Nick Madrigal

Believe in 'Magic': For White Sox, a matter of when, not if, Nick Madrigal starts raking in the majors

Believe in 'Magic': For White Sox, a matter of when, not if, Nick Madrigal starts raking in the majors

When will Nick Madrigal reach the majors?

That, now that Luis Robert's path to an Opening Day roster spot has been cleared by a big-money contract extension, is the most pressing of the prospect-related queries facing the 2020 White Sox, a team that, it should be noted, will be turning its focus away from the minors and toward playing big league baseball in October for the first time in more than a decade.

Not unlike Robert, Madrigal shredded minor league pitching in 2019, playing at three levels and showing just how successful his elite bat-to-ball skills can make him as an offensive producer. He stepped to the plate 532 times and struck out only 16 times.

There's a reason even Rick Renteria is already calling the 22-year-old "Magic."

The general feeling seems to be that Madrigal will start the season at Triple-A Charlotte, though with the waiting game apparently over on the South Side and the intent to win as many games as possible, perhaps a strong showing at spring training will see Madrigal starting at second base in the March 26 opener.

That's a question better answered after the White Sox have been in Glendale for a few weeks.

But Madrigal's goal is clear.

"I definitely want to be in Chicago as soon as I can," Madrigal said earlier this week at the team's hitters' camp out in the desert. "I know they have a plan for me one way or another, but I think that’s the ultimate goal: being in Chicago and winning with that team.

"I know this offseason there’s been a lot of moves, and I’m excited to be a part of that, hopefully, in the near future. The ultimate goal is winning. There’s nothing else at this point."

Madrigal might not have blown the doors off the minors like Robert, who finished with a 30-30 season, but he wasn't fazed by climbing through the system. Madrigal put up good-not-great numbers in nearly 50 games at Class A Winston-Salem but exploded for a .341 batting average and a .400 on-base percentage in 42 games at Double-A Birmingham before batting .331 and reaching base at a .398 clip in 29 games at Charlotte.

That he didn't even reach 30 games in a Knights uniform could signal that the White Sox might prefer a little more seasoning, but he didn't see any problems facing the pitching at Triple-A.

“Honestly, it wasn’t too different at all. There was nothing I hadn’t seen before," he said. "There were some older guys in the league, more consistent arms. I thought it wasn’t anything too different.”

Madrigal's earning high praise all over the place, rated among the best prospects in the game. He's earned rave reviews for his ability on both sides of the ball, picked by team executives (in an MLB Pipeline poll) as having one of the best hit tools and gloves of any player in the minor leagues.

There still might be some skepticism, or perhaps mere curiosity, as to how Madrigal's skill set will translate to the major leagues. Players like him, who focus on making contact and putting the ball in play, are becoming rarer in today's game, which sees a focus on power and launch angle and an acceptance of strikeouts. His manager, one of "Magic's" biggest fans, isn't too concerned about Madrigal finding success once he finally makes the jump to the bigs.

"Watching him swing the bat yesterday, I'm amazed at his bat-to-ball skills. It's incredible," Renteria said Wednesday from Arizona. "He's actually filling out a little bit more. All these guys, we've seen them for the last four years, they're growing up. And even though Magic just joined us last year, you can see a difference in him, physically speaking.

"I think his skill set, in terms of his bat-to-ball skills, as he continues to develop, you may see a ball leave the ballpark here and there. But the fact he can put the bat on the ball and manage the barrel as well as he does, he'll be able to find holes. Continuing to improve upon and cleaning his swing path, staying through the ball a little bit more and still being able to use all parts of the field, his skill set will play. He'll find a way to get on base at a high rate through probably contact and eye recognition, pitch recognition."

Rick Hahn has said that he expects Madrigal to be the White Sox second baseman for the bulk of the 2020 campaign, so even if he doesn't make the 26-man roster out of spring training, keep your eyes peeled for a Madrigal sighting not too deep into the baseball calendar.

This is a matter of when, not if. So the walk-up music folks at Guaranteed Rate Field better start getting ready. Will it be "Magic Man" by Heart? Or "Strange Magic" by Electric Light Orchestra? "Do You Believe in Magic" by The Lovin' Spoonful is, of course, also acceptable.

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Focus shifting to major league White Sox, but they still have some of baseball's best prospects

Focus shifting to major league White Sox, but they still have some of baseball's best prospects

White Sox fans suddenly have reason to stop focusing on the minor leagues.

Rick Hahn's front office has done an incredible amount of work this winter adding impact veterans to the team's young core, and because of it, there are realistic playoff expectations on the South Side. The summer figures to be spent focusing on what Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease are doing at the major league level rather than what the potential stars of the future are doing in the minors.

In other words, the future is here.

But it's worth noting that the White Sox still have some of the best prospects in the game. It's true that a few of the biggest names among that group won't be prospects for much longer. Luis Robert just got a high-priced contract extension that clears the way for him to be in the lineup on Opening Day. While Michael Kopech will be limited in some fashion as the White Sox manage his workload in his return from Tommy John surgery, it's hardly out of the question that he could be a part of the 26-man group that leaves Glendale at the end of March. And Nick Madrigal, Hahn has said, figures to be the White Sox second baseman for the bulk of the 2020 campaign after he reached the doorstep of the majors last year.

The point is, however, that the White Sox core is not done growing. Moncada, Giolito, Anderson and Jimenez all broke out in big ways in 2019, and the veterans added to that group could push the team into contention mode as soon as this season. But Robert, Kopech, Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn are set to join that core, too, expanding it to one the White Sox hope will power championship contenders for years to come.

The Athletic's Jim Bowden ranked Robert as his No. 1 prospect in baseball, picking the 22-year-old center fielder to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award. And that's no stretch after the way Robert lit the minor leagues on fire in 2019. Playing at three different levels, he slashed .328/.376/.624 with 32 home runs, 92 RBIs, 31 doubles, 108 runs scored and 36 stolen bases. He's a true five-tool threat who receives rave reviews that peg him as potentially the best of all the White Sox young talent. MLB Pipeline is in the middle of rolling out their rankings ahead of the 2020 season, and we'll learn where Robert ranks on the site's updated list next weekend during SoxFest. But most recently, Robert was the site's No. 3 prospect in the game.

Kopech still has prospect status despite the fact that he made his big league debut in August 2018. That Tommy John surgery limited his major league experience to this point to just four games, wiping out his 2019 season. Whether he'll be the same elite pitcher that was promised prior to his surgery is one of several important questions facing the 2020 White Sox, but it doesn't seem to be deterring the rankers. Bowden has Kopech as the No. 11 prospect in baseball, and MLB Pipeline ranked him as the No. 4 right-handed pitching prospect in the game. Kopech is said to still be capable of unleashing the blazing fastball that made him such a tantalizing prospect in the first place. The big question now is how often he'll be able to use it, with the White Sox planning to limit him in some capacity. We'll have to wait until spring to find out exactly what those limitations look like.

Madrigal might not spend a long time at Triple-A Charlotte, expected to be manning second base for the big league White Sox for the majority of the 2020 season. But like they did with Moncada, Jimenez and Robert before him, the White Sox have no plans to rush Madrigal to the majors. Bowden has him ranked as the No. 14 prospect in the game, and we'll find out soon where MLB Pipeline has him among second basemen. We already know they think the world of his glove — which was touted as Gold Glove caliber by the White Sox the night they drafted him in 2018 — naming him the second baseman on their all-defense team (he won a minor league Gold Glove for his work last season, too). MLB Pipeline also polled general managers, scouting directors and executives across all 30 teams, and Madrigal's name popped up often, voted to possess the third best hit tool, the third best glove and the highest baseball IQ among all of the game's prospects. The guy struck out just 16 times in 532 trips to the plate last season, so he's obviously doing something right.

Vaughn is receiving similarly rave reviews this winter. Bowden ranked him as the game's No. 35 prospect, and MLB Pipeline might end up putting the White Sox most recent first-round pick even higher, naming him the top first-base prospect in baseball. A slugger whose bat earned high praise when he came out of Cal last summer, Vaughn might not reach the South Side in 2020 like the rest of the guys discussed here. But he does figure to have a similar impact when he finally does. He played just 52 games between Class A Kannapolis and Class A Winston-Salem after joining the organization, hitting a combined five homers at those stops. He's still swinging the bat that launched 50 homers and drove in 163 runs over three seasons in college. That aforementioned MLB Pipeline executive poll? In it, Vaughn was picked as having the second best hit tool in the game. The White Sox just gave Abreu a three-year contract extension that will keep him on the South Side through at least the 2022 campaign, but the 37-year-old Encarnacion could be here as briefly as one year (his contract has an option for 2021), potentially opening up a spot for Vaughn should everything go right in the minors.

And this is without even mentioning guys like Dane Dunning, Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever, who could all wind up playing important roles on the pitching staff.

So while there is plenty of reason for your minor league interest to wane — because meaningful baseball is expected to be happening at the major league level in 2020 — know that the White Sox farm system (at least the tippy top of it) is still worth salivating over. These guys should be on the South Side soon, only adding fuel to the fire Hahn has built this winter.

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How the new-look White Sox offense might line up

How the new-look White Sox offense might line up

The White Sox were 13th out of 15 teams in the American League in runs scored in 2019. In order to field a competitive team in 2020, the offense had to get better.

At least on paper, it figures to be much improved. The White Sox have added three bats to their lineup this offseason (Yasmani Grandal, Nomar Mazara and Edwin Encarnacion) and have two prospects (Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal) who figure to become regular starters early in 2020.

Most of the everyday regular lineup figures to be different from what it was last season. Manager Rick Renteria goes from having major question marks in right field and at DH to having to figure out how to fill out his batting order with a number of quality bats.

Forgetting any delays in seeing Robert and Madrigal come up, let’s figure out how the lineup could look like when those two arrive on the South Side. Positionally, it seems somewhat clear.

C Yasmani Grandal

1B Jose Abreu

2B Nick Madrigal

SS Tim Anderson

3B Yoan Moncada

LF Eloy Jimenez

CF Luis Robert

RF Nomar Mazara

DH Edwin Encarnacion

All-Star James McCann can spell Grandal at catcher with Grandal and Encarnacion filling in for Abreu at first base when needed. Abreu played 34 games at DH last season, Grandal made 16 starts at first base and Encarnacion only played 109 games so there will still be openings for McCann to get playing time.

Now for the tricky party: What will be the batting order?

The only sure thing would appear to be Abreu hitting in the No. 3 hole. Abreu hasn’t been anywhere else since 2017 (and even then he made most of his starts batting third) so until we see otherwise, Abreu stays in that third spot.

There aren’t any obvious leadoff candidates. Last year’s primary leadoff hitter was Leury Garcia, but he figures to be a bench or platoon player once Robert joins the team. Robert led off for Triple-A Charlotte, but that’s asking a lot for his rookie season, especially for a player who doesn’t really profile as a leadoff hitter. Robert has leadoff caliber speed and might be able to hit for enough average, but he doesn’t walk much. He’s more of a power hitter than an on-base guy.

Tim Anderson just won a batting title and also has enough speed to put at the top of the order, but also doesn’t walk much. He moved around in the batting order in 2019, including four games at leadoff, but was used most in the No. 2 hole.

Madrigal was often hitting second behind Robert in Charlotte and also could be a decent all-around leadoff hitter, but like with Robert, the White Sox might hesitate to put that much pressure on him so quickly.

For argument’s sake let’s say Renteria goes with Anderson leading off. Robert could go after that, but Moncada played most of his games batting second last season and is the team’s best overall hitter. The top three is Anderson, Moncada, Abreu.

The bottom third is easier than the middle third. Robert, Mazara and Madrigal are the least proven hitters in the lineup so they start at the bottom. Robert can start batting seventh with Mazara behind him and Madrigal batting ninth as a secondary leadoff-type hitter when the lineup rolls around for Anderson and Moncada, who both have some pop.

That leaves Jimenez, Encarnacion and Grandal for the 4-6 spots. Encarnacion had the highest OPS of the trio (.875) last season, but Jimenez has the highest upside and projects as an elite cleanup hitter. It might be aggressive to place him in that spot this early in his career in a strong lineup, but if he takes a step forward in his second year he’s the best hitter of this group. After that, Grandal fifth and Encarnacion sixth to stick the switch-hitter (Grandal) higher in the lineup.

So there you have it, a totally made up lineup for the White Sox to play ball with in 2020:

Tim Anderson

Yoan Moncada

Jose Abreu

Eloy Jimenez

Yasmani Grandal

Edwin Encarnacion

Luis Robert

Nomar Mazara

Nick Madrigal

This doesn’t factor in how different the lineup could look against lefties as opposed to righties. For example, Mazara struggled against lefties last year and is a likely candidate to have someone platoon with him in right field.

As it is listed above, Mazara, the lone lefty, and the switch-hitters, Grandal and Moncada, are spaced out enough. There’s speed at the top, power for the next several spots and no clear weak spots assuming the rookies don’t struggle too much when they come up.

Of course, there are numerous permutations with numerous talented hitters. No matter what order they are in, that will be a pleasant change of pace for White Sox fans.

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