Finally, the most anticipated season of South Side baseball in years will commence.
And it’s only going to be 60 games long.
Indeed, the 2020 season has become a deflating one for White Sox fans, who were amped to see their team make the long awaited leap out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode. That’s certainly still possible for the upcoming campaign, beginning at the end of next month, but even Paul Konerko is fearful that folks will look upon this year’s World Series winners as illegitimate champions.
Months ago, before COVID-19 cases started skyrocketing in the United States, the talk at Camelback Ranch was all about those playoff-or-bust expectations for the South Siders.
“I get a winning vibe, all positive and winning vibes,” Tim Anderson said in February. “Everybody knows what we are here to do. We are here to win a championship, and we are here to take it all.”
Here’s a question after three long, baseball-less months: Should the White Sox still be expected to reach October and snap a more than decade-long postseason drought?
Talk of an expanded playoff field made that look very possible, but after the negotiations between Major League Baseball and the players’ union turned sour, it will be the usual 10-team field of three division champs and two wild card teams from each league. But now instead of proving themselves worthy over baseball’s typical six-month marathon, a two-month snapshot will determine the teams that get to compete for a championship — something that would have kept the eventual-champion Washington Nationals out of the postseason thanks to their poor start last season.
The White Sox remain as capable of competing as they did before — perhaps they’re even better positioned now than they were in March — but a short season following a long layoff means the only thing that’s certain is uncertainty. We truly have no idea what will happen, considering none of these teams were built for a 60-game campaign.
Nonetheless, here’s a look at where the White Sox stood then and where they stand now.
Lucas Giolito’s excellent campaign aside, 2019 was not a banner season for South Side starting pitching. That was expected to change in a big way in 2020. Giolito had a full season of ace-like performance under his belt, and he was joined at the top by free-agent addition Dallas Keuchel, who in addition to being a damn good pitcher brings winning experience from his days with the world-champion Houston Astros.
After going jobless into June last season with draft-pick compensation attached to his signing, Keuchel had to wait months to start pitching in games again. Well, for the second straight season, Keuchel will get only a few months’ worth of action through no fault of his own. Last year, it turned into a 3.75 ERA in 19 starts for the Atlanta Braves. This year?
That’s the thing, we have no idea what fate will befall starting pitchers, and we could see a radically different pitching strategy from teams across the league. Starting pitchers typically need roughly a month and a half of spring training to go from offseason mode to in-season mode, working their arms back into the swing of things. This season, they went from offseason mode to about a month of spring training to three months off. Now they’ll be expected to ramp back up in three weeks of a second spring training and then into a shortened season — where they won’t get the benefit of the early season cold weather that typically slows down opposing hitters.
Are they going to be ready to pitch seven innings from the jump? At all? Maybe not, and we could see an increased emphasis on bullpen usage, even more than we’ve seen in recent seasons. Starters could be going just four or five innings for a while, maybe even the entire season.
But the White Sox do have an advantage here, if not over other clubs then at least over the March version of themselves. The long layoff has not stopped the Tommy John recoveries of Michael Kopech, Carlos Rodon and Dane Dunning, and the White Sox starting-pitching depth is in a better place with those guys a part of it. Instead of impact addition for part of the season, they could be impact players over the course of this "full" season. Perhaps an abundance of usable arms means the White Sox could attack opposing teams with combinations of starting pitchers for shorter spells. We’ll see what Rick Renteria wants to do.
Of course, merely having healthy versions of these guys does not guarantee performance. And huge questions remain about the kind of results we’ll see from Reynaldo Lopez and Dylan Cease, who both had less than ideal numbers in 2019 despite flashes of brilliance.
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The young core
The last time we saw Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez and Tim Anderson playing big league games, they were having excellent Septembers, sparking great promise for the future.
Moncada finished his first major league season at third base as the team’s best all-around player and a star in the making. He hit .412 in September with a .455 on-base percentage. Jimenez hit nine of his 31 rookie-year home runs in September and drove in 25 runs in the season’s final month, slashing .340/.383/.710. Anderson hit .374 to close out his finest season as a big leaguer and win the batting title.
Sure, both Moncada and Anderson had sky-high BABIPs last season, signaling they hit into some incredibly good fortune in 2019, something that’s difficult to replicate from one year to the next. And Jimenez’ rookie season was hardly an unmitigated success, as he dealt with not to be unexpected growing pains in his first taste of the majors.
It’s impossible to predict whether their September successes might have carried over into April, but they showed plenty of signs of figuring things out for the better. And so the hopes remain high for that trio powering that vault into contention mode.
If there is a big question mark, it’s Luis Robert, who comes to the majors with even more hype than Jimenez, who called Robert “the next Mike Trout” back in January. Robert can truly do it all on the baseball field, a five-tool threat who dominated the minor leagues last season with moonshot homers, blazing speed and highlight-reel catches in center field.
But as anyone who watched Jimenez last season or Moncada the season before can tell you, even the most talented young players need time to adjust to major league pitching. Jimenez admitted he was trying to do too much in his first couple months in the big leagues. Moncada’s struggles were more severe, his first full season in 2018 ending with 217 strikeouts, one of the highest single-season totals in baseball history.
So will Robert experience the same? That remains to be seen. But what’s certain is that he will have almost no time to adjust, if he needs to, before the 2020 campaign is over. Even Trout, perhaps on the way to becoming the best baseball player ever, hit just .220 with a .281 on-base percentage in his first 40 major league games back in 2011.
The best players struggling to adjust to the majors is hardly unheard of, and without the benefit of a full campaign to settle into the swing of things, White Sox fans’ first impressions of Robert could be far less electrifying than expected.
Or maybe he’ll set the world on fire. We’ll see.
The power-hitting vets
The middle of the White Sox batting order was supposed to provide two unshakable things: power and consistency.
Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion can both thump, and they have both proven themselves to be two of the steadiest veteran bats in baseball over their big league careers. After freak injuries snapped a personal streak in 2018, Abreu got back to his 25-homer, 100-RBI ways last season. He won the AL RBI crown with a career-high 123 RBIs, and he came three homers shy of matching his career best in that category, too. Encarnacion, new to the White Sox on a free-agent deal, has hit at least 30 home runs in each of the last eight seasons.
Their track records are strong enough to expect that kind of thing again. These are those “fall out of bed and hit” types, and if anyone should be well suited to picking up where they left off despite a months-long layoff, it’s proven hitters like Abreu and Encarnacion.
But considering how long a 162-game season is, even the steadiest players can have their slumps. April, the first month out of spring training, has historically been Encarnacion’s worst, with just a .752 OPS in his career, though that could be chalked up to cold weather that rarely favors hitters. During a 30-game stretch in May and June last season, Abreu hit just .203 with a .665 OPS. In a normal season, stretches like that wouldn’t be a huge deal. Now, 30 games is half the season.
If the White Sox are going to contend for a playoff spot, even in this weirdest of seasons, they’ll need to get homers from these two. The power numbers last season were abysmal, with the White Sox owning a team-wide home run total of 182, one of just six big league teams to fail to hit 200 homers. In the American League, only the Royals and Tigers had lower team slugging percentages, and both those squads lost more than 100 games.
Hahn added power to this lineup, not just with Encarnacion but also with Yasmani Grandal and Nomar Mazara. Grandal — who will bring plenty more as an on-base machine and a strong presence behind the plate defensively — hit a career-best 28 homers last season. Mazara hit 79 home runs in four seasons with the Rangers, and the White Sox believe there’s even more to unlock.
Throw in Robert and a better adjusted Jimenez, and the White Sox are well positioned to be a drastically more powerful team. But the shortened schedule means little room for error and little time to benefit from adjustments.
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In an 89-loss campaign a year ago, the White Sox bullpen was a strength, particularly the back end of that bullpen. And that’s why retaining most of those arms coming into this season, and adding veteran Steve Cishek to the mix, seemed to set up a reliable unit for Renteria.
That should remain the case, but as with many if not all managers, Renteria might have to adjust how he uses his pitching staff in a vastly different landscape.
It all seems to depend on what kind of shape the starting staff can get into by the time the second round of spring training ends and the regular season begins. It’s possible some starters won’t be ready to pitch seven innings and build a bridge to the back end of the bullpen all by themselves.
As mentioned above, the White Sox could be in a better position than other teams, with potentially an excess of starting-pitching depth that could bleed into the bullpen. Rodon, Dunning and Gio Gonzalez could become mid-game options for Renteria that would take the pressure off the long or middle relievers who might not look quite as appealing as those back-end options.
And make no mistake, the back-end options are, certainly at the moment, good ones. Alex Colome might have had some moderately alarming splits between the first and second halves of 2019, but he still wound up with 30 saves and a 2.51 ninth-inning ERA. Aaron Bummer had an electric breakout campaign last year and finished with a 2.13 ERA that earned him a contract extension this spring. Cishek comes over from the Cubs, where he posted a 2.55 ERA in a whopping 150 appearances for Joe Maddon. Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero had solid campaigns last season, too, and the White Sox have high hopes for a turnaround from Kelvin Herrera.
Hahn will be the first to tell you, though, that when it comes to relievers, one season’s success does not automatically equal success the following season. And what happens if Renteria has to go outside of that mix with relative frequency, if for no other reason than the new normal of staff management?
The group holds plenty of promise and should be looked at as a strength until it proves otherwise. But that doesn’t erase all the questions in this most unusual season.
There will be no expanded playoff field, which obviously cuts down the chances that the White Sox — and plenty of other teams — reach the postseason. But this was a team that had its sights on the playoffs before the pandemic threw a wrench into everything. And so it still comes down to this: How do they stack up with the division-rival Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians?
Well, the Twins are still sluggers. They hit a major league record 307 home runs last season. They still have Nelson Cruz and Jorge Polanco and Mitch Garver and Miguel Sano and Max Kepler.
And now they have Josh Donaldson, too.
Yes, the perennial MVP candidate is back in the division — he played 16 games with the Indians in 2018, which is easy to forget — and that’s not great news for the White Sox. After four straight top-10 MVP finishes from 2013 to 2016, Donaldson had a couple injury-shortened campaigns. But back to full health last season with the Atlanta Braves, he was back to his normal self: a .900 OPS to go along with 37 homers, 94 RBIs and 100 walks. Plus, Donaldson rakes against White Sox pitching, with a career 1.122 OPS vs. the South Siders.
So that Minnesota lineup only got better. But the rotation? That’s another story. Outside of ace Jose Berrios at the top, the Twins’ staff isn’t exactly terrifying. They did a good job in retaining Jake Odorizzi, and the addition of Kenta Maeda was certainly not a bad one. But these aren’t the kind of pitchers who typically strike a great deal of fear into opposing hitters.
Like the kind of pitchers they have in Cleveland.
Yes, these Indians aren’t talked frequently about in the same breath as the Twins after they finished eight games out first place and missed the playoffs last season. But even after they dealt Trevor Bauer away last summer, even after they dealt two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber away this offseason, they still might have the best rotation in baseball. Mike Clevinger, Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac. Are you kidding?
Plus, the Indians still boast two of the American League’s top hitters on the left side of the infield in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Overall, though, the lineup is not as fearsome as it has been.
And so the White Sox truly appear to be the most balanced of the three teams. That’s awful dependent, though, on how things shake out. For all the promise the South Siders have up and down the roster, they have plenty of question marks, too. The season, even in this shortened format, could hinge on whether Robert can hit the ground running, whether Cease and Lopez can put together two consistently good months, whether Kopech can be the pitcher he was promised to be before Tommy John surgery, whether Keuchel can stabilize the rotation, whether Moncada, Anderson and Jimenez can carry their white-hot Septembers over nearly a year later.
But the White Sox certainly look capable of doing damage and capable of competing right alongside both the Twins and Indians for the AL Central crown.
Playoffs? They haven’t come to the South Side in more than a decade. But just like they looked possible in March, they look possible heading into July. And they should still be a realistic expectation for the White Sox.
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