White Sox

One analyst says White Sox are current front runner for Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

One analyst says White Sox are current front runner for Bryce Harper

LAS VEGAS — The White Sox reported pursuit of Bryce Harper might be aggressive enough that it's made them the front runner to land baseball's biggest free agent.

According to CBS Sports baseball analyst Jim Bowden, the White Sox are leading the pack right now, potentially the team willing to offer the longest and richest contract to the top name on this winter's free-agent market.

As discussed in recent days at the Winter Meetings, the White Sox are beginning to look like a more and more realistic fit for Harper as other teams seem to be dropping out. The New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals insist they're not interested in Harper, and the Cubs have been discussing their financial constraints all offseason. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies were mentioned along with the White Sox as potential finalists earlier this week, with the caveat that the Dodgers would have to do a lot to clear room for Harper. The Phillies, meanwhile, have vowed to spend "stupid" and seem to have the same amount of financial ability to land Harper as the White Sox, who have almost no long-term financial commitments to speak of.

Bowden addressed all of that in his breakdown of the situation for CBS Sports.

Bowden declaring the White Sox the front runners comes in the wake of a pair of reports describing the White Sox as less than confident that they'll end up winning the derby, so the situation seems to be a fluid one.

Bowden also mentioned that the White Sox have intrigued Harper with their plans for the future and their loaded farm system that boasts some of the highest-rated prospects in the game. Eloy Jimenez, the No. 3 prospect in baseball, should be up early on in the 2019 campaign. Michael Kopech, one of the highest-ranked pitching prospects in baseball, will be back from Tommy John surgery for the 2020 season. Dylan Cease, who was good enough in 2018 to earn MLB Pipeline's minor league pitcher of the year honors, could arrive in 2019, too.

Add Harper to that mix, and while it might not even mean a playoff berth in 2019, it could mean a perennial championship contender not long after.

Whether or not Bowden is right about the White Sox holding the lead in this race, it's yet another confirmation of their aggressiveness and their commitment to taking advantage of an opportunity to add one of the best players in the game to their long-term vision. Harper meshes perfectly with all those prospects, and should he choose to play his home games on the South Side, they'd arrive to build a contender around him.

A lot can change between now and when Harper makes his final decision, but maybe Rick Hahn's future-focused sales pitch is working.

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Struggles continue for White Sox starters, but there's not much in the way of alternatives

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USA TODAY

Struggles continue for White Sox starters, but there's not much in the way of alternatives

The White Sox will give Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito every opportunity to iron out their inconsistencies this season. But the numbers have not been good for the two veteran members of the starting rotation, and considering Ivan Nova and Ervin Santana aren't part of the team's long-term plans, how long a leash the newest additions to the starting staff will have remains to be seen.

The sample sizes are small, and questioning how long these two remain members of the rotation does not come without acknowledging that neither seems to be in danger of getting cast out anytime soon. But the numbers have been downright ugly. Nova was lit up by the Baltimore Orioles in Tuesday night's 9-1 loss, inverting the damage the White Sox did against baseball's worst pitching staff a night earlier by allowing nine runs and four homers against a team that's terrorized him throughout his career. He was yanked after four incredibly ineffective innings, the third outing of his five-start season in which he's allowed six or more runs. Santana has made only two starts to this point, and one of them was fine. But his ERA is still an unpleasant 10.38, and he's given up five home runs in his 8.2 innings of work.

All told, the youngsters included with the veterans, White Sox starters own a 6.12 ERA after Tuesday night, one of the highest marks in the game.

Those numbers are not acceptable, no matter how in the thick of rebuilding the White Sox remain. Sure, the win-loss record might not be the most important thing in 2019, and Nova and Santana were not the kinds of upgrades to the starting rotation that were set to fuel a dominant staff. But they were brought in, in part, to be innings-eaters that could save a developing bullpen. Regardless of what you, the White Sox fan, thought about James Shields last season, he did eat innings, ending up as one of a baker's dozen major league pitchers to hit the 200-inning mark. If Nova and Santana aren't going to pitch deep into games — Nova's averaging only a little more than five innings per start, and Santana's averaged fewer than five innings in his two outings — their value on this roster comes into question.

Fans would surely be quick to push the button that jettisons Nova and Santana from this rotation, certainly, given the results to this point, but if the front office decides now or months from now to go down such a path, the question becomes: Who is there to fill that spot on the starting staff?

The in-organization depth is not ideal, even if Dylan Cease is one of the highest-rated pitching prospects in baseball. As well as he's started his season at Triple-A Charlotte — a 1.84 ERA and 14 strikeouts in his first 14.2 innings of the 2019 campaign — the White Sox insist that he needs to build up a significant amount of innings there before he makes what is sure to be an excitement-generating major league debut. If Nova and Santana can linger until July or August, then maybe by then Cease will be the no-brainer option as a replacement. Though if they're still taking their every-fifth-day turns at that point, then perhaps they're no longer a problem significant enough to require a replacement. Quite the Catch 22, you see.

Rick Hahn said multiple times during the offseason that Cease is on a similar track to the one Michael Kopech was on last year. Kopech debuted in late August of 2018, so the expectation could be a similar debut date for Cease. Could Cease be up quicker? It's unlikely in the event that the most compelling reason is that the big league rotation needs a boost. Hahn said throughout last season that what's going on at the big league level will have nothing to do with when the organization's top prospects make their jump to the majors. It would figure that Cease is no exception to that rule. Maybe he could beat Kopech's timeline a bit, should he continue to dominate and not go through the midseason struggles Kopech did at Charlotte last season. But it might not be so significant that it could qualify as "soon."

And so the eye turns to the rest of the Charlotte rotation, which is not well stocked with names that anyone would prefer to the veteran track records of Nova and Santana. There are some big numbers down there, too: Jordan Guerrero has a 6.87 ERA, Spencer Adams has a 8.31 ERA, Jordan Stephens has an 8.80 ERA, Donn Roach has a 9.50 ERA.

Of the non-Cease names starting at Charlotte, Dylan Covey would probably be the most logical choice to fill a vacated rotation spot at the big league level. He made the team's Opening Day roster as a bullpen arm before quickly being dispatched back to Charlotte to work on being a starter. White Sox fans have seen the Dylan Covey Show before, of course, and the reviews weren't great. As a major league starter, he has a career 6.26 ERA. He didn't last five innings in a Tuesday-night start in Charlotte but owns a 2.19 ERA after giving up a couple runs in that game.

There's Manny Banuelos, who has been pretty good for the White Sox out of the bullpen this season. He made a spot start in place of the injured Lucas Giolito in Monday night's drubbing of the Orioles, throwing four scoreless innings. He's got a 2.51 ERA on the year and could move from the 'pen to the rotation if need be, but then there'd be a need for a new long man in the relief corps. Carson Fulmer is unlikely to be moved back into a starting role after a shift to the bullpen last season in the minor leagues. He's had mixed results out of the big league bullpen this season, with a 4.76 ERA.

If you're a member of the "get rid of Nova and Santana" camp, it's unlikely you've made it this far without screaming Dallas Keuchel's name at your screen. Keuchel won the AL Cy Young Award in 2015 and was a featured player in the Houston Astros' resurgence from bottom-of-the-standings laughing stock to World Series champions just two years ago. He's also one of the two most noteworthy victims of this winter's glacially paced free-agent market, still jobless as baseball nears the end of the season's opening month.

Keuchel would be an obvious upgrade to this or any starting rotation across the game, and his unsigned status makes him an option in the strictest sense of the definition. But it would seem mighty unlikely that he would be added to the staff of a team not expected to reach the ranks of the contenders until next season at the earliest. I've heard the argument that the White Sox should offer up a two-year deal and bring Keuchel aboard for the remainder of this season and for the next, when Cease and Kopech start the season in what figures to be a much improved rotation. But if someone wanted Keuchel on a two-year deal, they surely could have had him by now, as reports have talked about a lowered asking price and his willingness to join a team for just what's left of the 2019 campaign.

In other words, if you're waiting for Keuchel to come to the South Side, it sounds like you might be waiting for a while.

Gio Gonzalez? He was a name that was bandied about as an offseason option and is once again a free agent after the New York Yankees recently passed on putting him on their 40-man roster. The White Sox have a history with Gonzalez, yes, but if even the banged-up Yankees don't see a place for him, there might be plenty of other teams that feel similarly.

This is all a fancy way of saying that there aren't many attractive options, and so it's far more likely that the White Sox will stick with Nova and Santana for now and hope they can iron out their struggles. Nova, in particular, doesn't figure to be going anywhere, as the team gave up a prospect to get him this winter and owe him a $9,166,667 salary, the second highest on the team.

These starts have not been fun to watch for White Sox fans — and the vets aren't the only ones who have had them, with Rodon, Lopez and Giolito going through their own early season ups and downs, too — but these are the guys the White Sox are set to keep sending out there, hoping for a turnaround. Because the other options just aren't good ones.

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White Sox Talk Podcast: Zack Collins on hitting, catching and a Dylan Cease story you have to hear

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: Zack Collins on hitting, catching and a Dylan Cease story you have to hear

Chuck Garfien and Ryan McGuffey speak with Charlotte Knights catcher Zack Collins about

-His hot start to the season at the plate (5:30)

-How James McCann helped him with his catching during spring training (7:20)

-How he's changed his approach at the plate this season (13:10)

-What he orders at Chick-fil-A (15:40)

-Why he's not thinking or worrying about getting called up to the majors (17:50)

-An incredible story about Dylan Cease (20:30)

-His thoughts on Tim Anderson's bat flip (28:20) and more.

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

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White Sox Talk Podcast

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