White Sox

This is how the White Sox bullpen is supposed to look

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USA TODAY

This is how the White Sox bullpen is supposed to look

This is how the White Sox bullpen is supposed to look.

Through the first few series of the 2019 campaign, the South Side relief corps appeared to be a mess. The two big additions, Alex Colome and Kelvin Herrera, weren't getting a chance to pitch very often as the team's starting pitchers weren't lasting very long into games. They gave up a lot of runs, had the bullpen pitching from behind. And, as manager Rick Renteria explained Wednesday, guys who were supposed to be getting tastes of specific situations were instead pitching multiple innings at a time because the starting pitchers were coming out well before they were supposed to.

Well, the last few games have featured the kind of bullpen Renteria hoped to have when the season began. Starting pitchers have held up their end of the bargain, and the offense is scoring runs. Combine those two things, and Renteria has been able to deploy his relievers just like he drew it up back in the spring. The White Sox entered Wednesday's series finale with the Kansas City Royals winners of three straight and four of their last five. Colome has pitched in each of the last three games, picking up saves in two of them.

There was a lot of preseason excitement over this aspect of the roster, Rick Hahn adding Colome and Herrera to give his team what might have been, on paper, the best bullpen in the division. Two All-Star caliber pitchers at the back end allowed Renteria to have more late-inning options, with Nate Jones and Jace Fry moving into sixth- and seventh-inning roles. And all the young guys who might one day make up the White Sox bullpen of the future wouldn't have to be thrown into the fire in high-leverage situations. They could learn and develop without the game necessarily being on the line. That was the plan, anyway.

Things didn't go that way at the start of the season, and the numbers still aren't too pretty for many of the arms in the 'pen. Fry's ERA is still 11.12. Jose Ruiz owns a 21.60 ERA. Ryan Burr is at 6.48, and Jones is just getting his down, currently at 4.05. Colome and Herrera have lived up to the preseason hype, with 2.25 and 1.13 ERAs, respectively. And Manny Banuelos has excelled as a long man, with a 3.48 ERA in 10.1 innings so far.

But as the starters have settled down and lasted five, six, seven innings, the bullpen is starting to look like the one that was envisioned after the acquisitions of Colome and Herrera this winter.

"Being able to rely on those guys on the back end certainly is helpful," Renteria said Wednesday. "Scoring runs helps. Then when you get your starting pitching to give you some length, it makes the decisions that you have to make a little easier. And I think that, as we continue to move forward, you still want to find out about some of the other guys, too. You want to be able to find out how Ruiz handles certain situations. You let them have opportunities to be able to close out games, as well. ... Certainly, I think everybody's happy with us being able to get some quality starts out of our starting rotation and getting us deeper into the game to allow us to get to the back end.

"It's still exciting to be able to get to them because that means there's good things happening for us. Everybody should be excited. Those two guys on the back end have experience and know the needs and the wants of that particular type of situation, and they do it very, very well."

Carlos Rodon pitched six innings in Sunday's win in The Bronx, with Fry, Jones, Herrera and Colome combining for three scoreless innings. Ervin Santana went five on Monday night, Banuelos allowing just one run over his three innings of relief, giving the offense time to stage a comeback and giving Renteria the ability to bring Colome in to slam the door. Reynaldo Lopez threw six innings of one-run ball Tuesday night, with that same combo of Fry, Jones, Herrera and Colome shutting the Royals down over their three innings.

That's how this thing is supposed to look. That's what should allow the White Sox to avoid the numerous bullpen blow-ups that occurred during the 2018 season and win some more games in 2019.

And if those four guys can lock down the ends of games, Renteria can figure out what he has in the rest of his relief corps in lower-leverage situations.

"We ended up breaking camp with rookies, five guys in the 'pen who broke camp for the first time," Renteria said. "Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time in the beginning to be able to fit some of those younger guys in certain situations to give them a taste and then pull them out. We actually had to take them and use them for an inning-plus, two innings. So being able to allow them to get the experience in a positive way as much as we possibly could, it didn't quite develop that way in the beginning.

"But right now it's starting to unfold a little bit better. Hopefully we'll be able to manage their usage and get them the taste of what it's going to be like, give them positive outcomes, get them in and out and by the same token, continue to use the guys on the back end that we have, comfortably manage their usage and be able to still win some ballgames."

That's the plan. And things have gone according to plan these last few games. It's a delicate ecosystem, as you can see, and if the starting pitchers face more bumps in the road, this whole thing can be thrown back out of whack.

But a few rocky results early in the season shouldn't do away with that preseason excitement over what this bullpen is capable of doing. That's what we're seeing right now.

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Believe in 'Magic': For White Sox, a matter of when, not if, Nick Madrigal starts raking in the majors

Believe in 'Magic': For White Sox, a matter of when, not if, Nick Madrigal starts raking in the majors

When will Nick Madrigal reach the majors?

That, now that Luis Robert's path to an Opening Day roster spot has been cleared by a big-money contract extension, is the most pressing of the prospect-related queries facing the 2020 White Sox, a team that, it should be noted, will be turning its focus away from the minors and toward playing big league baseball in October for the first time in more than a decade.

Not unlike Robert, Madrigal shredded minor league pitching in 2019, playing at three levels and showing just how successful his elite bat-to-ball skills can make him as an offensive producer. He stepped to the plate 532 times and struck out only 16 times.

There's a reason even Rick Renteria is already calling the 22-year-old "Magic."

The general feeling seems to be that Madrigal will start the season at Triple-A Charlotte, though with the waiting game apparently over on the South Side and the intent to win as many games as possible, perhaps a strong showing at spring training will see Madrigal starting at second base in the March 26 opener.

That's a question better answered after the White Sox have been in Glendale for a few weeks.

But Madrigal's goal is clear.

"I definitely want to be in Chicago as soon as I can," Madrigal said earlier this week at the team's hitters' camp out in the desert. "I know they have a plan for me one way or another, but I think that’s the ultimate goal: being in Chicago and winning with that team.

"I know this offseason there’s been a lot of moves, and I’m excited to be a part of that, hopefully, in the near future. The ultimate goal is winning. There’s nothing else at this point."

Madrigal might not have blown the doors off the minors like Robert, who finished with a 30-30 season, but he wasn't fazed by climbing through the system. Madrigal put up good-not-great numbers in nearly 50 games at Class A Winston-Salem but exploded for a .341 batting average and a .400 on-base percentage in 42 games at Double-A Birmingham before batting .331 and reaching base at a .398 clip in 29 games at Charlotte.

That he didn't even reach 30 games in a Knights uniform could signal that the White Sox might prefer a little more seasoning, but he didn't see any problems facing the pitching at Triple-A.

“Honestly, it wasn’t too different at all. There was nothing I hadn’t seen before," he said. "There were some older guys in the league, more consistent arms. I thought it wasn’t anything too different.”

Madrigal's earning high praise all over the place, rated among the best prospects in the game. He's earned rave reviews for his ability on both sides of the ball, picked by team executives (in an MLB Pipeline poll) as having one of the best hit tools and gloves of any player in the minor leagues.

There still might be some skepticism, or perhaps mere curiosity, as to how Madrigal's skill set will translate to the major leagues. Players like him, who focus on making contact and putting the ball in play, are becoming rarer in today's game, which sees a focus on power and launch angle and an acceptance of strikeouts. His manager, one of "Magic's" biggest fans, isn't too concerned about Madrigal finding success once he finally makes the jump to the bigs.

"Watching him swing the bat yesterday, I'm amazed at his bat-to-ball skills. It's incredible," Renteria said Wednesday from Arizona. "He's actually filling out a little bit more. All these guys, we've seen them for the last four years, they're growing up. And even though Magic just joined us last year, you can see a difference in him, physically speaking.

"I think his skill set, in terms of his bat-to-ball skills, as he continues to develop, you may see a ball leave the ballpark here and there. But the fact he can put the bat on the ball and manage the barrel as well as he does, he'll be able to find holes. Continuing to improve upon and cleaning his swing path, staying through the ball a little bit more and still being able to use all parts of the field, his skill set will play. He'll find a way to get on base at a high rate through probably contact and eye recognition, pitch recognition."

Rick Hahn has said that he expects Madrigal to be the White Sox second baseman for the bulk of the 2020 campaign, so even if he doesn't make the 26-man roster out of spring training, keep your eyes peeled for a Madrigal sighting not too deep into the baseball calendar.

This is a matter of when, not if. So the walk-up music folks at Guaranteed Rate Field better start getting ready. Will it be "Magic Man" by Heart? Or "Strange Magic" by Electric Light Orchestra? "Do You Believe in Magic" by The Lovin' Spoonful is, of course, also acceptable.

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Focus shifting to major league White Sox, but they still have some of baseball's best prospects

Focus shifting to major league White Sox, but they still have some of baseball's best prospects

White Sox fans suddenly have reason to stop focusing on the minor leagues.

Rick Hahn's front office has done an incredible amount of work this winter adding impact veterans to the team's young core, and because of it, there are realistic playoff expectations on the South Side. The summer figures to be spent focusing on what Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease are doing at the major league level rather than what the potential stars of the future are doing in the minors.

In other words, the future is here.

But it's worth noting that the White Sox still have some of the best prospects in the game. It's true that a few of the biggest names among that group won't be prospects for much longer. Luis Robert just got a high-priced contract extension that clears the way for him to be in the lineup on Opening Day. While Michael Kopech will be limited in some fashion as the White Sox manage his workload in his return from Tommy John surgery, it's hardly out of the question that he could be a part of the 26-man group that leaves Glendale at the end of March. And Nick Madrigal, Hahn has said, figures to be the White Sox second baseman for the bulk of the 2020 campaign after he reached the doorstep of the majors last year.

The point is, however, that the White Sox core is not done growing. Moncada, Giolito, Anderson and Jimenez all broke out in big ways in 2019, and the veterans added to that group could push the team into contention mode as soon as this season. But Robert, Kopech, Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn are set to join that core, too, expanding it to one the White Sox hope will power championship contenders for years to come.

The Athletic's Jim Bowden ranked Robert as his No. 1 prospect in baseball, picking the 22-year-old center fielder to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award. And that's no stretch after the way Robert lit the minor leagues on fire in 2019. Playing at three different levels, he slashed .328/.376/.624 with 32 home runs, 92 RBIs, 31 doubles, 108 runs scored and 36 stolen bases. He's a true five-tool threat who receives rave reviews that peg him as potentially the best of all the White Sox young talent. MLB Pipeline is in the middle of rolling out their rankings ahead of the 2020 season, and we'll learn where Robert ranks on the site's updated list next weekend during SoxFest. But most recently, Robert was the site's No. 3 prospect in the game.

Kopech still has prospect status despite the fact that he made his big league debut in August 2018. That Tommy John surgery limited his major league experience to this point to just four games, wiping out his 2019 season. Whether he'll be the same elite pitcher that was promised prior to his surgery is one of several important questions facing the 2020 White Sox, but it doesn't seem to be deterring the rankers. Bowden has Kopech as the No. 11 prospect in baseball, and MLB Pipeline ranked him as the No. 4 right-handed pitching prospect in the game. Kopech is said to still be capable of unleashing the blazing fastball that made him such a tantalizing prospect in the first place. The big question now is how often he'll be able to use it, with the White Sox planning to limit him in some capacity. We'll have to wait until spring to find out exactly what those limitations look like.

Madrigal might not spend a long time at Triple-A Charlotte, expected to be manning second base for the big league White Sox for the majority of the 2020 season. But like they did with Moncada, Jimenez and Robert before him, the White Sox have no plans to rush Madrigal to the majors. Bowden has him ranked as the No. 14 prospect in the game, and we'll find out soon where MLB Pipeline has him among second basemen. We already know they think the world of his glove — which was touted as Gold Glove caliber by the White Sox the night they drafted him in 2018 — naming him the second baseman on their all-defense team (he won a minor league Gold Glove for his work last season, too). MLB Pipeline also polled general managers, scouting directors and executives across all 30 teams, and Madrigal's name popped up often, voted to possess the third best hit tool, the third best glove and the highest baseball IQ among all of the game's prospects. The guy struck out just 16 times in 532 trips to the plate last season, so he's obviously doing something right.

Vaughn is receiving similarly rave reviews this winter. Bowden ranked him as the game's No. 35 prospect, and MLB Pipeline might end up putting the White Sox most recent first-round pick even higher, naming him the top first-base prospect in baseball. A slugger whose bat earned high praise when he came out of Cal last summer, Vaughn might not reach the South Side in 2020 like the rest of the guys discussed here. But he does figure to have a similar impact when he finally does. He played just 52 games between Class A Kannapolis and Class A Winston-Salem after joining the organization, hitting a combined five homers at those stops. He's still swinging the bat that launched 50 homers and drove in 163 runs over three seasons in college. That aforementioned MLB Pipeline executive poll? In it, Vaughn was picked as having the second best hit tool in the game. The White Sox just gave Abreu a three-year contract extension that will keep him on the South Side through at least the 2022 campaign, but the 37-year-old Encarnacion could be here as briefly as one year (his contract has an option for 2021), potentially opening up a spot for Vaughn should everything go right in the minors.

And this is without even mentioning guys like Dane Dunning, Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever, who could all wind up playing important roles on the pitching staff.

So while there is plenty of reason for your minor league interest to wane — because meaningful baseball is expected to be happening at the major league level in 2020 — know that the White Sox farm system (at least the tippy top of it) is still worth salivating over. These guys should be on the South Side soon, only adding fuel to the fire Hahn has built this winter.

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