White Sox

Contenders? Maybe not quite yet, but the White Sox are steaming toward that status

Contenders? Maybe not quite yet, but the White Sox are steaming toward that status

Last week, James McCann called the White Sox contenders.

For the catcher in the midst of an All-Star season, a guy who’s taken his career to a new level in just a few months with the team, he had reason to be optimistic.

The White Sox were in the middle of an extended period of feel-goodery. This wasn’t even 24 hours after Eloy Jimenez hit that game-winning home run in his first game against the team that traded him, an exclamation point on the franchise’s recent rebuilding progress, which has been on display all season long in the forms of Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, McCann and now Jimenez.

The positive signs have been impossible to miss, stabilizing the notion that the White Sox future is incredibly bright. And inside the clubhouse, the players are seeing their preseason talk get backed up, in certain ways. During spring training, they argued the focus should be placed on the present as much as the future. And after two seasons of little more than waiting for the future, there is definitely reason to pay attention to the present.

“The thing for me is you look around here and guys are still competing,” McCann said from inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field, “despite losing a (Carlos) Rodon, despite not having (Michael) Kopech this year, despite the injuries to Nate Jones, guys like that who were supposed to be big-time contributors. And it's kind of been that next-man-up mentality.

“So I'd say at this point in the season, this team is a contender. Who knows what's going to happen down the road. But you have guys in Triple-A that are coming up. You've got a guy like (Zack) Collins here to contribute. We're one, two pieces away from making a big-time statement in this division.”

Surely, Collins was ready to contribute. The day McCann made those comments, Collins drew a walk in his first major league plate appearance. Two nights later in Texas, he smacked a three-run homer for his first big league hit. It was more positive news for the rebuild, a guy who’s a big part of Rick Hahn’s long-term plans immediately announcing his presence.

But since Jimenez’s game-winning heroics and McCann’s “contender” comments, the White Sox have dropped three of their four games.

One series loss in Arlington, Texas, in June is not going to be the determining factor of whether the White Sox can compete for a playoff spot this season. But for all the whispers of postseason potential, the White Sox are just 8-10 this month. Don’t get me wrong, that’s an improvement on what fans watched over the last two seasons. The White Sox current 36-39 record is vastly preferable to the 195 losses the team suffered during the 2017 and 2018 campaigns.

But that’s what seems to be brewing as the grand conclusion from this season at this moment: The White Sox are better, but they’re not there yet.

They woke up Monday — ahead of a series in Boston that will start with another Giolito start and end with another matchup against former mate Chris Sale — five games out of the second wild-card spot in the American League. That technically counts as being “in it,” though losing a series to the Texas Rangers over the weekend ought to provide some evidence that the White Sox are still mid-climb.

Rebuilding progress does not equal an immediate windfall of victories. As White Sox fans well know from the last two-plus seasons, processes like these take time. Sometimes they take a lot of time. Ask the first-place Houston Astros, who have been atop baseball’s mountain for several years now, but only after enduring 416 losses from 2011 to 2014. Another 100-loss season doesn’t seem to be a danger for these White Sox, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be in a pennant race, either.

That shouldn’t come as a disappointment, though. It should come as just the opposite, in fact. These White Sox are undoubtedly different — undoubtedly better — than the couple of White Sox teams that came before them. Don’t just look at the win-loss totals or take my word for it, ask someone who knows.

“One of the things that I notice is the constant fight,” said McCann, who spent the first five years of his big league career playing against the White Sox with the division-rival Detroit Tigers. “There were days playing against the Sox last year where — I don't want to say they didn't have fight — but we'd take a lead on them and say, ‘OK, we feel comfortable.’

“Now, I look at the scoreboard and we might be down 7-1 and I feel comfortable that we're going to make a comeback. So an outsider watching the team and now being an insider, a part of the team, it's a culture of complete buy-in. No one guy's more important than the other, and guys truly want their locker-mate to succeed. It's been a lot of fun to be a part of.

“Playing against them, I get to have conversations with guys. Not that I get to know people, but I get to see where they come from and how they view different things, just in a few conversations that we get to have. So I knew the talent that was here, it was just a matter of guys putting it all together. You're starting to see that.

“By no means is it a finished product, but in all reality, there's no team that's a finished product until they win Game 7 of the World Series. That's when you're a finished product.”

And things should only continue to progress as this season moves along. Dylan Cease is expected to join Collins as a much heralded prospect up from Triple-A Charlotte before summer’s end. Luis Robert continues to scorch minor league pitching at such a rate, that seeing him on the South Side before the end of the season isn’t a ridiculous thought, even if the more realistic route might be for the White Sox to wait until 2020 to give Robert his first taste of the majors. And of course, Giolito and Anderson and Moncada and Jimenez figure to keep developing in their own right and getting better as time moves along.

By the time 2020 rolls around, it looks like the puzzle could be complete enough to elevate the White Sox to true contender status. Giolito, Anderson, Moncada, Jimenez, McCann, Collins, Cease, Robert, Kopech, Rodon. Maybe Nick Madrigal will arrive, maybe Jose Abreu will return, maybe Alex Colome will be too important a 2020 asset for Hahn to sell high on in 2019.

McCann should keep on feeling optimistic, and White Sox fans should, too. That bright future isn’t as far off as the word “future” might have made it seem over the past couple years. Even if it’s not here quite yet.

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White Sox Talk Podcast: The 10th anniversary of Mark Buehrle's perfect game

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

White Sox Talk Podcast: The 10th anniversary of Mark Buehrle's perfect game

Chuck Garfien and Steve Stone take a look back at Mark Buehrle's perfect game. How did Buehrle do it? How did Dewayne Wise make that catch?

Plus, Buehrle and A.J. Pierzynski talk about how Buehrle actually told Pierzynski before taking that field that day that he would throw a perfect game and more.

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

White Sox Talk Podcast

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Yoan Moncada cleans up for White Sox: 'I think we found our No. 4 hitter'

Yoan Moncada cleans up for White Sox: 'I think we found our No. 4 hitter'

Though Jose Abreu and James McCann represented the team at the All-Star Game earlier this month, Yoan Moncada holds the title of the White Sox best hitter through the first 97 games of the 2019 season.

The guy who struck out 217 times during his first full season in the majors last year has been a completely different hitter this time around. Instead of looking lost at the plate, he’s the guy White Sox fans want to see at the plate in run-producing situations. He hasn’t spent much time in one of those traditional run-producing spots in the batting order, but manager Rick Renteria inserted Moncada into the cleanup spot Monday night.

And Moncada cleaned up, all right.

“I think we found our No. 4 hitter,” starting pitcher Ivan Nova said after he went the distance in a 9-1 waxing of the Miami Marlins. “A lot of times you get surprised. While he was hitting second, you're thinking and knowing, the type of hitter that he is — you're only thinking as a player, they have another way to think. But today, I think it was first time hit in fourth, and he showed.”

Moncada went 2-for-4 with the game’s biggest blow, a three-run homer in the fifth inning that blew things wide open. He drove in four runs on the night, and he flashed a potential glimpse of the future of this future-focused franchise.

Combining with Abreu, who went 2-for-3 with a two-run homer and three runs scored, Moncada showed what the middle of the order might look like for this team when rebuilding finally transitions to contending. That could come as soon as next year, and when you throw the currently injured Eloy Jimenez into that group, the White Sox could boast a fearsome 3-4-5 as soon as later this season.

“If someone is happy that we finally found a cleanup hitter, it’s me,” Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “Nothing that he does surprises me because I know all the talent he has. I know that he still can do more. He has been working hard. He’s a great baseball player with a lot of talent and I still think he can do more.

“What he did today is not a surprise for me. I still know he’s a great player and I think we’ve seen that throughout the whole season this year. He’s going to get better.”

Moncada has been sensational all season long, proving why the White Sox weren’t at all worried during his struggles in 2018. He owns a .304/.362/.530 slash line through these first 97 games, and his three-run blast Monday night gave him a new career high in that category after he smacked 17 a year ago. He’s six RBIs away from setting a new career high there, too. And even though he made a fielding error Monday that only briefly delayed Nova finishing off his complete-game effort, Moncada has been generally excellent at third base in his first season at that position as a big leaguer.

But putting Moncada in a run-producing spot in the order is a new wrinkle for Renteria this season. Coming into Monday’s game, Moncada had spent 63 games as the team’s No. 2 hitter and just 26 everywhere else. According to the skipper, Moncada is good enough to hit anywhere, and that’s certainly true. His eventual everyday spot in the lineup might have more to do with the hitters around him than simply what he can do by himself.

But if Moncada keeps up the kind of offensive production he’s churned out this season, maybe sticking him right in the thick of the order is what's best for the White Sox — even if those lineups of the future include big bats like those swung by Abreu, Jimenez, Luis Robert and Andrew Vaughn.

“For me, it's an advantage to hit in the cleanup spot having (Abreu) ahead of me,” Moncada said through Russo. “That way, you can see how the pitchers are attacking him, and you have a better idea, in those situations when you need to produce, how the pitchers are doing it. Even though he's a right-handed hitter and I hit from both sides of the plate, it's good. It's something that gives you a better idea of how the pitchers are doing, how their pitches are working.”

“He had a nice game,” Renteria said. “He can hit anywhere in the middle and the top of the order. I wish I could say I'm really a genius, but I'm not. He's got that talent. He's able to take advantage of it and today he had a nice day. He made everybody look good.”

It would make sense to see Moncada batting fourth again as this first homestand of the second half and the 2019 season roll on, but that’s up to Renteria, who has his reasons for every permutation to his lineups.

Of course, if Abreu gets ahold of Renteria's lineup card and starts writing out the batting orders, we’ll know where Moncada will be slotted.

“If I would have that decision,” Abreu said, “I would put him in the cleanup spot for the rest of the season.”

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