The first half of the 2019 campaign was an undoubtedly positive one for the White Sox.
That doesn’t mean it was exclusively positive, of course, as there was plenty of bad news, too, that would have been cause for great alarm if this rebuilding team had already moved into contention mode: one of their starting pitchers going down for the season with Tommy John surgery, the DFA’ing of one of their biggest offseason acquisitions before the end of June and 40 percent of their starting rotation accounting for two of the three highest ERAs among baseball’s qualified starters.
But after losing a combined 195 games during the 2017 and 2018 seasons and having to simply wait for talent to develop in the minor leagues, White Sox fans were rewarded for their patience with a mighty promising first half. Sitting at two games under .500 at the All-Star break isn’t necessarily cause to believe that a playoff chase is coming to the South Side this September. But the performances of a host of young players have made the White Sox future blindingly bright, pointing to the contention window opening as soon as the 2020 season.
Lucas Giolito, James McCann and Jose Abreu put together good enough first halves that they represented the White Sox at the All-Star Game earlier this week. Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson and Alex Colome put together good enough first halves that their All-Star teammates spent a good deal of time discussing how they should have been in Cleveland with them.
Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease are at the major league level, Jimenez finding his power stroke after finding his way through the first couple months of his big league career and Cease picking up a win in his major league debut last week.
That’s all great news for the White Sox, especially because all of those players are expected to, in one way or another, be a part of the group that opens that contention window. Many of them are core youngsters who will be with this team for years to come.
So after all those good vibes in the first half, what can be expected from the second half? A baseball season has all sorts of twists and turns and ways of surprising, so it’s difficult to draw up a forecast. But here’s at least what the White Sox are hoping for over the final two and a half months of the 2019 campaign.
'More of the same'
All that stuff I just mentioned? The White Sox want to keep seeing it.
It’s important to note that for many of these players who have provided these first-half positives, it’s the first terrific half of a baseball season they’ve put up as big leaguers. Giolito has made a remarkable turnaround from being, statistically, the worst pitcher in baseball to an All-Star and a Cy Young candidate. Can he keep it up? The same goes for McCann and Moncada, who went through plenty of offensive struggles in 2018 only to explode in 2019. Can they keep it up? Anderson was in the midst of a breakout campaign before suffering a high ankle sprain in Boston. Can he pick up where he left off?
Maintaining what they’ve been able to do to this point is a big part of all those players’ growth into core pieces for this White Sox team.
“More of the same in terms of what we’ve seen at the big league level,” general manager Rick Hahn said last week, asked what he wanted to see in the second half. “We want to get TA right and healthy and in a good spot to pick up where he left off. Moncada had to deal with a couple of minor tweaks here and there, and hopefully we can minimize those and he can continue to grow the way he’s been growing.
“Eloy had himself a great June, which was a nice step forward. You’ve seen that maturity already and that development at the plate already in the first three months. We want to see more of that in the coming months.
“Gio is performing at an extremely high level. Maintaining somewhat close to that pace for the next few months would be fantastic as some of these young guys, whether it’s the Dylan Ceases of the world or Aaron Bummer in the bullpen and Zack Collins when he gets his opportunities, show that progression, that they’re taking advantage of the opportunity at the big league level and either locking in who they’re going to be for the future or at least finding themselves on that right path to who they’re going to be.”
Just take Giolito as one example. He spent his All-Star experience in Cleveland being asked about what his transformation has been like and how great it feels to be one of the best after he was one of the worst last season. But he made sure to point out to anyone who asked that this isn’t his ultimate destination.
Can he be even better? McCann said it’ll be hard for Giolito to be better than he’s been, statistically, but Giolito said he’s going to try.
“I’m never satisfied,” he said. “I feel like I can continue to get better. I think sometimes I let at-bats get away from me, I’ll walk a guy on four pitches. I really want to continue to hone in on my focus on each and every pitch. I’ve talked about how I approach pitching, a ‘one pitch at a time’ mentality. I want to continue to get better and better and better at that to where if I’m throwing 100 pitches in a game, I want to have my maximum focus on all 100.
“As far as numbers and all those things go, I’d like to cut down walks, always. That’s No. 1 for me. But I’m not worried so much about all the numbers or anything else. I feel like that takes care of itself if I’m true to my gameplan each time I go out and pitch, and that’s what I want to continue to get better at.”
A successful transition for Cease
Cease has already made the biggest start of his pro career to date, getting the win in his major league debut last week on the South Side.
Now, after a lengthy stretch in between starts, he’ll find out what it’s truly like to be an every-fifth-day big leaguer. He’s slated to make his first start of the second half in the second of a four-game series against the Kansas City Royals next week in Missouri.
It will be a start-to-start evolution for Cease, who’s still just 23 years old, even if his teammates keep talking about how mature he is. That’s how he’s going to attack the second half of the season.
“I’m not really looking at that big of a picture right now. It’s just day by day,” Cease said last week. “Execute my pitches, and if I’m not executing, figure out what I need to do to execute better. Hopefully I have a great second half.
“I expect a lot of myself, and the more you expect, the better, really. As long as I don’t let it get to my head and don’t put too much pressure on myself and just worry about my process, good things should happen.”
Those expectations will obviously be high throughout the fan base, but the White Sox are just hoping to see the expected growth of a player Cease’s age with Cease’s experience level.
“As you guys have seen, going back to Lucas, as you’ve seen with Michael (Kopech), guys develop at different rates and acclimate themselves to the big leagues at different rates. This is going to be a process,” Hahn said. “There’s still some development to Dylan Cease. He’s got a front-end-of-the-rotation arsenal, but it might take a little while for him to harness that and become that type of pitcher.
“I think he’s going to greatly benefit from working with our staff, from facing big league hitters, from being challenged by this next step in his development. And ideally at the end of this year, we’ll be able to look back at his performance at the big league level and say this provided him with a very firm launching pad or foundation to enter next season as an important part of our rotation.”
Jimenez continuing to get better
Jimenez came in with so much hype, that everyone knew in the back of their minds that it was really going to be impossible for him to live up to it. And when he struggled against major league pitching the first couple months of his first big league season — not to mention spending nearly a month on the injured list with a sprained ankle — the realism set in.
And then Jimenez flung the realism out the window.
He was spectacular in June, delivering the single best moment for this team in several years with his broken-bat, game-winning homer in the eighth inning of his first ever game against the Cubs, the team that traded him away two years ago. He had multi-homer efforts, he blasted a ball into Thome territory on a part of the Fan Deck and has worn out the center-field foliage with dingers.
A once-outlandish prediction by this writer that Jimenez would hit 36 homers this season doesn’t seem terribly off this planet at the moment. He’s on pace for right around that number.
If Jimenez can go from struggling to surging that quickly, what can he do without an extended period of struggles in the second half?
Unsurprisingly, the White Sox just want things to progress at their natural rate — even if Jimenez’s natural rate is better described as supernatural.
“He came up initially and they were treating him like a 10-year vet the way they were pitching him,” Hahn said. “Usually you see a young guy come up, especially at his age, and they challenge them with big league hitters and see if they can handle that. They skipped that step with Eloy and went straight to sliders off the plate and tried to see if he had the discipline to lay off it.
“And it took a little adjustment from him, we all saw it, we knew what they were trying to do. And unfortunately the foot injury kind of slowed him down a little bit because he was starting to come around before he did that. But now over the last several weeks, now that he's been healthy, I think he's had a very solid approach. Obviously put up big numbers in June. Hopefully see more of that in the coming months."
The 2018 version of Reynaldo Lopez
While the first half of the season was defined by the bright spots, one of the not-so-bright spots was Lopez, who a year after being the White Sox best starting pitcher has been the opposite.
Jumping to conclusions, much like people did after Giolito’s woeful 2018 season, is to be expected, and there has been an avalanche of calls on social media for the team to send Lopez and his 6.34 ERA — the highest among baseball’s qualified starting pitchers — to Triple-A Charlotte to figure things out. Many fans are scrubbing him from their projected rotations of the future and shifting him to the bullpen.
All this happened with Giolito a year ago, and he’s shown how rash it can be to make such proclamations this early.
The White Sox are not going to be as hasty with Lopez, and they are, for the time being, planning on taking advantage of time the same way they did with Giolito in an effort to get Lopez right. Being in a rebuilding season where making a sacrificial run at the second wild card has never been the stated goal, the White Sox can allow Lopez to struggle as he stays in the rotation, hoping he’ll learn the same things Giolito did a year ago.
“He is a kid who obviously had a little bit of an up-and-down season last year but finished the year very strongly and we had high hopes coming into this season. We’ve seen flashes of it,” Hahn said. “The ingredients are still there. What we need to see is much more consistency.
“He’s obviously a young player. There’s going to be hiccups in the development of any young player, but Reynaldo’s been around long enough and had enough success that I understand his frustration and desire to put these struggles behind him and get back on track quickly.
“I wouldn’t go to so far as to say anyone has a scholarship indefinitely up here, that they are never going to get optioned if struggles continue or for something we feel is better addressed in a lower stress environment or with a little bit of a change in their approach. But for now he’s going to remain part of our rotation heading into the second half.”
If Lopez can take advantage of the opportunity the White Sox are giving him, that’s great news for the White Sox, who can look at the first half as more of a blip then a huge step in the wrong direction and add another name to what is shaping up to be an exciting rotation for the 2020 season.
If he can’t, then things get trickier, and if the team is truly planning on being a contender in 2020, the question becomes: Is there room for a still-figuring-it-out guy like Lopez once the games become a lot more meaningful?
More mashing in the minors
Yes, the first half was about the waiting game paying dividends. Earlier this week, Abreu described it thusly: “It’s good when you see that all the sacrifices you have been through are paying off.”
But that doesn’t mean that every little bit of the waiting game is over on the South Side, and fans are just as excited about three hitters in the minor leagues as they are about the guys already making noise at the big league level.
Luis Robert just got promoted to Triple-A Charlotte as he continues to destroy minor league pitching in 2019. Thumb injuries limited him to 50 games and zero homers in 2018. This season, he smacked 16 home runs in his 75 games between Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham to go along with an outrageous .349/.401/.618 slash line and 29 stolen bases. And now he's on the doorstep of the majors at Triple-A.
Robert is a hitting machine right now and someone the White Sox hope can be a five-tool force in their outfield. When will he reach the South Side? If he keep swinging that hot bat, calls will come for him to be promoted to a fourth level before the end of the 2019 season. But Robert might have to face many of the same service-time questions Jimenez did over the last year, and with the White Sox not expected to be chasing a wild card spot in September, Opening Day 2020 or thereabouts looks more likely right now.
“In terms of what (Robert’s promotion to Triple-A) means for his future or larger questions about his timeline to Chicago, quite frankly it’s premature to really speculate along those lines,” Hahn said. “He’s ready for that next challenge. In terms of his future timeline and path to Chicago, let’s take the next logical step in his development and see how Triple-A goes and we’ll go from there.”
Perhaps not the answer White Sox fans want to hear, but there you go.
Robert won’t be the only other minor league hitter the White Sox have their eye on as 2020 approaches, however. The team’s last two first-round picks are making their presence known in the minors this season, too.
Nick Madrigal has been excellent since his promotion to Birmingham, where he owns a .382 batting average and a .442 on-base percentage. In his combined time this season, he’s swiped 28 bases and banged out 91 hits. Touted as a Gold Glove caliber second baseman, perhaps he could find his way onto the Opening Day roster in 2020 if everything goes really right.
And then there’s Andrew Vaughn, the power-hitting first baseman who the White Sox took with the No. 3 pick just last month. Well he’s already playing pro ball and off to a smoking start with a homer and a .391 on-base percentage in just five games with Class A Kannapolis. Vaughn’s obviously got more time to put in before he reaches the majors than Robert and Madrigal, but he was described as one that could move through the system quickly. His bat was touted as one of the most advanced in the draft.
So seeing those three guys continue to rake in the minors this season would be a very good thing for the future-focused White Sox.