GLENDALE, Ariz. — The day is finally here.
Pitchers and catchers report to Camelback Ranch today and the long, cold offseason finally gives way to the baseball season. Well, kind of.
This winter hasn’t featured “offseason classic,” with about 100 free agents still unsigned, including the two biggest names on the market: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The White Sox are in pursuit of both, though with all quiet on the Harper front and late-arriving teams jumping to the top of the list of his most likely landing spots, South Side baseball fans have dedicated nearly 100 percent of their attention to Machado.
But neither has made a decision on where they’ll play this year (and for years after that). While time waits for no one, as Mick Jagger once sang, and teams will start camp with or without them, there is an unfinished feeling to things. These are two of the best players in the game, and they will have jobs eventually. And so simultaneously baseball is still playing the waiting game and getting ready to play the actual games.
As pitchers and catchers — and plenty of early arriving position players — join the White Sox in Glendale, here’s a look at five questions facing the team this spring.
1. Is Manny coming?
There could be no other No. 1 question. Fans might be sick of waiting to learn whether Machado will play for the White Sox or not, but that frustration hasn’t changed the fact that he’s still at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
Instead of finding out what players have worked on this winter and what Rick Renteria’s daily lineups will end up looking like, everyone just wants to know whether Machado will be on this team come Opening Day.
The White Sox are still being described as the most likely landing spot. Their offer is still the only one with relatively concrete details out in public. Depending on who you believe, it’s perhaps worth around $175 million or perhaps worth around $200 million, over seven years. The reported $250 million offer for eight years has been shot down by a large number of follow-up reports. There was mention of a potential offer from the New York Yankees — Machado’s supposedly preferred landing spot — over the weekend, an offer purportedly worth $220 million. And then there are the Philadelphia Phillies still floating around out there with a bunch of money to spend.
There’s no doubt that a player of Machado’s caliber would transform the White Sox and provide an enormous boost to the remainder of the rebuilding project. Whether that player ends up being Machado or some free agent next winter remains to be seen.
The White Sox feel good about their future-focused pitch, and they should, with a stellar farm system seemingly providing an enticing landing spot. But money so often dictates these things, and even a number like $250 million is significantly less than what Machado was expected to get at the outset of the offseason. Whether he's waiting for more money or for the Yankees to give him the opportunity to play in New York, Machado is still waiting. And so the White Sox are too.
Machado might not make the White Sox a playoff team right away in 2019. But he does a lot for this team. We can get into what exactly if he actually signs and shows up to White Sox camp.
2. Just how good is this Eloy guy?
We can look at the box scores from Charlotte and give all our money to the MiLB.TV people, but seeing Eloy Jimenez in person is a totally different experience.
At least that’s what the White Sox are hoping, that the No. 3 prospect in baseball blows the doors off spring training. He impressed last year, when he could, battling injury during the spring. But he blasted baseballs into the Sonoran Desert during his must-see batting-practice sessions with Luis Robert and Micker Adolfo. He homered in his second Cactus League at-bat — and did it against the team that traded him.
Jimenez is good. Very good. No one doubts that. And even if the White Sox win the Machado sweepstakes, the most important player on the team this season could be Jimenez, who Rick Hahn acknowledged during SoxFest could be as good as these “premium talent” types the White Sox are pursuing on the free-agent market.
Spring training is spring training, of course, let’s not get carried away. But what kind of preview could Jimenez give of his expected major league arrival in mid April? And what happens if he does something like hit .500 and hit 20 homers in Cactus League play? Does he crash the Opening Day roster?
The answer to that last one is very likely no. The financial realities of the game are what they are, and the White Sox are going to build the best team they can, for now and the many years down the road, within the rules.
But this is our opportunity to see just how good Jimenez is. The hype has been real to this point. Time for the final appetizer to his major league ascension.
3. Who the heck is going to be the fifth starter?
It’s hard to envision the White Sox employing a four-man rotation. It’s not going to happen.
The White Sox will have five starting pitchers when they depart Glendale for Kansas City and the start of the regular season. Barring injury, Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito and Ivan Nova will be four of them. As for the fifth? That’s very much up in the air.
The expectation is that with all those unsigned players out there, the White Sox will add somebody to the starting-pitching mix. As for what kind of somebody and how many somebodies, who knows? Last year, they announced a minor league deal for Hector Santiago right as camp was beginning, and he ended up providing competition for Carson Fulmer and making a number of starts during the season. The team following that playbook again would not be at all surprising. And, again, with so many options out there, maybe they follow it more than once.
But the White Sox are also high on the potential winner of a duel between Manny Banuelos and Dylan Covey. Banuelos was acquired in an early offseason trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a once highly ranked prospect who Hahn raved about during SoxFest. Covey is the guy who made 33 starts in 2017 and 2018 and owns a career 6.10 ERA. Those might not seem like the world’s finest options, but the White Sox have confidence that battle could yield a fifth starter.
They’re also openly looking for alternatives.
In the end, no acquisitions would be downright shocking, really, because even if Banuelos or Covey can provide what the team needs them to as a fifth starter, there’s little depth ready for major league action right this second — and no real long men in the bullpen.
4. What kind of impact will the new guys have?
Despite the constant bemoaning over the unending decision-making processes of Machado and Harper, the White Sox have done quite a lot this winter. And those new guys are coming to Glendale with everyone else.
Hahn transformed the bullpen with the additions of Alex Colome and Kelvin Herrera, installing a pair of All-Star caliber relievers at the back end. Those moves obviously make the White Sox bullpen much, much better in the immediate, shifting Nate Jones and Jace Fry — who were ticketed for those late-inning roles — into setup and middle-relief roles, bettering that aspect of the relief corps. And it has long-term effects for the young guys, allowing them to figure out the major leagues in lower-leverage situations.
The White Sox lineup has also gotten better with the additions of Yonder Alonso and Jon Jay. You can make fun of the fact that the White Sox acquired two of Machado’s best friends this winter, but these are two veteran players that could really help this young club. Both guys could improve the team’s overall on-base skills and provide a ton of leadership in the clubhouse.
Tuesday, a day before pitchers and catchers reported, there was talk of the positive effect they’ll end up having.
“They seem really excited,” Nicky Delmonico said. “Yonder, I think, is going to bring a lot of positive attitude, a veteran hitter, which is nice to have to learn from. Jon Jay’s been awesome. To learn from him in the outfield would be huge. I think we added a lot of good pieces.
“To be able to be with those type of guys on an everyday basis, you’re going to pick up a lot of things. And that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
That’s the biggest takeaway from Hahn’s offseason moves is guys who might be on shorter-term contracts could end up having a big impact on this rebuilding project because of how they influence the younger guys. Alonso and Jay could do that with the position players. Nova could do that with the starting pitchers. Colome and Herrera could do that in the bullpen.
How they’ll do that is something that could evolve during the spring.
5. Will there be any roster battles?
Projecting the White Sox roster right now doesn’t seem terribly difficult. That being said, if a certain free-agent infielder signs, then everything could change.
I already mentioned the fifth-starter situation, so that’s an obvious battle to pay attention to. Other than that, though, the battles would appear to be at the fringes. Is Jose Rondon going to make the team as a backup infielder after hitting 24 home runs between Triple-A Charlotte and the big league team last season? Which of a large number of relievers will stack up behind Colome, Herrera, Jones, Fry and Ian Hamilton?
But the biggest mystery is how the outfield puzzle will play out. Jay is a lock, though will that be at one position or all three? Adam Engel’s glove would seem to ensure him an Opening Day opportunity. The same for Daniel Palka and his lefty power. But will Leury Garcia’s versatility be more valuable than Delmonico’s offensive potential? And will someone make the Opening Day roster as an outfielder only to get kicked off a couple weeks later when Jimenez is called up from the minors?
And then there’s the impact Machado could make. Which player who looked ticketed for a spot on the 25-man roster will have his spot snatched up by Machado?
Yes, there will be battles. What’s yet to be revealed is what those battles will be.