Yonder Alonso

State of the White Sox: Designated hitter

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USA TODAY

State of the White Sox: Designated hitter

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The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.

With the postseason in swing and some time still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.

We’re moving on to designated hitter.

What happened in 2019

White Sox DHs were woefully ineffective in 2019, with Yonder Alonso’s midseason departure leaving few reliable options to turn to.

Alonso was scheduled to split time at both DH and first base with Jose Abreu, keeping both their productive bats in the middle of the lineup on a regular basis and allowing Abreu to rest a bit by playing in the field less. Things, of course, didn’t turn out that way when Alonso scuffled hard. Just two years removed from an All-Star appearance, Alonso batted .178/.275/.301 in his 67 games with the White Sox, contributing seven home runs and 27 RBIs before being released at the beginning of July.

Daniel Palka hit 27 home runs as a rookie in 2018, and though he was ticketed for the outfield when the season started, he always seemed best suited as a DH. But he couldn’t provide any help there, either, in 2019, sent to the minors far earlier than Alonso departed after a miserable 1-for-35 start to the season. He was dispatched to Triple-A and stayed there, with the exception of a handful of games in the middle of the summer, until September.

Without either of those guys making much of an impact, the DH spot was stocked with fill-ins for much of the season’s second half. Alonso still ended with the most games played at the position, with 42, and Abreu spent 34 games there, much to his chagrin as he doesn’t like DH’ing. Catchers Welington Castillo, Zack Collins and James McCann were third, fourth and fifth on the list at 21, 14 and 13 games, respectively. Matt Skole and A.J. Reed got their opportunities but were unimpressive in their production.

All in all, the offensive numbers from the DH spot were hideous in 2019: a collective .205/.285/.356 slash line from a position designed to add offensive damage to the lineup.

What will happen this offseason

And in digesting that rapid-fire history, it should come as no surprise that Rick Hahn has DH on his shopping list this winter.

In the long term, the best option might be Andrew Vaughn, the slugging first baseman who the White Sox took with the No. 3 overall pick in June’s draft. With questions about his defense accompanying that selection, perhaps his long-term spot is DH. But he’s not going to be ready for the 2020 team after finishing his first taste of pro baseball with five home runs between Class A affiliates in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. Still, a rapid rise through the farm system, a la Nick Madrigal, wouldn't be out of the question for 2020.

And so the DH fix will have to come from outside the organization. And, as has been discussed here many times before, the most realistic route appears to be free agency. A rash of injuries and under-performances significantly impacted the White Sox minor league depth, and past the top-ranked prospects in the organization, it’s difficult to envision the kind of package that could bring an impact player to the South Side via trade.

Looking at the free-agent market, then, there’s one superstar bat that figures to be available in J.D. Martinez, the Boston Red Sox designated hitter who’s been one of the most productive guys in the game in recent seasons. He finished fourth in the AL MVP vote after a sensational 2018 season for the world champs, slashing .330/.402/.629 with 43 homers and a baseball-best 130 RBIs. He won not one but two Silver Sluggers for his efforts. This season, his numbers weren’t quite as out-of-this-world: a .304/.383/.557 line with 36 homers and 105 RBIs. But that’s still some high-level production that would look really good added to the middle of the White Sox lineup.

Martinez is also much more than his “Just Dingers” nickname suggests — despite the 184 home runs he’s launched since the start of the 2015 season — apparently a terrific clubhouse influence who helped turn Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts into stars in Boston.

Of course, Martinez figures to be an expensive addition. The White Sox have the financial flexibility to afford him, but even Hahn has acknowledged that fans will remain skeptical about the team’s ability to land a big-name free agent until his front office proves them wrong. One thing working in the White Sox favor could be a limited market, with few other teams out looking for a DH. But the markets were shockingly small for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper last winter, too.

If Martinez isn’t the guy come 2020, there are other options, though few with as much potential impact or experience DH’ing. Other hitters on the market this winter include Josh Donaldson, Mike Moustakas, Eric Thames, Hunter Pence and Brian Dozier.

We don’t know who it will be yet, but the White Sox will have a new DH in 2020.

What to expect for 2020 and beyond

As mentioned, there will be a new name supposed to take up the majority of the at-bats at DH, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see that person entrenched there for multiple seasons to come, especially if the White Sox are after a hitter the caliber of Martinez.

But this is a team that, like many others, values versatility, and it wouldn’t be a shock either to see other players rotated into DH’ing on a regular basis. Abreu is expected to be back, and surely the White Sox still have the same wish to keep him off his feet they did when they trumpeted the pending timeshare with Alonso before the 2019 season.

Similarly, Hahn continues to talk of the team’s desire to get Collins’ bat in the lineup more often. With defensive questions still dogging him as a catcher and McCann seemingly locked in as the No. 1 backstop for now, Collins making appearances as a DH would be a way to accomplish that goal.

But ideally the White Sox would add a bat of some sizable significance this winter, someone that would slot into the middle of the lineup on a daily basis. If they can do that, there’ll be a brand new “State of the Sox: DH” come Opening Day.

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Reynaldo Lopez, Yonder Alonso and Jon Jay among the biggest disappointments of the 2019 White Sox

Reynaldo Lopez, Yonder Alonso and Jon Jay among the biggest disappointments of the 2019 White Sox

With the playoffs underway - and the White Sox not in them - we decided to look back on the 2019 season and take a glance into the future. The ‘team of the future’ just might have a lot to offer… and it might already be here.

We sat down with our Chuck Garfien, Vinnie Duber, Leila Rahimi, Ozzie Guillen and Scott Merkin, White Sox writer for MLB.com, to get their take on the South Siders. 

Previously: Best storylines of 2019breaking down what we learned in the 2019 season and needs for the 2020 season.

We're breaking down the biggest White Sox disappointments from the 2019 season.

"Wow, so many," says Guillen. "So, so, so many."

The cards were mixed when asked about the biggest disappointment. Take your pick between Reynaldo Lopez, Yonder Alonso and Jon Jay. Jay was injured most of the season, so the basis of his disappointing season wasn't on lack of production, but lack of playing time as he only played in 47 games.

Meanwhile, Reynaldo Lopez and Yonder Alonso played a full season, though, Alonso ended up with the Colorado Rockies mid-season.

Lopez started 33 games and finished the season with a less-than-impressive and career-high 5.38 ERA. His 110 earned runs led the majors. (In fact, two White Sox pictures made the top five in most earned runs - Lopez with 110 and Ivan Nova with 98).

[MORE: Rick Renteria voices frustration with Reynaldo Lopez during start in Detroit]

"We hope and we thought this kid was going to be way, way, way, way better," says Guillen. "He needs to be better next year."

Yonder Alonso played his final White Sox game on June 26 and in his 67 games with the club his batting average was .178 with a .576 OPS... not great. The White Sox didn't miss out on a second-half surge from Alonso either as he only hit .260 with Colorado in 54 games.

"[Jon Jay] could have been a real, real bright spot in this lineup," says Leila Rahimi. "We never really got to see that whole 2019 White Sox lineup together like it was originally planned."

Before his injury, Jay was hitting .267 so it's hard to say that the White Sox lost a key piece of their lineup. Ryan Cordell was called up from Triple-A Charlotte to take his place and Jay's contract was only a one-year deal, so it's unknown if the White Sox plan to bring him back or not.

If the White Sox want to be real contenders in 2020, Lopez is the key guy that will need to improve. Having another consistently strong arm on the rotation next to Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease will be very important.

How White Sox will put daily puzzle together now that Yonder Alonso is gone

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USA TODAY

How White Sox will put daily puzzle together now that Yonder Alonso is gone

The Jose Abreu/Yonder Alonso timeshare at first base and designated hitter is no more.

The White Sox designated Alonso for assignment Friday, bringing an end to his unproductive tenure with the club, during which he slashed a woeful .178/.275/.301. When the team acquired him in December, general manager Rick Hahn instantly committed to Alonso and Abreu splitting time at both first base and DH, a plan that would give Abreu a greater amount of rest, perhaps helping to extend the career of an over-30 player the White Sox seem to want to keep around past the end of his current contract at the end of this season.

Well, Alonso’s offensive struggles sank that idea. But other things have changed around just those two players. Daniel Palka was sent down quickly after he started the season 1-for-35, opening up a hole in right field. Leury Garcia has hit well enough to warrant the job as the everyday center fielder. Jon Jay missed the first two and a half months of the season. James McCann usurped Welington Castillo's spot at the top of the catching depth chart. And Zack Collins arrived from the minor leagues.

So now manager Rick Renteria finds himself with a much different puzzle to put together on a daily basis than he thought he was going to have three months ago. That’s baseball, of course, but it warrants a look at the new calculus as the White Sox approach the All-Star break.

First, what becomes of that first base/designated hitter timeshare? Well, it sounds like Abreu is back to being the team’s everyday first baseman, for the most part. Collins has been practicing there, as has Palka (who was called up Friday), both players far better hitters than they are defenders anywhere on the field. Collins, though, has the caveat of being a catcher, primarily, while Palka has long seemed best suited as a DH. And that’s where those two players will likely spend most of their time moving forward. They are options at first base — and were out early practicing the position with infield coach Joe McEwing ahead of Saturday’s game — but perhaps only in situations where Abreu really needs a day off.

“Probably not,” Renteria said Saturday, asked if Abreu would still be in a timeshare at first base, or at least one split in the way it was between Abreu and Alonso. “That would be inaccurate for me to say. But I do think that with Zack and Palky, they're out here working extremely hard with Joe. They're still going to be able to give him an opportunity to be spelled.

“We'll use the schedule to our advantage to see when we can get Pito off his feet a little bit. To be honest, he fights me all the time about days off, but we know that when we do give them to him he's refreshed. We'll try to take advantage of continuing to exploit the opportunities we'll be able to give Zack and Palky over at first base.”

Fans have pondered why Collins hasn’t gotten a heftier chunk of playing time since his promotion last week. He got the start at DH on Saturday, his fourth start in the 10 games the White Sox have played since he was called up. Unlike Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez, though, Collins arrived as a backup. It’s a bizarre situation for one of the organization's highly touted prospects, perhaps, but McCann has been so excellent this season, that Collins will not be stealing time away from him. But the nature of the catcher position means that McCann can’t and won’t start everyday.

So for those clamoring for Collins to be in the lineup on a daily basis, don’t expect it.

“Zack’s going to get opportunities behind the plate, which I think is important,” Hahn said Friday. “I like the fact that he’s working with James McCann on pregame, even on games he’s not catching, and working along with James in games to understand adjustments and what goes on to get through nine innings in a big league game. So there’s benefits even when he’s not necessarily in the starting lineup.

“That said, he’s going to get at-bats from behind the plate, he’s going to get at-bats at DH, and he’s probably going to get a few at-bats at first base here over the coming weeks, too.

“You guys have always heard me say, we don’t want guys to come here until they’re ready to have success. I should have, all along, put a little bit of a caveat on that for catchers because there’s a lot that goes on in learning how to be an everyday big league catcher, and a lot of it you can’t replicate at the minor league level.

“So from Zack’s standpoint, yes, we want him to learn as much as he can offensively, we want him to play as much as possible, but at the same time there’s a ton that he can take away from the defensive-preparation standpoint to in-game adjustments, scouting-report usage, interaction with pitchers and the coaching staff, that you can’t really get in the minors.

“So even if it’s not an extended stay or if it’s not necessarily extended play, there’s a lot of benefit to the kid from having him here now. That said, especially with the move with Yonder, there’s going to be more opportunity for him to get at-bats.”

Jay’s return gives the White Sox a tad more permanence in right field, though Renteria has said since spring training that Jay might not be an everyday player and he might play multiple different positions in the outfield.

The injury to Tim Anderson further complicates matters. Renteria’s preference seems to be shifting Garcia from center field to shortstop while Anderson’s on the injured list, which should be roughly four to six weeks as he battles back from a high ankle sprain. That means more playing time for Ryan Cordell and Charlie Tilson in the outfield alongside Jay and Eloy Jimenez. It might mean more opportunity for Palka in right field, too. Once Anderson returns, a regular outfield of Jimenez, Garcia and Jay seems a good bet.

A 162-game season features an awful lot of lineup permutations, so this type of discussion is much of a surprise. But the rebuilding White Sox finally have a situation where they have to fit pieces together who could all be part of the team’s long-term plans. Collins has been long assumed to be a part of that core along with the Jimenezes and Moncadas and Andersons. Well, McCann’s only 29 years old and easy to bring back for at least the 2020 season. Hahn has been pretty clear about the team’s desire to keep Abreu in the fold. And we’re not too far removed from speculating about Palka’s future value as a lefty DH or a power bat off the bench.

So how Renteria proceeds is not only of interest to fans hoping for wins on a daily basis but to anyone observing the development of these players and the construction of the roster moving forward.

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