Rick Hahn

Early offseason rumors point to aggressive and potentially pricey winter for White Sox

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USA TODAY

Early offseason rumors point to aggressive and potentially pricey winter for White Sox

Rick Hahn has declared that his front office will once again be aggressive this winter as the White Sox move toward the contention phase of his rebuilding project.

So it wasn’t exactly shocking to see the White Sox mentioned multiple times in the monster offseason primer ESPN’s Jeff Passan unleashed Wednesday.

Fans will surely latch on to the White Sox getting mentioned among the myriad teams expected to pursue Gerrit Cole, the Houston Astros’ All-Star hurler who will be the top prize on this winter’s free-agent market. Of course, a certain segment of fans latched on and still haven’t let go of the team’s failed pursuits of the top prizes on last year’s free-agent market, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper.

Regardless, Passan did include the White Sox as one of nine teams — roughly a third of the league — “positioned and motivated to explore adding” the Cy Young candidate.

It could potentially be argued that the White Sox don’t desperately need another arm added to a rotation that already has four spots spoken for (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech) and will be awaiting the healthy returns of several candidates for the fifth spot (Dane Dunning, Carlos Rodon and Jimmy Lambert).

But while that might sound like plenty of starting-pitching options, Hahn has made no secret about starting pitching’s prominent place on his offseason to-do list. That stems from the organization’s major league ready depth getting worn bare early on in the 2019 campaign and the ensuing parade of mostly ineffective fifth starters both before and after Rodon’s Tommy John surgery.

While there’s a possibility that adding an increased amount of bottom-of-the-rotation depth is what Hahn means when he talks about a desire to add starting pitching this winter, it would not be a surprise to see the White Sox try for a top-of-the-rotation, impact pitcher, too. Cole fits that bill better than most of the pitchers in the game, and in bringing him to the South Side, Hahn could add a great deal of stability to a rotation full of young arms, provide depth by bumping a couple of those promising young pitchers down toward the bottom of the rotation and import the big-time player from outside the organization that would kick the rebuild into overdrive.

Of course, that is easier said than done. Hahn has said that the White Sox financial flexibility created throughout this process will be utilized to bring in free agents, but that same segment of the fan base still stewing from how things played out with Machado won’t believe him until he proves otherwise. Hahn realizes that and has said so on multiple occasions.

Will Cole be the free agent that allows Hahn to dispel of the narrative that the White Sox won’t pay for a top-of-the-line free-agent addition? As Passan mentioned, Cole’s expected to have plenty of suitors. He’s also expected to command a gargantuan payday. If the White Sox can get him to buy into the organization’s bright future and outbid the field, they could add a transformative figure to the mix and really crank up expectations for 2020 and beyond.

But it’ll cost them.

In addition to listing the White Sox among the interested parties in the Cole sweepstakes, Passan mentioned another potentially pricey route the team might go in trying to build a long-term contender: extensions.

Early contract extensions were all the rage earlier this year, drastically reshaping the still-to-come free-agent market months before it even got started. The White Sox were part of that trend, inking Eloy Jimenez to a multi-year contract at the tail end of spring training that wiped away any service-time concerns and allowed their prized prospect to start his rookie season on Opening Day.

Well, Passan hinted that they might aim to do that sort of thing again before the 2020 season starts. No, not with Luis Robert, who is facing similar service-time questions to the ones that accompanied Jimenez through the winter. Passan listed Giolito and Yoan Moncada among players to “keep an eye on” when it comes to offseason extensions.

Certainly that sounds like something the White Sox would like to do, that any team with young players performing as well as those two have during the 2019 season would like to do. After brutally disappointing 2018 seasons, both transformed their games in the offseason and have come out of it showing why they were both, at one point, ranked among the top prospects in baseball.

The 25-year-old Giolito has gone from allowing more earned runs than any pitcher in baseball last season to an All Star and the ace of the starting staff in 2019. After a second straight strong outing against the high-powered Minnesota Twins on Tuesday, he’s got a 3.20 ERA with 203 strikeouts in 157.2 innings this season.

Moncada is 24 and in the midst of an excellent season that’s seen him go from 217 strikeouts to the team’s best hitter. He came into Wednesday night slashing .297/.353/.540 with 22 home runs and 63 RBIs in 102 games. He might have less of an incentive to sign a long-term deal right now considering the $31.5 million bonus he got when he signed with the Boston Red Sox back in 2015.

The White Sox have a pretty good track record when it comes to extending their own players. But like with adding someone the caliber of Cole, adding two more long-term deals to the books would be a pricey endeavor. That being said, it could end up saving them money by bypassing arbitration.

Passan’s primer is wide-ranging and covers other potential White Sox topics without mentioning the South Siders, specifically. There are plenty of other free agents who could wind up as targets of Hahn’s front office, like the top position player on the market, Anthony Rendon, or a guy who fits the Jon Lester, cherry-on-top-of-the-rebuild profile in Madison Bumgarner. Then there’s the trade market, which Hahn could explore in his quest to add that big-name player to push the White Sox over the hump in their transition from rebuilding mode to contending mode.

The White Sox once more plan to be aggressive, not deterred by the results of the Machado and Harper sweepstakes. Whether they’ll be able to convert this time obviously remains to be seen. But there’s no reason they can’t be in the mix once again.

Hahn, discussing the team’s financial flexibility in the wake of Machado’s decision to spend the next decade with the San Diego Padres, pledged that “the money will be spent.”

Well, if the White Sox are going to sign Cole or Rendon or Bumgarner or ink Giolito or Moncada to long-term extensions or do just about anything to radically improve their long-term fortunes this offseason, spending the money will be necessary. They seem ready for that, and their inclusion in these early offseason rumors sets the stage for another aggressive winter.

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What goes into the decision the White Sox say they've yet to make on Luis Robert

What goes into the decision the White Sox say they've yet to make on Luis Robert

In the short term, we don’t know whether or not Luis Robert will reach the major leagues this season.

In the long term, we know the White Sox are thrilled to see him on the South Side.

The excitement over what Robert’s been able to do in the minor leagues this season is just as prevalent within the White Sox organization as it is in a fan base that wanted to see the 22-year-old playing big league ball months ago.

General manager Rick Hahn, who just returned from watching the latest batch of games Robert played with Triple-A Charlotte, had nothing but praise for the No. 5 prospect in baseball. That, of course, doesn’t mean he brought Robert with him on the return flight to Chicago, and he made sure to add that the front office has yet to determine whether or not Robert will make his major league debut before time runs out on the 2019 season.

“He's doing fantastic,” Hahn said Thursday. “Obviously you've seen the numbers. There are certainly some elements of his game that they're still fine tuning, they're still working on. But he's obviously an extremely talented young man and one that we're very excited to have here for the next several years.

“We have made no decisions on the ultimate (September) call-up list or the ultimate timing of the call-up list.”

That will likely make for plenty of hair-pulling in that segment of the fan base that has been begging for Robert to get here yesterday, the same group that treated decisions involving Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez the same way.

Surely it’s true that there are things that don’t pop up in the box scores that do need work, a truth for every young player and something that fans shouldn’t roll their eyes at after Hahn’s insistence that Jimenez’s defense needed work last season proved to be correct. But there’s no other way of describing Robert’s production in the minors this season besides outstanding. Combining his work at Class A Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham and Charlotte, he had a .336/.388/.634 slash line, 29 home runs, 30 doubles, 36 stolen bases and 102 runs scored heading into Thursday night’s game.

The most convincing argument for bringing Robert up sometime before the end of the 2019 season is that he would gain valuable experience heading into his first full season as a big leaguer in 2020. That’s not a bad argument at all, and even Hahn and manager Rick Renteria have described those benefits as very real ones.

“You can’t replicate what it’s like to be here at the big league level,” Renteria said. “One of the things you’re doing, first of all, is the emotional effect it makes on you when you get up here. The other is talent and the way talent executes.

“You get to see exactly what it’s about, and when you go into an offseason, you have a better understanding of what you’re preparing to do and where you’re preparing to do it. Everybody will get their time when they get here and understand what it’s all about.”

Like the highly touted prospects who have come before him, Robert will absolutely not be promoted so the White Sox can win a few more games at the big league level in the final month of another losing season. But it’s becoming pretty difficult to find reasons that Robert needs to stay in the minor leagues.

Hahn did talk of benefits of Robert staying away from the majors this season, and while plenty of fans will view this as nothing more than an excuse, that point and those benefits are not without merit, either.

“I think he's still learning some valuable lessons at Triple-A, I do,” Hahn said. “There are a few things you can't replicate at the minor league level.

“The speed of the game, the preparation, the adjustments, a lot of that has to be learned at the big league level. But currently, as we sit here today on Aug. 22, there is still much that these guys are learning down there. Even being in the pennant race alone, even what they're doing on a nightly basis, the battle to try to get into the postseason is a benefit to them.

“Eventually, you balance that, about what they're going to benefit from Chicago versus going through that, and make a decision.”

But the biggest thing to remember — something Hahn has not mentioned — is the service-time discussion we had surrounding Jimenez last season. It applies to Robert just the same.

For the uninitiated, if the White Sox delay Robert’s eventual promotion until a couple weeks into the 2020 season, then he will not be able to accrue a full year of big league service time in 2020, giving the White Sox an “extra” year of team control of Robert. The benefits of doing that, not at all against the rules and something other teams have done with their top prospects (the way the Cubs treated Kris Bryant is perhaps the most notable example), include saving quite possibly an awful lot of money to spend on other players and potentially extending the contention window of the current core group.

Those are two pretty huge benefits for the White Sox, and while it might not be fair to the players, it’s a no-brainer of a decision considering where this rebuilding team is right now.

Hahn will never mention that as a factor in the Robert decision, and it will never be given as the reasoning for keeping Jimenez in the minor leagues at the end of last season. But when the White Sox inked Jimenez to a multi-year contract before the 2019 started, Jimenez was able to debut on Opening Day and not two weeks into the season, as good a sign as we were going to get that service time played a role. In Robert's case, considering the huge amount of money he received when the White Sox signed him as an international free agent in 2017, there might be less incentive to sign a long-term contract, perhaps making an Opening Day debut less likely. That's just speculation, though.

Not expecting there to be any mention of service time, I did ask Hahn on Thursday about the similarities and differences to the decision-making process with Jimenez last season and the one involving Robert this season.

“I think from our standpoint with Eloy last year, there was an expectation going into the season that he may well push it to Chicago, so we had a little more lead time to sort of think about what we wanted him to accomplish and sort of set a standard before making our ultimate decision,” Hahn said. “With Luis, I think he quite frankly has already exceeded what we would have qualified as an outstanding season when we left Glendale.

“The fact he started at A ball, dominated that level, blew through Double-A and is now doing very well at Triple-A is even beyond what we had originally anticipated in terms of defining what would be a great season for him.

“Whether we decide to add a fourth level to that, again, at the start of the season it probably wasn't very much on the table. But we said earlier in this conversation that sometimes the good ones force your hand a little bit.

“We'll have to take all of that into consideration, even though at the start of the season that probably was a slim chance that he was going to be able to force his way to Chicago.”

Feel free to draw your own conclusions about what that means for the chances of Robert getting a promotion here in the coming weeks. Whether it means that there's less of a chance of Robert getting the call in 2019 or it's just Hahn sticking to an oft-repeated line — that it’s unlikely that a young player would play at so many different levels of the organization in the same season, but that a possibility exists for a great player to force the White Sox hand — is unable to be determined with certainty.

Here's what's true: Jimenez was pretty great last season, and Robert has been even better this season.

We didn’t see Jimenez until this season. We might not see Robert until next season.

But if that's what ends up happening, that’s OK. Robert is expected to be an impact player for a very long time, one who, if all goes according to Hahn’s plans, will help push the White Sox into contention mode along with Nick Madrigal and Zack Collins and any pending offseason additions, not to mention the sizable chunk of the core that’s already reached the big leagues.

And that’s what has the White Sox so excited. The future is near. It doesn’t need to be here tomorrow. But as long as Robert and the rest keep succeeding, it feels like it will be here soon.

“I feel like we are at the end of the beginning of this,” Hahn said. “Certainly those guys at Triple-A knocking on the door makes that even more palatable than just seeing the young players up here performing well.

“It’s getting a lot closer. It’s going to be an exciting time around here in the not too distant future, hopefully.”

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White Sox developing what Lucas Giolito says 'can be one of the most dominant rotations in baseball'

White Sox developing what Lucas Giolito says 'can be one of the most dominant rotations in baseball'

General manager Rick Hahn has said since SoxFest that the 2019 season will be judged more on the progress and development of young, core players than it will be on the number of games the White Sox end up winning.

Well, consider Sunday's loss to the visiting Oakland Athletics a perfect encapsulation.

Well, maybe not a perfect one, with the White Sox bats effectively silenced by former White Sox hurler Chris Bassitt. But Lucas Giolito, one of those young, core players, was excellent. He struck out 13 batters to set a new career high in that category and owns a 3.42 ERA in this All-Star season. He's transformed himself from the guy with baseball's highest ERA a season ago to the ace of this White Sox staff.

That's the kind of positive progression that outweighs a loss in another rebuilding season that will end without a chase for a playoff spot.

The White Sox have seen a good deal of that kind of progression lately from its young starting pitchers. Giolito's been doing it all season, obviously, but Reynaldo Lopez is in the midst of a second-half renaissance and Dylan Cease is coming off two of his better starts as a big leaguer.

There's a great deal of focus on what pitcher or pitchers the White Sox might add to the rotation this offseason — and Hahn has made no secret about the fact that the team will be shopping for starting pitching — but the majority of the 2020 rotation is developing right before fans' eyes. And with how they're performing of late, there should be a great deal of confidence that the White Sox starting-pitching fortunes will be much better next season and in the seasons after that than they've been in 2019.

"I think that in the future we can be one of the most dominant rotations in baseball," Giolito said after Sunday's game. "You look at the raw stuff we all have, it's there. It's just a matter of continuing to build confidence, gain experience and at the end of the day, just going out there and executing.

"It's all part of the growing and learning process at this level. For me, I'm really happy to see what Reynaldo's done the second half. He took it upon himself after the first half he had and said, 'This isn't going to happen anymore, I'm better than this.' And he's been showing that. Dylan's learning from each and every outing, getting better and better and better commanding.

"It's great to see. I think with more time and experience, we're just going to continue to get better and better."

Hahn has made it clear that the 2020 rotation will not be entirely homegrown. But four of the five spots figure to be locked up by homegrown guys, pitchers who have been long hyped since arriving in various rebuild-launching trades. Giolito and Lopez both came over from the Washington Nationals in exchange for Adam Eaton following the 2016 season. Dylan Cease was acquired in the midseason Crosstown trade with the Cubs in 2017.

And then there's the heretofore unmentioned Michael Kopech, currently recovering from Tommy John surgery, who was acquired in the Chris Sale trade with the Boston Red Sox in 2016. Kopech will be back from his recovery in 2020 and installed alongside the three youngsters currently pitching at the major league level. There's still plenty of belief that the flame-throwing Kopech could still be the best of the bunch, even with Giolito now an All Star.

Organizational starting-pitching depth has been a crippling deficiency for the White Sox this season, leading to a parade of fifth starters including Ervin Santana, Odrisamer Despaigne, Manny Banuelos, Dylan Covey, Hector Santiago and Ross Detwiler. But with the four youngsters combined with offseason additions, plus the eventual returns of Carlos Rodon, Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert from their Tommy John surgeries and the continuing development of a prospect like Jonathan Stiever, the script could be wildly different.

"You look ahead to the future — if you just go strictly internal, which won't be the case — but if you look internally at Giolito, Lopez, Cease, Kopech, Rodon, Dunning, Lambert, Jonathan Stiever. You've got five really good ones in there, and you're insulated, as well, against potential injury," Hahn said during the White Sox Talk Podcast on Thursday. "That said, when you have championship aspirations, you are going to have to augment that.

"Whether it's the biggest name on the free-agent market or whether it's solid, mid-rotation guys to help stem the tide of any losing streak or give you a reliable output every fifth day, those have value. We like, once healthy, where this organizational starting-pitching depth is going, but we at the same time know if they all click, augmenting it externally makes sense, as well."

Fans will get excited about the team's intent to improve the rotation via free agency or a trade this winter. Gerrit Cole will be at the top of everyone's wish list, though he's expected to have many suitors and demand a monster contract. Elsewhere on the free-agent market, options could include Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Keuchel, Jake Odorizzi, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Wheeler. Trade candidates are obviously much tougher to project, especially this far out from the start of Hot Stove season.

But no matter who Hahn's front office brings in, the 2020 rotation's fortunes will likely be determined more by the homegrown arms who are already here, considering they figure to make up 80 percent of it.

 

Even with the promise of Giolito and Lopez from their days as prospects, Kopech and Cease have more recently been viewed as the two potential aces in the organization. Giolito's terrific 2019 season has put him back in that conversation, as well, and the White Sox still view Lopez as a top-of-the-rotation type guy. So those are four guys with pretty high ceilings who figure to already have claims to spots on the 2020 starting staff.

And that's before the White Sox go out and add anything to that mix.

The White Sox didn't win Sunday. They haven't won very often since the All-Star break, and they were under .500 at the close of the first half. But the positive development is happening. It's happening with important pitchers who hold the fate of the 2020 rotation in their hands. The recent success for Giolito, Lopez and Cease show that rotation could be a strong one.

One of the most dominant in baseball? Maybe one day.

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