White Sox

The five biggest questions as pitchers and catchers report to White Sox spring training

The five biggest questions as pitchers and catchers report to White Sox spring training

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.

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Can Luis Robert live up to the hype? 'He makes the game look pretty easy'

Can Luis Robert live up to the hype? 'He makes the game look pretty easy'

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Yoan Moncada hype was pretty huge. So was the Michael Kopech hype. And the Eloy Jimenez hype.

But like the answer to the question about who is the best Bears quarterback of all time, the answer to which White Sox prospect has the most hype always seems to be: the next one.

The next one is Luis Robert, and his hype is sky high for a somewhat unique reason among this generation of White Sox up-and-comers. He’s a true five-tool threat who can do everything on a baseball field. Jimenez went as far as calling him “the next Mike Trout” during SoxFest.

Ask his teammates what impresses them the most about Robert, and they take a broad approach to answering, as good an indication as any that what makes Robert so special isn’t one thing. It’s everything.

“All of his game, all the things he does on the field,” third baseman Yoan Moncada said Monday through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I can’t pick just one.”

“He can do it on the defensive side of the ball and the offensive side,” second baseman Nick Madrigal said. “He’ll hit a 400-plus-foot home run one day, and then he’ll make a Superman catch in the outfield. It seems like he can do it all. Stealing bases every day. He’s definitely the complete package.”

It’s that overflowing toolbox that has made the prospect evaluators out there peg Robert as the best of the White Sox bunch. Moncada, Jimenez, Kopech, Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito. All those guys are cornerstones of this rebuilding project. But Robert has the potential to be the brightest star of all.

You only need a sampling of the highlights that accompanied his rapid rise through the minor league system in 2019, when he played at three different levels, to know this. He launched home runs, made highlight-reel grabs in center field, stole 36 bases and slashed .328/.376/.624.

Now he’s got a big-money contract that cleared the way for him to start the 2020 season on the big league roster and will keep him in a White Sox uniform for as many as eight seasons.

It’s all added up to huge expectations as he gets his first taste of the major leagues. Like Moncada and Jimenez before him, just huger.

“I am confident that I am going to have a very good year this year,” Robert said through Russo on Sunday. “I think my mind is strong and in the right place. What I did last year reinforced all the things that I know that I can do on the field. It helped me a lot.

“One of the things that I’m going to learn is that I’m going to need to make adjustments as quickly as possible, as fast as possible, because I know that in the major leagues, I won’t have too much time to waste.”

And so the question becomes whether Robert can live up to the hype. As Moncada and Giolito and Jimenez showed, growing pains would not be unexpected, and even the most hyped prospects who eventually became big league stars had to go through bumpy roads in the early going.

Moncada’s and Giolito’s struggles in their first full seasons in the majors were dramatic, with Moncada striking out 217 times and Giolito posting the worst statistics of any starter in the game. Jimenez hit 31 home runs as a rookie, but he also faced his share of struggles.

Fans are ready for Robert to set the major leagues on fire the same way he did the minors. Taking a little while to get that fire going would not be at all surprising.

“When I spoke to him once we extended him, I reached out to congratulate him and he texted me back: ‘It’s time to go to work,’” manager Rick Renteria said. “He knows this is just the first step, and I think he understands that there are a lot of people expecting so many different things.

“It’s just our job to make sure he understands: ‘Just go out there and play the game. You are not the only one here. There will be a lot of guys here who have to do their particular job and hopefully as you move along, you are able to balance it out.’

“You are always trying to prove you belong here. It takes a little time to ultimately settle down. It won’t be any different for him than any of the other guys.”

And that’s a resource Robert can lean on. The past experiences of Moncada, going through his struggles in 2018, or Kopech, making his big league debut to much fanfare, or Jimenez, admitting that he was a little too anxious when he arrived in the big leagues last Opening Day, can be of great assistance to Robert as he takes his own first steps as a major leaguer.

“The biggest and the key advice from me to him is just to be patient, be calm,” Moncada said. “He’s going to want to do a lot of things. ‘Just take your time.’ I’m going to be around him, (Jose Abreu) is going to be around him. For him it’s going to be very important to be patient and calm because he has the talent to do good things but he needs to also control all the world around him.”

“During SoxFest, we were talking about the things that I’m going to face during my first season in the major leagues. And I am pretty sure they are going to keep giving me advice throughout the whole season,” Robert said, “just about things that I need to improve, things I can do better or things that I’m going to face, how to manage those challenges or those situations. I know that I’m going to have them on my side, and they’re going to help me.”

At the same time, pressure doesn’t really seem to be a word Robert spends a lot of time thinking about.

“Since I signed with the team, I know the expectations have been high, but it hasn’t affected me at all,” he said. “This year won’t be any different. I just need to do my work.”

While it’s a good idea to lessen any pressure and temper expectations for a 22-year-old kid who’s never faced a major league pitch in his life, there’s a reason those expectations are as high as they are. There’s a reason he’s ranked as the No. 3 prospect in baseball.

Robert is really, really talented. And he can do just about anything you’d want a baseball player to do.

Can he live up to the hype? While the realistic answer is to be patient, you can’t help but see some of the giddiness breaking through.

“It just seems like he’s a different player out there, you know?” Madrigal said. “Sometimes when he’s locked in, it seems like he makes the game look pretty easy. One pitch, it looks like he gets fooled, and the next pitch, he’s hitting it out of the ballpark.”

“I think the fans are going to get crazy just watching him, what he’s capable of doing on the field,” Moncada said. “It’s going to be an exciting time for them. He can do a lot of stuff, and everybody’s going to be very, very happy and excited for him on the field and just watching what he’s doing.”

The Luis Robert Show debuts March 26 at Guaranteed Rate Field.

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Why Dallas Keuchel signed with the White Sox and what his expectations are for 2020

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USA TODAY

Why Dallas Keuchel signed with the White Sox and what his expectations are for 2020

White Sox fans are going to love Dallas Keuchel for a number of reasons.

Let’s start with No. 56.

If Keuchel had a Mount Rushmore of his all-time favorite pitchers, he’d probably put White Sox legend Mark Buehrle up there front and center. Like a Buehrle clone, Keuchel is a trademark soft-tossing left-hander with a World Series ring and a trophy case filled with Gold Glove Awards.

Keuchel’s admiration for Buehrle is pure gold.

“He’s somebody who at the end of my career, hopefully I’m still compared to him years from now," Keuchel said about Buehrle in an interview on the White Sox Talk Podcast. "It’s an honor."

No one can ever replace Buehrle. Keuchel is just hoping he can have a White Sox career that comes close to it.

“(Buehrle) is synonomous with the White Sox. Obviously, he’s got a perfect game and a no-hitter, multiple Gold Gloves, a World Series champion. That’s stuff that gives me motivation," Keuchel said. "That gives me chills thinking about how big of a career he had. I hope he comes around Chicago a few times because I would love to talk to him just about anything and everything.”

This has to happen, right?

How Keuchel came to the White Sox started early in the offseason. In fact, as early as legally possible. Rick Hahn sent a text to Keuchel’s agent, Scott Boras, the morning after the World Series. The White Sox were the first team to reach out.

But what Hahn didn’t know at the time was that Keuchel had already scouted the White Sox. He was all-in dating back to August. That’s when the White Sox came to town to face Keuchel’s Braves. The former Cy Young Award winner was impressed, to say the least.

“I saw a three game set, and it really opened my eyes to the progress that they had made,” Keuchel said. “I saw a big leap, and not just the Abreu’s of the world. Giolito made a big step last year, Moncada, Anderson.  Jimenez, I got to see that power potential, thankfully not against me.”

Keuchel faced the White Sox in one of those three games. Jimenez got three singles against him, Anderson went 2-for-5 and Moncada had an RBI single. Keuchel gave up two runs on nine hits in six innings en route to a win.

Keuchel decided to jump at the chance to play for the White Sox because he believes they’re on the verge of something big.

“Honestly, the only next step is just getting to the playoffs and getting a taste of that,” he said. “Ultimately, when the offseason started, that’s really what drove me. (The White Sox) were one team that initially peaked my interest.  When I heard word there was early interest, it really excited me.”

Going through the rebuild, the White Sox were on the receiving end of way too many losses. After a while, that much losing can damage your baseball soul.

Keuchel knows from experience.  

He lived it during the Houston Astros rebuild when they lost over 105 games for three consecutive seasons. He was aboard for the final two 100-loss drubbings before they finally broke through and eventually won the World Series in 2017.

“Once the doors started to get kicked down and opened for the Astros when I was establishing myself and we had a chance to win every night, that is really the only feeling I’ve wanted to have since,” Keuchel said. “For (the White Sox) to be in this position, and add a couple guys in free agency, really says we’re trying to win now, and that’s the feeling that I want to push towards these guys. Once you get that winning feeling, it’s addicting.”

Keuchel says communication is really important to winning, even if that means communicating to the general manager how much he wants to win — and expects to.

“I told (Rick Hahn), four out of the last five years I’ve made the playoffs. To me, there’s no better feeling,” Keuchel said of his recent conversation with the GM.  “I said, ‘I don’t plan on stopping my string of appearances in the playoffs.’ I just wanted to reiterate, that’s where I’m coming from. That’s what I expect.”

Those are certainly encouraging words to hear considering the White Sox haven’t made the playoffs since 2008.  But most everyone in baseball believes that the times they are a changin’ on the South Side. The days of the painful rebuild and a half-empty ballpark appear to be in the past.

Keuchel is hoping for more wins and more fans coming out to Guaranteed Rate Field.

“The thing that I was saying in Houston for a number of years was, if I was a fan, I wouldn’t like the product either if it was subpar,” he said. “If you’re going to pay money to watch sub-par talent, you should just go to the casino and throw out your money and just walk away. I don’t blame fans at all for any sort of support or no support during lean times.

"But it’s going to be a whole lot different this year, and I think the AL Central is up for grabs. Division titles are very nice because you’re guaranteed a five-game set [in the postseason]. I’m hoping that the fans come out and we see a lot of numbers in the 20 (thousands), 25, 30. That would mean a lot to us. We’re going to continue to play ball. It’s going to be exciting.”

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