White Sox

Lucas Giolito thrilled with White Sox additions: 'It's time to shift gears to winning baseball'

Lucas Giolito thrilled with White Sox additions: 'It's time to shift gears to winning baseball'

If you’re currently in a state of White Sox Hot Stove euphoria, excited that the front office satisfied the cravings of a playoff-hungry fan base with a roster-altering, emergency-podcast-making offseason, you’re not alone.

Even players like Lucas Giolito are elated with the new additions and can’t wait for the season to get started.

“As a member of the team who’s been there through the hard times of the last couple years, seeing the moves we’ve made, the player additions, I’m just excited to get out to spring training to meet all the new faces and get to work,” Giolito said in an interview on the White Sox Talk Podcast.

“It’s time to shift gears to winning baseball on the South Side.”

When the Washington Nationals traded Giolito, along with fellow pitchers Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning, to the White Sox for Adam Eaton at the start of the rebuild in December 2016, the two teams were in completely different places.

The Nationals were in win-now mode.

The White Sox were thinking win later.

Now thanks to the signings of playoff veterans Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion and Gio Gonzalez, plus the acquisition of 24-year-old Nomar Mazara and the contract extension of Luis Robert that will likely have him in the lineup on Opening Day, Giolito says there’s a new mindset with the White Sox.

“We’re seeing that shift in focus from rebuild, development, experience to now winning,” Giolito explained. “Guys like Dylan Cease, they’re seeing that shift. I’m definitely seeing that shift. I don’t even see it as added pressure or anything. It’s more like, ‘OK, this is just the natural way of things. This is what we’re going to do.’”

Soon after Grandal signed with the White Sox in November, one of his first phone calls was to Giolito, who had a lot of questions for the older and more experienced Grandal. But as it turned out, the new White Sox catcher actually had a lot of questions for his new top pitcher.

“He was asking me about my method, my approach, the adjustments I made, how I like to pitch,” Giolito recalled from their conversation. “We got into the overall vibe, the chemistry in the clubhouse. What we’re trying to do. What we’re trying to accomplish.”

What kind of questions did Giolito have for the White Sox new All-Star catcher?

Considering Grandal has been to the playoffs in each of the last five seasons, including two trips to the World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017 and 2018, Giolito was searching for the secret sauce that has been missing from the White Sox kitchen since he arrived here three years ago.

“How do we get over that hump?” Giolito asked. “How do we get to winning? What do we need to do as a cohesive unit? Not just adding good players, which we’re doing and that’s great, but how do we come together and learn to win and make that part of the culture?”

Answers to those questions are expected to be discussed in more detail when the whole team is together at spring training next month in Arizona.

For a pitcher like Giolito, his best friend on the field is his catcher. Last season, he developed a great rapport with James McCann. Now with Grandal aboard, the White Sox have a surplus of catching they haven’t seen in years.

“Between him and James, I’d say that we probably have one of the best — if not the best — catching combinations in the big leagues,” Giolito said. “You know all about James and what he brings to the team. Now we’re adding another really good catcher. I think that they’re going to be able to work together really well. As far as scouting reports and getting a feel for the pitchers, it’s invaluable. It’s so important to have good catching. We have some of the best. I’m looking forward to it.”

Giolito’s brain has a lot of storage space for pitching minutiae. As a young hurler with the Nationals, he tried to absorb as much information as he could from Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Since coming to the White Sox, he received a master class in pitching from James Shields in 2017 and 2018 and leaned on Ivan Nova for wisdom during his breakout year in 2019.

But the signing of Keuchel might turn out to be a perfect match, considering where Giolito is right now in his development and what Keuchel has accomplished and the knowledge he can provide.

“It’s huge,” Giolito said about the Keuchel addition. “I have aspirations to win a Cy Young Award, win a World Series. He’s been there. He’s done that before. Being able to work alongside a guy that’s done that, that has been around a very long time, knows what it takes to win, knows what it takes to be consistent, it’s super important for me. I’m looking forward to picking his brain as a player, as a person and developing that good, close relationship. With an addition like him, I think it makes our starting-pitching staff that much stronger. I’m looking forward to working with Dallas and seeing what he’s got for us.”

Giolito didn’t have to look far to find praise for Keuchel. One of Giolito's best friends is Atlanta Braves pitcher Max Fried, who was on the receiving end of Keuchel’s teachings last season.

“He’s told me nothing but great things about Dallas,” Giolito said. “He loved working with him. They had a good time together in Atlanta last year. I think it’s a really good fit. I think we are so much better off having a guy like him in our rotation.”

And though he might not have the same accomplishments as Keuchel, don’t overlook the signing of fellow starter Gio Gonzalez, a two-time All-Star who was with the Nationals when Giolito was coming up in the organization.

“Such a good dude,” Giolito said about Gonzalez, who was originally drafted by the White Sox in 2004. “He’s in the same boat (as Keuchel). He’s been on winning teams. He knows what it takes. He’s a strong competitor. That’s all the stuff that we need from that veteran presence that can guide and show the younger guys the way. Very, very exciting.”

Looking to build on his storybook, breakout season of 2019, Giolito is focused this offseason on building strength in his right shoulder. After logging a career-high 176.2 innings in 2019, he wants to push that number over 200 in 2020.

“The work has been fantastic,” Giolito said.

Why’s that?

Because simply adding muscle around his shoulder has felt like a vacation compared to what he went through a year ago.

“I’m not going to lie to you, last year was a full overhaul,“ Giolito said. “It was, ‘Let me completely rebuild my arm action, and let me completely rebuild how I’m using my legs and hips. It took a lot of practice and a lot of drills, and I felt like the timing and how everything synched up, got better over the course of the season.”

He’s also working on his pitch grips, “instead of last year when I was working on, ‘What’s my arm doing? Where’s my arm in space when my hips are doing this?’ Now it’s making things as close to perfect as possible. That’s going to be the case for the rest of my career.”

The sudden hype surrounding the White Sox has started to spread outside of Chicago. You may have heard that the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas recently gave the White Sox 5-1 odds to win the AL pennant and 10-1 odds to win the World Series in 2020. This for a team that won only 72 games last season and hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2008. Clearly, some Vegas experts, who are inexplicably correct more often than not, see big things potentially happening with the White Sox in 2020.

“That’s very true,” Giolito said. “But at the same time, it’s time for us to go out there and prove it. There can be a lot of talk and a lot of buzz in the offseason, but the biggest thing is we show up at spring training ready to work, put that good work in and carry that into the season. The biggest thing is consistency. Making winning important. As a unit, we show up in the clubhouse every day with the expectation to win that game. I think if we do that, we’ll be in a good spot.”

The White Sox certainly seem to be a long shot to win the World Series in 2020, but if you’re looking for a favorite to turn their fortunes around next season, that's where the South Siders are a really good bet.

“I want to win. I’m so sick of losing,” Giolito said. “I think we’re starting to put the pieces together to make that happen.”

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Michael Kopech's back on the mound, scary comebackers and all

Michael Kopech's back on the mound, scary comebackers and all

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Everything is going according to plan for Michael Kopech.

Except for the part where he almost got drilled in the face with a line drive.

Kopech faced a scary comebacker off the bat of Matt Skole during live batting practice Friday at Camelback Ranch, one that forced him to get out of the way and one that, according to Kopech, felt like it might have even grazed his ear.

It's not the kind of sight anyone wants to see for a pitcher who hasn't thrown in any game above instructional league since September 2018, just now returning from his lengthy recovery after Tommy John surgery.

But, hey, you want to get back in the swing of things? This is what you get.

"I haven’t seen that kind of real-time feedback in a long time, and that’s about as real-time as it gets," Kopech said with a chuckle after practice. "That’s what you want to experience, to see if you can get somebody or if he can get you. And he got me."

Fortunately for the White Sox, Skole didn't "get" Kopech any worse.

Kopech is an important part of the team's long-term plans, and while the exact specifics of the plan for Kopech this season haven't been formally announced, it sounds like there's a good grasp on them, per manager Rick Renteria, though the skipper wouldn't reveal exactly where Kopech will begin the 2020 regular season.

"I think that we are very optimistic about where he’s at," Renteria said. "I think that the plan that the organization has in terms of how we want to start him off is probably pretty consistent in terms of where he’ll be. And then we will allow him to continue to pitch and get some innings under his belt. And I’m sure, first year after coming from the surgery, that there are parameters I’m sure we want to stay within.

"It will be still a very optimistically guarded approach to where he’s at."

So, no, we don't yet know whether Kopech will begin the campaign pitching for the big league team or pitching at Triple-A Charlotte in an effort to manage his workload in his first year back on the mound.

Though the competitor in him probably wants to be on that 26-man roster heading back to the South Side for the March 26 opener at Guaranteed Rate Field, Kopech is willing to do whatever is necessary for him to be a part of a playoff push, pitching in meaningful games down the stretch.

"At the end of the day, it’s me trying to fit into a plan to make the team better collectively. And if that’s not starting with the team right away, then I’m OK with that, too," Kopech said. "I just need to do what’s the best interest of me and the team.

"Ultimately, my goal is to be able to go deep into games for 30 starts a season. Now obviously, I haven’t had the experience of doing that to the extent that I want to, especially at the big league level. But I think that’s the point of what my entire rehab process was, to build me up to where I’m going to be able to take that kind of workload."

The White Sox have been adamant about their vision that Kopech will one day soon be an integral part of the big league rotation. For those wondering if this slow-play has anything to do with health effects from his surgery, it doesn't. He's healthy and pitching without restriction. But considering even before the procedure the most innings he'd thrown in a season were the 134.1 he logged in 2017, it's understandable the White Sox wouldn't want to overtax his arm.

The plan this spring is slow moving, as well, with Kopech still unsure when he's going to get into Cactus League action, which begins Saturday. So, there's still some question marks this spring as there are for the regular season.

"Right now, we have a plan of when I’m going to throw live BPs and when I’m going to throw bullpens. The question mark is still about when I’m getting into a game. But I think I have a plan to go at the beginning of March, around there anyway. I’m just trying to work my way up to that.

"It’s been pretty much day to day. We’re trying to really focus on spring right now and make sure my workload gets managed properly. And then by the time we get to the season, hopefully I’m ready to break with a team, whether it’s Charlotte or Chicago."

Every detail of the plan might not be public knowledge. But the plan is in place, and everything seems to be running smoothly.

Though it probably wouldn't hurt to cut down on the number of liners heading for Kopech's face...

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A bowling-ball minor leaguer nobody's talking about could be the White Sox 26th man


A bowling-ball minor leaguer nobody's talking about could be the White Sox 26th man

GLENDALE, Ariz. — In a White Sox clubhouse filled with big-name prospects like Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn sits an under-the-radar minor leaguer who can flat out rake.

His last name is Mercedes, but this isn’t a sports car we’re talking about. Yermin Mercedes is built like a Mack Truck.

He plays the game like one, too.

“I like the homers. I have a hard swing. I like to swing,” said the 5-foot-10, 225-pound Mercedes, who when he settles into the batter’s box looks like the second coming of Juan Uribe.

“Yeah, I’m good with that,” Mercedes said, smiling when asked about the Uribe comparison. “I’m feeling great with that.”

Chris Getz sees the resemblance, too.

“Juan could certainly do some damage when he went into the box, and he went in there fearlessly. I think that attitude that (Mercedes) plays with, Juan did that,” said Getz, the White Sox director of player development who was a teammate of Uribe’s. “He played with fun and enjoyed the game.”

That joy was certainly on display during Thursday’s workout, when Mercedes celebrated a home run with a bat flip — during batting practice. Uribe would be proud.

“I have fun every day,” Mercedes said. “Everyone likes it when I smile or joke or play with my teammates. They like that.”

How Mercedes got here is a story in itself.

He logged three years in the Dominican Summer League with the Washington Nationals before being released in 2014. He spent time in the Pecos League, a remote independent league filled with baseball lifers. He ended up with the White Sox after they selected him in the minor league phase of the 2017 Rule 5 Draft.

Mercedes has been blowing through red lights and stop signs every step of the way in his all-out quest to make it to the majors.

And now, he’s got another road block ahead of him.

Though he’s got a spot on the White Sox 40-man roster, the 27-year-old catcher is buried on the depth chart behind Yasmani Grandal, James McCann and Zack Collins.

So this is probably a good time to ask two important questions: How is Mercedes going to make it to the majors in 2020, and why is he someone White Sox fans should really be watching this spring?

Let’s start with what Mercedes did last season when he was promoted to Triple-A Charlotte and compare him with one of his Knights teammates, the guy who will likely be the big league team's Opening Day center fielder:

— Mercedes: .310/.386/.647 in 53 games

— Luis Robert: .297/.341/.634 in 47 games


Then there’s Mercedes’ confidence. Spring training games haven’t even started yet, but when the regular season begins on March 26, Mercedes plans on being in a White Sox uniform. His message to general manager Rick Hahn:

“I’ll be there. I’m the 26th man. Yes, of course. I promise you,” Mercedes said emphatically.

Speak with his teammates from last season in Charlotte, and they wouldn’t be surprised if this charismatic bowling ball of a baseball player is knocking opposing pitchers out of games from the get-go in the big leagues.

“When I saw Yermin for the first time, I thought that he was going to have to tone it down a little bit, but he proved me wrong, just by being ready to hit and having the intent to hit the ball and do damage,” first baseman Matt Skole said. “As long as he continues to build off what he did last year, he’s definitely going to make an impact at the big league level at some point.”

And don’t limit Mercedes as an all-or-nothing hitter. He’s more than that.

“He’s a guy who can hit a fastball. He can hit it to all fields. He’s a good two-strike hitter, meaning he’s good at off-speed and fastballs,” Getz explained. “He can put together an at-bat. He’s an offensive force. You put on top of that that he’s a catcher that can do those types of things, it’s impressive.”

Then there’s the clutch competitor that thrives in the big moments. That’s Mercedes.

“You like playing with him, and you don’t want to play against him that’s for sure,” infielder Danny Mendick said. “When he gets in there, he knows what he’s doing. He’s got great eye-hand coordination. When you need a clutch hit, he’ll give it you.”

So if it’s the late innings, and the game is on the line, maybe Mercedes’ ticket to the big leagues is being that fearless hitter who can come off the bench as the 26th man, who doesn’t give a crap about pressure and deliver the big hit.

“Everybody wants me to come in and pinch hit, because I do the job. I get the base hit. I hit the homer to win the game,” Mercedes said confidently.

What do the White Sox think?

“For him to get (major league) at-bats, to get that opportunity, he needs to continue to perform, show us what he’s capable of doing both offensively and defensively,” Getz said. “Rosters have expanded to 26. That’s another opportunity because he does bring some things to the table. If you look at lineup construction and filling out and maximizing a roster, I think he comes into the conversation. If he stays on this track, he will get an opportunity.”

Then there’s Mercedes' catching, which has always lagged behind his hitting. However, last season there was a surprising shift in his metrics, specifically with his pitch-framing.

“From the catching side, I’ve worked with him quite a bit and like what he does back there,” pitcher Carson Fulmer said. “I think his game-calling got a lot better. There’s an adjustment between Double-A to Triple-A just with experienced hitters. He got on the same page with a lot of us, which is really useful.

“He has a great arm. He can hold a runner close to the bag, which is nice. With his framing, as well, he’s able sell some strikes for us. Most importantly, what really stood out for me was his ability to call a game. He’s definitely matured quite a bit.”

On paper, Mercedes might be a longshot to break with the team when it heads back to Chicago, but the Dominican spark plug has made a career out of defying the odds.

This is no different.

“I’m going to surprise a lot of people. A lot of people need me. They say, ‘Where’s Mercedes? Where’s Mercedes? Why isn’t he here?' I take my time. So when the team gives me the opportunity, I take it.”

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