Spring training arrives shortly, and with it brings some prove-it moments for some of the White Sox most important young players. Here are five guys with something to prove this spring at Camelback Ranch.
1. Michael Kopech
Will Kopech end up on the Opening Day roster or not? That’s one of the biggest questions of camp as the flamethrowing 23-year-old makes his long awaited return from Tommy John surgery. The White Sox have made it clear they plan to limit Kopech in some fashion, not as a reflection of anything less than perfect health, but over a concern about overworking his right arm. He hasn’t pitched at any level above instructional league since September 2018, and his next big league appearance will be only his fifth.
But that plan is, as of this moment, undetermined. Will Kopech get a slow start, beginning the season in the minors? Will he be used out of the bullpen in some capacity? Will he make the rotation but have his starts skipped every once in a while? We don’t know right now, and the team might not, either, with Hahn saying they’ll wait until things get going in Glendale before making a decision.
That said, obviously Kopech would like to be part of the 26-man roster the White Sox roll out for the March 26 opener against Kansas City. If that’s going to happen, he’s going to have show team brass that he’s ready to handle a major league season, but also that he’s ready to do what he needs to in order to keep himself fresh for meaningful games down the stretch and perhaps into October. Kopech doing that will be based more on what he shows the team behind the scenes than what he does in Cactus League play. But he still has to prove it.
2. Nick Madrigal
Madrigal might be the best second baseman in the organization, and certainly he’s one of the best prospects in baseball, rated No. 40 on MLB Pipeline’s recently refreshed list. But none of that will secure him a spot on the Opening Day roster.
Hahn recently said Madrigal has “a few more things to prove” before the White Sox deem him ready for his major league promotion, signaling it’s likely the team prefers him to have more than the current 29 games he’s played at Triple-A Charlotte under his belt before bringing him up. But Hahn added the possibility exists for Madrigal to impress enough that he changes the White Sox minds and forces his way onto the Opening Day roster.
Madrigal has spent the offseason talking about his belief that he’s ready for the big league stage, and he has the ability to blow the doors off the Cactus League, showcasing his elite bat-to-ball skills, his inability to strike out and his defense, so often talked up as Gold Glove caliber. If the White Sox, clearly attempting to jump into contention mode as soon as Opening Day, feel like Madrigal would be a benefit to their chase for a playoff spot in 2020, then perhaps they see fit to include him on the squad from Day 1.
But Madrigal has to show he belongs.
3. Reynaldo Lopez
Lopez is probably not in danger of losing his rotation spot during the spring. Hahn forecasted locked-in rotation spots for Lopez, Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease as far back as September, and that’s not likely to change, even if the same inconsistencies that bedeviled Lopez during the 2019 season linger into Cactus League play.
But make no mistake, this is shaping up to be a make-or-break season for Lopez, who went from the rotation’s best pitcher in 2018 to some really ugly numbers last year. He finished with a 5.38 ERA in 33 starts and gave up the most earned runs, 110, of any pitcher in baseball. The White Sox still see top-of-the-rotation potential in Lopez, but things have yet to click on a consistent basis, with Rick Renteria memorably walking out to the mound last September in Detroit to “make sure he was aware that he was actually pitching today.”
Lopez doesn’t need to prove himself worthy of keeping his rotation spot this spring, but he needs to accomplish that this year. As the White Sox reach contention mode, they won’t be able to afford such inconsistencies when there’s a playoff berth on the line. And with Kopech — and eventually, Carlos Rodon, Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert, once they recover from their Tommy John surgeries — waiting in the wings, the pressure is on.
4. Luis Robert
The big-money contract extension Robert got this winter looks like a home run for the White Sox, who now have the No. 3 prospect in baseball under team control for as long as the next eight seasons. Robert is a true five-tool threat who can do it all on a baseball field, bringing with him rave reviews that he could be the best of the White Sox youngsters.
Now he just has to, you know, do it.
Robert has yet to play in a major league game, and that won’t change until Opening Day. But a great spring would go a long way toward showing he is indeed ready for the big league stage and the White Sox were correct to put their faith in him with the big contract.
Growing pains would not be unexpected during his first season in the majors. We saw them from Giolito and Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez. And undoubtedly, the contract for Robert was a long-term investment that doesn’t necessitate immediate returns. But if Robert wants to live up to the hype and do what he said he wants to do, winning a Rookie of the Year Award and multiple championships with the White Sox, then this spring is a good place to start.
5. Nomar Mazara
When the White Sox first acquired Mazara in that Winter Meetings trade with the Texas Rangers, Hahn brought up the possibility of a platoon in right field, considering Mazara’s numbers against left-handed pitching in his career have not been good. But talk of such a system has pretty much disappeared as time has passed, indicating the White Sox have confidence in, at least initially, letting Mazara try his hand at the everyday job in right.
Hahn has repeatedly talked up the unlocked potential the White Sox see in Mazara, and this change of scenery from Texas to the South Side provides the perfect opportunity for that potential to come out. Hahn has also said the White Sox would be fine with Mazara producing at the levels he has during the first four seasons of his big league career, describing him at one point as a “bridge” of sorts to the team’s stockpile of outfield prospects. But there's hope for much more than that, too, the kind of talent Mazara displayed when he was a top-rated prospect.
This spring, Mazara can show people he’s more than just a bridge, more than an OK upgrade to the worst right-field production in baseball in 2019. He can show he’s a legitimate piece of the puzzle to a White Sox team with playoff expectations. Mazara looks good as the No. 8 hitter in a suddenly loaded White Sox lineup, but the team thinks he could be something more. The unlocking starts this spring.