White Sox

With hardest part of the rebuild almost over, are White Sox in better spot now than a year ago? And will things be better in 2019?

With hardest part of the rebuild almost over, are White Sox in better spot now than a year ago? And will things be better in 2019?

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.

White Sox taking their time figuring out what Michael Kopech's 2020 will look like

White Sox taking their time figuring out what Michael Kopech's 2020 will look like

Michael Kopech is not likely to make 30-plus starts in 2020.

Still one of the highest ranked pitching prospects in the game, Kopech is slated to return from his Tommy John recovery when spring training rolls around in February. He’ll be without restriction when the White Sox report to Camelback Ranch.

But his 2020 season will not be a full one, per say, as the White Sox will be cautious with a guy they expect to be a key part of their rotation for a long time.

Speaking during the GM meetings last week in Arizona, general manager Rick Hahn said Kopech will be on an innings limit of some kind during the 2020 season. Though he was hesitant to put a specific number on that limit.

“I don't think there's going to be a magical number,” he said. “And it's been our experience that when you set the specific number, it in some ways boxes you in a little bit.”

Whether the White Sox know how many innings they want Kopech to pitch and are just refusing to make that knowledge public, or they’re truly waiting to see how Kopech fares in the spring before settling on a number, there are multiple elements going into that decision.

First is the injury, with Kopech not pitching in a game outside of instructional league since Sept. 5, 2018. Kopech’s spent the last year-plus working his way back, and by the time Opening Day 2020 rolls around, it will be almost 19 months since that last major league appearance. The White Sox don’t want to let the flame-throwing Kopech let it all loose and run out of gas because his body isn’t back to the regular pitching routine.

The other is the experience. Kopech has thrown 14.1 innings of big league ball. That’s it. The 146.1 innings he threw between the majors and Triple-A in 2018 are the most he’s thrown in a single season in his pro career, throwing 134.1 innings the year prior at Double-A and Triple-A.

“We'll react to being fully cognizant of the fact that he's coming off of a career high, previously, of about 140-ish or so innings,” Hahn said. “And obviously coming off the surgery now, we have to be cognizant of the fact that this isn't a guy that's going to be out there, necessarily, for seven months taking the ball every fifth day, and we'll have to plan for that accordingly.”

The reason all this is important is because the White Sox might be in a position to compete for a playoff spot in 2020, depending on how the offseason goes, and that could mean wanting to deploy a talented pitcher like Kopech in meaningful games down the stretch and perhaps even in October, should that opportunity arise.

So you might not see Kopech as part of the Opening Day rotation and just piling up the necessary innings before getting shut down for the year. The White Sox might get a little more creative.

“That's what's going to be the trick, whether that's skipping him from time to time or managing his work load early in the season,” Hahn said. “All those things are possibilities, it's just going to be a matter of — let's first get to spring training, let's see him throwing the ball healthy again without restriction, feeling good about where he's at, and we'll come up with a plan.”

Now the idea that Kopech might not be a part of the White Sox starting rotation right away might come as a head-scratcher to some. Hahn has been hinting at that possibility for a while now, dating back to the middle of the summer. Kopech was given a spot in the rotation when he made his big league debut at the end of the 2018 season, but apparently it’s yet to be finalized that he would automatically return to that spot upon his return from injury.

Hahn has laid out that Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dylan Cease will be part of the White Sox rotation next season and confirmed last week that the team is looking to add a pair of starting pitchers this winter. That makes five, and that might make it easy for the team to start slowly with Kopech, be that in the minor leagues or in the bullpen or wherever.

Don’t get too nervous, as Kopech still figures to do plenty of big league work in 2020. But it sounds like the final decision on everything involving Kopech will have to wait until he gets going in spring training.

“It's too early to say that (he’ll be part of the Opening Day rotation in 2020),” Hahn said. “Let's see what other possible additions we make, and let's see exactly how he is come spring training.

“You've got to keep in mind, this kid, come late February, the first time he'll face big league hitters, that'll be the first time he's done it in 18, 19, 20 months. So let's just see where he's at.

“Our view of him for the long term is that he's going to be an important part of a very good rotation. How quickly he gets there, we're going to take our time getting there.”

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Prized White Sox prospect Andrew Vaughn wraps up stint with USA Baseball

Prized White Sox prospect Andrew Vaughn wraps up stint with USA Baseball

As the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 draft, Andrew Vaughn’s first full season in the minors this coming season will be one of the biggest storylines in the big picture of the White Sox rebuild in 2020.

Before that season begins for Vaughn, he got some international experience playing for USA Baseball at the Premier12 tournament. The Premier12 served as the first Olympic qualifying tournament.

Vaughn played in all eight games for the American team which was comprised of minor leaguers not currently on MLB 40-man rosters. He split time between first base and DH and was often in the middle of the order.

In eight games Vaughn hit .321/.367/.357. He had just one extra base hit, a double, in 30 plate appearances.

The lack of power might be somewhat concerning, but he certainly showed contact and on-base skills against quality, experienced competition.

As for USA Baseball, the team entered Saturday’s bronze medal game against Mexico knowing the winner would qualify for the Olympics. The Americans led 2-1 entering the ninth inning, but gave up a home run to send the game to extras. Mexico won with a bases-loaded walk-off single in the 10th.

The US still has two more chances to qualify for the Olympics. There is an Americas qualifying tournament in March and then a last chance tournament soon after that one. Those take place during spring training so it’s unclear if Vaughn would leave White Sox camp for that.

Tyler Johnson, a White Sox relief prospect, was on the initial roster for the tournament, but left the team due to a minor injury.

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