Lucas Giolito

Five things the White Sox are hoping to see in the second half

Five things the White Sox are hoping to see in the second half

The first half of the 2019 campaign was an undoubtedly positive one for the White Sox.

That doesn’t mean it was exclusively positive, of course, as there was plenty of bad news, too, that would have been cause for great alarm if this rebuilding team had already moved into contention mode: one of their starting pitchers going down for the season with Tommy John surgery, the DFA’ing of one of their biggest offseason acquisitions before the end of June and 40 percent of their starting rotation accounting for two of the three highest ERAs among baseball’s qualified starters.

But after losing a combined 195 games during the 2017 and 2018 seasons and having to simply wait for talent to develop in the minor leagues, White Sox fans were rewarded for their patience with a mighty promising first half. Sitting at two games under .500 at the All-Star break isn’t necessarily cause to believe that a playoff chase is coming to the South Side this September. But the performances of a host of young players have made the White Sox future blindingly bright, pointing to the contention window opening as soon as the 2020 season.

Lucas Giolito, James McCann and Jose Abreu put together good enough first halves that they represented the White Sox at the All-Star Game earlier this week. Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson and Alex Colome put together good enough first halves that their All-Star teammates spent a good deal of time discussing how they should have been in Cleveland with them.

Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease are at the major league level, Jimenez finding his power stroke after finding his way through the first couple months of his big league career and Cease picking up a win in his major league debut last week.

That’s all great news for the White Sox, especially because all of those players are expected to, in one way or another, be a part of the group that opens that contention window. Many of them are core youngsters who will be with this team for years to come.

So after all those good vibes in the first half, what can be expected from the second half? A baseball season has all sorts of twists and turns and ways of surprising, so it’s difficult to draw up a forecast. But here’s at least what the White Sox are hoping for over the final two and a half months of the 2019 campaign.

'More of the same'

All that stuff I just mentioned? The White Sox want to keep seeing it.

It’s important to note that for many of these players who have provided these first-half positives, it’s the first terrific half of a baseball season they’ve put up as big leaguers. Giolito has made a remarkable turnaround from being, statistically, the worst pitcher in baseball to an All-Star and a Cy Young candidate. Can he keep it up? The same goes for McCann and Moncada, who went through plenty of offensive struggles in 2018 only to explode in 2019. Can they keep it up? Anderson was in the midst of a breakout campaign before suffering a high ankle sprain in Boston. Can he pick up where he left off?

Maintaining what they’ve been able to do to this point is a big part of all those players’ growth into core pieces for this White Sox team.

“More of the same in terms of what we’ve seen at the big league level,” general manager Rick Hahn said last week, asked what he wanted to see in the second half. “We want to get TA right and healthy and in a good spot to pick up where he left off. Moncada had to deal with a couple of minor tweaks here and there, and hopefully we can minimize those and he can continue to grow the way he’s been growing.

“Eloy had himself a great June, which was a nice step forward. You’ve seen that maturity already and that development at the plate already in the first three months. We want to see more of that in the coming months.

“Gio is performing at an extremely high level. Maintaining somewhat close to that pace for the next few months would be fantastic as some of these young guys, whether it’s the Dylan Ceases of the world or Aaron Bummer in the bullpen and Zack Collins when he gets his opportunities, show that progression, that they’re taking advantage of the opportunity at the big league level and either locking in who they’re going to be for the future or at least finding themselves on that right path to who they’re going to be.”

Just take Giolito as one example. He spent his All-Star experience in Cleveland being asked about what his transformation has been like and how great it feels to be one of the best after he was one of the worst last season. But he made sure to point out to anyone who asked that this isn’t his ultimate destination.

Can he be even better? McCann said it’ll be hard for Giolito to be better than he’s been, statistically, but Giolito said he’s going to try.

“I’m never satisfied,” he said. “I feel like I can continue to get better. I think sometimes I let at-bats get away from me, I’ll walk a guy on four pitches. I really want to continue to hone in on my focus on each and every pitch. I’ve talked about how I approach pitching, a ‘one pitch at a time’ mentality. I want to continue to get better and better and better at that to where if I’m throwing 100 pitches in a game, I want to have my maximum focus on all 100.

“As far as numbers and all those things go, I’d like to cut down walks, always. That’s No. 1 for me. But I’m not worried so much about all the numbers or anything else. I feel like that takes care of itself if I’m true to my gameplan each time I go out and pitch, and that’s what I want to continue to get better at.”

A successful transition for Cease

Cease has already made the biggest start of his pro career to date, getting the win in his major league debut last week on the South Side.

Now, after a lengthy stretch in between starts, he’ll find out what it’s truly like to be an every-fifth-day big leaguer. He’s slated to make his first start of the second half in the second of a four-game series against the Kansas City Royals next week in Missouri.

It will be a start-to-start evolution for Cease, who’s still just 23 years old, even if his teammates keep talking about how mature he is. That’s how he’s going to attack the second half of the season.

“I’m not really looking at that big of a picture right now. It’s just day by day,” Cease said last week. “Execute my pitches, and if I’m not executing, figure out what I need to do to execute better. Hopefully I have a great second half.

“I expect a lot of myself, and the more you expect, the better, really. As long as I don’t let it get to my head and don’t put too much pressure on myself and just worry about my process, good things should happen.”

Those expectations will obviously be high throughout the fan base, but the White Sox are just hoping to see the expected growth of a player Cease’s age with Cease’s experience level.

“As you guys have seen, going back to Lucas, as you’ve seen with Michael (Kopech), guys develop at different rates and acclimate themselves to the big leagues at different rates. This is going to be a process,” Hahn said. “There’s still some development to Dylan Cease. He’s got a front-end-of-the-rotation arsenal, but it might take a little while for him to harness that and become that type of pitcher.

“I think he’s going to greatly benefit from working with our staff, from facing big league hitters, from being challenged by this next step in his development. And ideally at the end of this year, we’ll be able to look back at his performance at the big league level and say this provided him with a very firm launching pad or foundation to enter next season as an important part of our rotation.”

Jimenez continuing to get better

Jimenez came in with so much hype, that everyone knew in the back of their minds that it was really going to be impossible for him to live up to it. And when he struggled against major league pitching the first couple months of his first big league season — not to mention spending nearly a month on the injured list with a sprained ankle — the realism set in.

And then Jimenez flung the realism out the window.

He was spectacular in June, delivering the single best moment for this team in several years with his broken-bat, game-winning homer in the eighth inning of his first ever game against the Cubs, the team that traded him away two years ago. He had multi-homer efforts, he blasted a ball into Thome territory on a part of the Fan Deck and has worn out the center-field foliage with dingers.

A once-outlandish prediction by this writer that Jimenez would hit 36 homers this season doesn’t seem terribly off this planet at the moment. He’s on pace for right around that number.

If Jimenez can go from struggling to surging that quickly, what can he do without an extended period of struggles in the second half?

Unsurprisingly, the White Sox just want things to progress at their natural rate — even if Jimenez’s natural rate is better described as supernatural.

“He came up initially and they were treating him like a 10-year vet the way they were pitching him,” Hahn said. “Usually you see a young guy come up, especially at his age, and they challenge them with big league hitters and see if they can handle that. They skipped that step with Eloy and went straight to sliders off the plate and tried to see if he had the discipline to lay off it.

“And it took a little adjustment from him, we all saw it, we knew what they were trying to do. And unfortunately the foot injury kind of slowed him down a little bit because he was starting to come around before he did that. But now over the last several weeks, now that he's been healthy, I think he's had a very solid approach. Obviously put up big numbers in June. Hopefully see more of that in the coming months."

The 2018 version of Reynaldo Lopez

While the first half of the season was defined by the bright spots, one of the not-so-bright spots was Lopez, who a year after being the White Sox best starting pitcher has been the opposite.

Jumping to conclusions, much like people did after Giolito’s woeful 2018 season, is to be expected, and there has been an avalanche of calls on social media for the team to send Lopez and his 6.34 ERA — the highest among baseball’s qualified starting pitchers — to Triple-A Charlotte to figure things out. Many fans are scrubbing him from their projected rotations of the future and shifting him to the bullpen.

All this happened with Giolito a year ago, and he’s shown how rash it can be to make such proclamations this early.

The White Sox are not going to be as hasty with Lopez, and they are, for the time being, planning on taking advantage of time the same way they did with Giolito in an effort to get Lopez right. Being in a rebuilding season where making a sacrificial run at the second wild card has never been the stated goal, the White Sox can allow Lopez to struggle as he stays in the rotation, hoping he’ll learn the same things Giolito did a year ago.

“He is a kid who obviously had a little bit of an up-and-down season last year but finished the year very strongly and we had high hopes coming into this season. We’ve seen flashes of it,” Hahn said. “The ingredients are still there. What we need to see is much more consistency.

“He’s obviously a young player. There’s going to be hiccups in the development of any young player, but Reynaldo’s been around long enough and had enough success that I understand his frustration and desire to put these struggles behind him and get back on track quickly.

“I wouldn’t go to so far as to say anyone has a scholarship indefinitely up here, that they are never going to get optioned if struggles continue or for something we feel is better addressed in a lower stress environment or with a little bit of a change in their approach. But for now he’s going to remain part of our rotation heading into the second half.”

If Lopez can take advantage of the opportunity the White Sox are giving him, that’s great news for the White Sox, who can look at the first half as more of a blip then a huge step in the wrong direction and add another name to what is shaping up to be an exciting rotation for the 2020 season.

If he can’t, then things get trickier, and if the team is truly planning on being a contender in 2020, the question becomes: Is there room for a still-figuring-it-out guy like Lopez once the games become a lot more meaningful?

More mashing in the minors

Yes, the first half was about the waiting game paying dividends. Earlier this week, Abreu described it thusly: “It’s good when you see that all the sacrifices you have been through are paying off.”

But that doesn’t mean that every little bit of the waiting game is over on the South Side, and fans are just as excited about three hitters in the minor leagues as they are about the guys already making noise at the big league level.

Luis Robert just got promoted to Triple-A Charlotte as he continues to destroy minor league pitching in 2019. Thumb injuries limited him to 50 games and zero homers in 2018. This season, he smacked 16 home runs in his 75 games between Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham to go along with an outrageous .349/.401/.618 slash line and 29 stolen bases. And now he's on the doorstep of the majors at Triple-A.

Robert is a hitting machine right now and someone the White Sox hope can be a five-tool force in their outfield. When will he reach the South Side? If he keep swinging that hot bat, calls will come for him to be promoted to a fourth level before the end of the 2019 season. But Robert might have to face many of the same service-time questions Jimenez did over the last year, and with the White Sox not expected to be chasing a wild card spot in September, Opening Day 2020 or thereabouts looks more likely right now.

“In terms of what (Robert’s promotion to Triple-A) means for his future or larger questions about his timeline to Chicago, quite frankly it’s premature to really speculate along those lines,” Hahn said. “He’s ready for that next challenge. In terms of his future timeline and path to Chicago, let’s take the next logical step in his development and see how Triple-A goes and we’ll go from there.”

Perhaps not the answer White Sox fans want to hear, but there you go.

Robert won’t be the only other minor league hitter the White Sox have their eye on as 2020 approaches, however. The team’s last two first-round picks are making their presence known in the minors this season, too.

Nick Madrigal has been excellent since his promotion to Birmingham, where he owns a .382 batting average and a .442 on-base percentage. In his combined time this season, he’s swiped 28 bases and banged out 91 hits. Touted as a Gold Glove caliber second baseman, perhaps he could find his way onto the Opening Day roster in 2020 if everything goes really right.

And then there’s Andrew Vaughn, the power-hitting first baseman who the White Sox took with the No. 3 pick just last month. Well he’s already playing pro ball and off to a smoking start with a homer and a .391 on-base percentage in just five games with Class A Kannapolis. Vaughn’s obviously got more time to put in before he reaches the majors than Robert and Madrigal, but he was described as one that could move through the system quickly. His bat was touted as one of the most advanced in the draft.

So seeing those three guys continue to rake in the minors this season would be a very good thing for the future-focused White Sox.

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A couple wishes fulfilled for White Sox at All-Star Game

A couple wishes fulfilled for White Sox at All-Star Game

CLEVELAND — Before Tuesday night's All-Star Game, the White Sox first timers were asked what they wanted to do in this one.

Who did Lucas Giolito want to strike out?

"The best of the best," Giolito said. "(Christian) Yelich, (Cody) Bellinger, those types of guys. That'd be cool to go out and strike out a guy that could go on and win MVP this year."

Who did James McCann want to catch? Besides Giolito, of course.

"The one guy that really sticks out is (Aroldis) Chapman," McCann said. "I've had to face him. I've had to see 102 coming at me. I think it'd be fun to see 102 coming at me as a catcher."

Well, the baseball gods granted those wishes in the Midsummer Classic.

Giolito made his appearance in the fourth inning. He started things with a four-pitch walk to Freddie Freeman but followed it up with a strikeout — of Bellinger. The next two batters each grounded out, giving Giolito a scoreless inning in his first All-Star Game.

Coincidentally, the inning mirrored one of the biggest talking points surrounding Giolito's incredible transformation this season. He got into early trouble, but instead of letting things unravel, he got back in the zone and retired the next three batters he faced.

"Felt good," Giolito said of striking out Bellinger. "He's in the running for MVP, and I was able to put him away right there.

"You have to have that (confidence). If you want to compete at this level and stay here for a long time, you have to have the confidence that you're better than everybody else every time you're pitching. That's what I take into my games, whether it's a start against whoever during the regular season or an All-Star Game, one inning.

"For me, that's what it's all about."

Of course, this was on the biggest stage Giolito's ever pitched in, so it's no surprise that there were some jitters.

"He did a good job," Jose Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo. "After that inning, we were talking in the dugout, and he said that during the first batter he was really anxious and nervous. And I told him, 'Hey, that's normal. But you settled down after, and that was good.' It was a fun moment for him and for me, too."

Then there's McCann, who got his wish to catch the flame-throwing closer from the New York Yankees. The first question: How's your hand?

"It's good," McCann said. "He threw the ball extremely well.

"It's easier to catch than it is to hit. There's no doubt about that."

Catching Chapman, though, might not have even been the highlight of his night. He smoked a line-drive single for a hit in his only trip to the plate. And he also made a diving catch in foul territory, hanging onto a pop up to end an eighth-inning rally by the National League.

"It was fun. I think the smile that came across my face tells it all.

"Being around the best players and stepping on the same field as them, it's a dream come true."

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'A lot of jaws are going to drop' when Eloy Jimenez is in the Home Run Derby

'A lot of jaws are going to drop' when Eloy Jimenez is in the Home Run Derby

CLEVELAND — The baseball world (and beyond) was enthralled with the show Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Joc Pederson put on in Monday night’s Home Run Derby.

Baseball got to put one of its brightest young stars on display in Guerrero, and another of them won the thing in Pete Alonso.

But for South Side baseball fans, thoughts likely went to what it would be like if their own young slugger was participating in the annual event. What if Eloy Jimenez was swinging?

Well, fans weren’t the only ones thinking that. A guy sitting just a few feet from the proceedings at Progressive Field was thinking the same thing.

“That’s what I was saying during the first couple rounds, ‘Man, I can’t wait until Eloy’s in this thing,’” White Sox pitcher and American League All Star Lucas Giolito said Tuesday. “He’s going to make it fun. He hits all his homers to center field, it’s going to be ridiculous.

“I think a lot of jaws are going to drop when he gets the chance.”

Jimenez had a case to be in this year’s Derby, not that a case really needs to be built. Since the event started bringing in guys who aren’t even on an All-Star rosters, the biggest criteria seems to be dudes who can hit balls far. Well, Jimenez falls into that category, especially since making some recent adjustments and causing a whole lot of disturbance to the plant life over the center-field fence at Guaranteed Rate Field.

Jimenez similarly falls into the same category as Guerrero as a young star in the game. Both guys are rookies, and both aren’t far removed from being ranked as two of the top three prospects in baseball.

Jimenez is already a daily presence in the middle of the White Sox order, and fans can’t wait to see the ball explode off his bat. Imagine if he got to hit roughly 100 of those dingers in one night.

“I know Eloy could put on a show,” White Sox catcher and American League All Star James McCann said Tuesday. “I’m sure there are some other guys in the organization that could do that. Regardless, the talent that’s put on the field for that Derby, it’s second to none.”

It will be at least another year until Jimenez gets his chance. Obviously the White Sox and their fans would enjoy if he kept hitting home runs in games in the meantime.

But if Jimenez finds his way into the Home Run Derby at some point and Giolito is once again sitting on the field for the show, Jimenez already has a volunteer to bring him some Gatorade.

“Oh yeah,” Giolito said, asked if he’d be interested in the position.

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