If it were any other pitcher in this most unusual season, in which every game is dripping with meaning and everyone’s already scoreboard-watching, leaving a start before the end of the fifth inning and after giving up a three-run homer might not be cause for celebration.
But Dane Dunning undoubtedly looked good in his major league debut Wednesday night, providing yet another example of why the future is so bright on the South Side.
All the preseason playoff talk and a rebuilt roster finally coming into shape didn’t mean the talent pipeline from the minor leagues got switched off. This is a long-term endeavor Rick Hahn has going on here, and Dunning’s arrival was a reminder that there’s still more behind the guys making up the core at the major league level.
With how good Luis Robert has looked in his rookie season, it might be easy to forget he hasn’t even played in 25 big league games yet. Nick Madrigal’s injury-induced absence has been viewed as a hole punched in the major league roster — which he wasn’t even a part of a week before he got hurt.
As ready as the White Sox appeared to be when it came to jumping into contention mode when the season began, there’s plenty more fuel to make the fire burn for a long while.
“That was why I said last year that if the White Sox didn’t sign me, I would sign here either way. You see all the talent that we have and you see those guys and what they are doing,” José Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo on Wednesday night. “We are an inch closer to being a really, really good and competitive team. It’s a good time for us to do what we are doing right now.
“Hopefully, I’m going to end my career as a White Sock. That’s my desire. And I’m going to end my career on a good note winning championships.”
Obviously a lot of that championship expectation has to do with Yoán Moncada and Tim Anderson and Eloy Jiménez and Lucas Giolito and Robert and Madrigal. But it also has to do with Dunning and Andrew Vaughn and Garrett Crochet. “Championships,” as Abreu used it, is plural. And while Hahn’s done good work to get many of the current big leaguers locked up for a long time, there are even more youngsters behind them that could keep a contention window propped open deep into the next decade.
The pieces are falling into place.
“We have a lot of talent that's been coming up through the minor leagues, and I've been fortunate to play with them all through the minor leagues,” Dunning said. “But seeing them compete out here, it's awesome. I've been able to see them dominate at the lower levels, and now they're dominating at the big league level.”
Dunning showed what he’s capable of Wednesday night, striking out seven Detroit Tigers in his 4.1 innings of work. Most of that time, he looked dominant and was out-dueling Tigers starter Casey Mize, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft who was also making his major league debut Wednesday. Things got rocky in the fifth inning, though, and Dunning served up a three-run homer on his final pitch, leaving the game with his team down two runs.
But his fellow youngsters — and some of those old guys, too — bailed him out, sending him to a no-decision. Abreu’s eighth-inning homer broke a 3-all tie, and Edwin Encarnación’s second homer of the evening provided Alex Colomé with some insurance.
Encarnación is the opposite of these young core pieces, a hired gun of sorts who provides some much needed pop and sends the youngsters into hysteria with his time-tested parrot celebration.
This year’s group of White Sox has a bigger challenge than just competing with the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians for a division crown, of course, they need to do it in just 60 games, robbed of the typical months that can get a young team from dreamers to winners over a 162-game marathon. But Encarnación and fellow newly arrived veterans like Dallas Keuchel and Yasmani Grandal can help out in that department, as they bring plenty of winning experience from playoff runs past. Keuchel’s said he sees a little of the world-champion Houston Astros in these White Sox. Encarnación has said the same about the Toronto Blue Jays team he was a part of that went to the ALCS in 2015 and 2016.
He might be exciting his young teammates by unleashing the parrot. But they’re thrilling him with what they’re capable of.
“I talked to you guys about that, about the talent we have here. The young talent, it’s unbelievable,” Encarnación said. “I’ve said before, this made me remember the team we had with the Toronto Blue Jays: young players with great talent and a couple of veteran bats, like Abreu and other guys.
“It’s very fun to watch this team play every night.”
That’s a new feeling for fans who sat through the rebuilding seasons of 2017, 2018 and 2019, a trio of campaigns that featured a combined 284 losses. With the young core breaking out in 2019 and Hahn going to work this offseason — not to mention the structure of this bizarre season — “every night” is suddenly meaningful for these White Sox.
But Hahn has planned for “every night” to last well past the 2020 campaign. Yes, that means a focus on Anderson and Jiménez and Moncada. But it also means a focus on Robert and Madrigal and Vaughn.
And Dunning, who joined up Wednesday night.
His big league debut marked the final headlining piece of the three trades that jump-started this rebuild reaching the majors. He’s here alongside Giolito and Reynaldo López, who were acquired in the deal that sent Adam Eaton to Washington. Moncada and Michael Kopech have made their big league arrivals after coming over in the Chris Sale trade. And Jiménez and Dylan Cease are important members of the roster after Hahn netted them from the Cubs in exchange for José Quintana.
Long awaited, the pieces of this puzzle have fallen into place. But there’s even better news, as Dunning showed: There are still more pieces.