Minnesota Twins

AL Central pecking order becoming clearer as White Sox push winning streak to five

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USA TODAY

AL Central pecking order becoming clearer as White Sox push winning streak to five

Exciting. Fun. Watchable.

Words of praise thrown around during the first five games of this homestand were rarely applicable during the first two seasons of the South Side rebuilding project. But the White Sox haven’t lost since returning from a three-game sweep at the hands of the Minnesota Twins, delivering the same fate to the Kansas City Royals before taking the first two of a four-game weekend set against the Cleveland Indians.

It’s a rather apt illustration of where the AL Central is at the moment, the Twins towering above the competition this season while the White Sox look to be in a better spot than the other three teams. They pulled even with the Indians, at 28-29, thanks to Friday night’s 6-1 victory. In the first two games of this series, the White Sox have outscored the Indians by a combined 16-5 margin, and while the Indians booted and threw the ball all over Guaranteed Rate Field on Friday, the White Sox took advantage against Trevor Bauer.

That’s two straight wins against Carlos Carrasco and Bauer, two of the Indians’ supposedly elite starting pitchers.

Regardless of whether or not you think this streak is a harbinger of October baseball coming to the South Side — and it’s certainly far too early for that — what can’t be argued is that these are the kinds of accomplishments the White Sox didn’t have in 2017 and 2018, when they lost a combined 195 games. Bright spots on this team have shone a promising spotlight on the future, and they might be rewarded in the present, with multiple guys playing at All-Star levels.

The Indians looked as if they had one more run in them, perhaps. Even with a less than inspiring lineup when the season began, they had the best rotation in the game and two MVP candidates in the lineup in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. While Carlos Santana has been fine, Ramirez has not. Lindor hit Dylan Covey’s third pitch out of the park Friday night, but the limitations of an offense with few other dependable hitters were on display. Cleveland couldn’t scratch across another run the rest of the night.

And so with the Indians caught, the White Sox have done what some had hoped but fewer had expected: They’ve established themselves as the No. 2 team in this division. What that’s worth, though, is potentially inconsequential.

Tim Anderson might not have been drawing up playoff scenarios in his head — or reliving just how badly the Twins beat up on the White Sox just a weekend ago in Minneapolis — but he outlined the White Sox true desire before Friday’s game.

Does second place mean anything?

“No, man. We want to be in first place and we want to keep working and keep getting better,” Anderson said. “We're going to stay hungry.”

Anderson was likely just providing another example of pro athletes’ “if you’re not first, you’re last” mentality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s true that second place in the AL Central might not mean much when it comes to the postseason. The New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox figure to keep battling it out in the AL East, and the Oakland Athletics have made their annual out-of-nowhere surge into contention.

True, the White Sox are not at all far from the second wild-card spot in the American League. But it’s also May 31.

This isn’t to rain on the ongoing parade on the South Side, however. The White Sox are winning right now, and that’s more than could be said during the vast majority of the last two seasons. The rebuild was always going to yield something positive at some point. This winning streak might not foreshadow the White Sox reaching baseball’s mountaintop by the end of this season, but it’s a positive sign made up of a bunch of other positive signs that spell good things for seasons to come.

As for the rest of 2019, there are nine games left against these Indians, 10 left against the Royals and 14 still to play against the Detroit Tigers. The White Sox can rack up a lot of wins against those teams, not to mention their still-to-come series with the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners, who they’ll see a combined 10 times before the season’s end. There are scattered National League opponents of various quality remaining, as well.

The White Sox, unsurprisingly, are not concerned with playoff projections or which teams remain on the schedule. They’ve got a good thing going on this homestand, and they’d like to keep it rolling for as long as possible.

“The guys are playing with some energy,” manager Rick Renteria said after Friday’s win. “I think they are having fun, they are focused. Clubs when they start to get on a little bit of a roll, they are enjoying their time, they know what they are doing. They are going with the moment and hopefully this will be a moment that lasts a long time.”

Long-lasting success is the ultimate goal of this rebuild, of course, and getting to the top of the game first requires getting to the top of the division. The Twins hold a 10.5-game lead as the calendar turns to June, meaning the White Sox might have to settle for only getting to second place in 2019. But that’s a lot better than where they were last year.

The rebuild progresses.

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Buckle up, White Sox, here come the best two teams in baseball

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USA TODAY

Buckle up, White Sox, here come the best two teams in baseball

Things are about to get tougher for the White Sox. Much tougher.

The upcoming road trip features seven straight games against first-place teams, the Houston Astros and the Minnesota Twins. Those two teams are, by their winning percentages as of this writing, the two best teams in baseball.

The much-bemoaned makeup of this season’s American League means seeing top-shelf competition is a rarity for any team playing outside the AL East. The Astros are a mile ahead of the rest of the AL West. The Twins have appeared, so far, as the only team capable of winning an aggressively weak AL Central. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays — three teams the White Sox have already seen one time apiece — will battle it out for the AL East crown all season long, but let’s be honest, they all seem safe bets to make the postseason.

The fact that the five teams likely to make the playoffs have already put themselves ahead of the competition and it’s not even Memorial Day is its own discussion topic as the rebuilding trend sweeps through the Junior Circuit. But for the 2019 edition of the Chicago White Sox, specifically, it just means that this week is not likely to be a good one.

In the 10 games they played against the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox, the White Sox went 3-7. They were pasted by the Rays and Red Sox, who combined to outscore them 58-18 in seven games on the South Side, and they took two of three from the Yankees in The Bronx.

Of course, any expectations can be dashed in a small portion of a 162-game season. Cast your mind back to 2017, when the White Sox swept a three-game series from the soon-to-be world-champion Astros. The South Siders finished with 95 losses that season, but for three games in August, they had the champs’ number.

Will this week go similarly? Maybe. But it doesn’t seem likely.

The Astros are on fire, or at least they were before the Red Sox snapped their 10-game winning streak Sunday. That doesn’t change the fact that the Astros boast a plus-92 run differential that counts as the best in the game. Or their 3.43 team ERA (second in the AL). Or their .279 team batting average and jaw-dropping .353 team on-base percentage, both marks the best in baseball.

The Twins, the division rivals the White Sox will see for the first time in 2019 beginning Friday, aren’t far behind. That offense has been sensational, too, through the season’s first two months, owning baseball’s second best run differential (plus-77) and its second best team batting average (.270). No team in either league has hit more homers than the Twins, who have launched 87 of them in 45 games.

The White Sox, meanwhile, have a fragile, injury-affected starting rotation — after Sunday’s game, manager Rick Renteria did not share who’s starting Monday’s game — and a pitching staff with a 5.09 ERA that’s given up 68 homers this season. Sunday, Reynaldo Lopez made it through six innings of one-run ball, only for the White Sox bullpen to cough up a pair of two-run homers to the Toronto Blue Jays (one of baseball’s worst offenses) in the game’s final two innings. It was the sixth time this season the White Sox bullpen has allowed multiple home runs in a single game.

“Gulp” might be an appropriate reaction to hearing the White Sox have to go up against the Houston and Minnesota offenses seven times in the next seven days.

This isn’t to say the White Sox are merely a punching bag for these two giants of the American League right now. Certainly most of the teams the Astros and Twins have faced have suffered less than desirable fates. But the gaps between the rebuilding White Sox and this pair of contenders are not small.

The White Sox are trying to accomplish the same thing the Astros did, spending several frustrating years being patient during a rebuilding process only to come out the other side a perennial contender and World Series champion. These same Astros who are now bullying the rest of the AL lost a total of 416 games in the four seasons prior to their first playoff season in a decade in 2015. By the end of the 2017 campaign, they were world champions. That’s the template the White Sox are trying to follow.

But the White Sox aren’t to the mountaintop yet, and that might end up being painfully clear by the end of the upcoming road trip. It doesn’t mean their climb won’t get them to that same point, but don’t try to compare the 2019 White Sox to the 2019 Astros this week. That’s not the comparison that counts.

The Twins are a little different, having revamped their lineup over the offseason with free-agent acquisitions who have paid huge dividends. C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Marwin Gonzalez and Nelson Cruz (currently on the IL) have combined for 31 homers in 45 games. But homegrown guys like Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler are all playing well, too. That quintet has accounted for 43 of the Twins’ 87 homers this season. That’s a strong core of homegrown young hitters, the kind of thing the White Sox hope to have real soon, the kind of thing that’s taking shape with Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson off to good starts and Eloy Jimenez at the major league level (and likely to come off the injured list Monday).

The White Sox have obviously had their positives this season, and they’re clearly in a better place now than they were at this point last year (a 21-24 record after Sunday’s game compared to 14-31 through the first 45 games of 2018). But their rebuilding process hasn’t yet reached the point where they’re going to be trading blows with the two best teams in baseball.

There could be some surprises on this road trip. But they don’t figure to be easy to come by. Buckle up, here come the two best teams in baseball.

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2019 MLB preview and predictions: How the White Sox stack up against the Minnesota Twins

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USA TODAY

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How the White Sox stack up against the Minnesota Twins

As the 2019 season nears and the White Sox get ready to take on the rest of the American League, we're taking a team-by-team look at all 14 of their opponents.

If the Twins were anything this offseason, they were busy. Whether they're vastly improved or not, that remains to be seen.

Twins fans probably are experiencing whiplash after the past several seasons: a 103-loss campaign in 2016, then a playoff trip in 2017 via the wild card, then back to a sub-.500 record and an uneventful October in 2018.

But the rebuild-heavy AL Central presents an opportunity for the Twins, who could capitalize on 19 games apiece against the White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals, three teams that combined for more than 300 losses in 2018. And so the Minnesota front office got to work this winter and added quite a bit to this roster.

The biggest names among the newcomers are Marwin Gonzalez and Nelson Cruz. Gonzalez is two years off a big 2017 season, when his .303/.377/.530 slash line and 23 home runs helped fuel the Houston Astros to a World Series championship. He was one of the best players available on this winter's free-agent market, noted for his versatility after playing every position besides pitcher and catcher last season. Cruz is 38 and shouldn't be considered a part of any team's long-term plans, but the Twins want him for the 40-homer average he's posted over the last half decade.

That boost to the Twins' lineup gets amplified even more when you consider new additions Jonathan Schoop, who believe it or not put up better numbers than Manny Machado in 2017, and C.J. Cron, who launched 30 homers for the Tampa Bay Rays last season.

All those guys join what the Twins already had, chiefly Eddie Rosario, who had a big 2018. More specifically, though, he had a big first half, batting .311/.353/.537 with 19 homers before the All-Star break and just .240/.262/.361 with five homers after it.

So that's all very nice, and just on the new additions alone, that stacks up well against the Cleveland Indians' lineup, which isn't terribly imposing beyond the two MVP candidates on the left side of the infield. But are Gonzalez and Cruz and Cron and Schoop really enough to make the Twins a legit contender?

First off, it's important to note that none of the aforementioned players are pitchers. The Twins have a terrific starting pitcher in Jose Berrios, probably the best player on the team. He had a 3.84 ERA and 202 strikeouts in his 192.1 innings of work last season. And Kyle Gibson, my fellow Missouri Tiger, had himself an under-the-radar season in 2018, too, with a 3.62 ERA and 179 strikeouts. Jake Odorizzi wasn't quite as good, with a 4.49 ERA, but all three of those guys made 32 starts. The other two parts of the Twins' rotation? Michael Pineda, who hasn't pitched since July of 2017, and Martin Perez, who had a 6.22 ERA with the Texas Rangers last season.

In other words, that's not bad but nothing that comes close to what the Indians have, a loaded rotation that might be baseball's finest from top to bottom.

The busy Twins also added a new closer in former Cub and Los Angeles Angel Blake Parker, who had a 2.90 ERA in his two seasons in Anaheim.

It's a lengthy list of changes that have come to the Twin Cities — and it's without even mentioning new manager Rocco Baldelli, better known to Rhode Islanders as the Woonsocket Rocket — but even in a division where three teams are going through the growing pains of rebuilding processes, is it enough to get the Twins back to the postseason? Plenty of observers seem to think so, and it's not an outlandish opinion. But their pitching staff doesn't boast the same crop of All-Star talent as the Indians' does. They don't have the big bats the Indians' lineup has.

Now, winning the AL Central isn't the only path to the playoffs, but with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees locks to gobble up the AL East crown and the top AL wild card spot, there's only one other option and more competition. Certainly the Twins are among the contenders for that spot, but they'll have to hit on many if not all of their offseason adds.

2018 record: 78-84, second place in AL Central

Offseason additions: Marwin Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, C.J. Cron, Blake Parker, Martin Perez

Offseason departures: Joe Mauer, Ervin Santana, Logan Morrison, Logan Forsythe, Robbie Grossman

X-factor: Gonzalez really is the definition of an X-factor, and it's shocking he didn't generate greater interest during the offseason. His ability to play every position on the field would figure to be a mighty valuable thing to all 30 teams. The Twins are the ones who landed him, and he can be their Swiss Army Knife all season long. But will he hit? A dynamite 2017 that saw him land in the top 20 in AL MVP voting segued to a disappointing 2018, during which he slashed just .247/.324/.409 with 16 homers and 68 RBIs, numbers down from .303/.377/.530, 23 and 90 the year prior despite an increase in plate appearances. 

Projected lineup:

1. Jorge Polanco, SS
2. C.J. Cron, 1B
3. Eddie Rosario, LF
4. Nelson Cruz, DH
5. Max Kepler, RF
6. Jonathan Schoop, 2B
7. Marwin Gonzalez, 3B
8. Jason Castro, C
9. Byron Buxton, CF

Projected rotation:

1. Jose Berrios
2. Kyle Gibson
3. Jake Odorizzi
4. Michael Pineda
5. Martin Perez

Prediction: Second place in AL Central, no playoffs

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