White Sox

James McCann has been an early season bright spot: Is he working his way into the White Sox long-term plans?

James McCann has been an early season bright spot: Is he working his way into the White Sox long-term plans?

When the White Sox gave James McCann a one-year deal in December, it likely wasn’t with eyes on him being the catcher of the future.

He came with the same promise of the rest of the team’s veteran additions of recent vintage: a guy who could help the younger players, a guy who could have an impact on the rebuild even if he wasn’t going to be on the next championship-contending roster on the South Side. With Zack Collins and Seby Zavala seemingly destined for late-season major league debuts, McCann wasn’t brought aboard to entrench himself behind the plate.

It’s certainly too early to say he’s done that, as McCann will quickly point out, but he’s been one of the brightest spots for the White Sox this season. And at just 28, it’s not outrageous to suggest the one-year deal handed out to simply get another big league caliber catcher on the 2019 roster might bloom into more. At the very least, it looks like a second season would be a no-brainer at this point. Though the White Sox signed McCann to a one-year contract, he’s still arbitration eligible at the end of the campaign, which makes retaining him for the 2020 season look like a relatively simple decision.

But what about beyond that? This is a team that’s always looking into the far-off future, one where general manager Rick Hahn hopes he’s crafted a perennial contender. When Hahn gazes into that crystal ball, does he see McCann?

“He's been everything we had hoped for in terms of in the clubhouse and from a defensive standpoint and quite frankly more than we had even hoped for offensively,” Hahn said earlier this week. “He made an adjustment with his stance in the offseason that he's talked about openly. That's really clicked for him. He's been a great acquisition for us. We have control of him through arbitration next year and certainly look forward to having him around for a while.”

Certainly McCann has done enough in the first month and a half of the 2019 season to make the question a not-so-ridiculous one. He leads the team with a .366 batting average, a .404 on-base percentage and a .581 slugging percentage. McCann’s not yet qualified to rank among baseball’s league leaders in such categories, but among players who have had at least 90 at-bats this season (McCann was at 93 heading into this weekend’s four-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays), he ranks 14th with a .985 OPS.

And he’s done the job he was brought in to do, too, working with the team’s young pitchers and producing some positive results. Most notably, that’s manifested itself in the form of Lucas Giolito’s budding breakout campaign. After Giolito led baseball in ERA and WHIP and ranked second in walks during the 2018 season, he’s suddenly the most reliable starting pitcher on the South Side staff. Giolito himself deserves the bulk of the credit for his 3.55 ERA in seven starts — three of which have been of the quality variety, including one run allowed in his last 14.1 innings — and McCann will happily give it to him. But the pitcher has been thrilled with what McCann has provided, as well.

“One guy that jumps out is Lucas Giolito. You see what he’s been able to do on the mound,” McCann said when asked earlier this week about young guys who have impressed him so far this season. “It’s easy to choose a guy like that because his numbers are there, you see the results he’s had. But even watching the way he goes about his business, the way he goes about his preparation between starts, the understanding he’s coming to about who he is as a pitcher.”

“He’s learned my pitching style and what I like to do really fast,” Giolito told Our Chuck Garfien about McCann earlier this week. “He can see things and make adjustments for me to make my job easier. ... He can be that field general and I can just shut my brain off and execute each pitch.”

The offensive production has rapidly changed McCann from the guy who was brought in to back up Welington Castillo for a year to a guy White Sox fans want to see in the lineup every day. And they’re getting their wish. Rick Renteria has found a spot for McCann, whether that’s an increase in his catching workload or a turn as the designated hitter. Renteria’s even inserted McCann into the cleanup spot several times this year, and McCann’s delivered with a .414/.452/.655 slash line as the No. 4 hitter.

While the catching job of the future has long seemed destined to be a Collins-Zavala production, unexpected good news can upend the best laid plans in this game. Throw in the questions about Collins’ defense that have hounded him since he was drafted, and maybe he winds up swinging his power bat at a different position on the field. Maybe McCann keeps doing the good work with the pitchers that he’s done in his brief time as a South Sider.

It’s all speculation, of course, and McCann will be among the first to tell you that it’s still early. We asked similar questions last season about surprise candidates to work their way into the long-term plans. Daniel Palka springs to mind, and the White Sox waited all of 17 games before sending him down to Triple-A this season. Dylan Covey had flashes of brilliance while youngsters like Giolito struggled around him in 2018. He’s back in the White Sox rotation now, but only after multiple starters went down with injuries.

The point is that things can change. But they already have so far this season for McCann. At the moment, he’s not just some name on a depth chart in a losing season, and maybe that could have an effect on how the White Sox envision that roster of the future.

“I feel very blessed and thankful to god for the start that I’ve had here. But I understand it’s a six-month season,” McCann said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.

“You don’t necessarily set expectations for May 13. ... But the expectation I had for myself coming into the season was take every day for what it was, take every at-bat for what it is, every pitch for what it is and do everything I could to help this team win. I feel like I’ve helped some of the pitchers along the way, and I can look to continue to help them grow and mature as the season goes on.

“I’d love to be here long term, but that’s not, honestly, my call. All I can do is control what I can control. This is a great clubhouse to be a part of. This is a great organization with a lot of tradition to be a part of. And if that’s what god has in store, I’m all for it. But I’m just trying to control each day for what it is and win each day, whatever that win may be.”

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Luis Robert checks in at No. 3 in MLB Pipeline's final Top 100 Prospects list of 2019

Luis Robert checks in at No. 3 in MLB Pipeline's final Top 100 Prospects list of 2019

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Luis Robert is generating year-end buzz after a phenomenal 2019 campaign.

Three days after the official conclusion of the 2019 Minor League Baseball season, MLB Pipeline released its final Top 100 Prospects list of the year and, as expected, Robert made an appearance near the top. He didn’t quite nab the first spot, though. Despite taking home MLB Pipeline’s minor league hitter of the year award just over two weeks ago, Robert checked in at No. 3 in the site’s rankings, trailing only Dodgers middle infielder Gavin Lux (No. 2) and Tampa Bay shortstop Wander Franco (No. 1). 

Lux and Robert have vied for a number of Minor League accolades. In addition to being named Pipeline’s minor league hitter of the year, Robert also recently took home USA Today’s minor league player of the year. Lux edged Robert out for Baseball America’s MiLB player of the year, though, and now finishes one spot ahead of him in Pipeline’s Top 100. Franco spent 2019, his age-18 season, split between Class-A and High-A ball, slashing .327/.398/.487 with 18 stolen bases in 114 games between the two.

Robert jumped from No. 5 to No. 3 in the latest update to the Top 100, and this time last year was ranked No. 44. A season slashing .328/.376/.624 (1.001 OPS) with 32 home runs, 96 RBIs and 36 stolen bases will do that.

Michael Kopech (No. 18), who missed the 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last September, joins Robert in representing the White Sox in the top 20. Additionally, Robert and 22-year-old starting pitching prospect Jonathan Stiever were named the White Sox's 'Prospects of the Year' by MLB Pipeline.

News like this - and there has been an abundance of it recently - only adds to a burgeoning sense of optimism for the future around the White Sox and its fanbase. Now, to count the days until the 2020 season, and Robert’s eventual call-up.

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After White Sox bullpen shuts down Twins, who's in and who's out for 2020?

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USA TODAY

After White Sox bullpen shuts down Twins, who's in and who's out for 2020?

The White Sox bullpen did a splendid job Wednesday night.

A “bullpen day” against the Minnesota Twins’ high-powered offense had potential disaster written all over it. Instead, Ivan Nova and a parade of relievers held those Twins hitless through five innings and to just one run in a sweep-avoiding win.

It’s actually the second time a “bullpen day” went better than expected against one of the best teams in baseball, Wednesday’s effort joining the one back in May against the Houston Astros. The White Sox lost that night but gave up just three runs to the kings of the AL West.

While nearly every pitcher that trotted out from the visitors’ bullpen Wednesday night in Minnesota pitched well, it doesn’t mean that the White Sox will carry this exact unit into a 2020 season that could be one in which they make the long awaited transition from rebuilding to contending.

Certainly Alex Colome and Aaron Bummer have been among the many bright spots for the White Sox this season, and the retention of both at the trade deadline provides confidence in what the back end of the bullpen can be in a potentially contending season. But while the eighth- and ninth-inning jobs are easily projected, what does the rest of the White Sox bullpen look like heading into 2020?

While starting pitcher is definitely on the winter wish list for Rick Hahn’s front office, it would be no shock to see relief pitching get addressed, too. It’s hard to predict which of the tons of relievers could wind up in a White Sox uniform before the team heads to Arizona for spring training. But we can try to guess at the fortunes of the relief arms currently on the roster, many of whom appeared in Wednesday night’s game.

Late-inning arms for 2020

Even if the White Sox make no additions to their bullpen this winter, the back end is pretty easy to project.

Colome has one more year of team control after being acquired in a trade with the Seattle Mariners last winter. He’s been allowing more base runners as the season has wound down — including a walk-off homer to Omar Narvaez, the guy he was traded for, last weekend in Seattle — but he’ll finish the campaign with excellent numbers, still having blown only one save. That’s the best save percentage in baseball. He’s got 124 saves over the last four seasons.

Bummer, meanwhile, has emerged from a host of internal candidates to grab a pretty tight hold on the eighth-inning job. He has a 2.31 ERA on the season with a week and a half to play, and he’s a guy who could be a back-end reliever and a potential closer for years to come.

As for other late-inning guys, Jimmy Cordero seems to be a diamond in the rough uncovered in season. He’s got a 3.34 ERA since joining the White Sox and has been an oft-used arm by Rick Renteria. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the White Sox put even more high-leverage situations on his plate next season.

Evan Marshall, too, figures to be back next season. He was another quality addition to the ‘pen, and he’s actually been better in the second half, with a 2.59 ERA since the All-Star break compared to the still-very-good 2.86 ERA before it.

Is that a fearsome foursome at the back end of a contending bullpen? Certainly all four of those guys have been good to very good this season. The White Sox would probably express a great deal of confidence in that quartet, but adding another late-inning arm to that mix in free agency would make that confidence level even higher.

What do you do with these guys?

If those four are very likely to be in key spots in the 2020 bullpen, what about some of the guys’ whose futures aren’t so obvious?

Jace Fry threw 1.2 innings without giving up a run Wednesday, dropping his season ERA to 4.96. That’s not a very pretty number, and there have been stretches this season that haven’t been very pretty, either. In a five-outing span in late May and early June, he walked six of the 19 batters he faced and gave up four earned runs in just 3.1 innings. Over a 13-outing span in August and September, Fry gave up 12 runs in 10.2 innings, walking nine and giving up 13 hits to the 53 batters he faced. But the White Sox love Fry’s potential. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him a part of the Opening Day relief corps. But if the White Sox are in contention mode, how long could they afford his inconsistencies?

Kelvin Herrera is almost certain to be back in 2020, considering the White Sox inked him to a two-year deal last offseason. But he’s going to need to improve dramatically from what he did in his first campaign on the South Side. He’s got a 6.51 ERA right now in 53 appearances. That’s obviously not good enough, and the White Sox will be hoping for something close to the kind of guy who mowed them down when he was a key piece on those back-to-back World Series teams for the Kansas City Royals. Another season removed from the foot injury that ended his 2018 season early ought to help.

Have the White Sox seen enough of Jose Ruiz and Carson Fulmer? Again, these guys have upside the team is excited about. Ruiz can throw the ball pretty hard, and Fulmer is a former top-10 draft pick. But the results have not been good, to say the least. Ruiz has a 5.87 ERA in 39 games. Fulmer, who threw 2.1 scoreless innings Wednesday, has a 5.33 ERA in 18 big league appearances. If there are free-agent additions to be had, these two could be squeezed out of the picture. But for right now, the White Sox aren’t done with them just yet.

Where art thou, minor leaguers?

If you cast your mind back to last season, you’ll remember a bunch of young arms that looked like candidates for the bullpen of the future. For various reasons, those guys didn’t do much impressing in 2019.

Injuries are to blame in certain cases. Ryan Burr was one of the many White Sox pitchers to have Tommy John surgery this season, wiping out an audition of a 2019 season for him. Ian Hamilton was similarly knocked out for the year with a pair of freak injuries. He was hurt in a car accident during spring training and then suffered a number of grisly facial injuries when he was struck with a foul ball while sitting in the dugout at Triple-A Charlotte.

Under-performance struck, too. Caleb Frare only made 31 combined appearances between the majors and Charlotte, but he posted a 10.13 ERA at the big league level and a 7.66 ERA with the Knights. Thyago Vieira had a 10.29 ERA in six major league games and a 6.27 ERA in 39 games at Triple-A.

But all four remain on the 40-man roster, for now.

Then there are three other guys who were highly thought of a year ago who didn’t help their cases for a major league promotion. Zack Burdi, the former first-round pick, was routinely rocked pitching in only 20 games at Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham, with a 6.75 ERA in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Tyler Johnson had good numbers but only pitched 31.1 innings in 22 games. Zach Thompson had a 5.23 ERA in his 45 appearances with Brimingham and Charlotte.

None of that screams must-include pieces of the 2020 major league bullpen. A lot can change between now and Opening Day, as well as now and any later point in the season when reinforcements to the relief corps could still make a big difference. But as we stand here right now, it’s hard to say any of these guys will be in the Opening Day ‘pen.

Unlikely bullpen arms?

The other internal options for relief arms in 2020 might come from an unlikely spot: the starting rotation.

There are only five spots on the 2020 starting staff, and Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease figure to have three of them spoken for. The White Sox will make at least one offseason addition, speaking for a fourth spot. And despite a bumpy 2019 season, it would not be surprising to see Reynaldo Lopez in that rotation, too, come Opening Day.

That doesn’t mean he’ll stay there all season, though. A contending White Sox team might not be able to put up with the kind of inconsistent results Lopez has delivered in 2019. Similarly, there’s a possibility Kopech could have to start the season in the minor leagues if the White Sox think he needs more time to work himself into game shape following a long layoff while recovering from his Tommy John surgery. Whether it’s multiple offseason acquisitions or simply Kopech returning and claiming a spot, Lopez might be squeezed out, in which case the bullpen would be a possible destination for him. The White Sox see him as a starter now, but there’s no reason that a squeezed-out Lopez, should it happen, couldn’t still help the team from the ‘pen.

Also, what becomes of other Tommy John recoverers when they return to full health? What happens if Carlos Rodon or Dane Dunning or Jimmy Lambert is available late in the year? Could they help in the bullpen even if they’re destined to be long-term starters? Maybe. It’s just speculation, but time will tell.

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