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Gerrit Cole might be White Sox fans' next free-agent crush, but will he land on the South Side?

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USA TODAY

Gerrit Cole might be White Sox fans' next free-agent crush, but will he land on the South Side?

White Sox fans’ crush on Manny Machado during the winter of 2018-19 is about to become White Sox fans’ crush on Gerrit Cole during the winter of 2019-20.

Thanks to a wave of extensions signed by some of the best players in the game, Cole, the Houston Astros pitcher who threw against the South Siders on Wednesday night in the Lone Star State, is on track to be the most sought after player on next offseason’s free-agent market.

There will be no Nolan Arenado, no Chris Sale, no Paul Goldschmidt. Whether you already thought Cole was more desirable than that trio or not, he’s the last man standing. And with other names yanked off the market — guys like Justin Verlander, Xander Bogaerts, Aaron Hicks and Miles Mikolas — what was once an absolutely stacked free-agent class is significantly less stacked.

But Cole is still out there. Will he be the White Sox No. 1 target?

Rick Hahn’s front office surprised last winter with its involvement in the sweepstakes for Machado and Bryce Harper, two 26-year-old superstar position players who could’ve been franchise centerpieces on the South Side. Instead, Machado’s the rebuilding centerpiece in San Diego and Harper’s brought championship expectations to Philadelphia.

All that financial flexibility that allowed the White Sox to be in on Machado and Harper — and allowed them to offer Machado a contract that included a guaranteed $250 million and could have reached as high as $350 million down the road — still exists. They passed on pricey consolation prizes and still have the ability to run with the big dogs next winter. Hahn promised the day Machado joined the San Diego Padres that “the money will be spent.”

“The money will be spent,” Hahn said during spring training. “It might not be spent this offseason, but it will be spent at some point. This isn’t money sitting around waiting to just accumulate interest. It’s money trying to be deployed to put us in best position to win some championships.”

Of course, the free-agent market has changed dramatically thanks to all those extensions, and that could put more focus on the trade market. The White Sox farm system remains highly regarded and especially loaded at certain positions. Perhaps Hahn & Co. will be in a position by the end of the 2019 season where it knows what it has in certain guys and can deal from a area of depth.

But the free-agent market will still be tantalizing to and likely the primary focus of fans who desperately want to see the failures of last offseason rectified the next time around. And that means Cole.

Yeah, maybe it could mean Anthony Rendon, should he not come to an agreement with the Washington Nationals, but the White Sox just moved Yoan Moncada to third base, with solid results to this point. It wouldn’t preclude such a move, but it might complicate it. Rendon has been very, very good and very, very under the radar while playing alongside Harper in D.C. With Harper playing for a division rival, what’s Rendon done? He’s got a .333/.428/.691 slash line in 34 games this season. Mercy.

Maybe it could mean J.D. Martinez, who has the ability to opt out of his deal with the Boston Red Sox. Maybe it could mean Nicholas Castellanos, the current division rival who has mauled the White Sox over the last couple years. Maybe it could mean Marcell Ozuna or Madison Bumgarner or Stephen Strasburg. (Wait, Stephen Strasburg? Yeah, he’s got an opt-out clause he could take advantage of this offseason, too, but are the offers going to be worth it to make him pass up the $100 million he’s still due to get from the Nats?)

But all signs point to Cole being the biggest prize of the upcoming free-agent class. He’s just 28 years old as of Wednesday night’s outing against the White Sox and would look pretty darn good at the top of any rotation in baseball. Last season, Cole was superhuman, posting a 2.88 ERA and striking out 276 batters in 200.1 innings. He finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting. And the eye-popping continues in 2019. He was the game’s leader in strikeouts coming into Wednesday night, with 93 of them in 60.2 innings, averaging nine strikeouts per start.

Whether you’re level of confidence on the future of the White Sox starting-pitching situation lives on the top floor or in the basement, no one is going to argue that a pitcher of Cole’s caliber wouldn’t fit with the White Sox. Even if Michael Kopech and Carlos Rodon and Dane Dunning bounce back from their Tommy John surgeries to become All-Star type pitchers and Dylan Cease comes up and sets the world on fire and Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito continue to progress, adding Cole to that group is still a no-brainer.

The other end of that, though, is the less rosy outlook, the one where Kopech and Rodon and Dunning disappoint after their recoveries, where Cease goes through growing pains, where Lopez and Giolito don’t live up to the potential they brought with them when they were acquired. The most likely scenario is probably somewhere in the middle. Not all prospects pan out, but the White Sox have amassed enough good ones that they are expected to hit on a few of them.

Regardless, though, there’s a place for Cole in any scenario.

In the wake of the news of Rodon’s surgery, which will knock the lefty out until the second half of the 2020 season, Hahn hinted that starting pitching might be more of a priority in the upcoming offseason. While the White Sox showed their commitment to bringing in a top-flight player from outside the organization with their pursuits of Machado and Harper last winter, perhaps that player ends up being a starting pitcher rather than a position player.

“Ultimately we're going to have to, in all probability, go outside the organization to augment in certain spots,” Hahn said earlier this month. “Could it conceivably be at the end of this year we feel we have to add a proven, veteran-type starter, a guy to help us out toward the front of the rotation? Absolutely, but let's way to see how the rest of this year goes, let's see what progress the guys in the minors make, what the guys here look like at the end of this season and then make an assessment.

“None of us are smart enough at the start of this process to say 'You know what, three years from now we're going to need to go out and add a starter.' But we did know three years ago there was going to come a point where we needed to add something. That part’s not totally unexpected.”

Fans jaded by how the Machado sweepstakes turned out will surely meet the notion of the White Sox landing a top-of-the-line free agent with skepticism. Free agency is often, if not almost exclusively, about money, and the White Sox offered Machado less guaranteed money than the Padres did. Machado went with the Padres.

And so with another round of free agency coming, will the White Sox be able to win over a free agent the caliber of Cole?

Another complication in this matter is Cole’s status as a pitcher. Cole’s likely not going to get the decade-long deal Machado got as a 26-year-old infielder. But will the White Sox, who have a reputation, deserved or not, of not wanting to offer lengthy deals to pitchers, decide Cole’s worth the same amount of years he and the rest of the market thinks he is? Hahn’s made a point of trying to shatter those kinds of preconceived notions about the White Sox during this rebuilding process. But fans aren’t likely to change their minds until the White Sox actually convert, of which Hahn is well aware.

“The, in my opinion, false narratives about this organization going back several years was everything from that we would never rebuild because the fans wouldn't tolerate it to we would never incur a penalty in terms of signing amateur talent, which we obviously did with Luis Robert. And it was written right up to a few weeks before the Jimenez and Cease trade that we would never make a trade with the Cubs that could potentially help them because of the supposed rivalry between our two organizations,” Hahn said during SoxFest in January, well before Machado and Harper made their decisions.

“I'm not sure how many other so-to-speak false narratives about this organization are out there other than they won't spend top of market for a free agent. We’d love to disprove that during the coming weeks. We certainly have extended offers that would ruin that narrative, if accepted, but we're not there yet. So if for whatever reason we fail to convert this time around, perhaps that narrative will exist for another year, but we look forward to proving that one false like we have the others.”

Obviously what happened happened, and so now Hahn does have to look to next winter to prove that preconceived notion false.

Cole looks like he’ll be the next big item on White Sox fans’ wish lists, and he’d be an obvious fit as the South Side rebuilding project moves toward contention mode. It’s up to Hahn and his front office to land the big fish and add some serious heft to the rebuild.

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MLB The Show: White Sox fall behind big early, drop second straight to Twins

MLB The Show: White Sox fall behind big early, drop second straight to Twins

NBC Sports Chicago is simulating the 2020 White Sox season via MLB The Show during the postponement of play. The White Sox, stocked with young talent and veteran offseason acquisitions, were expected to take a big step forward in their rebuild this season. Follow along as we play out the first few months of the season.

Result: Twins def. White Sox 10-4
Record: 28-31, 3rd in A.L. Central (4.0 GB of Twins)

W: Rich Hill (4-4)
L: Reynaldo Lopez (5-2)

Game summary: All good things must come to an end. In the case of the White Sox' winning streak, things have come to an abrupt end. A day after the Twins put up 11 runs in the first two innings, Minnesota jumped on Chicago early again.

Reynaldo Lopez failed to make it out of the fourth inning. The Twins harassed him with singles a plenty, including RBI base knocks from Alex Avila and Miguel Sano in the second and fourth innings. Then, the big blow came from Jorge Polanco, whose grand slam gave Minnesota a 7-1 lead before the final out of the fourth. Lopez' day came to an end. 

Yasmani Grandal hit a pair of solo home runs in the third and fifth. Yoan Moncada added a couple more runs on a late two-run blast but the White Sox dropped their second straight to the Twins to fall four games back of the division leaders.

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White Sox lineup

Edwin Encarnacion: 0-3 (.316 BA)
Eloy Jimenez: 1-4, R (.269 BA)
Yoan Moncada: 2-4, HR (12), 2 RBI, R (.261 BA)
Nick Madrigal: 1-4 (.261 BA)
Jose Abreu: 2-4, 2B (.298 BA)
Tim Anderson: 0-4 (.298 BA)
Luis Robert: 0-4 (.232 BA)
Yasmani Grandal: 3-4, 2 HR (21), 2 RBI, 2 R (.309 BA)
Nomar Mazara: 0-3 (.243 BA)

Scoring summary: 

Top first

Luis Arraez grounded into double play, Byron Buxton scored. 1-0 MIN.

Top second

Alex Avila singled to right field, Josh Donaldson scored. 2-0 MIN.

Bottom third

Yasmani Grandal homered to left field. 2-1 MIN.

Top fourth

Miguel Sano singled to left field, Eddie Rosario scored. 3-1 MIN.
Jorge Polanco homered to right field, Sano, Max Kepler and Avila scored. 7-1 MIN.
Nelson Cruz homered to center field, Arraez scored. 9-1 MIN.

Bottom fifth

Grandal homered to center field. 9-2 MIN.

Bottom sixth

Yoan Moncada homered to center field, Eloy Jimenez scored. 9-4 MIN.

Top eighth

Polanco homered to left field. 10-4 MIN.

Notable performance: With his two homers on Saturday, Grandal now has 21 on the season, which trails only teammate Eloy Jimenez for the team lead. Grandal is third in the AL in RBIs (49) and leads the league in WAR (4.5). Not too shabby for the eight-hole hitter.

Next game: Sunday, May 31 - Game 60: Twins vs White Sox (Devin Smeltzer, 6-2, 2.42 ERA vs Michael Kopech, 0-0, 3.78 ERA)

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White Sox 2005 Rewind: Controversies or not, dominant pitching won the ALCS

White Sox 2005 Rewind: Controversies or not, dominant pitching won the ALCS

“Realistically, I don't know if they could be pitching much better than they have.”

By the end of Game 4 of the ALCS, Joe Buck had a different way to summarize things.

“The dominance continues.”

Realistic or not, the White Sox starting rotation was just plain unhittable in the penultimate series of the 2005 season.

First it was Jose Contreras, setting the tone in a losing effort in Game 1 and coming two outs away from a complete game. Mark Buehrle followed with what he called — to that point, before the no-hitter and the perfect game — one of the best games of his career. Game 3 saw Jon Garland take the baton and stifle the Los Angeles Angels. And then it was Freddy Garcia, dealing as the White Sox cruised to a Game 4 win.

And so while the Fox broadcast spent an awful lot of time on supposed controversies, missed calls by the umpires and breaks for the White Sox, let’s face it: Those Angels weren’t hitting that pitching staff.

After the way Game 2 wrapped up, with A.J. Pierzynski swinging, missing and running to first base in a baffling display that for some reason worked, controversy was a storyline. And boy, did it get milked in Game 4.

Now, this isn’t to say that there weren’t missed calls or that the White Sox didn’t experience a couple breaks in this contest. There were. And they did.

After the Angels chopped the White Sox lead to 3-1 on an RBI hit in the second inning, they still had two men on with only one out. But instead of a rally, Steve Finley hit into an inning-ending double play. His bat, replay clearly showed, hit Pierzynski’s glove on the swing, meaning by rule he should have gone to first on catcher’s interference and loaded the bases. Instead, he turned around to argue while running out the ground ball, hence the double play.

He should have learned from Pierzynski and just busted it down to first base, leaving the details to be sorted out later. No call came, and Finley was out, the Angels’ rally stopped.

The White Sox lead back to three runs in the fifth inning, Scott Podsednik — who had a remarkable game, on base four times with two stolen bases and two runs scored — was seemingly picked off at first base. But the call was safe, and he scored later in the inning to extend a tight three-run game to a four-run game.

But did it really matter? Would any of it made a difference?

Garcia was on point, just like his three rotation-mates before him. He allowed just two runs on only six hits, walking one. He did that 2005 White Sox thing where he pitched fast, pitched to his defense and pitched the Angels into a whole bunch of outs.

You can point to the breaks all you want, attempt to stir up controversy. But the White Sox pitchers were so good that nothing was stopping them as they marched to a pennant.

The only thing that could, as we saw in Game 1 of the series, was an equally strong pitching performance on the other side. That’s exactly what Paul Byrd turned in against Contreras in that first game, and a White Sox lineup that slugged against the Red Sox in the ALDS was stymied. A sick Jarrod Washburn did his best in Game 2, with some help from a terrific crop of relievers, only for Pierzynski to flip the series on its head. In Games 3 and 4 in Anaheim, the Angels couldn’t match Garland and Garcia. An awakened group of White Sox bats hung a crooked number on John Lackey in Game 3 and had the same rude greeting for Ervin Santana — a future member of the South Side rotation, however briefly — in Game 4.

The old sports cliche goes that defense wins championships. In baseball, pitching wins championships. It did in 2005. And no amount of supposed controversy was going to change that.

Keep reliving the White Sox march to the 2005 World Series with #SoxRewind, which features Game 5 of the ALCS, airing at 7 p.m. Saturday on NBC Sports Chicago.

 

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