White Sox fans' attention has turned away from watching prospect rankings and toward watching what happens on the field.
The team has opened its contention window after years of rebuilding and has World Series aspirations — and expectations — heading into the 2021 season.
But folks shouldn't take their eyes off the most recent update to MLB.com's list of the top 100 prospects in baseball. The White Sox placed four players in the top 56, all four of whom have the potential — and in most cases, are expected — to play huge roles for this year's squad.
Andrew Vaughn led the way, ranked the No. 14 prospect in the game. Though he might be the furthest away of the South Side foursome on the list — the only one yet to debut — he's also a legitimate candidate to take over the everyday DH role for the bulk of the 2021 campaign. Though there are perfectly valid questions about whether someone who hasn't played above A-ball can be an everyday contributor to a team with championship goals, the White Sox have raved about Vaughn's advanced bat ever since they picked him with the No. 3 pick in the 2019 draft.
MLB.com ranked him as the top first-base prospect in baseball last week, and he was the lone White Sox player on Keith Law of The Athletic's own top-100 list earlier this week, at No. 10. A 2021 arrival in the majors, though, would almost certainly come as a DH, with reigning American League MVP José Abreu entrenched at first base for at least the next two seasons.
Michael Kopech was ranked as the No. 39 prospect in baseball, and though he made his big league debut in 2018, he's only logged 14.1 innings of work since. His 2019 season was wiped out while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and he elected not to play during the 2020 season due to personal reasons.
It's been a mighty long time since Kopech pitched off a major league mound, but he seems one of the leading candidates for a back-end spot in the White Sox rotation in 2021. Kopech excited everyone with his lone inning of Cactus League work last spring, during which he repeatedly hit triple digits on the radar gun. But the White Sox still might have started him in the minor leagues to build him back to full stamina and manage his workload. That could be an option again in 2021, but the White Sox expect Kopech to play a big role this year, and positive answers to the post-surgery questions about his ability could give the South Siders one of the most menacing rotations in the game.
The White Sox everyday second baseman, Nick Madrigal, came in at No. 40 on the list. An in-season promotion and an injured-list stint meant Madrigal only played in 29 games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, but he was as advertised, making tons of contact and hardly ever striking out. Madrigal batted .340 in that limited action and hit a jaw-dropping .321 with two strikes, earning him the nickname "Nicky Two Strikes" from broadcaster Jason Benetti.
Though by Madrigal's own admission, he spent last season feeling the effects of the separated shoulder he suffered in one of his first big league games. He told Our Chuck Garfien on a recent White Sox Talk Podcast that he's expecting to be back at full strength in the middle of the spring and hoping for much bigger things in 2021.
The last of the White Sox quartet on MLB.com's list was Garrett Crochet, who blew batters away and blew minds in 2020, going from the South Siders' first-round draft pick in June to a key bullpen cog down the stretch of the regular season. Due to the effects of the pandemic, Crochet hardly pitched during his final season at the University of Tennessee and didn't get into any pro games after being drafted until he was called up in September. All he did was dominate opposing hitters with a 101 mile an hour fastball.
While the White Sox view Crochet as a starting pitcher in the long term, it will be difficult to keep him out of the major league bullpen in 2021. Developing him as a starter in the minors is an option, but as effective as he was as a reliever in the bigs, the White Sox could put him right back as part of an electric 'pen that now features All-Star closer Liam Hendriks.
For so long, White Sox fans viewed these prospect rankings as a peek into the future. But these guys are here now and ready to contribute now alongside all the former prospects fans have been following for years. It's still a sign of the White Sox long-term promise. But it's as much a sign of their present promise as winning time arrives on the South Side.