“Make no little plans,” so goes the famous quote from Daniel Burnham, “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
No one is ever going to accuse Lucas Giolito of making little plans.
How very Chicago of him.
It seems everyone in the White Sox clubhouse was doing their best Burnham impression as the 2019 season wound to a close. Yes, it was another campaign finished with a record south of .500, another campaign finished without a trip to the postseason. But there was nothing but hope in the eyes, minds and mouths of the manager and his players.
A South Sider once made it all the way to the White House on the word “hope.” These White Sox, sick of losing summers and unoccupied autumns, sound like they have their own riff on his famous slogan: “Hope ... or else.”
“Our goal will 100-percent be making the playoffs and getting as deep as we can,” Giolito said in late September. “If we don’t, then I don’t think we’ve come close to what we should be doing.”
That’s not much different from what Rick Renteria made a habit of expressing during the season’s final weeks, and even beyond when he spoke after the hiring of new hitting coach Frank Menechino last week.
“I'm not going to make any bones about it, it's time to turn the page,” he said, “it's time to get us to another level of performance. That goes across the board, it goes with all aspects of our game.”
This is nothing new for Giolito, who’s previously talked about his sky-high expectations for himself, his fellow pitchers in the starting rotation and the team as a whole. In August, he said the White Sox rotation, in the coming years, “can be one of the most dominant rotations in baseball.” That might seem like big talk considering the White Sox starting staff finished the 2019 season with a 5.30 ERA. But Giolito has reason to be confident after his transformation into an All-Star, the arrival of Dylan Cease at the major league level, the coming return of Michael Kopech from Tommy John surgery and expected offseason additions to the roster.
It’s that last bit that White Sox fans will have all their attention on this winter, and certainly there’s good reason to stay fixated on the rumor mill, considering the caliber of pitcher that will be available on the free-agent market. Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Keuchel, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Wheeler, Jake Odorizzi and maybe even Stephen Strasburg will all be looking for jobs. Pairing one of those guys with Giolito at the top of the rotation would go a long way toward making Giolito’s words come true.
So you hot stove watchers can count at least one more among your ranks.
“With what we’ve got, we’ve got a really, really good group of guys, but you can always improve anything,” Giolito said. “It’s not really my place to suggesting or talking about those kinds of things. I’m here to do my job, which is pitch. But it’s fun to think about how strong this rotation could be knowing some of the guys going into free agency this year.”
When it comes to doing his job and controlling what he can control, the standard operating procedure of any and all sports persons, Giolito did that with aplomb in 2019. After posting the worst statistics of any qualified pitcher the year prior, he went to work in the offseason, making mechanical adjustments and revamping his mental approach. It all paid off, with Giolito making the All-Star team and developing into the ace of the South Side staff. He’s destined to finish somewhere in the AL Cy Young vote after ending the year with a 3.41 ERA and 228 strikeouts, a total reached by just two other pitchers in team history.
But as much as “controlling what I can control” is part of athlete programming, so too is “I’m never satisfied.” Giolito’s subscribing to that one, as well, and it’s part of the reason his expectations for himself and the eventual fortunes of the starting staff are so high.
“For me, I see it as just a nice big step forward, kind of taking control of my career, kind of coming into my own, becoming the guy I know that I should be every time I go out and compete. But there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “I think that I can be better than I was this year.”
So back to that whole playoffs thing. If you gazed at the headline and experienced an involuntary Jim Mora impression, it wouldn’t shock me. It probably wouldn’t shock Giolito, for that matter. The White Sox have lost a combined 284 games in the last three seasons. And as general manager Rick Hahn, the guy tasked with making those much anticipated additions to the rotation and elsewhere on this roster, will readily admit, the reputation that the White Sox can’t attract a free agent of consequence will stick until they prove otherwise.
But Giolito’s breakout season was just one of many in 2019. Tim Anderson went from a .240 hitter to a batting champion. Yoan Moncada went from 217 strikeouts to the best all-around hitter on the team. Eloy Jimenez had an up-and-down rookie season thanks to a couple injuries and still hit 31 home runs. James McCann pulled off a similar transformation to Giolito’s and made the AL All-Star team. Jose Abreu, expected to be back with the team even as he heads to free agency, was Jose Abreu. And all the while, Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal raked in the minor leagues.
All that should provide an ample launching pad for any blastoff into playoff contention that might come in 2020.
Those who bought into Hahn’s rebuilding plans from Day 1 weren’t surprised by what they saw from those core players in 2019. And it’s probably why they’re so optimistic about the team’s fortunes in 2020.
“It’s great to see, but at the same time, I think we were all expecting it,” Giolito said. “I knew that I was going to be better this year, Tim knew he was going to be better, Yo-Yo knew he was going to be better. This is Eloy’s first year, he’s hit 30 home runs. This is the talent starting to come into play at a higher level because of the experience, because of everything we’ve learned through our struggles.
“And the goal now is to put all that away — ‘development,’ ‘rebuild,’ all those words — because next year it’s time to win. That’s going to be the clear goal is us coming together, holding each other accountable and playing the baseball we know we can.”
Hahn has, wisely, refused to set specific expectations for next season, opting to wait until after what’s expected to be a busy offseason concludes and the team’s roster is constructed. His manager and his players have chosen not to exercise the same patience in this specific area.
Giolito, Renteria, Anderson, Abreu. They’re following Burnham’s lead. They’re making big plans. Anyone's blood feeling stirred?