura said. “… He had a plan. He’s sticking to it, and he’s going to fight through it. But now he’s also swinging it better, seeing it better. That becomes a big thing for him. You can see his hands working a little bit better, getting the barrel to it, hitting the balls harder. When you stick it with that way, that gives you more confidence.”

State of the White Sox: Relief pitching

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USA TODAY

State of the White Sox: Relief pitching

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The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.

With the postseason in swing and a little bit still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.

We’re moving on to relief pitching.

What happened in 2019

While the starting pitching left a lot to be desired in 2019, the South Side bullpen can be considered a strength heading into 2020. The only American League teams that owned lower relief ERAs this season were the five playoff teams and the Cleveland Indians, who finished with the best record among non-playoff teams.

The back end of the ‘pen was particularly effective, with Alex Colome and Aaron Bummer turning in strong seasons. Colome, acquired in the offseason trade with the Seattle Mariners that sent catcher Omar Narvaez to the Pacific Northwest, finished with 30 saves in 33 chances (only eight pitchers in baseball had more saves) to go along with his 2.80 ERA, his lowest since 2016. Colome has 126 saves since the start of that 2016 season. Bummer, meanwhile, emerged from a crowded pack of young relievers as a dominant late-inning force. He finished the season with a 2.13 ERA that ranked seventh in baseball among relievers who pitched at least 60 innings.

It’s true both pitchers experienced downticks in production following the All-Star break, with Colome posting a 3.91 ERA in the second half after putting up a 2.02 mark in the first half and Bummer finishing the second half with a 2.36 ERA after finishing the first half with a 1.89 ERA. But the duo instilled enough faith in Rick Hahn’s front office that they weren’t dealt at the deadline, like so many relievers before them were in previous seasons.

But that same front office uncovered a couple other solid performers, signing Evan Marshall as a minor league free agent and picking Jimmy Cordero up off waivers. Marshall turned in a 2.49 ERA in his 50.2 innings, and Cordero, often with a rolled-up sleeve, posting a 2.75 ERA in his 36 innings after joining the White Sox.

Obviously, it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops, and there wasn’t much middle ground between those four solid batches of production and the more upsetting numbers put up by White Sox relievers. Josh Osich was probably the next most effective, used as much as Bummer, with 67.2 innings logged, but his ERA was 4.66. Jace Fry finished the season with a 4.75 ERA. Most everyone else was north of 5.00, including 2015 first-round pick Carson Fulmer, whose transition to relief isn’t going super well. In his 27.1 big league innings this season, he had a 6.26 ERA with 20 walks. Offseason acquisition Kelvin Herrera fared about as poorly, with a 6.14 ERA in his 51.1 innings. His season was impacted by the same foot injury that ended his 2018 season with the Washington Nationals.

What will happen this offseason

The White Sox have some decisions to make when it comes to a couple of the guys mentioned above. Colome, Marshall and Osich are all arbitration eligible, and while Marshall’s projected $1.3 million makes him seem like a slam-dunk candidate to be tendered a contract, there’s discussion on the other two.

Colome was great last season, though his projected $10.3 million is raising a few eyebrows. His dependability as a late-inning reliever in recent seasons don’t make that number seem wildly outrageous, but his strikeout numbers were down last season, and his second-half ERA nearly touched 4.00. Still, the White Sox knew such a raise was likely when they made the trade with the Mariners, and they knew such a raise was likely when they decided to hang onto Colome at the deadline. Given the mystery that comes with relief pitching, hanging onto Colome with a tendered contract this winter seems a very logical move.

Then there’s Osich, whose projected salary is an affordable $1 million. But the numbers weren’t as sterling as Marshall’s. Still, Renteria leaned on Osich a lot, showing a relative amount of comfort in calling him in from the ‘pen. We’ll see what they do with Osich.

When it comes to potential offseason moves, maybe don’t expect one as consequential as the trade to acquire Colome last winter. After all, Hahn has plenty on his to-do list already in searching for upgrades for the starting rotation as well as new everyday players in right field and at designated hitter. While hitting on Marshall and Cordero probably isn’t enough to suggest that every under-the-radar pickup the White Sox make will blossom into a reliable bullpen piece, it’s likely the way we’ll see the team add relief pitching this winter, as Hahn alluded to during his end-of-season press conference last month.

“All 30 teams will tell you this week or whenever their press conference is that adding more bullpen pieces is an offseason priority, and we're no exception,” he said. “Obviously, the way Colome and Bummer have done over the course of the year makes you feel real good about their spot going forward. A now healthy Kelvin Herrera is the kind of guy who's probably a pretty good reliever bounce-back candidate bet, if it hasn't already happened here in terms of seeing what he's capable of doing when he's 100 percent.

“Cordero's been a nice find, as has been Marshall, but that's not going to stop us from continuing to potentially take guys off waivers like Cordero or minor-league free agents like Marshall. It's going to go into this offseason continuing to be a place we want to add because relievers are tricky. You see it every year, guys go from the top of the list to the bottom and back. Obviously, injury remains a consideration.”

That might not point to thrilling upgrades like Colome, but it points to moves nonetheless. Hahn has talked about the volatility of relief pitching before, and a team that has designs on contending would be wise to add as many options as it can.

What to expect for 2020 and beyond

Again, as Hahn mentioned, the production of bullpen arms isn’t as easily projected as the production of players at other positions. So saying that the White Sox have four innings of dependable relief spoken for in every game just isn’t true. Not yet, at least. We’ll have to wait and see how Colome, Bummer, Marshall and Cordero fare in 2020 before knowing that.

And other, positive changes could impact that late-inning equation, too. Hahn mentioned Kelvin Herrera, who after a rocky few months came off the injured list toward the end of the season and had a 1.93 ERA in September. One year further removed from his injury could make a big difference in 2020. Maybe Fulmer figures some things out and realizes at least some level of the hype that accompanied him as a top-10 pick.

Then there’s the host of young relief prospects that could still factor into the future. Perhaps Ryan Burr returns from Tommy John surgery to provide a late-season boost. Perhaps Ian Hamilton returns from his freak injuries to reclaim his highly touted prospect status. Perhaps Tyler Johnson reaches the big leagues after posting a 2.59 ERA at two minor league levels this season. Again, we’ll see.

Only the teams that end the season with elite relief corps or go out and spend huge dollars on relief can truly be projected to have a strong bullpen from one season to the next — and those projections don’t always pan out.

The ‘pen was a strength for the White Sox in 2019, and they have some arms that give confidence that it could be once again in 2020.

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Lucas Giolito making no little plans for 2020: 'Our goal will 100-percent be making the playoffs'

Lucas Giolito making no little plans for 2020: 'Our goal will 100-percent be making the playoffs'

“Make no little plans,” so goes the famous quote from Daniel Burnham, “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

No one is ever going to accuse Lucas Giolito of making little plans.

How very Chicago of him.

It seems everyone in the White Sox clubhouse was doing their best Burnham impression as the 2019 season wound to a close. Yes, it was another campaign finished with a record south of .500, another campaign finished without a trip to the postseason. But there was nothing but hope in the eyes, minds and mouths of the manager and his players.

A South Sider once made it all the way to the White House on the word “hope.” These White Sox, sick of losing summers and unoccupied autumns, sound like they have their own riff on his famous slogan: “Hope ... or else.”

“Our goal will 100-percent be making the playoffs and getting as deep as we can,” Giolito said in late September. “If we don’t, then I don’t think we’ve come close to what we should be doing.”

That’s not much different from what Rick Renteria made a habit of expressing during the season’s final weeks, and even beyond when he spoke after the hiring of new hitting coach Frank Menechino last week.

“I'm not going to make any bones about it, it's time to turn the page,” he said, “it's time to get us to another level of performance. That goes across the board, it goes with all aspects of our game.”

This is nothing new for Giolito, who’s previously talked about his sky-high expectations for himself, his fellow pitchers in the starting rotation and the team as a whole. In August, he said the White Sox rotation, in the coming years, “can be one of the most dominant rotations in baseball.” That might seem like big talk considering the White Sox starting staff finished the 2019 season with a 5.30 ERA. But Giolito has reason to be confident after his transformation into an All-Star, the arrival of Dylan Cease at the major league level, the coming return of Michael Kopech from Tommy John surgery and expected offseason additions to the roster.

It’s that last bit that White Sox fans will have all their attention on this winter, and certainly there’s good reason to stay fixated on the rumor mill, considering the caliber of pitcher that will be available on the free-agent market. Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Keuchel, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Wheeler, Jake Odorizzi and maybe even Stephen Strasburg will all be looking for jobs. Pairing one of those guys with Giolito at the top of the rotation would go a long way toward making Giolito’s words come true.

So you hot stove watchers can count at least one more among your ranks.

“With what we’ve got, we’ve got a really, really good group of guys, but you can always improve anything,” Giolito said. “It’s not really my place to suggesting or talking about those kinds of things. I’m here to do my job, which is pitch. But it’s fun to think about how strong this rotation could be knowing some of the guys going into free agency this year.”

When it comes to doing his job and controlling what he can control, the standard operating procedure of any and all sports persons, Giolito did that with aplomb in 2019. After posting the worst statistics of any qualified pitcher the year prior, he went to work in the offseason, making mechanical adjustments and revamping his mental approach. It all paid off, with Giolito making the All-Star team and developing into the ace of the South Side staff. He’s destined to finish somewhere in the AL Cy Young vote after ending the year with a 3.41 ERA and 228 strikeouts, a total reached by just two other pitchers in team history.

But as much as “controlling what I can control” is part of athlete programming, so too is “I’m never satisfied.” Giolito’s subscribing to that one, as well, and it’s part of the reason his expectations for himself and the eventual fortunes of the starting staff are so high.

“For me, I see it as just a nice big step forward, kind of taking control of my career, kind of coming into my own, becoming the guy I know that I should be every time I go out and compete. But there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “I think that I can be better than I was this year.”

So back to that whole playoffs thing. If you gazed at the headline and experienced an involuntary Jim Mora impression, it wouldn’t shock me. It probably wouldn’t shock Giolito, for that matter. The White Sox have lost a combined 284 games in the last three seasons. And as general manager Rick Hahn, the guy tasked with making those much anticipated additions to the rotation and elsewhere on this roster, will readily admit, the reputation that the White Sox can’t attract a free agent of consequence will stick until they prove otherwise.

But Giolito’s breakout season was just one of many in 2019. Tim Anderson went from a .240 hitter to a batting champion. Yoan Moncada went from 217 strikeouts to the best all-around hitter on the team. Eloy Jimenez had an up-and-down rookie season thanks to a couple injuries and still hit 31 home runs. James McCann pulled off a similar transformation to Giolito’s and made the AL All-Star team. Jose Abreu, expected to be back with the team even as he heads to free agency, was Jose Abreu. And all the while, Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal raked in the minor leagues.

All that should provide an ample launching pad for any blastoff into playoff contention that might come in 2020.

Those who bought into Hahn’s rebuilding plans from Day 1 weren’t surprised by what they saw from those core players in 2019. And it’s probably why they’re so optimistic about the team’s fortunes in 2020.

“It’s great to see, but at the same time, I think we were all expecting it,” Giolito said. “I knew that I was going to be better this year, Tim knew he was going to be better, Yo-Yo knew he was going to be better. This is Eloy’s first year, he’s hit 30 home runs. This is the talent starting to come into play at a higher level because of the experience, because of everything we’ve learned through our struggles.

“And the goal now is to put all that away — ‘development,’ ‘rebuild,’ all those words — because next year it’s time to win. That’s going to be the clear goal is us coming together, holding each other accountable and playing the baseball we know we can.”

Hahn has, wisely, refused to set specific expectations for next season, opting to wait until after what’s expected to be a busy offseason concludes and the team’s roster is constructed. His manager and his players have chosen not to exercise the same patience in this specific area.

Giolito, Renteria, Anderson, Abreu. They’re following Burnham’s lead. They’re making big plans. Anyone's blood feeling stirred?

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