Rick Hahn

James McCann has been an early season bright spot: Is he working his way into the White Sox long-term plans?

James McCann has been an early season bright spot: Is he working his way into the White Sox long-term plans?

When the White Sox gave James McCann a one-year deal in December, it likely wasn’t with eyes on him being the catcher of the future.

He came with the same promise of the rest of the team’s veteran additions of recent vintage: a guy who could help the younger players, a guy who could have an impact on the rebuild even if he wasn’t going to be on the next championship-contending roster on the South Side. With Zack Collins and Seby Zavala seemingly destined for late-season major league debuts, McCann wasn’t brought aboard to entrench himself behind the plate.

It’s certainly too early to say he’s done that, as McCann will quickly point out, but he’s been one of the brightest spots for the White Sox this season. And at just 28, it’s not outrageous to suggest the one-year deal handed out to simply get another big league caliber catcher on the 2019 roster might bloom into more. At the very least, it looks like a second season would be a no-brainer at this point. Though the White Sox signed McCann to a one-year contract, he’s still arbitration eligible at the end of the campaign, which makes retaining him for the 2020 season look like a relatively simple decision.

But what about beyond that? This is a team that’s always looking into the far-off future, one where general manager Rick Hahn hopes he’s crafted a perennial contender. When Hahn gazes into that crystal ball, does he see McCann?

“He's been everything we had hoped for in terms of in the clubhouse and from a defensive standpoint and quite frankly more than we had even hoped for offensively,” Hahn said earlier this week. “He made an adjustment with his stance in the offseason that he's talked about openly. That's really clicked for him. He's been a great acquisition for us. We have control of him through arbitration next year and certainly look forward to having him around for a while.”

Certainly McCann has done enough in the first month and a half of the 2019 season to make the question a not-so-ridiculous one. He leads the team with a .366 batting average, a .404 on-base percentage and a .581 slugging percentage. McCann’s not yet qualified to rank among baseball’s league leaders in such categories, but among players who have had at least 90 at-bats this season (McCann was at 93 heading into this weekend’s four-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays), he ranks 14th with a .985 OPS.

And he’s done the job he was brought in to do, too, working with the team’s young pitchers and producing some positive results. Most notably, that’s manifested itself in the form of Lucas Giolito’s budding breakout campaign. After Giolito led baseball in ERA and WHIP and ranked second in walks during the 2018 season, he’s suddenly the most reliable starting pitcher on the South Side staff. Giolito himself deserves the bulk of the credit for his 3.55 ERA in seven starts — three of which have been of the quality variety, including one run allowed in his last 14.1 innings — and McCann will happily give it to him. But the pitcher has been thrilled with what McCann has provided, as well.

“One guy that jumps out is Lucas Giolito. You see what he’s been able to do on the mound,” McCann said when asked earlier this week about young guys who have impressed him so far this season. “It’s easy to choose a guy like that because his numbers are there, you see the results he’s had. But even watching the way he goes about his business, the way he goes about his preparation between starts, the understanding he’s coming to about who he is as a pitcher.”

“He’s learned my pitching style and what I like to do really fast,” Giolito told Our Chuck Garfien about McCann earlier this week. “He can see things and make adjustments for me to make my job easier. ... He can be that field general and I can just shut my brain off and execute each pitch.”

The offensive production has rapidly changed McCann from the guy who was brought in to back up Welington Castillo for a year to a guy White Sox fans want to see in the lineup every day. And they’re getting their wish. Rick Renteria has found a spot for McCann, whether that’s an increase in his catching workload or a turn as the designated hitter. Renteria’s even inserted McCann into the cleanup spot several times this year, and McCann’s delivered with a .414/.452/.655 slash line as the No. 4 hitter.

While the catching job of the future has long seemed destined to be a Collins-Zavala production, unexpected good news can upend the best laid plans in this game. Throw in the questions about Collins’ defense that have hounded him since he was drafted, and maybe he winds up swinging his power bat at a different position on the field. Maybe McCann keeps doing the good work with the pitchers that he’s done in his brief time as a South Sider.

It’s all speculation, of course, and McCann will be among the first to tell you that it’s still early. We asked similar questions last season about surprise candidates to work their way into the long-term plans. Daniel Palka springs to mind, and the White Sox waited all of 17 games before sending him down to Triple-A this season. Dylan Covey had flashes of brilliance while youngsters like Giolito struggled around him in 2018. He’s back in the White Sox rotation now, but only after multiple starters went down with injuries.

The point is that things can change. But they already have so far this season for McCann. At the moment, he’s not just some name on a depth chart in a losing season, and maybe that could have an effect on how the White Sox envision that roster of the future.

“I feel very blessed and thankful to god for the start that I’ve had here. But I understand it’s a six-month season,” McCann said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.

“You don’t necessarily set expectations for May 13. ... But the expectation I had for myself coming into the season was take every day for what it was, take every at-bat for what it is, every pitch for what it is and do everything I could to help this team win. I feel like I’ve helped some of the pitchers along the way, and I can look to continue to help them grow and mature as the season goes on.

“I’d love to be here long term, but that’s not, honestly, my call. All I can do is control what I can control. This is a great clubhouse to be a part of. This is a great organization with a lot of tradition to be a part of. And if that’s what god has in store, I’m all for it. But I’m just trying to control each day for what it is and win each day, whatever that win may be.”

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Rick Hahn says it is 'very likely' Jose Abreu will be with White Sox past this season

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Rick Hahn says it is 'very likely' Jose Abreu will be with White Sox past this season

The White Sox have dealt away Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier and a number of relievers since starting the rebuild in an effort to acquire as much young talent as possible. Meanwhile, Jose Abreu has stayed on the South Side.

Abreu is a free agent at the end of the season so rumors and speculation are commonplace around the Cuban first baseman. Would the White Sox try to cash in before the trade deadline this season? If they were going to do so, they probably would have done so earlier in the rebuild.

In an interview on MLB Network, general manager Rick Hahn said what he and the rest of White Sox brass have been saying about Abreu for a while now. They like Abreu as a leader and mentor to the team’s young talent during the rebuild.

“Jose has huge value to us,” Hahn said. “Not just in terms of what he does in between the lines, but in terms of role he plays in the clubhouse. I think that’s a large part of the reason that, although you’ve seen us move some premium type talent as part of this rebuild over the last couple years, that Jose is still here. When it comes to lining up value, all 29 other clubs can certainly put probably a similar value on him in terms of what he does between the lines. From our standpoint, we get the benefit of seeing what he does in the clubhouse, which probably increase how much we value him vs. others.”

What about extending Abreu with a new contract? Hahn gave an indication that the White Sox would like to keep Abreu beyond this season.

“He’s been here throughout the early stages of this rebuild and it’s certainly very likely that he’ll be here for the more enjoyable stages that lie ahead of us,” Hahn said.

The White Sox aren’t exactly looking like a contender at this stage, but the team is starting to win more games. More of the team’s young players are up with the team (Eloy Jimenez) and more of them are starting to contribute in big ways (Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson). It sounds like there’s a good chance Abreu will still be around to lead the new generation of White Sox talent when the rebuild will no longer be in the “rebuild” stage.

 

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If Manny Banuelos misses time, the White Sox seemingly have nowhere to turn

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If Manny Banuelos misses time, the White Sox seemingly have nowhere to turn

If it seems like you’ve read an awful lot about how the White Sox have no major league ready starting-pitching depth at the moment, it’s because you have. Certainly I’ve written about it plenty. But after Manny Banuelos departed Tuesday’s start against the Cleveland Indians with an injury, here we go again.

The White Sox pushed their depth to the limit when Carlos Rodon went down with the significant elbow injury that necessitated Tommy John surgery, which he’ll have Wednesday. Banuelos had already stepped into a full-time starting role when the team jettisoned Ervin Santana after just three starts, and Dylan Covey got the nod to replace Rodon, who isn’t expected to return to the White Sox rotation until the second half of the 2020 season.

It left no room for injuries, no room for under-performance. And yet that’s what happened to Banuelos. After giving up his third home run of Tuesday’s game — his ninth home run in his last four starts — Banuelos left the mound with the trainer. The word from the White Sox was that Banuelos has a shoulder strain and will be reevaluated Wednesday, a day off before a four-game set with the Toronto Blue Jays.

So right now, we don’t know if Banuelos will miss any time. Maybe he’s back for his next turn in the rotation next Monday in Houston. But if he isn’t? Well, there’s seemingly nowhere for the White Sox to turn to fill his spot on the starting staff.

Twitter-using White Sox fans seem to have a couple answers. They like what Dylan Cease is doing at Triple-A Charlotte, and certainly the White Sox do, too. But much like we heard Rick Hahn say about Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech throughout the 2018 season, the general manager said recently that when Cease makes his major league debut will have nothing to do with a need at the big league level. Don’t expect anything else.

Well, what about Dallas Keuchel? The 2015 AL Cy Young winner is still sitting there on the free-agent market. But any team that signs Keuchel prior to the draft would have to forfeit a draft pick and international signing money, and those two things are way more valuable to a rebuilding team like the White Sox than a few more wins during a 2019 season in which they’re not expected to contend for a playoff spot.

Those wishes are just going to go unanswered. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

The Charlotte rotation, outside of Cease, has produced nothing but ugly numbers so far this season, presenting no appealing options for a front office that might be in need of another starting pitcher. Remove Cease and Covey from the list and everyone who’s started a game for the Knights this season has an ERA north of 5.00. Remove Cease, Covey and Justin Nicolino from the list and everyone who’s started more than one game for the Knights this season has an ERA north of 8.00.

Spencer Adams has an 8.00 ERA, Jordan Guerrero has an 8.31 ERA, Jordan Stephens has a 9.48 ERA, and Donn Roach has a 10.25 ERA. Those are not viable options for much more than a spot start.

There’s Ross Detwiler, a 33-year-old pitcher the White Sox just plucked out of independent ball and added to the Triple-A staff. But the 10-year major league veteran has yet to pitch for the Knights and hasn’t started a big league game since 2016.

Carson Fulmer is pitching at Triple-A, too, but the White Sox have spent a year turning him into a reliever. To throw him back into the starting-pitching fire now would seem counterproductive, to say the least, to his development as a potential bullpen piece of the future.

Hahn has hinted that Double-A might produce a pitcher or two who will get a big league chance in 2019, though he likely wasn’t envisioning those chances coming in May. Kyle Kubat has been pitching real well for Birmingham, as have Jimmy Lambert and Bernardo Flores. Those latter two have been viewed as prospects with potential to help the White Sox in the long term, though, and it’d be odd to see a big league need force their arrival from Double-A if such a situation wouldn’t force Cease up from Triple-A. So perhaps the 26-year-old Kubat is a more realistic option, though who knows how realistic.

All this is a very long-winded way of saying that there are no good internal options to fill a hole in the White Sox rotation.

As for outside additions, Hahn didn't have the rosiest outlook Monday.

“We have had some conversations with other clubs about potential fits,” Hahn said, “but as will come as no surprise to you, there’s not a great market, not a very fluid market for starting pitching right now.

“Initially we’ll look internally and continue to see where those conversations go.”

Those conversations might need to start happening at a more feverish pace if the White Sox are going to find someone capable of logging some innings and getting some outs at the big league level. Because a look at the internal options doesn’t reveal a pretty picture.

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