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.