Juan Soto

What do biggest playoff moments mean for White Sox as they build for future Octobers?

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USA TODAY

What do biggest playoff moments mean for White Sox as they build for future Octobers?

That was just the first round?

This year’s edition of playoff baseball has been wildly entertaining, and there are two more rounds to play. That should be wonderful news for every baseball fan out there, but obviously the viewing pleasure of folks on the South Side would be cranked to 11 if their team was present.

The White Sox are trying to do just that through their ongoing rebuilding project, and the end of their 11-year postseason drought could come as soon as next season — at least that’s the hope of manager Rick Renteria and his players, who weren’t shy about voicing their 2020 expectations at the end of the 2019 season.

It’s expected to be a busy winter for Rick Hahn’s front office, but until that winter rolls around and that 2020 roster starts taking shape, the South Side will have to settle for this riveting postseason for their baseball-related entertainment. Though the White Sox aren’t playing, that doesn’t mean what’s going on on the game’s biggest stage doesn’t apply to their quest for perennial contention. Let’s discuss.

Gerrit Cole is going to be worth every penny

The biggest name on this winter’s free-agent market will be Gerrit Cole, who is making himself richer by the inning. Cole was unbelievable in his two starts against the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS, pitching his Houston Astros into the ALCS with his work in Game 5 on Thursday night.

In his first two outings this postseason, Cole allowed one run and struck out 25 in 15.2 innings. His 15 punchouts in Game 2 against the Rays were the third most in a playoff game in baseball history. As if Cole’s AL-leading 2.50 ERA and baseball-leading 326 strikeouts during the regular season — which could win him a Cy Young — weren’t enticing enough to prospective employers, his October efforts have dropped jaws on the game’s biggest stage.

The White Sox will undoubtedly be in the market for starting-pitching improvements this winter, and there will be many intriguing names out there. But none will be bigger — or more expensive — than Cole. There’s a ton of reasons the 29-year-old should be at the top of any team’s wish list. The price tag, however, might keep some teams away. Will the White Sox be one of them?

They showed no hesitation in jumping into the derbies for the two most expensive players on last offseason’s free-agent market, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, but wound up outbid, reportedly $50 million shy, in terms of guaranteed money, of the $300 million Machado got from the San Diego Padres.

Rick Hahn has been adamant about several things of note here. First, he has promised that the team’s financial flexibility will be utilized to bring in impact players, saying in wake of Machado picking the Padres that “the money will be spent. It might not be spent this offseason, but it will be spent at some point. This isn’t money sitting around waiting to just accumulate interest. It’s money trying to be deployed to put us in best position to win some championships.” Hahn has also vowed to disprove what he refers to as “false narratives” about the franchise, one that the White Sox won’t spend the money necessary to land a big free agent or that they won’t spend it on a long-term deal for a pitcher.

Well, Cole would certainly provide an opportunity to do those things. But it will take an awful lot of dough, the amount of which seems to only be growing as Cole continues to mow down every lineup he sees. The guy hasn’t lost a game since May 22, when he, coincidentally, lost to the White Sox. Since then, he’s 18-0 with a 1.66 ERA and the Astros have a 22-2 record in games he pitches.

Basically, Cole looks to be worth every penny of the monstrous, perhaps record-breaking contract he’s going to receive, and the attraction goes without saying. Putting Cole at the top of the South Side rotation alongside Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech for the next however many years would be a dream for Hahn’s front office, not to mention White Sox fans.

But there will be other teams trying to do the same thing. The White Sox might be in a good position, financially, but Hahn thinks there’s a bigger attraction for free agents.

“The biggest advantage we have is the talent base we've accumulated so far and the excitement to come and be part of that,” he said during his end-of-season press conference last month. “We do have some economic flexibility. That was part of the plan from the start. But I think if you're looking at advantages, a lot of teams have money. A lot of teams don't offer the ability to play with some of the players that are joining us here already and joining in the coming years and the opportunity to win a championship in a city like Chicago.”

We’ll see if that all mixes together to lure Cole to the South Side, away from the potential draw of playing in his native Southern California. For what it's worth, he went to high school a 10-minute drive from Angel Stadium.

Juan Soto is a star, is Luis Robert next?

The Washington Nationals got the monkey off their back in thrilling fashion, winning their first-ever postseason series by knocking off the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. Surely you saw how they did it, with Clayton Kershaw coughing up a two-run lead on back-to-back homers off the bats of Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in the eight inning of Game 5. Howie Kendrick won the game and sent the Nats to the NLCS with a 10th-inning grand slam, but let’s keep the focus on the 20-year-old Soto, who’s delivered a few supremely clutch moments in the first six playoff games of his career.

Soto was a commonly used as a reference point when White Sox fans were clamoring for the midseason promotion of Luis Robert, the top-ranked prospect in the organization. That promotion never came, obviously, and unless the team can work out a contract similar to the one they signed Eloy Jimenez to last spring, Robert’s debut will most likely be delayed until the middle of April.

Plenty of fans wished the White Sox would have done what the Nationals did with Soto, who played all of eight games above A-ball — and skipped Triple-A altogether — before getting his big league call last year. Robert put on a show at three different levels this season, showing, at least from a results standpoint, a pretty convincing mastery of each one. Could the then 21-year-old Robert have come up and mashed at the major league level like Soto did as a 19-year-old in 2018?

Soto hit the ground running, with a second-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting last year followed by a 34-homer, 110-RBI campaign this year prior to a pair of instantly iconic postseason moments: his bases-clearing single off Josh Hader to win the NL wild card game and the ridiculous 449-foot bomb he blasted off Kershaw to tie Wednesday’s game.

Soto’s a star. And White Sox fans think Robert will be, too. Plenty of them think he would’ve been one already had the team promoted him this season, while he was in the middle of a sensational campaign that ended with him as the minor league player of the year. Those with that opinion point to Soto and ask, “Why wait?”

Obviously we don’t know whether Robert would have done the same had he skipped a level or two and sprinted straight to the majors. We won’t find out until next season what he’ll do in his first taste of major league pitching.

But we do know that the White Sox and the Nationals are in two very different spots as franchises. The Nationals brought Soto up to aid in their (eventually unsuccessful) quest to make the playoffs last season. He’s helped them get four wins away from the World Series this year. The White Sox, as their 89 losses well illustrated, were not in a position where the in-season promotion of Robert would have drastically improved their chances of making the postseason. Certainly it wasn’t worth forfeiting team control down the line, when the White Sox do hope to be in a position to win the World Series.

But the Nationals' decision has certainly paid off with Soto. Maybe Robert will arrive as the next young, instant-impact bat in the big leagues.

More free agents to-be

Cole isn’t the only postseason star that could be in the White Sox sights this winter.

The aforementioned Rendon has been excellent, with seven hits in the postseason so far, three of them doubles and one the clutch homer off Kershaw. He owns a 1.073 OPS thanks to four walks to go along with those extra-base knocks. That goes along with the kind of MVP-level production Rendon puts up on an annual basis. This season’s damage amounted to a career-best 1.010 OPS, a career-best 34 homers, a career-best 126 RBIs, a career-best 44 doubles, et cetera, et cetera. He plays third base, which doesn’t exactly square with the White Sox positional needs, but that bat is too big to ignore.

Rendon’s Nationals teammate Stephen Strasburg can opt out of his deal and hit the free-agent market, where he’d figure to do quite well considering the kind of dominant outings he can turn in. After three innings of scoreless relief in the NL wild card game, he allowed four runs in 12 innings, striking out 17 Dodgers in two NLDS starts. He’s showed on this big stage why he could be the kind of rotation-topping addition a pitching-hungry team like the White Sox craves.

After leading the National League with a 2.32 ERA, Hyun-Jin Ryu didn’t get as much opportunity as everyone thought he was going to get to show off in October once his Dodgers were upset in five games and prevented from a third straight pennant. But he did his job in his lone outing, limiting the Nationals to two runs in five innings in a game his team won. Considering how much money the guys at the top of the starting-pitching market are expected to get this winter, Ryu could be a more affordable add, which is kind of nuts considering he’s going to finish pretty high in Cy Young voting.

Dallas Keuchel was not quite as good for the Atlanta Braves, who suffered their own unexpectedly early exit in their NLDS matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals. After doing a fine job as a midseason pickup for the Braves, he started twice in the NLDS and was tagged by the Cardinals for four runs in his eight innings. He was good in Game 1 but left before the end of the fifth inning. He gave up three homers in his Game 3 start and didn’t get out of the fourth. It shouldn’t do too much to limit his attractiveness to a team like the White Sox, whose rotation could certainly use a reliable, veteran pitcher who has a Cy Young Award on his resume and a World Series ring on his finger.

Accounting for two of the three homers off Keuchel in Game 3 of that NLDS was Marcell Ozuna, the corner outfielder who will hit free agency after his Cardinals wrap their postseason run. He had a less-than-stellar season by his standards, finishing with a career-worst .243 batting average and numbers far from the ones he put up in his spectacular 2017 season. But he’s made some noise in October, those two dingers part of a .429/.478/.857 slash line he has through his first five games, all but one of which have featured multiple hits. Ozuna is a left fielder, and the White Sox need a right fielder. He’s also a right-handed hitter, when their quest for a right fielder might be their best shot to add a left-handed bat to the lineup. Still, Ozuna is just 28 years old and is showing what kind of offensive force he can be.

Starters are starring, but you need a ‘pen

The White Sox are in the market for pitching for a reason, and the starting rotation had plenty of issues in 2019. But the South Side bullpen was actually quite good, finishing with a 4.33 ERA that ranked only behind the five playoff teams and the Cleveland Indians in the American League. Going into 2020, the relief corps figures to be a bit of a strength after the strong 2019 campaigns from Alex Colome, Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero.

Renteria doesn’t need to be thinking about how he’d deploy his relievers in a playoff series quite yet, but watching this postseason, the constant use of starting pitchers out of the bullpen shows how valuable a reliable bullpen can be.

The Nationals are into the NLCS because of it, with Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin used as much as the team’s relievers by Dave Martinez. They’ve been mostly effective, too. Strasburg pitched three scoreless innings in relief in the NL wild card game. Scherzer faced three batters and struck them all out in the eighth inning of Game 2 of that series with the Dodgers. Corbin was crushed in Game 3 when he entered in the sixth but then struck out three of the five hitters he faced in relief in the series-deciding Game 5 on Wednesday night.

Those relief appearances have made for some pretty fun playoff moments, but they also reveal that the Nationals don’t have much of a bullpen. Their relief ERA was an abysmal 5.68 this season, the worst in the National League and second worst in the majors, ahead of only the Baltimore Orioles. Outside of Sean Doolittle and former White Sox pitcher Daniel Hudson, Martinez doesn’t seem to have anyone he can rely on down there, hence the constant use of his starters. While the Nationals have made it to baseball's final four, you certainly wonder how long they can keep going, especially now that the series morph to best-of-seven affairs, riding those three pitchers over and over again.

Dave Roberts fell into the same trap in Game 5 of that series, with Kershaw infamously facing three hitters and blowing the game by giving up homers to two of them. Roberts’ situation was a bit different, as the Dodgers had an excellent bullpen all season and just didn’t use it when he probably should have. But it was the difference in the series. Julio Teheran, a starter, gave up the walk-off winner to the Cardinals in Game 4 of their series with the Cardinals. Even the mighty Astros were bitten by the starting-pitcher-pitching-in-relief-bug when Wade Miley gave up a pair of earned runs in Game 3 against the Rays.

The Cardinals experienced a couple bullpen disasters in their series with the Braves, with closer Carlos Martinez giving up six runs and two homers — not to mention three walks — over his three outings, blowing the save in Game 3. They won the series, though, in part by getting to Braves import closer Shane Greene, who blew the save in Game 4.

So for as sterling as the starting pitching has been from the likes of Cole, Strasburg, Scherzer, Walker Buehler, Justin Verlander, Ryan Flaherty and Charlie Morton in these playoffs, the need for a good bullpen — an elite bullpen — has loomed large, too. The White Sox have a good one, which is a good start.

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2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Nationals

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AP

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Nationals

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Washington Nationals

2018 record: 82-80, 2nd in NL East

Offseason additions: Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Yan Gomes, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Adams, Anibal Sanchez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Tony Sipp

Offseason departures: Bryce Harper, Tanner Roark, Matt Wieters, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland, Mark Reynolds, Joaquin Benoit, Tim Collins, Trevor Gott

X-factor: Victor Robles

The 21-year-old outfielder is a big part of the reason why the Nationals don't feel like the sky is falling without Harper. Robles enters 2019 as the No. 4 prospect in baseball by MLB.com and has been a consensus Top 10 prospect the last few winters.

He dealt with an elbow injury last year that limited him to just 73 games between the minors and majors, but he hit .288 with an .874 OPS in 66 plate appearances with Washington. He is a career .300 hitter in the minors and has an enticing blend of speed and contact and has shown flashes that he may add power as he grows and gets stronger.

If Robles becomes the player everybody thinks he can be, it will make the Nationals and their fans forget about Harper every now and then. He may never be as good as Harper (and certainly not this season), but Robles at least should make the Washington defense better with his excellent range in center.

Projected lineup

1. Adam Eaton - RF
2. Trea Turner - SS
3. Anthony Rendon - 3B
4. Juan Soto - LF
5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
6. Brian Dozier - 2B
7. Yan Gomes - C
8. Victor Robles - CF

Projected rotation

1. Max Scherzer
2. Stephen Strasburg
3. Patrick Corbin
4. Anibal Sanchez
5. Jeremy Hellickson

Outlook

Sure, the Nationals failed in bringing back Harper this winter. And yes, it will be brutal for them (and their fans) to watch as they play against their former superstar slugger 19 times a season. 

But the Nationals might actually have a better overall roster to begin 2019 than they finished 2018 with.

Last year, Washington ranked 15th in baseball with a 4.05 bullpen ERA. The only playoff teams they finished ahead of were the Braves (4.15) and Indians (4.60). They also ranked 26th in bullpen WAR (0.4) by FanGraphs' calculation.

Their two main additions in that area — Rosenthal and Barraclough — have solid track records. Rosenthal was worth 1.6 WAR the last year he pitched (2017) and he only threw 47.2 innings that season. Barraclough was rough last year (-0.6 WAR), but posted 2.7 WAR in the previous two seasons combined in the Marlins bullpen.

There's obviously risk with both arms (Rosenthal is coming off Tommy John surgery), but there's also upside with a pair of 28-year-olds who have absolutely nasty stuff. Couple them with elite closer Sean Doolittle and the Nats have the makings of a very good three-headed monster in the bullpen. Their most recent relief reinforcement — Tony Sipp, signed earlier this week — had a 1.86 ERA with the Astros last year and has a career 3.67 ERA in 580 appearances.

The Nationals also made some major upgrades to their catching position. They finished 25th in OPS from that spot last year (.624), which was the second-worst mark in the NL. FanGraphs pitted Washington as 24th in the league in catcher's WAR (0.5), so it wasn't just the offense.

The two new veteran additions — Gomes and Suzuki — combined for 4.2 WAR last year on their previous teams (the Indians and Braves, respectively). They should form a much better more productive pairing than the Wieters-Pedro Severino-Spencer Kieboom catching group from a year ago.

Want to keep going? The Nationals wound up with Wilmer Difo as their primary second baseman for most of last year because Daniel Murphy only played in 56 games due to injury and the late-season trade to Chicago. Dozier should help stabilize second base for Washington and provide more offensive firepower as even during a down year in 2018 (.696 OPS), he still far outperformed Difo. Dozier scored 100 runs in four straight seasons in Minnesota and clubbed a combined 76 homers with 192 RBI from 2016-17 while finishing in the Top 15 in AL MVP voting each season.

Corbin is a huge addition for the rotation, even if it took a lot of money ($140 million over 6 years). It gives the Nationals the best 1-2-3 punch in baseball...if they can all stay healthy.

The Nationals also have a budding star in Soto, which should help ease the pain of Harper leaving. As the youngest player in the big leagues last year, Soto hit .292 with a .406 on-base percentage, 22 homers and 70 RBI in only 116 games. Between the majors and minors, he crushed 36 bombs, drove in 122 runs and drew 108 walks in 155 games. Oh yeah, and did we mention he just turned 20 in October?

This lineup shouldn't struggle to score runs, which is an impressive feat given they relied so much on Harper and Murphy the last few seasons. The rotation is better, the bullpen is better and they have more depth than ever before.

The only question about this team is the window of contention. The Nationals have a huge payroll even without Harper (Opening Day payroll projected at just under $200 million) and there's definitely a sense of urgency to win NOW. After 2019, Rendon becomes a free agent, Zimmerman has a $20 million team option that almost assuredly won't be picked up and they'll have to make decisions on options for Eaton, Gomes and Doolittle.

The Nationals also have more than $80 million tied up in just their three starting pitchers for next year, which could leave them in a tight spot in any attempts to add to the roster.

The only members of their core guaranteed to be back in 2020 is the trio of arms plus Turner, Soto and Robles. 

The championship window may well be closing after this year, so it's another season of "now or never" for the Nationals. And we know that mindset and level of expectations haven't worked out well for them in the past, even when they had Harper.

But I'm betting on the improved roster across the board to take control of the powerhouse NL East and this very well could be the year they finally advance beyond the NLDS. Imagine that for Year 1 post-Harper.

Prediction: 1st in NL East

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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Cubs getting creative with their ever-changing bullpen

Cubs getting creative with their ever-changing bullpen

The Cubs are in the middle of a pennant race and in an effort to keep their bullpen fresh and to help slow down Bryce Harper and the Nationals, they're pulling out all the stops.

They inked veteran left-hander Jorge De La Rosa to a deal Friday morning, sending rookie Randy Rosario to Triple-A Iowa and pushing Yu Darvish to the 60-day disabled list to create room on the roster. (That doesn't mean Darvish has suffered a setback. He's already been on the shelf more than 60 days and moving him to that list creates an opening on the 40-man roster for De La Rosa.)

They also shifted their starting rotation to briefly go to a four-man unit and roll Mike Montgomery back into the bullpen.

Montgomery just tossed 6 shutout innings in Kansas City earlier in the week and feels like he's really turned a corner with a new curveball grip and the ascension of his changeup.

But the Cubs also want to limit the wear and tear on his arms while he's on pace to throw a career high in innings.

Montgomery will start next Saturday Aug. 18 in Pittsburgh while Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks will throw against the Brewers in an all-important two-game showdown at Wrigley Field next week.

"We're just trying to be proactive with Mike," Joe Maddon said. "That's all. Talking about him pitching so well and he has. We just think we want to monitor his time out there a litlte bit so that he can be effective into September."

Maddon believed Montgomery's confidence is "soaring" as well and called the 29-year-old left-hander "invaluable" to the Cubs for all he's done in 2018. But now Montgomery will slot into the bullpen starting Saturday and provide another option to get the slew of Washington left-handed hitters out. 

It's not just Harper — the Nats boast a strong supporting cast of left-handers in Juan Soto, Adam Eaton, Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams.

Harper and Soto are still very good even when facing southpaws — Harper has an .836 OPS vs. lefties compared to .897 vs. righties while Soto actually carries a higher OPS vs. lefties (1.145) than righties (.917) — but the other three are severely neutralized in splits.

Murphy's OPS vs. lefties is .520, Eaton's is a minsicule .347 and Adams has a .640 OPS. All three guys entered the series with an OPS at least .820 or higher against righties.

Even if it's only for one batter over the weekend, Montgomery gives the Cubs a unique option and then can shut him down on the off-day Monday and work back up to his start next weekend in Pittsburgh.

De La Rosa also will get in a lot of work against left-handers in his initial foray into life as a member of the Cubs bullpen, Maddon confirmed.

The 37-year-old veteran has been very tough on left-handed hitters throughout his 15-year major-league career, holding them to a .231 average and .652 OPS. 

Righties have had more success against De La Rosa on the whole (.803 OPS), but that's taken a huge jump up in 2018 — right-handed hitters are batting .324 with a .927 OPS off De La Rosa this season.

De La Rosa said he's ready for any role with the Cubs after being designated for assignment and subsequently released by the Arizona Diamondbacks earlier this month. It's a low-risk signing for the Cubs, who are still searching for some left-handed help in the bullpen (though they do have a bunch of righties who can attack left-handed hitters well). 

In 42 games with the D-Backs, De La Rosa had a 4.63 ERA and 1.60 WHIP, but a lot of that damage came in one outing in Colorado last month, when he surrendered 7 runs in 1.2 innings. Going into that game, De La Rosa carried a 3.00 ERA and 1.47 WHIP.

Allowing a baserunner-and-a-half per inning is not the stuff of an elite closer and taking away a reliever's worst outing would make any pitcher's stat line look significantly better. 

But De La Rosa could be a diamond in the rough for the Cubs as they search for another left-handed weapon in the bullpen and if not, the cost is minimal.