White Sox

Eloy Jimenez, Lucas Giolito star again: Are the faces of the franchise emerging?

Eloy Jimenez, Lucas Giolito star again: Are the faces of the franchise emerging?

Maybe the future hasn't quite yet arrived at a South Side stadium near you. But it’s getting some heavy play in the coming attractions.

The first two games of this four-game weekend series against the New York Yankees have provided the clearest glimpse yet of the White Sox incredibly bright future. After Tim Anderson blasted a three-run homer in a comeback win Thursday night, Eloy Jimenez led the charge with two three-run homers in a 10-2 blowout Friday night. Lucas Giolito starred again with six innings of one-run ball to become the first pitcher in the majors to reach 10 wins. The guy who was, statistically, the worst pitcher in baseball last season has a 0.94 ERA over his last nine starts, with just six runs allowed in his last eight.

With their second win over the first-place Yankees in as many nights, the White Sox got back to .500, the first time they’ve been there this late in the season since the start of Rick Hahn’s rebuilding project.

“We've been climbing. We've been playing better baseball, more consistent baseball. We're playing really well at home, which is huge,” Giolito said. “I'm happy. I'm happy we're at .500. It's kind of like a turning point and we just keep going from there.”

The turning point would figure to be more gradual, not a handbrake-puller following that beatdown these White Sox received in Minnesota over Memorial Day Weekend. But there’s no doubt that the future gets brighter almost every day. Certainly with every Giolito start and every Jimenez home run, things look better and better for 2020, when the franchise’s contention window could start to open.

Guaranteed Rate Field was rocking Friday night — literally, with Rock N Roll Night in full swing — with 31,000-plus in the stands and more fans expected over the series’ final two days. Then comes next week’s two-game trip north on Lake Shore Drive for the first half of this year’s Crosstown series.

Giolito dealing, Jimenez launching homers, electric atmospheres and a White Sox team on a hot streak: Are we sure we didn’t all tumble backward into a time machine a la Philip J. Fry?

No, it’s still 2019. And though Jimenez spoke Friday about these White Sox chasing a playoff spot in a top-heavy American League, it might take Dylan Cease and Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal arriving before talk of the postseason really gets serious. That shouldn’t prevent the excitement over what White Sox fans are seeing on the field right now, however.

Any winning stretch would be welcome after the White Sox lost a combined 195 games in 2017 and 2018. But this one feels special because of who’s powering it: young players who are part of this team’s core, players who will be fueling the planned championship contenders in years to come.

“I think we can be one of the best teams in the league,” Giolito said. “We 100 percent have the talent. We have more talent on the way developing in the minor leagues. The sky’s the limit for us.

“If we continue to play the way we’re playing — starting pitching getting more consistent, that’s a big thing that I’ve been saying is a huge part of our success — then we can continue to win games and put ourselves in a good spot at the end of the year.”

Jimenez and Giolito taking star turns could provide more than just two pieces of a core. As their stars continue to rise, maybe we’re looking at faces of the franchise in the making.

Certainly Giolito has captured national attention and single-handedly shone a spotlight on the South Side with his continued success. He was voted the AL Pitcher of the Month in May and has been even better in June, with a 0.43 ERA and 26 strikeouts in his three starts this month.

After owning the highest ERA and WHIP among the sport’s qualified starting pitchers last season, Giolito is in the running to start the All-Star Game for the American League. There’s a lot of season left, but as of right now, he’s as good a candidate for the Cy Young Award as you’ll find.

It’s been a remarkable transformation from a guy many fans jettisoned from their future rotation projections after last season to a guy who fans might have at the top of those projections.

“In terms of performances, they speak for themselves,” manager Rick Renteria said. “You've got to give that kid a ton of credit for everything he's done to make adjustments to put him in the position he's in at this particular moment and they way he's performing.

“We're all amazed. I think everybody in baseball should be amazed at what this young man is doing and everybody should be extremely proud of him.”

And then there’s the slugger.

For the bulk of the season to this point, Jimenez looked like a 22-year-old rookie getting his first taste of the big leagues. And a campaign full of growing pains would have been perfectly understandable. But lately we’ve seen why this kid was ranked as the No. 3 prospect in baseball, why he’s been receiving so much hype since the day the White Sox acquired him two summers ago.

In his last 13 games, Jimenez is slashing .348/.412/.761 with five homers and 14 RBIs. That’s the type of middle-of-the-order superstar folks dreamed about when they talked about Jimenez prior to his major league debut. Jimenez’s mere presence was the main positive. Now, he’s starting to show what kind of impact bat he can swing at the major league level. And that cranks the brightness to 11 for 2020 and beyond.

“Yes, of course,” Jimenez said after Friday’s game, almost incredulous that he was asked if he’s been feeling better at the plate lately. “I feel more patient at the plate. I’m seeing the ball better because I don’t rush anything. I just go into the game and if it happens, it happens.”

“Man, he's a beast,” Giolito said of his left fielder. “He's coming into his own a little bit. They've been pitching him like a 10-year vet ever since he got into the league but I think he's starting to dial in on his approach and he's showing the power a little bit.”

It’s all part of what’s going extremely right for the White Sox right now, positive signs coming from the right players that bode so well for the future.

There’s still a way to go until that future arrives. But don’t be surprised if you start seeing a lot more No. 27 and No. 74 jerseys and shirseys on the South Side as the summer moves along. These might be faces of the franchise in the making.

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White Sox free agent focus: Taking advantage of the Cuban connection with Yasiel Puig

White Sox free agent focus: Taking advantage of the Cuban connection with Yasiel Puig

Baseball free agency is heating up as the weather gets colder. This week we are breaking down 10 potential free-agent targets for the White Sox ahead of the Winter Meetings.

Yasiel Puig, OF, Indians

Age: 28 (turns 29 on Dec. 7)

2019 salary: $9,700,000

2019 stats: .267 BA, .327 OBP, .458 SLG, .785 OPS, 24 HR, 84 RBI, 76 R, 19/26 SB 

What Puig would bring to the White Sox

A playoff-experienced, veteran bat still in his 20s who is fun to watch. Puig would also join Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal and eventually Luis Robert to give the White Sox five Cubans in the same lineup.

Puig isn't the premier bat some thought he was/would be after his first two years in the majors. Puig had a .925 OPS as a 22-year-old rookie in 2013. He backed that up with a solid .863 OPS a year later. He hasn't had an OPS above .840 since.

That said, he's still a solid bat and would be a major upgrade from what the White Sox had in right field in 2019. He's been up and down since his first two years, but has still been above average offensively over the past five seasons (109 OPS+ over that span).

Puig draws a decent amount of walks (something lacking in the White Sox lineup) and is a solid fielder with a strong arm. He wouldn't slide into the middle part of a White Sox order that features Abreu, Moncada, Grandal and Eloy Jimenez, but he would go a long way toward filling out the lineup with solid bats 1-9.

He's also played in 58 playoff games thanks to his six years with the Dodgers. Puig has a .780 OPS in the postseason.

What it would take to get him

Puig's age should make him attractive to teams in need of an outfielder, but he hasn't been trending positively offensively.

Jay Bruce got three years at $13 million per year from the Mets heading into 2018 when he was two years older than Puig is now. That seems like a reasonable comparison with Puig's age making him more likely to get a fourth year.

Why it's a fit for the White Sox

He's not out of their price range, he fills a positional need and he might be enticed to join the ever-growing Cuban contingent on the White Sox.

Puig isn't going to turn the South Siders into contenders by himself, but he would make them a better team. With Yasmani Grandal already on board, Puig would be a nice second addition to the lineup. On top of that, it's easy to see him becoming a fan favorite because of his boisterous personality.

White Sox free agency: Madison Bumgarner's flags aren’t as red as you might think

White Sox free agency: Madison Bumgarner's flags aren’t as red as you might think

The rumors are true: Madison Bumgarner has thrown a lot of innings.

But let’s not pretend the only 30-year-old Bumgarner is some sort of withered husk of his former self. Mostly because he’s only six months older than me, and I’m not ready to be a withered husk yet.

Figuring out how much gas the longtime San Francisco Giant has left in the tank is certainly going to be top of mind for the White Sox after they missed out on Zack Wheeler, who took less money than the South Siders were offering to go play for the Philadelphia Phillies. They’re now forced to look elsewhere in their quest to upgrade the starting rotation, and Bumgarner leads a pack of free agents still on the market, a group behind elite arms Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg that also includes Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

There are legitimate concerns over what kind of effect 1,948.1 combined regular-season and postseason innings will have on a pitcher who will get a multi-year contract. Bumgarner wasn’t the same pitcher in the last three seasons as the one he was from 2013 to 2016, when he finished in the top 10 in NL Cy Young voting four years in a row. But there were some promising developments in 2019 to suggest there’s plenty of life left in his arm.

Bumgarner made just 38 starts in 2017 and 2018, shelved with freak injuries: He injured his shoulder in a dirt bike accident in 2017 and was hit in the hand with a line drive in 2018. Then he turned around and made 34 starts in 2019, the most in baseball. Those specific injuries shouldn’t ring any alarm bells when it comes to long-term health concerns.

Then there are the numbers, some of which ticked up significantly in 2019. Yes, his 3.90 ERA was a career high, but it was still lower than the 3.96 ERA Wheeler delivered. But Bumgarner finished the season with an 8.8 K/9, his highest since 2016, and a 1.9 BB/9, a dramatic drop from the 3.0 BB/9 he posted the year prior. His 4.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the fourth best of his 11-year big league career.

As The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently pointed out, Bumgarner’s fastball in 2019 was as fast as it had been since 2015, and the increase in his fastball’s spin rate — for all you spin rate fans out there — from 2018 to 2019 was the biggest jump in the game.

Of course, not everything was sunshine and lollipops. In 2019, Bumgarner finished with the highest hard-hit percentage of his career, with 43.8 percent of the batted balls he gave up hit hard. His 35.8-percent ground ball rate was the lowest of his career. And while 207.2 innings — the most he threw in a season since 2016 — had a lot to do with certain stats looking large, he did give up a career-high 30 home runs and a career-high 90 earned runs.

Who knows whether Bumgarner will receive the same five-year deal that Wheeler did. Wheeler might be of similar age, just eight months younger than Bumgarner, but has a significantly less taxed throwing arm after he missed two seasons due to injury. But speculation abounds that Bumgarner will receive a similarly expensive deal, one richer than $100 million after Wheeler agreed to a $118 million pact with the Phillies — and turned down a contract offer worth more than $120 million from the White Sox.

Bumgarner, though, brings plenty Wheeler never could. He’s a three-time World Series champ and arguably the best pitcher in World Series history, with a 0.25 ERA in five Fall Classic games. That kind of winning experience would be invaluable to a team like the White Sox, whose veteran leader, while incredibly deserving of his status in the clubhouse, has played for sub-.500 teams in all six of his major league seasons.

In that regard, because their resumes are so similar, Bumgarner can be a Jon Lester of sorts for this Chicago rebuilding effort. Lester was the first big-name player to sign up with the then-rebuilding Cubs, inking a gigantic free-agent contract after a 2014 season in which the Cubs — who had yet to even call up Kris Bryant, Addison Russell or Kyle Schwarber — lost 89 games. With Lester (and those youngsters) aboard, the Cubs went to the NLCS in 2015 and won the World Series in 2016.

Coincidentally, the 2019 White Sox also lost 89 games. Coincidentally, Lester was also 30 years old and had World Series rings on more than one finger when he signed his big deal. (For what it’s worth, Lester had logged a combined 1,680 regular-season and postseason innings when he joined the Cubs.) Bumgarner buying into the vision on the South Side would be oh so reminiscent of Lester doing so on the North Side.

Lester was more than just a symbol for those Cubs teams, pitching as well as — if not better than — any pitcher they’ve had (save maybe Jake Arrieta) since he signed. Bumgarner would have to do the same to have the same kind of impact, obviously. But the jumps in those statistics just in 2019 signal he could be capable of doing just that.

This isn’t to say the White Sox “lucked out” in missing out on Wheeler or that Bumgarner is guaranteed to be a slam-dunk success for whichever team he signs with. But there are still some very good options on the free-agent market, even past Cole and Strasburg — who, it should be noted, the White Sox haven’t been tied to much at all, with MLB Network’s Jon Heyman going as far to say there’s “no belief” the White Sox would be in on either.

And the White Sox, if they’re indeed pursuing Bumgarner already, are likely to face steep competition, just like they did in the Wheeler sweepstakes. The Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals have been linked to the lefty, too.

There are reasons to question the pursuit of any player, Bumgarner included. But he can provide so much for a young rotation and a young team. Plus, he’s still a damn good pitcher. We’ll see if the White Sox willingness to spend the biggest bucks on Wheeler applies to their next target, too.

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