Yoan Moncada

Looking for the ideal White Sox lineup for Opening Day 2020

Looking for the ideal White Sox lineup for Opening Day 2020

You remember the Dr. Seuss book "If I Ran The Zoo," right?

Well, this is "If I Ran The Sox." It probably won't sell as many copies.

I want to make it clear from the outset that when we're talking about the White Sox lineup, only one guy gets to decide what it is, and his name is Rick Renteria. Of course, everyone has and will continue to have their own opinion on how the White Sox, now in win-now mode thanks to a busy offseason that appears to be baseball's most successful, should line up on a daily basis. I am not immune to this affliction. Nor is Dylan Cease.

Renteria hasn't given many clues as to how he'll write things out on Opening Day, going as far to say, when asked what his lineup will be last weekend during SoxFest, that he won't be sharing his lineups. But he did say that Luis Robert probably won't be leading off at first. Rick Hahn made it sound like the chances of Nick Madrigal making the Opening Day roster aren't great. You'll notice below that I have Robert leading off and Madrigal as the starting second baseman. Again, this isn't a prediction, it's merely what I would do if for some laughable and unthinkable reason I ended up in the manager's chair.

So, without further ado, your March 26 starters against the Kansas City Royals in the alternate universe I have just created by removing one of the Infinity Stones and failing to return it.

1. Luis Robert, CF

Robert will likely not be leading off on Opening Day. Renteria said as much last week when asked about leadoff hitters, a discussion topic that is not only overplayed but overplayed exclusively surrounding winning teams. So I guess Renteria should take it as a good sign for the state of his team that he's already being pestered about it in January.

"I still think that Luis — as you guys knew, a few years ago, I would put guys at the top of the order and give them as many at-bats as possible, continue to get them as much involved as possible. Right now, I'm not forced to do something like that, necessarily.

"So if you're thinking about me leading off Luis at this particular time — even though in the minor leagues he's shown an on-base quality — he might not be at the top. But will he see some at-bats at the top of the order at spring training? Yeah, it's possible."

That doesn't mean Robert won't eventually be the White Sox everyday leadoff man, it just sounds like he won't be that to start the season.

But that's where I'd put him.

Robert getting his first taste of the major leagues and struggling would not be wildly surprising. We saw the same thing happen with both Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez. But Robert has been hailed as potentially the best of the entire bunch of White Sox youngsters, a true five-tool threat who can do everything on a baseball field. That includes get on base, which he did at a .376 clip last season in the minor leagues. He also has some blazing speed, stealing 36 bases in 2019.

Robert can do the things a stereotypical leadoff hitter can do without being a stereotypical leadoff hitter. He's not just going to single and steal second and wait for the guys behind him to drive him in. He had 74 extra-base hits last season. So maybe sometimes he'll leadoff by getting to first base, and sometimes he'll leadoff with a moonshot into the bleachers.

Either works. I'd rather have the guy who can do it all getting as many at-bats as possible at the top of the order.

2. Tim Anderson, SS

Anderson's going to have a challenge ahead of him replicating the numbers he put up in 2019. But until there's a reason not to keep Anderson near the top of the order, that's where he belongs.

Are there red flags showing maybe the No. 2 spot isn't the best place for Anderson? Sure. He hardly ever walks, doing so just 15 times — fewer walks than Madrigal had strikeouts! — in 518 trips to the plate last season. And his baseball-leading .335 batting average — a .095 point jump from the .240 average he had a year prior — was helped by a wildly high .399 BABIP (batting average on balls in play, or batting average in all the at-bats that weren't strikeouts or home runs; the higher it is, the luckier a hitter got, the harder it is to maintain over the course of multiple seasons).

But as of this minute, Anderson's most recent season's worth of production includes a .335 average and a .357 on-base percentage. I don't know if that production is going to dip, and if it does how significantly, but I know that until it does, why not allow Anderson to keep hitting and getting on base ahead of the big boppers in the middle of the order?

The most realistic spot for Anderson on Opening Day? Maybe the leadoff spot.

"I want to see Timmy there," Renteria said when discussing his leadoff options going into spring training before mentioning another name or two.

3. Yoan Moncada, 3B

Moncada, too, had the help of a ridiculously high BABIP, his all the way at .406 during his breakout 2019 campaign. However, he also showed that he might just be this team's best all-around hitter, combining average, on-base skills and power for a .315/.367/.548 slash line.

The No. 3 spot has traditionally been occupied by a team's best hitter, and though Moncada's 25 home runs in 2019 weren't as many as the totals cranked out by Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez, Edwin Encarnacion or Yasmani Grandal, Moncada only played in 132 games and is still developing. That sweet swing of his should produce even more pop as time moves along. In 2019, he got the strikeouts way down, even though the walks fell with them, but that .548 slugging percentage would like mighty nice in the No. 3 spot.

4. Jose Abreu, 1B

Abreu batted exclusively in the No. 3 spot in the lineup in 2019. And 2018. He hasn't hit cleanup since 2017, when he did it in 22 games. But in the last few seasons, there haven't been any obvious challengers to Abreu's status as the team's best hitter. Abreu will happily take some threats to that title now, with his locker buddies Moncada and Jimenez finally joining him in giving these White Sox some middle-of-the-order presence.

Abreu gets tons of credit, all of it deserved, for his off-the-field role as a mentor to guys like Moncada and Jimenez. Robert is sure to find his way under Abreu's wing this season, too. But don't think the attention paid to Abreu's off-the-field value equals a diminished impact on the field. He had one of the most productive seasons of his six-year big league career in 2019, especially from a power perspective: he led the American league with a career-best 123 RBIs, hit 33 homers to come three shy of his career-best total in that category, posted a .503 slugging percentage that ranked as the third best of his career and hit 38 doubles, the second most of his career and just five away from his career high.

In other words, driving in runs is still Abreu's forte. With Robert, Anderson and Moncada ahead of him, he ought to have plenty of opportunities to do just that in 2020, making the cleanup spot the perfect place for him.

Don't be surprised, though, if Renteria keeps Abreu comfortable and leaves him in the No. 3 spot he's been in for the majority of his major league career.

5. Eloy Jimenez, LF

White Sox brass keeps talking about Jimenez as just scratching the surface of what he can do in the big leagues. If hitting 31 homers as a rookie is just scratching the surface, then look out.

But indeed, Jimenez will be expected to leave some of the growing pains he experienced during his rookie season behind him in 2020 while still showing off that impressive power stroke. This is the same guy who hit .337 and put up a .384 on-base percentage as a minor leaguer in 2018, and the offensive skills that led to those numbers are expected to shine through at the big league level, too.

What Jimenez did in the final month of the 2019 season could serve as a hint of what's coming in 2020: He slashed .340/.383/.710 with nine home runs, eight doubles, 25 RBIs and 19 runs scored.

A guy who fans are hoping tops 40 home runs in his sophomore season provides perfect protection in the lineup for Abreu and fits quite nicely into the No. 5 spot.

6. Edwin Encarnacion, DH

The White Sox imported some thump this winter in the 37-year-old Encarnacion, hoping to reap similar rewards from an aging slugger that the division-rival Minnesota Twins got from Nelson Cruz in 2019. Encarnacion probably won't be expected to lead the highest single-season home run total in baseball history, like Cruz did, but seeing him lead the South Siders in home runs would not be a shock. He hit at least 32 homers in each of the last eight seasons, and his 34 dingers a year ago would have led the White Sox (who got a team-high 33 homers from Abreu). Those 34 long balls came in just 109 games for Encarnacion. He'll be expected to appear in significantly more than that as the White Sox primary designated hitter.

A stereotypical middle-of-the-order bat, it only makes sense to keep Encarnacion in the middle of this order, where he can crush home runs and rack up RBIs.

7. Yasmani Grandal, C

My least favorite part about this lineup I've constructed is that the best position player the White Sox added this winter is batting seventh. But Grandal knows what it's like to be in a loaded lineup from his days with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2018, when he was part of the NL pennant-winning Dodgers, he spent at least 15 games in seven different spots in the batting order, logging no more than 24 in any one spot.

He'd be a valuable bat in any spot in the White Sox order, too, bringing in some career-best numbers from his 2019 campaign with the Milwaukee Brewers, including 28 home runs, 77 RBIs, 109 walks, a .380 on-base percentage and a .848 OPS. When you've got a good lineup, you can extend your run production down to the No. 7 spot, and that's what would happen here with Grandal.

Because of Grandal's on-base skills and in-lineup versatility, it wouldn't surprise to see him just about everywhere over the course of the 2020 campaign. Heck, that ability to walk would even make him a valuable leadoff man, considering it's a skill that isn't exactly prevalent elsewhere on the roster.

8. Nomar Mazara, RF

That once imagined platoon for Mazara is looking less and less likely as spring training approaches, with the 24-year-old looking destined for everyday status, at least out of the gate. Yes, Mazara has a career .231/.272/.361 slash line against left-handed pitchers. But Renteria argued last week that sitting Mazara against lefties is no way to make those numbers better.

"He's been in the big leagues for four years already. He's hit 20-plus homers a year. And I was sharing this with somebody the other day, I don't think he's even close to reaching his potential," he said. "I believe that the staff that we have will be able to get out of him more. He won't be just the guy that you say, 'He's great against righties and horrible against lefties.'

"When you take away this opportunity to face lefties, he's not going to develop that skill set or that confidence in order to do that."

Just like sticking a productive bat like Grandal's in the No. 7 spot, putting a guy who's averaged 20 homers in his four major league seasons in the No. 8 spot ain't too shabby, either. And if what the White Sox believe could happen happens, if Mazara reaches that potential that was sky high when he was a heralded prospect a few years back, then we won't be talking about him in the No. 8 spot much longer.

9. Nick Madrigal, 2B

Madrigal likely won't be on the Opening Day roster. He played just 29 games at Triple-A Charlotte last season, and Hahn's comments last week illustrated that the White Sox would like to see some more from Madrigal at that level.

“He's got a few more things to prove,” Hahn said. “I think that when we go through trying to be as objective as possible thinking about where he is developmentally, he hasn't necessarily answered all the questions we have for him at the minor leagues.

“But we're going to go in with fresh eyes and a fresh approach in spring training and see where he's at and in all probability make an assessment there.

“I don't think we have him, by any means, written in pen as the Opening Day second baseman at this point, if that's what you mean. But could he change our minds? Yeah.”

Well, that's somewhat good news for Madrigal, who keeps saying he's very much ready for the challenge of the big leagues. Certainly he did some great things against minor league pitching in 2019, playing at three different levels and striking out an insane 16 times in 532 plate appearances. His bat-to-ball skills have proven to be elite, as described, and he continues to receive rave reviews for his defense.

Given all that, it's no stretch to suggest he's the best second baseman in the White Sox organization, even if Leury Garcia is the better bet to be the Opening Day starter at second. The White Sox have exhibited patience that has sometimes maddened fans when it comes to their prospects, and they shouldn't be expected to treat Madrigal any different. But the situation has shifted on the South Side, with the White Sox suddenly facing realistic playoff expectations. If winning as many games as possible is the goal, wouldn't Madrigal help them do that?

We'll see if that has any bearing on the team's decision come spring training, or if Madrigal blows the doors off the Cactus League and really forces the issue.

Regardless of when Madrigal arrives, be it Opening Day or some time after, the No. 9 spot seems logical, not because he'd be the team's worst hitter — far from it — but because he has the skills to make him one of those "second leadoff hitter" types, someone who reaches base enough to treat the No. 9 spot as a kind of second No. 1 spot to set the table even further in anticipation of the lineup turning over.

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What White Sox fans wanted to know from Rick Hahn and Rick Renteria at SoxFest

What White Sox fans wanted to know from Rick Hahn and Rick Renteria at SoxFest

SoxFest brings the opportunity for fans to question team brass. And sometimes things can get a bit fiery.

This year, however, it was more of a victory lap for Rick Hahn after he loaded up the roster with an incredible amount of offseason acquisitions. Rick Renteria, too, got plenty of adulation after he came out and said the White Sox have their sights on reaching the postseason for the first time in more than a decade.

But there were still questions. Fans stepped up to the microphone and got some answers out of Hahn and Renteria during a pair of panels Friday and Saturday.

Here are some of the more interesting and pertinent questions and answers from the two sessions.

Extensions for Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito?

The White Sox have made headlines in each of the last two offseasons by handing out big-money extensions to Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert before they played a game in the major leagues. But Saturday brought a fan question about whether the team was planning more extensions, specifically ones for Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito, two guys who broke out in a big way in 2019 and established themselves as the team's best all-around hitter and the ace of the starting staff, respectively.

These are not terribly pressing matters, obviously, as both guys are under team control for another four seasons. But the longer they go on their current deals and the longer they're allowed to keep improving, the more expensive they'll become to retain.

Hahn said that it's a White Sox priority to keep all of their talented young players together for as long as possible. He also mentioned that it has long been a part of the plan during the rebuilding process to be aggressive on extensions, as the team has shown with the deals for Jimenez and Robert. Players earn the right to reach free agency and explore the open market, but the White Sox do have a pretty good track record of retaining their own players, often on deals that have allowed them to keep some financial flexibility.

Tim Anderson in right field?

Whether it was a legitimate strategy proposal or a makeshift way to get Yolmer Sanchez back to the South Side, one fan suggested moving Tim Anderson to right field, pointing out Anderson's large number of errors at shortstop and that moving Anderson off the position would open room for Sanchez to work his defensive wonders on a daily basis.

Well, that suggestion didn't get much consideration from Renteria, who said rather definitively he will not be playing Anderson in right field.

The question might not have been the most realistic suggestion, but it allowed Renteria to express his belief in Anderson's defense. Though Anderson has made a ton of errors at shortstop — 88 of them in his four big league seasons — he continues to receive rave reviews from White Sox brass. Renteria said Saturday he believes Anderson will be "an elite shortstop in the big leagues," and Hahn said this weekend he believes Anderson will be a Gold Glove finalist one day.

As for Sanchez, he's still on the free-agent market despite winning a Gold Glove in 2019. And while the White Sox have shortstop spoken for with Anderson and second base spoken for with Nick Madrigal, eventually, Hahn was asked about the likelihood of a Sanchez return Friday night and basically reminded everyone to never say never.

More starting pitching?

Hahn said Thursday that while there likely won't be any more big-ticket additions, the White Sox busy winter might not be completely over just yet, with minor moves still being discussed by the front office. More starting pitching would seem to make plenty of sense considering there's not a ton of depth behind the five guys slated to make up the Opening Day rotation: Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and Gio Gonzalez. Considering the plan for Michael Kopech has yet to be finalized and Dylan Covey is no longer with the organization, some small additions like the Ervin Santana deal last spring would be logical.

One fan asked why not add a slightly bigger ticket item, specifically bringing up free-agent pitcher Taijuan Walker, to further bolster the starting staff. Hahn wouldn't close the door on adding more starting pitchers but pointed out that because of the depth the White Sox have on the way — with Kopech factoring into things somehow and Carlos Rodon, Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert all working their way back from Tommy John surgery — the White Sox might not be the most attractive destination for a mid- or bottom-of-the-rotation pitcher, who could see his opportunity to pitch vanish once all those arms return to full strength.

A return for Dane Dunning?

Speaking of starting-pitching depth on the way, Hahn did offer up some sort of timeline for one of those guys, saying that Dunning could be pitching for a minor league affiliate come "June-ish." That's a made-up month on the same level as "Smarch," but it's also a good sign for the White Sox, who saw Dunning flying through the system before his injury.

Hahn said at last year's SoxFest that if not for the arm injury he suffered in 2018, Dunning could have factored into the Opening Day rotation for the 2019 season. Considering that level of potential readiness — a level most likely altered in some fashion by the surgery and long layoff — Dunning might be someone who could play a role in the 2020 season.

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After Luis Robert’s extension, here’s how long every member of the White Sox core is under club control

After Luis Robert’s extension, here’s how long every member of the White Sox core is under club control

Thursday’s six-year contract extension for Luis Robert that includes eight years’ worth of club control is just the latest long-term pact inked by the White Sox, part of the team’s carefully crafted long-term planning with the goal of keeping its contention window open for as long as possible.

That window technically hasn’t opened yet, as the White Sox have yet to finish in the top three in the AL Central standings since 2012. But Rick Hahn’s rebuilding project seems on the verge of shifting into contention mode in 2020, not just because of the breakout campaigns from so many of the team’s core members in 2019, but because of the aggressive approach the front office has taken this winter, bringing in impact veterans like Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel and, reportedly, Edwin Encarnacion.

So how long will this window stay open? As should be plenty obvious to anyone who’s followed what’s happened on the other side of town, those seemingly wide-open windows can shut in an instant. And for all of Robert’s confident talk about winning “multiple championships” on the South Side, it’s difficult enough to win one.

But looking at how Hahn has positioned his club, with a strict adherence to the long-term vision that’s put it in this position, we can start to get an idea of what that window looks like. So many of the team’s young players — and some of the just-signed/extended veterans — are under contract for a while, allowing the White Sox to compete with this roster for an extended period of time.

Under club control through 2020: Alex Colome, James McCann, Leury Garcia

Let’s get the short-termers out of the way first. These three players are all due for free agency following the upcoming campaign. Who knows what 2020 holds for these White Sox, though playoff expectations are suddenly real and deserved. Regardless, Hahn could be in the market for a new closer come next winter. If McCann continues his All-Star level production, he’d likely be able to find a new home a starter after the 2020 season. But if he proves more of a backup type, perhaps the White Sox would want to keep him around in that sort of role.

Under club control through 2021: Edwin Encarnacion, Nomar Mazara, Carlos Rodon, Gio Gonzalez, Kelvin Herrera

Encarnacion’s deal reportedly includes an option for the 2021 season, so we’ll include him here, though it’s possible the White Sox make a decision that could put him on the free-agent market a year earlier. Andrew Vaughn’s development figures to have something to do with all that. Rodon will have a limited window following his recovery from Tommy John surgery to prove he belongs in the White Sox long-term plans. The recently acquired Mazara is just 24 years old, with Hahn talking a lot about the unlocked potential the team believes exists inside its new right fielder. If they can uncover something Mazara didn’t show in his four seasons with the Texas Rangers, perhaps he becomes a bigger factor in all this.

Under club control through 2022: Jose Abreu, Evan Marshall

Abreu, the face of the franchise, turns 33 at the end of this month. That means he’ll be 36 by the time Opening Day 2023 rolls around. The next three years will determine whether or not Abreu’s tenure will be extended. Considering the White Sox have reportedly signed a DH who turns 37 next week, we know they’re not opposed to someone of that age on a short-term deal — and at what could be Abreu's more regular position by the time 2023 rolls around. We know Abreu’s love for the South Side and the South Side’s love for Abreu, so if he remains productive over the next three seasons, his White Sox tenure doesn’t have to end with his current contract.

Under club control through 2023: Dallas Keuchel, Yasmani Grandal, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Jace Fry

So here’s where things get really interesting. The four-year deal for Grandal and the three-year-and-an-option deal for Keuchel end at the same time as the rookie contracts for Moncada, Giolito and Lopez. There will obviously be some important decisions to make. Keuchel will be 36 for the 2024 season. Grandal will be 35. Moncada and Giolito, of course, will be much younger and should they keep up the kind of production they put up in 2019, they’ll be in high demand. The White Sox have shown with Robert and Eloy Jimenez that they aren’t shy about locking up their young players, so maybe an extension or two could come before we get all the way to free agency following the 2023 season. The biggest takeaway here is that Keuchel, Grandal, Giolito, Moncada, Lopez and the players yet to be named will all be together for at least the next four years. That speaks very well to the White Sox chances over that period of time.

Under club control through 2024: Tim Anderson, Michael Kopech, Aaron Bummer

That’s right, Anderson’s team-friendly contract extension signed way back when doesn’t expire until after the midway point of the decade that just started a couple of days ago. Kopech still has to go out and show he’s the elite pitcher that was promised prior to his Tommy John surgery. His next appearance on a big league mound will be just his fifth. But should he live up to the hype, he’d figure to be someone the White Sox would want to lock up, as well. Bummer could be a Colome successor, should he be able to repeat how he impressed in 2019, meaning having him in the fold for the next five seasons could prove quite fruitful — and potentially alleviate some spending on the back end of the bullpen over the next several offseasons.

Under club control through 2025: Dylan Cease

It’s still a bit of a mystery how the rotation of the distant future will look, but Cease will be a controllable option for that group, at the very least, for the next six seasons. His first taste of the majors in 2019 didn’t go great, from a results standpoint, but he still has as high a ceiling as any of these young arms and is someone the White Sox believe can be a front-of-the-rotation pitcher.

Under club control through 2026: Eloy Jimenez

A middle-of-the-order hitter for the next seven years? Yeah, sounds like the White Sox made a good deal when they inked Jimenez to an extension last spring. All he did in his rookie season was launch 31 home runs, including those of the jaw-dropping variety that bounced off the Fan Deck in center field. And everyone asked said that he was simply scratching the surface. If Jimenez makes a similar jump to the one Moncada made from his first full season in the bigs to his second, then look out. That’s what will be mashing on the South Side for the next seven seasons.

Under club control through 2027: Luis Robert

And at the top of that lineup for the next eight years? Robert is a true five-tool threat who put up insane numbers in the minors in 2019. All the talk coming from minicamps, the Arizona Fall League and the minors the last few years have suggested Robert might end up the best of all these youngsters. Hahn said Thursday: “We are obviously extremely excited to put our money where our mouth is in terms of our level of excitement about this player. … We truly do think he has a chance to be very special.”

Under club control through seasons yet to be determined: Nick Madrigal, Andrew Vaughn, Dane Dunning, Jimmy Lambert, Jonathan Stiever

Yes, the White Sox core still extends into the minors. Guys who have yet to even make the major league debuts — and might not even do so in 2020 — are part of this window staying open, too. Unlike many (but not all) of the players mentioned to this point, these ones have not had any kind of success at the major league level because they haven’t been there yet, so we can’t classify them as players to bank on. But it goes to show that there’s more than just the current major league roster playing into the length of this contention window. That’s the organizational depth Hahn is always talking about. Some of these guys, specifically Madrigal, are expected to take over as everyday players sooner rather than later, meaning they’ll be part of that core quickly.

———

The point: That’s a lengthy window. Yes, there’s a lot of decisions to be made over the course of it. But that’s how these things work. There will be more free-agent signings and trades and more players added to the minor league system. Heck, we’re looking at the vast majority of an entire decade here.

The White Sox window technically hasn’t even opened yet. But they’ve put themselves in the position that when it does open — which could, and at this point should, be very soon, like March 26 soon — it could stay open for a mighty long time.

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