White Sox

Farragut and Nelson hope for a Final Four appearance

658620.png

Farragut and Nelson hope for a Final Four appearance

It was sometime early in the school year when a fellow teacher approached an unsuspecting William "Wolf" Nelson in the hallway at Farragut and said: "Wolf, you're 3A now."

Nelson couldn't have been more surprised--and overjoyed--if he had just learned that Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields had been granted another year of eligibility.

"I was totally in the dark," he said. "I had to check it out. He was right. I was shocked. We've always been a big (4A) school before. But now we are 14 students short of being Class 4A.

"I called all the coaches and players and said: 'We've been to the Elite Eight three times before. If everything falls into place, we may have a chance to get to the Final Four again.' I look at the teams in Class 3A and feel we have a good chance to win state."

Translated, that means Simeon is in Class 4A. So are Proviso East, Curie, Warren, Andrew, Plainfield East, Bogan, New Trier and most of the highly rated schools in the state this side of Peoria Manual, Peoria Central and Springfield Lanphier.

In 1995, Farragut was the pre-tournament favorite with Garnett, Fields and Michael Wright. But the Admirals lost to Thornton in the state quarterfinals and finished 28-2.

In 2004, Farragut finished 29-4 behind Ollie Bailey, again losing in the state quarterfinals.

Last year, D.J. Tolliver led the Admirals to a 24-5 record. But they lost to eventual state champion Simeon in the state quarterfinals.

Despite returning only one starter, Nelson believes this year's squad "can be as good or better than last year's team." In fact, he was so optimistic that he deliberately arranged for the most competitive schedule of his 21-year career to prepare his inexperienced players for the Public League Red-West and state tournament grind.

The Admirals are 12-7 but have won seven in a row after beating highly rated Seton 50-45 on Sunday at North Park. Going into the city playoff, Nelson is confident that his team has what it takes to seriously contend for the Class 3A title. Nobody can say they aren't battle-tested.

"I'm having a ball with my team this year, more fun than ever. When you do the unexpected, it makes it fun," Nelson said. "There have been a lot of teachable moments. I set up a tough schedule, the toughest I could. I decided these guys need to learn and understand what it takes to play at a high level of basketball.

"With only one starter back, no one expected much from this team. I didn't want to wait around. I wanted to step up the learning curve, let them learn lessons sooner than later. I didn't want to beat weak teams. I wanted them to play against the best right away, to know where they are right way. My plan is working."

Farragut's schedule reads like a "who's who" of the elite programs in the Chicago area--and even Indiana. It includes Simeon, De La Salle, St. Ignatius, Hillcrest, Harlan, Seton, La Lumiere, Bowman Prep and Red-West rivals Crane, Marshall, Orr and Whitney Young. What? He couldn't schedule Kentucky or the Chicago Bulls?

"This team has a lot of potential," Nelson said. "I had a good feel about this team early on. We lost to Simeon by seven. And we have lost to other big-time teams but not by much. This team can be as good as last year's team."

The strength of this team? The Admirals have one outstanding player in 6-foot-7 senior Rashaun Stimage, a lockdown inside defender in 6-foot-5 David Scott and the best three-point shooter that Nelson has ever coached in 5-foot-9 senior point guard Lavell Boyd.

"We also have quickness, toughness and senior leadership. All the pieces are together," the coach said.

Stimage, who averages 20 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks per game and recently recorded a triple-double in a game against Hillcrest, is described by Nelson as "the best senior in the state," better than Simeon's more celebrated Steve Taylor.

"He is more versatile than Taylor. He doesn't get as much recognition as he deserves. He is one of the best players I have coached," said Nelson, who ranks Stimage behind Garnett, Fields, Wright, Bailey and Tolliver on his All-Nelson team.

Scott (7 ppg, 13 rpg) defends the opponent's toughest big man. Boyd (14 ppg, 3 assists), who scored 27 points in a recent victory over Raby, is a superb three-point marksman.

"In posting a triple double (16 points, 12 rebounds, 13 blocks) against Hillcrest, Stimage once again proved why he is one of the top two unsigned prospects (along with Downers Grove South's Jerron Wilbut) in the class of 2012 in Illinois," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye.

"Not overlooking Stimage's performance, another player who is just as integral a part of what Farragut does is Lavell Boyd, who is your typical tough-minded floor leader from Chicago's West Side. Boyd plays his tail off from start to finish and is quite disruptive defensively. He doesn't do anything in spectacular fashion but he has shown that he can run an offense and score points in transition."

But Nelson wants to see more defense from his guards. "The guards aren't as tough on defense this year as last year. They have trouble shutting down the other team's best guards. We can shut down the bigs. But our guards have to step up for us to make this run," he said.

Other starters are 6-foot-5 senior Deonta Terrell (13 ppg), the great nephew of former world heavyweight boxing champion Ernie Terrell, and 5-foot-10 senior John Carter (8 ppg, 4 assists).

The bench is headed by 6-foot-3 sophomore Ashawn Jones (5 ppg), 6-foot-6 sophomore Sire Carroll (5 ppg), 5-foot-10 freshman Ernest Johnson (3 ppg) and 5-foot-9 freshman Joshua Adams (3 ppg).

Against Seton, Stimage had 19 points, six rebounds and six blocks, Boyd scored 12 points and Scott had nine points and 21 rebounds.

"We have to sacrifice in order to win," Nelson said. "The test for them is not to play for individual glory but they have to play for the team. Statistics don't mean anything at this point. They can't be selfish. If I see them playing together and doing what I tell them, we'll be successful."

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

0516_jace_fry.jpg
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.