Rick Hahn, it turns out, was right.
Long before the start of this developmental season, the White Sox general manager said it would be the hardest part of his ongoing rebuilding effort. Christmas came early in 2016, with Hahn pulling off a pair of monster trades that poured highly ranked prospect talent into the organization. Last summer, he made another big move and acquired the two young players who have White Sox fans more excited than any others. But 2018, for the most part, has been without an equally promising highlight. It’s been about waiting for that next big moment.
Not even Michael Kopech’s arrival at the major league level could be celebrated very much, his first couple starts at home cut short by rain and then the devastating blow that was his Tommy John surgery and scheduled absence for the upcoming 2019 season.
The White Sox have lost 95 games with five contests left on the schedule. The hitters have struck out a lot. The pitchers have walked a lot. There have been games that ended in the first inning and games that ended in the opponent’s final at-bat, both fashions leaving bad tastes in the mouths of fans who signed up for the rebuild but found out just how difficult patience can be sometimes.
It’s hard to imagine the rebuild getting any harder than this.
“When I stared talking about the 2018 season, I talked about how I expected this to potentially be the most difficult year of the rebuild. I think that has proven to be correct,” Hahn said during his end-of-season press conference ahead of the White Sox final home game of the year. “We’ll see what the future holds, but traditionally the second year of these rebuilds tend to be difficult. Obviously we made some very high-profile moves in the first year, and you’re then in the position, as you’ve seen around the league with these other rebuilds, of having some young guys develop at the big league level and having a need to be patient for players to develop at the minor league level. And certainly we were no exception to that ‘second year of a rebuild’ process.”
Of course, none of this came as much of a surprise. While there were some reasons for optimism at the end of the 2017 campaign, the 2018 season was always going to be about the development of young players and the growing pains that come with that. Much of the projected team of the future was still in the minor leagues when the season began, and that remains true at its conclusion.
Things did get tougher than expected in the form of a great many significant injuries to those highly touted prospects. Kopech’s Tommy John surgery grabbed the biggest headlines, but Luis Robert, Dane Dunning, Alec Hansen, Micker Adolfo, Zack Burdi and Jake Burger all missed significant developmental time in 2018. Whether or not those injuries end up shifting the timeline of the entire rebuilding effort obviously remains to be seen.
And so as 2018 comes to a close this weekend in Minnesota, there are plenty of questions that follow the White Sox into the offseason. Perhaps the most pressing for frustrated fans who sat through six months of expectedly tough baseball, though, are these: 1. What progress did the rebuild make this year? and 2. Will things be better at the major league level in 2019?
Hahn had positive answers for both of those questions.
“There certainly has been a fair amount of positives over the course of the year,” he said. “There’s been an element of progress, not simply with the passage of time, of getting us closer to where we need to be for the long term, but with some of the development we’ve seen at the big league level as well as the minor league level. I was, perhaps unfortunately, fairly prescient in thinking that the second year was going to be a difficult year, which it was at times. But there’s been many signs of progress throughout the organization, and we’re certainly closer now than we were 12 months ago to being ready to contend.”
The point of this season was to wait, and the waiting is now obviously a year further along than it was at this time in 2017. While all those injuries made a big difference in where those respective players were expected to be after another year of minor league development, plenty of others moved along at the expected or even better-than-expected clip. Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease are the most notable among them, but that list also includes Blake Rutherford, Zack Collins, Luis Gonzalez, Luis Basabe, Jordan Stephens, Seby Zavala, Jimmy Lambert, Tyler Johnson and Spencer Adams.
The team also added a nice number of talented prospects to their stockpile through the draft and other moves: Nick Madrigal, Steele Walker, Konnor Pilkington and Kodi Medeiros all rank among the organization’s top 20 prospects.
Then there’s what has occurred at the major league level, with young players expected to be key pieces of the teams of the future getting valuable experience in some of their first tastes of the bigs. Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez are finishing their seasons well, and Yoan Moncada, who undoubtedly didn’t live up to his high preseason expectations, has showed some positives, too. Tim Anderson’s growth defensively has perhaps been the biggest positive at the major league level. And for a stretch, Carlos Rodon was pitching like a future ace.
All those things have bigger long-term implications than short-term ones, but those are some of the reasons Hahn is more optimistic about next season than he was about this one. Chiefly, though, he’s more bullish on 2019 because more of those minor league pieces will become major league pieces.
“I don’t think it’s too early to say we expect to be certainly more competitive,” he said. “Not only because we are going to have further progress at the big league level from guys like Anderson and Moncada and Lopez and Giolito and a healthy Carlos Rodon as well as some of the other young players that contributed this year. But we are also going to start seeing further additional influx of young talent.
“At some point over the course of next year, either at the start or for the majority of the season, we’ll have Eloy Jimenez, we project, joining us, and certainly by the middle or end of next year I suspect there will be some other young potential core pieces forcing their way to Chicago and allowing us to further solidify what this is going to look like going forward.
“As to whether we’ll be ready to contend, a lot of that depends on the moves we make this offseason, and it depends on how quickly this development takes place at the minor league level.”
So, yes, it’s possible — heck, probable — that there’s still more waiting to be done once the 2019 season begins. There’s still development to take place at both the major league and minor league levels.
But the hardest part of the rebuild might almost be over. And if everything else goes according to plan, that means more and more talent arriving on the South Side and making things better for the big league team.
If things reach the planned pinnacle and the White Sox do become perennial championship contenders, then 2018, the hardest part of the rebuild, will have been worth it.