White Sox

More moves? Nicholas Castellanos? 'Heavy lifting' over, but White Sox might not be done

More moves? Nicholas Castellanos? 'Heavy lifting' over, but White Sox might not be done

More? Really?

No, White Sox fans, you’re not being greedy if you’re looking for Rick Hahn’s front office to keep adding to the roster. But maybe pause just a bit to congratulate the general manager on an offseason well done.

Hahn has added an incredible amount — and in an incredible amount of time, considering the way some baseball offseasons of recent vintage have played out — to a White Sox team that lost 89 games last year and 100 games the year before that. Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion, Steve Cishek and Gio Gonzalez have come to the South Side, bringing playoff experience and veteran know how to a young group that, despite that lopsided record, broke out in a big way in 2019.

It’s all added up to realistic playoff expectations for the first time in a long time.

But continuing to add is what playoff teams do. So no, it’s not outlandish to suggest that more pieces might make sense, especially with certain markets still boasting plenty of options for teams searching for more depth and more oomph to make a seven-month run at a championship.

But Nicholas Castellanos? That’s probably not going to happen.

“We're probably done with any major acquisitions,” Hahn said during his pre-SoxFest press conference Thursday. “The reality of our day-to-day is that we're still, down the hall, debating various potential smaller additions, and there's still the occasional trade idea or free-agent signing that picks up a little steam. So never say never.

“The nature of the job is you always feel like there's one more addition you can make, so I'm probably never going to stand up here and say we're finished. But in reality, I think the safe assumption is the bulk of our heavy lifting for this winter, at least, is over.”

Castellanos — who feasted on White Sox pitching as a member of the division-rival Detroit Tigers — is still out there, and right field is still a much discussed position for the South Siders.

Nomar Mazara has the everyday job out there right now after he was acquired in a trade with the Texas Rangers during the Winter Meetings. But he hasn’t fared well against left-handed pitching in his big league career, and even Hahn has described him as a possible platoon candidate, something the general manager might be attempting to downplay these days, consistently talking up Mazara up as someone with untapped potential, which certainly could end up being the case.

“You need to look at the roster holistically. You need to look at everything and how it all fits together,” Hahn said when asked why Mazara is the superior option to some of the bigger names that were or remain on the free-agent market. “Mazara's 24 years old, he already has five years of experience in the big leagues, he's a left-handed power bat who does significant positive offensive contribution against at least right-handed pitching and that our scouts and coaches think there's more upside to. Given the control of a couple of years and the price points that he comes with, we think it's a nice fit within the other things that we wanted to accomplish on that roster.”

Regardless of how good Mazara might end up being, fans have adjusted their energy to lobbying for Castellanos, the pendulum of public perception swinging wildly from “the White Sox will never spend on free agents” to “look at the White Sox spending on free agents, they should sign every available player.” Hahn threw cold water on that idea Thursday, though dashing dreams of Castellanos isn’t the same as saying the White Sox are closed for business until the season starts March 26. It’s also unlikely to stop fans from bombarding the GM with Castellanos-related inquiries this weekend at SoxFest.

On the more realistic fronts, though, the White Sox could probably still use some starting-pitching depth, especially now that Dylan Covey is no longer part of the organization, a minor league free agent after he rejected an outright assignment to Triple-A Charlotte on Wednesday. While the rotation is in much better shape than it was when the 2019 season ended, thanks to the additions of Keuchel and Gonzalez, if one of the five pitchers expected to make up that starting staff when camp breaks gets hurt in April, who is there left to turn to?

Hahn reiterated Thursday that the team will wait until reaching Glendale, Ariz., to determine what the plan will be for Michael Kopech, considering the desire to limit him in some fashion as he returns from Tommy John surgery and the accompanying yearlong layoff. Ross Detwiler might be better served starting in Charlotte than pitching as the long man out of the White Sox big league bullpen. But the starting-pitching depth, while the team waits for Carlos Rodon, Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert to recover from their own Tommy John surgeries, isn’t particularly populous past Detwiler.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that a minor league signing or two not unlike the Ervin Santana acquisition last spring would make an awful lot of sense. Just, you know, hopefully with better results than the ones Santana turned in last season.

It's also worth noting that the White Sox bullpen, while looking strong at the back end, doesn't have a long man in it. Someone who could eat up some innings and make the occasional spot start would figure to be of value.

How right field will shake out is still somewhat of a head-scratcher, though it seems with each answer about Mazara, Hahn is signaling an increased likelihood that Mazara will get everyday at-bats. That might douse the notion of a platoon partner unless proven necessary a few months into the campaign.

At second base, the general manager said that, at the moment, the answer is “some combination of Leury García, Danny Mendick and Nick Madrigal” before instructing the inquiring reporter to “ask me again on March 25.” Madrigal’s chances at an Opening Day job aren’t looking favorable at the moment, pending him blowing the doors off the Cactus League. Does that mean there’s a veteran addition coming at second base? More likely, it means Garcia is your Opening Day starter, even if there’s a bounty of options on the open market.

So no, Hahn is probably not completely finished working the White Sox into the transaction log. A signing or a trade is hardly out of the question with still more than two months before Opening Day.

But those dreaming of yet another huge splash to add to a long list of them this winter might have to wait until … well, July, maybe?

Yes, fans ought to be pleased, too, with Hahn’s comments on adding at the deadline, should the White Sox find themselves in the playoff chase. He said they can do it.

“I do feel like we put ourselves in a position to have that type of flexibility,” Hahn said, “as well as it's been my experience here over the last couple of decades that when we've been in a position to truly win and add impactful pieces around the deadline, we've been able to find the wherewithal to get that done.”

If the White Sox have truly made the transition from rebuilding to contending — something we won’t find out until they start winning games and, you know, contending for things — then Hahn and his front office might never be done adding.

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Renteria believes Kopech is 'looking far more advanced than people might think'

Renteria believes Kopech is 'looking far more advanced than people might think'

On the first day that Dane Dunning threw live batting practice since having Tommy John surgery last March, leave it to Michael Kopech to steal his thunder.

Not to minimize the pivotal and symbolic breakthrough for Dunning, one of the White Sox top prospects, who is definitely someone to watch in 2020, but after Kopech completed his own live batting practice against White Sox hitters, the words coming from manager Rick Renteria about Kopech was the biggest pitching news of the day.

“Honestly, he’s looking far more advanced than most people might think,” Renteria said about Kopech, who is six months ahead of Dunning in his return from Tommy John.  “I think he’s commanding a lot better. Changeup, breaking ball, fastball, the misses are minimal. The ball is coming out of his hand loose and hot. Looks really good.”

Kopech agrees.

“Yeah. I’m a lot more comfortable already than I thought I would be. With all the work I put in last year and ending the season on a good note with a couple innings there, I felt like coming into spring was a little more relaxed for me, because I wasn’t having to get here and then prove that I can still pitch,” Kopech said. “I do feel like I’m in a good spot. I do feel like there’s some things that need to be worked on. I’m in a better spot than what I thought I would be.”

Kopech faced some menacing White Sox hitters. Among them Yoan Moncada and Yasmani Grandal. The new White Sox catcher, who is coming back from an injured calf injury, tested the calf by running out of the box to first base several times, showing no signs of problems.

With a flamethrower like Kopech, you might be wondering about his velocity. Ask Kopech, and he’s not thinking about it at all. At least, not yet.

“To be honest, I don’t want to know until I’m in a game. There’s no point in me finding out how hard I’m throwing right now.  It would just be something I’m conscious about that I don’t need to be conscious about.”

He’ll throw another batting practice session in five days and says that his first Cactus League appearance could come after that.

“I think I’m getting close.  Breaking balls are something I’ll need to fine tune a little bit.  I need to be a little quicker with them,” Kopech said. “I feel very comfortable.  I’m pretty relaxed. I don’t feel like I’m getting too far ahead of myself, but I haven’t been in a game situation yet so I can’t really speak to that very well.”

As for Dunning, taking the mound against live hitters for the first time in more than a year, he was thrown straight into the fire. Moncada was the first batter he faced.

“I was a little nervous because it was my first time facing hitters. I was a little amped,” Dunning said about pitching to Moncada. “If one runs away from me, I think that would have been really bad for my career. Luckily enough I was able to actually throw some strikes. It was fun.”

Dunning was able to locate his fastball. “I was getting after it. It was a controlled hard,” he said. He got a feel for his changeup and spun some breaking balls as well.

Considering the long sludge that is Tommy John recovery, how big of a step was this for Dunning?

“I feel like it’s that hump I just got over, facing live hitters again. Getting back in action again, it’s exciting for me because I know that games are coming soon.”

 

James McCann can still play 'a pivotal role' for White Sox

James McCann can still play 'a pivotal role' for White Sox

James McCann went from backup to All Star and back again.

The White Sox upgraded at catcher this winter, adding Yasmani Grandal on a team-record contract. Make no mistake, Grandal’s signing is an inarguably good thing for the South Siders. He’s got a track record of success both at and behind the plate, with the winning experience necessary to help this team get to where it wants to be.

But it might not have been the best thing for McCann, individually, after he earned the starting job with what he accomplished in 2019, going from a career backup to a spot on the AL All-Star team.

Any frustration at returning to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart is more than understandable.

“There’s things about the business that you can’t control,” McCann said on the day pitchers and catchers reported to Camelback Ranch. “All you can control is how you handle your own self and how you handle your own preparations, and that was my main focus throughout the offseason and that will continue to be my main focus: how to make myself better and how to help the team win.”

Of course, even with Grandal slated to get the majority of the playing time behind the plate, McCann is still expected to play a valuable role on this White Sox team, one looking to play October baseball for the first time in more than a decade.

After all, two All-Star catchers are better than one, right?

“A hallmark of a good team is having quality depth,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “That's something we talked about from the start of being one of the goals that we set out to accomplish through this rebuild, and quite frankly, it was one of the things I've talked about publicly perhaps of not being entirely there yet in terms of organizational depth at certain spots. Catcher isn't one of those spots.

“We've got two All-Star caliber catchers, both of whom we anticipate contributing to a good club this summer.”

Independent of how often he’ll find his way into the lineup, whether McCann can produce at the same level that earned him an All-Star nod is very much an uncertainty. After slashing .316/.371/.502 in the first half last season, he struggled mightily after the All-Star break, hitting just .226/.281/.413. Those second-half numbers were far more in line with the numbers he put during his five years with the Detroit Tigers than what he did in his first few months with the White Sox.

That uncertainty is no longer a season-defining issue now that Grandal sits atop the catching depth chart, but McCann can obviously still have a positive effect on this team. In addition to simply providing depth, he showed last season a great ability to work with White Sox pitchers, particularly Lucas Giolito, and earned rave reviews from his teammates for his work ethic and dedication to game-planning.

“A pivotal role,” manager Rick Renteria said of how important a part McCann would play for the White Sox in 2020. “We have two catchers that are two All Stars, potentially.

“He’s an integral part of who we are as we move forward. … You can't run a catcher out there every single day. You can't expect one guy's going to catch 162 games. It's not gonna happen. I ran Mac out there trying to catch almost 162 games, and you start to break down a little bit.

“Having two guys who you can truthfully trust and being able to manage the pitching is a huge benefit to us, and we're happy that we have these two guys to balance us out.”

White Sox pitchers like Dallas Keuchel have touted the catching tandem as being an ultimate luxury. And for what it’s worth, both catchers said that having the two of them on the roster is a positive.

“James has been great,” Grandal said. “Obviously, I’ve needed him here just to go through a few things. For the most part, we’ve just been talking catching and how we can get in that aspect. … For me, it’s going to be how can I get in his head in order to kind of see it the same way and then we can talk about it and go from there.”

“It’s a good group,” McCann said. “Obviously Yaz strengthens that. I’m going to take stuff from him, as I’m sure he’ll be able to take some stuff from me. That’s what makes a team good, when guys can grow from each other and push each other.”

Who knows what will end up happening with McCann. The White Sox would figure to be better with him than without him, someone who does reliable work behind the plate and is capable of All-Star production with the bat, even if there’s no certainty those numbers will return in 2020.

But McCann is also slated to hit free agency at season’s end, and perhaps some team comes calling, putting the White Sox in a position to deal from a position of strength. After all, Zack Collins is still a part of this organization and its catching depth, a first-round pick who flourished offensively at Triple-A last season.

But for any understandable frustration that might be lingering, McCann spoke with the same type of confidence about the 2020 White Sox as everyone else during the early days of camp.

Heck, he might have come off more confident than anyone.

“If I said we weren’t trying to win a World Series, then I’d be lying,” he said. “It’s win now, and it’s not just get to the playoffs, it’s win a World Series.”

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