Back in spring training, after the White Sox missed out on Manny Machado and another rough season was expected by many on the South Side, somebody made a remark to Ivan Nova that has stayed with him this whole season.
“You got traded to the White Sox. They’re rebuilding right now. You should be on a contending team,” this person told Nova.
The veteran pitcher looked at the guy and fired back.
“What I see here," he said, "is good enough to compete.”
End of conversation.
As the White Sox hit the All-Star break, to the surprise of even the harshest critics, they are competing. Last season at the break, they were 29 games under .500 (33-62). This season, they’re only two games under (42-44). They have three players in the All-Star Game, plus three others who could have joined them (Yoan Moncada, Alex Colome and Tim Anderson), and a budding superstar in Eloy Jimenez who now has his former Cubs compadre, top pitching prospect Dylan Cease, with him in the majors.
It was a good first half for the White Sox. But speaking with several White Sox players, they’re hoping for an even better second half.
Yep, the goal is to make the playoffs.
For a team that lost 100 games last season, is currently seven games out of the second American League Wild Card, has a run differential of -71 and whose starting rotation has combined for a 5.40 ERA (29th in the majors), it’s perfectly understandable to believe that the White Sox have no business making the playoffs this year.
But confidence is building on the South Side, and although general manager Rick Hahn consistently states that 2019 is more about development than wins and losses, there’s a feeling inside the White Sox clubhouse that if things continue to come together in the second half, the playoffs can be had for this White Sox team.
“Oh yeah,” said Nova, who admits that he’s been watching the Wild Card standings lately and knows that if their starting pitching was better, and that includes him - “I have to pitch better. I know that.” - they’d be in the mix right now for the playoffs.
“If we had good pitching from the beginning to this point, we wouldn’t be (12.5) games out of first place, we’d be 5 or 6, 3 or 4, who knows?” Nova said. “We still have to play the teams that are ahead of us like Oakland, Texas, Minnesota, Cleveland, Tampa. If you look at that, then we’re in good shape.”
Gone are the days of Ervin Santana and Odrisamer Despaigne in the rotation. They both went 0-2 with a 9.45 ERA in 13.1 innings in their abbreviated stints and were quickly jettisoned from the roster. All-Star Lucas Giolito mentions the two new additions to the rotation and sees a big upgrade.
“It’s good to be getting reinforcements now with Dylan Cease, Ross Detwiler stepping in and taking a role,” Giolito said. “You know how I am about starting pitching. I feel like it’s the heartbeat. Us as starters take the ball a little more consistently, we’re going to continue to win a lot more games.”
When James McCann signed with the White Sox in the offseason, he had no idea where they’d be at the All-Star break, let alone where he would be.
McCann is in Cleveland for the All-Star Game, and along with Giolito, is one of the biggest surprises in baseball in 2019.
He also admits that he’s watching the standings: “I know where we’re at. I think you’re a liar if you don’t know where you’re at. I think it’s impossible not to,” he said.
And the Wild Card?
“It’s a possibility. We’re right there in the standings,” McCann said, “It’s not a secret we have some work to do. There’s definitely that potential of being there come August and September.”
Can the White Sox finish with a better record than the Red Sox, A’s, Indians and Rays? That’s probably what we’re talking about for them to make the playoffs. They’ll need to leap-frog at least three of those teams to get into the Wild Card Game.
No easy feat.
Then again, nothing has come easy for most of the pillars of this White Sox team in Giolito, McCann, Moncada, Anderson and Aaron Bummer. All five of them are having breakout seasons in 2019 after so many doubted them just a year ago.
“I’ve learned that we’re fighters,” Giolito said about the White Sox in the first half. “A lot of these games that we’ve lost and these series that we’ve lost we’ve been right there, just a few mistakes, maybe a few missed opportunities, leaving runners on base or one poor pitching performance where we’re so close to taking series from really good teams. So it just goes to show that we’re fighting, we’re coming together, we’re playing much better baseball than we have in the past. We just need to continue to stay on that path.”
Winning series against the Yankees, Twins and Indians, and splitting series with the Yankees, Astros and Cubs are proof that the White Sox have been able to hang with some of the best teams in the majors, even with their deficiencies such as Reynaldo Lopez and his 6.34 ERA.
Lopez believes he has solved his pitching problems and promises to be “much, much better” in the second half. A rejuvenated Lopez resembling the pitcher we saw at the end of last season (1.38 ERA in his last seven starts) will go a long way toward making such Wild Card talk a reality.
Even if the White Sox go on a run in the second half, their biggest hurdle might be something out of the players’ control. All those teams ahead of them in the standings will probably be making improvements to their current rosters before the trade deadline, while the White Sox likely won’t. Hahn has repeatedly spoken about the long term vision for the White Sox this season, and with many of their surplus prospects either injured or having slow starts (although several top prospects with the Birmingham Barons have been red-hot lately), there might not be much for Hahn to deal in return for a core player for the future.
Top prospect Luis Robert is being promoted to Triple-A. Unless he’s called up in September - and there are currently no signs that he will be - don’t expect any big impact players to be walking through the door this season. For the White Sox to make a push for the playoffs in 2019, it will probably have to come from the players already here.
Fortunately, the room is filled with believers.
“I think we expect to win every game,” said Bummer, whose 1.89 ERA has helped solidify the back end of the bullpen. “The better we play each and every day, we know that we can do this. It’s one of those things where you’re slowly starting to figure out the pieces. We’re playing a lot of close games and we feel like we can win them.”
Still, the White Sox know who they are and what they’ve been. They haven’t been great. They’ve been good.
And as Bummer stated: “Good is good, but good is not good enough.”
“I think everyone in this clubhouse is striving to get better," Bummer added. "I don’t think anybody is happy with where they’re at. We all understand that we have more things we want to do, and so it’s one of those things where you start checking off those boxes of those things you want to accomplish, and always trying to be better, you’re going to look at the standing and the standings are going to take care of themselves.”
After throwing 5.2 scoreless innings to get the win against the Cubs on Sunday, Nova won’t have much of an All-Star break. He’s staying in town to prepare for his next start, one of the first games this weekend in Oakland.
He’s still thinking about what that person said to him about the White Sox during spring training. Think of it as fuel for Nova going forward.
“I’m waiting for him to come talk to me about it, because he knows I told him we’re going to be in good shape,” Nova said.
So far, that guy has been silent.
The White Sox? They’ve started to make some noise.