White Sox

Jekyll-and-Hyde Reynaldo Lopez creating big questions for White Sox 2020 rotation

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USA TODAY

Jekyll-and-Hyde Reynaldo Lopez creating big questions for White Sox 2020 rotation

The White Sox starting rotation of the future, far-flung or immediate, is still under construction.

“Pardon our dust” signs are hanging around much of the team, be it because young players are still developing or because Rick Hahn’s front office hasn’t yet acquired the outside-the-organization pieces that are supposed to help vault this franchise from rebuilding mode to contending mode.

One of the items at the top of Hahn’s offseason to-do list is acquiring starting pitching. Gerrit Cole is the shiniest prize on the free-agent market, and so fans’ attention has gravitated toward the Cy Young candidate currently throwing down in Houston.

But whether the White Sox land the biggest fish in the pond or make less explosive improvements to the rotation, there will be improvements. That, however, won’t change the fact that the 2020 starting staff is on track to be a mostly homegrown unit. Lucas Giolito has transformed himself into an All Star, Michael Kopech is readying a return from Tommy John surgery, Dylan Cease is showing flashes in his first taste of the big leagues and Reynaldo Lopez is … well, what is Reynaldo Lopez doing?

There are plenty of question marks surrounding that list of names. For as terrific as Giolito has been in 2019, he’ll have just two big league seasons under his belt heading into 2020, one of which was fantastic and the other of which went about as poorly as imaginable. Cease might have nights where he’s showing just how many different pitches he can use to get batters out, but he’s not keeping them from crossing home plate, with a 6.53 ERA in his first dozen major league starts. Kopech still has the standing as one of the highest rated pitching prospects in baseball, but his next start will be just his fifth in the bigs and come more than a year and a half after the previous one.

The negative possibilities in answering those questions could frustrate next season. But Lopez is frustrating now. His ugly first half segued to what looked like would be a dominant second half, but that dominance has been harder and harder to pin down lately, at least on a consistent basis, his season now in Jekyll-and-Hyde mode as the campaign’s final weeks play out.

In his last four starts, Lopez has done this: He pitched five innings of no-hit ball against the Texas Rangers, then gave up six runs without getting out of the first inning against the Atlanta Braves, then allowed just one hit and struck out 11 in a complete-game effort against the Cleveland Indians, then gave up four homers in just 4.2 innings Wednesday night against the Kansas City Royals.

Watching Lopez’s stat lines has become like watching a tennis match as he’s whiplashed back and forth between gems and clunkers.

“It is frustrating not being able to be consistent,” Lopez said through team interpreter Billy Russo after Wednesday’s loss. “Especially after the last outing (against Cleveland). I was feeling good and I was hoping to be as consistent as I was in that outing today. But I couldn't, and that's something that is frustrating. There are no other words to describe that. It is what it is.”

This isn’t to say that Lopez’s second half hasn’t been a positive one in general, as his ERA since the All-Star break is still below 4.00. That remains a huge improvement on his first-half numbers, which included a 6.34 ERA that was among the highest in baseball. Coming into Wednesday night, Lopez had given up just four home runs in the second half. Then he doubled that number in fewer than 15 outs.

Poor results here and there can be easily forgiven, of course. And all anyone needs to do is look to Giolito’s transformation to see how a young player can figure things out and make huge, quick strides toward reaching their potential. Lopez is still developing, and growing pains like these are hardly unexpected.

But Lopez has a tendency to keep talking about mistakes he hasn't stopped making. He’s often discussed his need to focus on a pitch-to-pitch basis, and he’s talked about trying to do too much with his pitches. Wednesday, a new struggle emerged, as Lopez apparently was working so fast he wasn’t allowing catcher Welington Castillo enough time to set his targets.

“That was definitely a factor in the outcome today,” Lopez said. “I wasn't allowing Castillo to put the target. I was pitching too quick. I wasn't able to let him to locate the target for me to pitch in that spot. That was a factor today, and that was my fault. I know that I need to do better in that aspect of the game.”

Can Lopez overcome these issues? He has. He’s shown what he can do when everything comes together, when he’s doing everything he’s supposed to do, and the results have been electric. But for whatever reason or reasons, he’s not doing those things every time out. And that’s not helpful in attempting to prove you’ve got what it takes to be a part of a contending rotation.

“That will all come together,” he said. “This is still a learning process, and I'm learning. I'm actually learning more this year than what I learned last year, even though I had a good season last year to my standards.

“I learned today that I need to slow the game down in order to allow my catcher to put the target. I need to be able to make my pitches in those spots and instead of just run over and be too quick on my pitches to home plate. That was a lesson that I got today.

“I just need to be more consistent and to be able to apply all those lessons in every outing and be consistent on that.”

The White Sox aren’t anywhere close to giving up on Lopez. Part of what’s made Lopez’s recent swings so maddening is that he continues to show why the team believes he can be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher one day.

But the 2020 rotation could end up being a crowded group. Even if the White Sox add just one pitcher to this staff this winter — and the possibility exists they’ll add more than one — Giolito, Kopech and Cease don’t figure to be going anywhere. Eventually, Dane Dunning, Carlos Rodon and Jimmy Lambert will all recover from their Tommy John surgeries. And pitching prospect Jonathan Stiever made waves this season in the minors.

Lopez is going to have to find his consistency, or there’s a chance he could get squeezed out by someone who can.

If 2020 is going to be a contending season for these White Sox, can they afford Lopez’s inconsistency? Fast forward to a year from now. If the White Sox are playing meaningful September baseball, then a date with the 92-loss Royals needs to be a slam dunk, not a night when the starter gets tagged for a quartet of homers in a losing effort.

And that’s what’s got some fans spooked about Lopez. Not the potential, but the potential for outings like Wednesday’s.

“Do we scratch our heads sometimes? Absolutely,” manager Rick Renteria said before the game. “Ultimately we have to take every start for what it is. Try to gain as much information as we can, try to help him through that process.

“He gets frustrated, as well, when he’s not executing or doing what he wants to do. But we have to take it and go with it and build something positive from it because we know and expect down the road as we build an organization we expect I’m to be pretty good and we expect him to execute on a consistent basis.”

There are plenty of questions about the pitchers expected to make up the White Sox starting staff in 2020, but plenty more reasons fans should be excited, too, plenty of reasons they could do what Giolito has said and be a dominant rotation.

The biggest of the questions, though, might just belong to Lopez, because on a start-to-start basis, he’s giving us no idea what to expect.

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White Sox Talk Podcast: Everything we learned from Rick Hahn at the G.M. Meetings

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: Everything we learned from Rick Hahn at the G.M. Meetings

Chuck Garfien speaks with Vinnie Duber who is covering the G.M. Meetings in Arizona where Rick Hahn spoke with the media for the first time in the offseason.

Why Vinnie's big takeaway is "don't take anything off the table" this offseason for the White Sox (1:45), Hahn talks about signing premium free agents and the Machado experience (6:00), weighing defense vs. hitting for who they get to play right field (9:10), would they move Yoan Moncada from third base if they signed a certain free agent?(11:45), where are things with Jose Abreu (21:00) and more.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

White Sox Talk Podcast

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No move is off the table for White Sox this offseason

No move is off the table for White Sox this offseason

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — What exactly will the White Sox do this offseason? If you have access to some truth serum, you’ve got a decent shot at finding out.

Despite the seemingly public nature of the White Sox pursuit of Manny Machado last winter, Rick Hahn doesn’t really talk about specific targets. So there was no word from the general manager Tuesday on whether there actually exist attempts to lure Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg or your heretofore unnamed favorite free agent to the South Side.

But there was one big takeaway from Hahn’s roughly 45-minute session with reporters at the GM meetings: No move is off the table for the White Sox this winter.

We’ve long analyzed whether Player X fits better than Player Y, whether the White Sox are looking for a long-term piece or should be targeting short-term pieces, whether it makes any sense to pursue a player who plays a position the White Sox already have spoken for, et cetera, et cetera.

Well forget about all those disclaimers. There seems to be no door Hahn’s front office is going to close in the name of improving this team.

Just go down the list of potential additions the White Sox could make this winter, and you’ll see what I mean.

Short-term additions are on the table

Are the White Sox, who have long touted the importance of long-term fits, still shying away from shorter-term additions? No. Long-term additions are better, but … 

“We're getting closer to the point where it makes more sense to have one- or two-year fixes in place. Ideally, we want to find a way to add to the core, guys that are going to be here for a long time and continue to grow with what we've already accumulated. In reality, that's a little easier said than done, so some of the improvements may come on a shorter-term basis.

“Yeah, we've gotten to that point where it does make some sense to add a couple of those types.”

Older veterans who haven’t always seemed like the best fit for a young, rebuilding team? Now that the White Sox are nearing their transition from rebuilding to contending, those guys become realistic options. On the table.

A trade for a player with one year of control (like Mookie Betts) is on the table

Would the White Sox trade for a player with just one season of club control remaining on his contract? Yes. Guys with more control are better, but … 

“You want guys who are going to fit for the long-term,” Hahn said. “We want to add a guy who's got a three-, four-, five-, six-year window of control, where he's going to continue to improve and he's going to grow with this young core. Those guys aren't so easy to acquire.

“Short of that, we're going to look for guys who can certainly make you better in the short-term but ideally have a little back-end control. If those don't exist, if we don't come across the right fit, then we'd be open to a one-year improvement knowing that with where we've put ourselves economically, we might have the ability to retain that player when they hit free agency.”

Interesting, considering the Boston Red Sox might be dealing away Mookie Betts in their quest to get under the luxury tax. Betts seems set on heading to free agency after next season, meaning whichever team acquires him would only be doing so for one year. But the White Sox could use a player of that caliber in their lineup and a player of that caliber in right field. Sounds like they wouldn’t exactly lack confidence in their ability to make his stay last more than just one year, either. On the table.

A right fielder who plays suboptimal defense (like Nicholas Castellanos) is on the table

Speaking of right field, just how important the White Sox add a right fielder who can play some defense? Very. But … 

“It’s a legitimate consideration. We don't want to send somebody out there and it's going to, you know, tax our center fielder too much or tax the pitchers too much by not making plays,” Hahn said. “So it's a legitimate consideration.

“I pause half a step because we have discussed some pretty good offensive contributors who might not quite be up to snuff to what you want defensively that conceivably at some point in the offseason we wind up saying, ‘They're the best option, so let's move on it.’ So I don't want to just say it's the end all be all.”

Interesting, considering that the top outfielder on the free-agent market fits the description of someone who swings a difference-making bat but might not be “up to snuff” defensively. Castellanos’ offense is not a question, and while his defense is probably not as bad as his reputation would lead you to believe, the reputation exists for a reason. Putting him in the same outfield with work-in-progress Eloy Jimenez would be less than ideal. But putting their bats in the same lineup might be too much to pass up. On the table.

A professional DH (like Edwin Encarnacion) is on the table

When adding a designated hitter, do the White Sox want someone who has plenty of DH-ing experience and could DH on an everyday basis? No. But … 

“We're not eager to get locked in with someone positionally who can only DH,” Hahn said. “I think having a guy who can fill that role but also go out and play a defensive position would be a net greater benefit. We're talking about generic, hypothetical players.

“If you're talking about a guy Nelson Cruz, yeah, you're OK with that guy just being a DH. If you're talking about lower caliber guy than that, then maybe you want them to add some defensive value, as well, to move them around the diamond and get other guys off their feet from time to time.”

Ideally, the White Sox would like some versatility. It’d be nice to have a Cruz-esque thumper at DH, too. One of those exists on the free-agent market in Edwin Encarnacion. On the table.

A player who plays position the White Sox already have (like Anthony Rendon) is on the table

And what about Rendon? He’s the top position player on the free-agent market. He also plays third base, the same position Yoan Moncada does. Moncada had himself a terrific year playing third for the White Sox. Would they change his position for a second straight season? They don’t want to. But … 

“In terms of moving Yoan, that's not a goal. We're not looking to move him,” Hahn said. “We think he's a really, really good third baseman and will be that for a long time.

“When we have players with flexibility and athleticism, you at least consider different permutations. We wouldn't be doing our job if there was a way for us to get better that we just ruled out because we have set at a certain spot.”

Interesting. Rendon seems like the type of player you rearrange your defense for. He’s one of the best hitters in the game and would accomplish the White Sox goal of adding a premium talent to their rebuilding project. Moncada’s versatility could play a big role in that. On the table.

Top-of-the-rotation pitchers (like Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg) are on the table

What kind of starting pitchers are the White Sox looking for this winter? Top-of-the-rotation guys or middle-of-the-rotation guys?

“We have room for improvement in both spots,” Hahn said. “We'll continue the trade and free-agent market for all different types of starters, and any ones that we feel are going to make us better both short- and potentially long-term, we'll be in on.”

That’s extraordinarily all-encompassing, but instead of viewing it as the White Sox not saying much, view it as there being many different possibilities. Cole and Strasburg fit the mold of top-of-the-rotation arms, as do fellow free agents Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel. Zack Wheeler and Jake Odorizzi might be more of the middle-of-the-rotation types. All of them and more are on the table.

———

That’s a breakneck assessment of the situations, but the takeaway remains: No move appears to be off the table for the White Sox in this stage of the offseason, and that ought to have folks looking for big splashes at every turn pretty excited.

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