“It's going to be either really good, or it's going to be really bad.”
That’s not the most ringing of endorsements, and it’s probably not the assessment the White Sox want to be hearing about their pitching staff right now, preferring the first half without the possibility of the second.
But, hey, you ask Yasmani Grandal a question, you’re going to get an honest answer.
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The White Sox new catcher, the owner of the richest free-agent deal in club history, hasn’t had as much time as he wanted to work with the young pitching staff he cited as the main reason he signed up way back in November. Grandal has said repeatedly that he sees the White Sox bright future in the team’s collection of young arms. And while Michael Kopech has decided not to play in 2020, there is still a lot of pitching talent going through “Summer Camp” right now.
Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López, Carlos Rodón, Dane Dunning, Jimmy Lambert. They’re all youngsters, part of the long-term planning on the South Side. Throw in the veteran free-agent addition Dallas Keuchel, and this is a deep, talented group.
But this is 2020. And no one knows what’s going to happen next.
Baseball’s typical six-month marathon has been jettisoned thanks to the sport’s months-long layoff, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the fruitless negotiations between the league and the players’ union shrinking the season to just 60 games. An abrupt halt to spring training back in March, months without baseball and now a brief three-week ramp-up period ahead of a two-month sprint to the postseason means it’s anyone’s guess what big league pitchers will be able to do.
Grandal’s hopeful, because he knows the kind of talent the White Sox have. He’s also realistic. And that means nothing’s guaranteed.
“There isn't going to be a gray area,” Grandal said Tuesday. “Sixty games is a very small window that we have to put everything together, so it's going to be either really good or it's going to be really bad, just because you don't have the time to kind of take them by the hand and go from there.
“In 162 games, you're able to do that. But this month that we have here (during "Summer Camp"), that's what we're focusing on is showing them things and taking them through different situations and things like that to be able to mimic something season-like before the season starts.”
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While the only known about the 2020 season seems to be that everything is unknown, one consistent talking point from the older players is a prediction that this two-month sprint could feature playoff-style baseball from Day 1. That’s partially a factor of the short schedule, with every game meaning twice or thrice as much as it normally would and carrying much more weight in the race for a postseason berth.
But it also has to do with the mysterious state of pitching. And with those two elements combined, we could see some creative pitching management from managers across the league. The kind of bullpen-heavy styles used by the Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays in recent seasons could become commonplace. The quick hooks for starting pitchers and heavy reliance on relief pitchers seen in the postseason could be the norm in this most abnormal of years.
“I already have an understanding how you can go through a whole pitching staff in a matter of 60 games. Look at what Milwaukee did last year,” Grandal said. “So as soon as the season starts, you’re almost in playoff mode. You’re not going to have one or two bad innings or one or two bad starts, it’s going to be one of those things where everybody needs to be ready.
“I don’t think I’m going to see too many people go seven or eight innings. Around the league guys are going to go five, and the whole bullpen is coming right after. In our case, we have the ability to throw one or two starters in a game, back to back, so they go a full game. So for us, that’s a plus. I don’t know how other teams are, but I know for us, the pitching staff, on the pitching side we’re in a good spot.”
The White Sox could certainly benefit from their deep staff, both their groups of starters and relievers. But here’s one thing about “playoff mode” that could present a challenge: Most of these players have never been to the playoffs or been in a playoff race. That’s an obvious statement in reference to the team’s general youth. But even six-year vet José Abreu has never played for a winning White Sox team.
That’s where the White Sox will surely lean on Grandal, Keuchel, Edwin Encarnación and Steve Cishek, all newcomers with winning experience, some of them a lot of it. Grandal is a veteran of the last five postseasons with the Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers. Keuchel has a World Series ring on his resume after his Houston Astros beat Grandal’s Dodgers in 2017. Encarnación has specific experience winning in the AL Central; he spent two seasons with the division-rival Cleveland Indians.
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So in addition to all the stuff Grandal brings on the field — power and on-base skills to the lineup, pitch-framing skills, defensive prowess and ability to work with pitchers behind the plate — he’s also bringing a rare positive to the White Sox clubhouse: He’s been there and done that. If anyone’s ready for two months’ worth of playoff-style baseball, it’s him. And he’ll know how to make it an easy transition for the uninitiated around him.
“First and foremost, they need to understand the situation and exactly why we’re doing the things we’re doing,” Grandal said. “For myself, being a young guy and not quite understanding why we were making moves at certain times, it was hard. But until someone actually explained it to me and I got to study it and understand the reason behind, and seeing examples of it, once I learned that I understood why you go a certain amount of innings, amount of pitches in order to bring your bullpen in.
“It’s going to be a process. These guys need to understand that, and understand it’s going to be for their benefit. A lot of these guys are young, they’re just getting their feet wet. I think this is a perfect opportunity for them to do it.”
So whether the pitching ends up really good or really bad, Grandal will be along for the ride. He’s confident the White Sox are in a good spot with their talent and depth. Now it’s about going out and proving it with everything on the line from Day 1.
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