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.”
Dominik Kubalik was named one of three finalists for the 2019-20 Calder Trophy, which is annually awarded to the league's top rookie, the NHL announced Wednesday. Vancouver's Quinn Hughes and Colorado's Cale Makar rounded out the group, respectively.
Kubalik is the first Blackhawks rookie to be named a finalist since Artemi Panarin, who took home the hardware in 2016. Only eight others in franchise history have won the award: Mike Karakas (1936), Carl Dahlstrom (1938), Ed Litzenberger (1955), William Hay (1960), Tony Esposito (1970), Steve Larmer (1983), Ed Belfour (1991) and Patrick Kane (2008).
Kubalik led all rookies this season with 30 goals and ranked third with 46 points. The kicker is that 26 of his goals were scored at even strength. To put that into perspective, only three rookies have scored more than 26 goals at even strength in the last 20 years: Auston Matthews (32), Alex Ovechkin (28) and Patrik Laine (27).
The award will likely go to either Hughes or Makar, who ranked No. 1 and 2 among all rookies in scoring as defensemen, but that certainly doesn't take away from what Kubalik accomplished this season.
The 2020 NHL Awards were originally scheduled for June 18 in Las Vegas but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The winner will be announced at a later date.