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If 2018 was all about 'learning experiences' for young White Sox, what did Lucas Giolito learn?

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USA TODAY

If 2018 was all about 'learning experiences' for young White Sox, what did Lucas Giolito learn?

We heard a lot about "learning experiences" during the White Sox 100-loss 2018 season.

It was Rick Renteria's way of describing the to-be-anticipated growing pains for highly touted players spending their first full seasons in the major leagues. Fan expectations were high for the likes of Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Yoan Moncada, and by very few measures did those players — some of the first of the organization's bevy of prospects to reach the South Side — live up to those expectations.

But that doesn't mean that those players' seasons were devoid of value. Renteria, the White Sox and the players all expect these "learning experiences" to have long-term benefits. In other words, it's the struggles now that will help these players succeed and create the planned perennial contender on the South Side.

So if those "learning experiences" were so valuable, what did these guys learn?

Giolito finished his first full season in the bigs with a 6.13 ERA, leading baseball in earned runs allowed and leading the American League in walks. What did he take from what looked from the outside like a disappointing season?

"I think I learned the most from my worst starts this year, the ones where I didn’t make it out of the first, didn’t make it out of the second," Giolito said before the end of the White Sox season last month. "Just going out there not having the right mindset from the get go and allowing the game to speed up on me really quickly, there’s maybe two, three, four games where that happened. And obviously I came out of those games upset and frustrated, but now looking back on them from this perspective at the end of the season, I really learned the most from those.

"Entering every single start, I get roughly 32 of them a year, make sure that I’m prepared, I’m ready to pitch, my routine is set and I’m following it to a ‘T.’ And over the second half of the season, I started to put up better numbers, put up more competitive starts just through that process of earlier in the year grinding and grinding and not doing well. I learned a lot about myself in that process as a pitcher and as a competitor."

Certain numbers don't exactly show a drastic improvement from one half of the season to the other: Giolito's ERA prior to the All-Star break (6.18) and after it (6.04) were pretty much the same. He had a much improved August (3.86 ERA in six starts) and a rough September (9.27 ERA in five starts).

But again, the 2018 season wasn't about what the numbers look like now. It was about what those numbers will look like a year or two or three from now, when the White Sox make their transition from rebuilding to contending.

"You go out there and you don’t get the job done, you’re knocked out of the game early, looking back on it, it’s like, ‘Now I know what doesn’t work.’ And I’m able to make those adjustments and the changes to the routine and the changes to mindset and things to be able to go out there," Giolito said. "I’m not going to have my best stuff every day. Some days I might not feel right and might be battling myself a little bit. But it’s being able to make that quick adjustment, not letting the game speed up. That’s the biggest thing.

"At this level, you go out there and you’re not feeling right in the first inning, it might be three runs, four runs on the board before you even know it. And I think getting that experience, getting to pitch every fifth day for an entire season and having a ton of downs and starting to figure it out more toward the end, it’s gaining that experience and learning what works and learning what doesn’t."

Throughout the season, Renteria complimented Giolito for the pitcher's ability to move on from rough beginnings to starts and turn in a five- or six-outing despite the early trouble. Giolito did a good deal of that throughout the season, with longevity during starts rarely being an issue, even if the run totals were high. Only six of his 32 starts in 2018 were shorter than five innings, and the percentage of his starts that lasted six and seven innings increased from the first half of the season to the second.

And then there are the walks, and there was a significant decrease in the amount of guys Giolito was putting on base between the first and second halves of the season. He walked 60 batters in 103.1 innings in the first half for a BB/9 of 5.2, compared to 30 batters in 70 innings in the second half for a BB/9 of 3.9.

So there were positives for Giolito to take from his 2018 campaign.

"The second half of the season, bouncing back from what I was doing. Cutting down on the walks, starting to pitch better, pitch more consistently. Even games when I wasn’t sharp, I was getting hit around, not doing so well, I did a better job of at least giving the team a chance, getting a little bit deeper into the game," he said. "So I’d say those are some of the highlights, learning from the mistakes and learning from the failures and within the season being able to make the right adjustments to be more successful."

On Opening Day, Giolito talked about how different a pitcher he was more than a year after joining the White Sox organization. One full season in the big leagues, and Giolito is again a different pitcher. It's that continuing evolution that the White Sox hope will make him a mainstay in their rotation of the future.

"More experience, more mature. I’m no longer really fazed by the big situation. If I get into trouble in the first inning, I’m not worrying about it or thinking about it or how I screwed up the last at-bat, last pitch, I walked a guy, gave up a double, whatever it might be. Now, what’s in the past is in the past, even when I’m out there," he said. "If I mess up a couple pitches, I know the adjustment to make and I’m going to do my best to make that adjustment without it taking a couple innings or even never making the adjustment the entire start, which is what was happening through April, May, June.

"Just getting that experience and learning to make those adjustments on the fly. I’d say that’s what I’m really taking away from this year."

Gio Gonzalez's crazy journey back to the White Sox

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USA TODAY

Gio Gonzalez's crazy journey back to the White Sox

GLENDALE, Ariz — When the news broke in December that the White Sox signed pitcher Gio Gonzalez, it sounded like an early April Fool’s joke.

Even Gonzalez himself had trouble believing it, and he was the one who signed the contract.

“Honestly, from the bottom of my heart, I did not think that I would have been on (the White Sox) radar,”  Gonzalez said on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “I didn’t think they wanted me to come back. Lo and behold, I stand corrected. I’m happy I did.”

How Gonzalez is finally back with the White Sox is one of the wildest transaction journeys in franchise history. 

“It’s good to be back again. It was again and again and one more time again,” Gonzalez said smiling.

His 15-year adventure culminated last week at Camelback Ranch with a hug between Gonzalez and White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams, the man who twice traded Gonzalez away.

“The first time around, I’d do it again,”  Williams said about trading Gonzalez. “The second time around, no.”

More on that in a moment.

Drafted by the White Sox towards the end of the first round in 2004, Gonzalez seemed destined for a spot in the major league rotation behind the likes of Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras.

But then, a World Series happened.

And 15 years later, Gonzalez would like to remind us of the other championship won by the White Sox in 2005 — in the minor leagues at Class-A Kannapolis.

“I was a part of that by the way,”  Gonzalez said. “I did something at least for the White Sox in the minor leagues. We got one for Kannapolis!”

But in December of 2005, the White Sox were charging for another World Series title. Believing he needed a left-handed bat in the middle of the order, Williams, then the GM, acquired future Hall of Famer Jim Thome from the Phillies for fan favorite Aaron Rowand and Gonzalez, who was one of the White Sox top pitching prospects at the time.

“That was Jim (bleeping) Thome,” Williams said laughing. “So I would do that (trade) again. Actually not now, because Gio can still pitch and Jim can’t play anymore.”

Williams can joke about it now, but back then he had to put his emotions aside and complete a baseball trade he felt made too much sense to pass up.

“We were trying to repeat. We needed that big left-handed bat, but it was still difficult. Everybody knows how close Aaron Rowand was to my heart so it was difficult enough as it was, but in order to make it happen, they insisted on Gio or it wasn’t going to happen. We felt we needed Jim Thome to try to go back to the World Series,” Williams said.

Gonzalez who was only 20 years old at the time, was overwhelmed to be in the same trade as Thome.

“I was blown away by the name alone, his presence,” Gonzalez said about Thome. “I was also excited because it was going to be another chapter in my life. I was sad to see the White Sox go because that was the team I wanted to be with so bad. You want to play with the team that drafted you. You want to be a part of their history, their legacy. It was unfortunate, but it gave me an opportunity to be somewhere else.”

However, his stay in Philadelphia wouldn’t last long. Almost a year to the day later, out of nowhere, Gonzalez received a phone call from the White Sox.  

“Bam! We’re back (with the White Sox) with another trade,” Gonzalez recalled.

The White Sox re-acquired Gonzalez along with fellow pitcher Gavin Floyd for Freddy Garcia. Life seemed right again. Gonzalez was returning to the organization that drafted him. After a dominant season at Double-A Birmingham in 2007, he was so close to Chicago he could taste the pizza.

But then came the trade Williams admits he regrets to this very day.

The White Sox sent Gonzalez, outfielder Ryan Sweeney and minor league pitcher Fautino De Los Santos to Oakland for a switch-hitting slugger with a big personality, Nick Swisher. The White Sox would make the playoffs that 2008 season with Swisher (or despite him, depending on who you ask), but the marriage didn’t last long. By September, Swisher was often riding the bench and barely played in the ALDS against Tampa Bay. 

The following November, Williams shipped Swisher to the Yankees in a trade highlighted by journeyman utilityman Wilson Betemit who played a total of 20 games with the White Sox. Gonzalez would become an All-Star in 2011 and 2012.

That was an ugly paragraph to write.

“I should have kept him that time. That’s all I’ll say,” Williams said about the second Gonzalez trade. He wanted to say more. Almost did, but instead just repeated the line, “I should have kept him that time.”

Over a decade later, what does Gonzalez think about being traded twice by Williams?

“The first time I gave him the benefit of the doubt,” Gonzalez said. “The second one, we laugh about it now. He brought me back.”

Besides those two All-Star appearances, Gonzalez would lead the National League with 21 wins in 2012 and he’d make eight starts in the postseason with the Nationals and Brewers. Although he was the one responsible for trading him, Williams cheered for Gonzalez every step of the way.

“Especially given the fact that I didn’t think it was fair to trade a young guy like that, so I’ve rooted for him this entire time,” Williams said. “That’s why it was easy when I saw him (at Camelback Ranch) and gave him a hug. We had a good laugh.”

Rick Hahn also brought the funny when he contacted Gonzalez to welcome him back to the White Sox after the one-year deal was finalized.

“I said, ‘I am more confident now than ever that we’re actually going to see you in a White Sox uniform,’” Hahn recalled. “We absolutely laughed about the history when I officially re-welcomed him for a third time to the organization.”

Gonzalez’s third stint with White Sox has been slightly delayed, however. He arrived in Glendale with some discomfort in his left shoulder which has put him about a week behind schedule. Gonzalez says there’s no reason to be alarmed.

“I think we’re making great progress, especially from where I was before to where I am now. It’s night and day.”

So are the White Sox — this spring compared to last.

“It seems like they want to do magic this year and for years to come.”

Better late than never for Gonzalez and the White Sox, reunited again.

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White Sox Talk Podcast: The crazy journey of Gio Gonzalez

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: The crazy journey of Gio Gonzalez

Making it to the majors is a fantastic and rare feat in itself, but White Sox pitcher Gio Gonzalez's path to the White Sox, and from the White Sox, several times over is a journey baseball fans everywhere should listen to. Chuck Garfien is joined by Gonzalez to discuss his pro career and what he sees in this young White Sox team.

(1:40) - Surprised the White Sox wanted him to comeback

(6:00) - Wanted to go a team that wanted to give him a opportunity

(10:00) - Yasmani Grandal is a different kind of person

(13:30) - Thoughts on the Sox young pitching core

(16:20) - Thoughts on the expectations for this team

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

 

White Sox Talk Podcast

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