White Sox

How close are injured prospects Luis Robert and Alec Hansen to making their 2018 debuts?

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USA TODAY

How close are injured prospects Luis Robert and Alec Hansen to making their 2018 debuts?

White Sox fans have been thrilled by the big numbers put up by top prospects like Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez this season. But two other stars of the rebuild have yet to even play a minor league game in 2018.

Luis Robert (the No. 3 prospect in the White Sox system and the No. 26 prospect in baseball) and Alec Hansen (No. 4 in the White Sox system, No. 50 in baseball) are still working their way back from spring injuries, and as of Thursday neither had played in extended spring training games — though they soon might.

General manager Rick Hahn gave a lengthy list of medical updates on injured players throughout the farm system, and Robert and Hansen were at the top of the list.

Robert, who has yet to play a game of minor league baseball in the United States, tore a ligament in his thumb sliding into second base during a Cactus League game — a Cactus League game, by the way, in which he later hit a home run — and has been sidelined ever since. He’s expected to join Class A Winston-Salem eventually, with Hahn pointing to the beginning of June.

“Luis is ramping up baseball activity in extended (spring training),” Hahn said. “We expect him to participate in extended spring training games by the end of the month and soon thereafter join an affiliate. It likely will be early June before he actually joins the affiliate, once extended is over. Though we expected he will spend the bulk of the season at Winston-Salem — once he’s officially ready to go, he’ll be at Winston-Salem — it depends how many extended games he gets in before the end of extended in determining where he goes first once he leaves Phoenix.

“But he’s progressing. He’s hitting in cages, he’s doing defensive drills, and hopefully he’ll be playing in games down there by the end of the month.”

Hansen, however, might not be quite as close as Robert. Last year’s minor league strikeout leader, Hansen, who's expected to join Double-A Birmingham when healthy, has been dealing with a forearm injury since spring training, and while he’s been talked about as progressing toward game action, there was no real update from Hahn on Thursday.

“He continues to progress, he’s throwing bullpens. I believe he had one today, might be tomorrow. On a throwing program,” Hahn said. “On a guy like that, similar to (recovering starting pitcher Carlos) Rodon, we’ll let you know when he starts making starts in extended and when he goes on a rehab assignment. Right now, it’s just building.”

The injuries to Robert and Hansen — as well as the season-ending Achilles tear suffered by last year’s first-round pick, Jake Burger — show that this rebuilding process, which has seen a fleet of highly ranked prospects join the White Sox system in recent years, won’t be without its speed bumps. While penciling all these guys into the 2020 lineup was and remains a fun pastime for South Side baseball fans, there’s a reason those names are written in pencil and not pen. Whether it be because of performance, injuries or other developmental reasons, not all of these prospects will hit the bigs in a rapid amount of time, nor is it likely will they all pan out.

It’s not to suggest in the slightest that these specific prospects won’t pan out, but it’s worth questioning how their developments will be affected by missing significant time.

“It depends on the player,” Hahn said when asked that very question. “Not beating around the bush, but Jake Burger missing more than a year is a shame, it’s a real shame. You look at Jake, he’s got a short enough swing and an easy enough swing that he’s able to just pick up with it and not really lose much offensively in terms of his development.

“But there is an element of playing everyday and being used to playing ball and working your way up the chain and getting more challenges that he’s going to miss a year on. That’s a negative.

“Luis Robert missing a couple months, none of it’s ideal ever but he’s going to be back out there this season, there’s still going to be plenty of chances for him to get ABs over the course of the summer and even opportunities for him to play in the fall, as well. The injury that he had certainly didn’t seem to have any long-term implications for him, and it’s a matter of making up for development time over the course of 2018, which he’ll be able to do.”

Time will tell whether or not months on the shelf will negatively impact the developments of Robert or Hansen. The good news for the White Sox is that they’re advancing toward their respective returns, good news because those are two guys who figure to have very large roles to play in the rebuild.

James Shields, Joakim Soria and some other potential midseason trade candidates for the White Sox

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USA TODAY

James Shields, Joakim Soria and some other potential midseason trade candidates for the White Sox

Another day, another quality start for James Shields.

The White Sox once more didn’t win a Shields start. Despite an increasingly good-looking season stat line, Shields can’t seem to rack up many wins, with just two to his name on the season. But of course, wins are not exactly the most important barometer in this rebuilding campaign.

Speaking of the rebuild, the White Sox are getting closer to the trade deadline, it’s about a month and a half away. And Shields’ continued success could have Rick Hahn’s phone ringing as July 31 creeps closer. After six innings and three runs in Sunday’s loss to the visiting Detroit Tigers, Shields has seven quality starts in his last 10 outings,

After last season’s struggles that ended in a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs surrendered, getting anything for Shields might’ve seemed a bit of a fantasy. But Shields has delivered, especially since the end of a rocky April.

“It’s very important to try to eat as many innings as you possibly can,” Shields said of his consistent efforts of late. “Early on in the season, we were ruining our bullpen by not going deep into games. My main focus is to go as deep as I possibly can. … Consistency’s the name of the game.”

Does it make him one of the most attractive names on the market? No, probably not. Is it going to fetch a highly ranked prospect? No, probably not. But it might fetch something, and in a season where guys believed to be afterthoughts like Dylan Covey and Daniel Palka are working their way into the conversation about the White Sox future, who wouldn’t want something added to this rebuilding effort?

And Shields isn’t the only White Sox player who could bring something back.

The bullpen was stocked with potential sign-and-flip guys over the offseason, and a few of those veteran arms have had good runs that could earn them a similar fate to the bulk of last year’s relief corps. Anthony Swarzak, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Dan Jennings and Tyler Clippard were all dealt away last summer. Could Hahn employ a similar strategy this season?

The bullpen hasn’t been quite as good as it was last year, which made all of those players attractive additions for contending teams around the league. But veterans like Joakim Soria, Luis Avilan, Bruce Rondon, Xavier Cedeno — guys who hoped to rediscover some old magic — could still draw interest.

Soria owns a 3.12 ERA. Avilan’s is at 3.10. Cedeno hasn’t given up a run in his six relief appearances. Rondon has shown blow-em-away stuff at times. It’s been a nice recovery for some of these sign-and-flip veterans.

“They’ve had an opportunity to get their chances to work on different things and become really effective performers,” manager Rick Renteria said of some of his veteran relievers prior to Sunday’s game. “I think Joakim has risen his level of game back what he was pre last couple years, I think he’s reinvented himself a little bit. He has an up-down breaking ball now, he’s continuing to attack the strike zone, he’s throwing 93 miles an hour with his fastball, he’s commanding the zone. He’s doing everything he can to be as good a closer as he was in the past. His history and his experience also allow him some confidence to be put in situations to close out ballgames.”

Soria could perhaps draw the most interest because closers are often in demand in July. But last year’s trade-a-thon showed that teams are willing to trade prospects away for relief help of any kind. Many of the return pieces in those deals might not get rebuild-loving prospect followers thrilled. Casey Gillaspie and Ryan Cordell haven’t exactly put their names at the forefront of the discussion about 2020 and beyond. But remember that Blake Rutherford came over in the deal that sent Robertson and Kahnle out of town (Todd Frazier went to the New York Yankees in that trade, too). So an acquisition that could improve the rebuild can most definitely happen, even with middle relievers.

There’s no guarantee that any of these guys, be it Shields in the rotation or any of the arms out in the bullpen, will get traded or even draw significant interest. But for a team in the White Sox position, you’d have to assume they’d be open to making a deal and getting something to add to this rebuilding process.

Eloy Jimenez reminds Frank Thomas of Vlad Guerrero, and more rebuild thoughts from the Big Hurt

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AP

Eloy Jimenez reminds Frank Thomas of Vlad Guerrero, and more rebuild thoughts from the Big Hurt

Here’s a comp that’ll get White Sox fans really excited. It’s a Hall of Famer saying that the organization’s top-ranked prospect reminds him of another Hall of Famer.

“The kid Eloy (Jimenez), I’ve really watched him a lot. He’s a tremendous (player),” Frank Thomas said. “He reminds me of a young Vlad (Guerrero) that can cover the whole zone and use the whole field. I’m interested in seeing how he progresses.”

Eloy a young Vladdy, eh?

Don’t tell actual young Vladdy that — Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is ranked one spot ahead of Jimenez on MLB Pipeline’s list of the best prospects in baseball — but that’s one heck of a comp for a player that White Sox fans are already immeasurably excited about.

Thomas was back on the South Side on Sunday to join Hawk Harrelson in the broadcast booth for the latter’s sendoff season. He spoke a lot about what Harrelson meant to him and the White Sox, but he also answered questions about the team’s ongoing rebuild. Thomas has kept a close eye both in his roles as an analyst for FOX and someone who will always be invested in this team.

“It’s Chicago, and we’re used to winning,” Thomas said when he was asked if the White Sox needed to undergo such a process. “You normally get away with this in a smaller market, but you’ve got to understand they’ve taken their time with it. They wasted a lot of money for a five-year period trying to continue to be successful the way we were in the past and it wasn’t working.

“The game has changed. The game has totally changed. It’s a different ballgame now. It’s all about the youth. … The hardest part they’re going to have, though, is figuring out who’s going to be here and who’s not going to be here because over the next couple years they’ve got so many young talented players in Double-A and Triple-A that someone could actually force some of these guys out. It’s going to be a hard decision what they’re going to have to do.”

That’s the good problem Rick Hahn and his front office would like to have.

While fan buy-in to the rebuilding effort has been tremendous, there are some who will continue to question the willing suffering through losing seasons at the major league level while the contending team of the future develops in the minor leagues. But if you look at the teams that have won and played in the World Series in recent seasons — and even seasons long past — the process almost seems mandatory if you want to reach that level.

“It is,” Thomas said. “I’ve watched it firsthand. I first saw it with Cleveland when I was playing. Cleveland did it. Then you saw the Royals do it. You saw Houston do it, and they’re tearing it up with that youth. There’s been some other teams that have had a lot of success with it, too. I think Billy Beane has been great with it in Oakland for many, many years. They just haven’t had the luxury of keeping it together and going for the World Series, but he continues to create young superstars and basically trading them off for whatever the organization needs.”

Thomas, the greatest hitter in White Sox history, was also asked about the greatest hitter on the White Sox right now, Jose Abreu. Abreu’s future is the topic of much conversation surrounding this team, what with his contract running out at the end of the 2019 season, just when the White Sox hope to be fielding a perennial contender.

Abreu has been remarkably consistent — and one of just three players ever to hit at least 25 homers and drive in at least 100 runs in each of his first four seasons — but Thomas thinks there’s a side of Abreu we still have yet to see.

“I just don’t think we’ve seen the best of him,” Thomas said. “That’s because it’s a youth movement and the protection’s been up and down for him in that lineup. I’ve seen him be inconsistent at times, but I think he’s a much better player than that. But I understand when you’re not winning every day and it’s not as motivating because losing’s tough on everybody. But the guy’s an incredible player, an incredible hitter.

“I think the next couple of years we’ll see the best of him if he’s still here. I think this guy has a chance to be one of the great ones.”

With one last question about the modern-day White Sox, Thomas was asked about manager Rick Renteria, who he raved about. But with Renteria’s recent history with the Cubs, when he was replaced with Joe Maddon right before the North Siders started their phase of contention, he has yet to be the manager of a team with expectations. The plan is that he soon will be, and Thomas is interested to see what happens when that becomes the case.

“I think he’s done a hell of a job. I really like Ricky a lot,” Thomas said. “But who knows what they’re going to do in the future. When this team becomes what they think it’s going to be, either you get it done or you don’t. That’s just what it’s going to be. That’s the way Jerry’s handled it for many, many years.

“We’ve had some decisions that weren’t all happiness at times, but it’s about winning once they get their team here. I hope it’s Ricky because he’s done a hell of a rebuild job with the Cubs, he did a hell of a rebuild job here. It’s just time for him to get a good team out on the field and see what he really can do. I’m hoping he gets a chance of having a full team to put out there for 162 games and see what he can do.”