White Sox

State of the White Sox: Center field

State of the White Sox: Center field

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The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.

With the postseason in swing and a little bit still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.

We’re moving on to center field.

What happened in 2019

Fans weren’t too pleased that a second straight season of service-time issues kept the White Sox top-rated prospect away from the outfield at Guaranteed Rate Field. In 2018, it was Eloy Jimenez who stayed in the minor leagues. In 2019, it was Luis Robert who didn’t make his big league debut despite a monstrous season in the minors.

Robert is undoubtedly the team’s center fielder of the future, and he showed why this season, earning minor league player of the year honors thanks to an absolutely ridiculous campaign that put his five-tool potential on display. All in all, he slashed .328/.376/.624 with 32 homers, 31 doubles, 11 triples, 92 RBIs, 108 runs scored and 36 stolen bases in 122 games between three different levels.

Robert hit for power, he hit for average, he showed speed on the base paths, he made some jaw-dropping catches in the outfield, and he showed off a strong arm. He can do it all.

“It's pretty incredible to see. Whether it's on the base paths, in the outfield, at the plate, you just see how special a player he is,” fellow top prospect Nick Madrigal said in July. “It seems like one at-bat will go by and he'll look fooled at the plate and the next one he'll be on every single pitch. He makes adjustments on the fly.

“And it's fun hitting behind him, it seems like he's always on base with a chance for him to score every time I'm up. It's been great to play with him.

“At the beginning of the year, playing at (Class A) Winston-Salem, I feel like he definitely boosted the lineup. Even the way he runs the bases, the way he runs (on a ball) in the gap getting triples, he definitely sparks your team. Baseball's kind of contagious, and once he gets on it's easier to hit. The pitcher feels some pressure. It's just great playing beside him.”

And that’s what made the team’s decision to keep Robert in the minors such a bummer to a lot of fans who were demanding to see all that at the big league level all year long. Much like the way they handled Jimenez in 2018, the White Sox did not say and will not say that service time played a role in their decision, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that by delaying Robert’s debut until the middle of April in 2020 the White Sox gain another year of control of a guy expected to be an impact player.

While Robert was blowing minds at the minor league level, the White Sox trotted several fill-ins out to center in the majors. Adam Engel played the most games there and had the best offensive season of his major league career to go along with his typically strong defense. Leury Garcia played nearly as many games there, too, and had a solid start at the plate, carrying a nearly .300 average into the All-Star break. But his numbers took a dip in the second half, exemplified by his .327 first-half on-base percentage dropping to .288 in the second half.

What will happen this offseason

The biggest thing to watch for this offseason — and into spring training, potentially — will be whether the White Sox can work out a similar multi-year deal with Robert to the one they worked out with Jimenez before the 2019 campaign got going. That contract allowed Jimenez to start the season on the big league roster as opposed to waiting around at Triple-A for a few weeks until the White Sox could call him up with that extra year of club control intact.

It’s purely speculative, but there might not be as much incentive for Robert to ink a deal and delay his eventual free agency considering the many millions he received when the White Sox signed him out of Cuba in the first place in 2017. We’ll see how that plays out.

Otherwise, the White Sox have a decision to make with Garcia, who is much more valuable to them than just a backup center fielder. He’s arbitration eligible and will probably get a raise that won’t make him that much cheaper than Yolmer Sanchez, who’s in the same situation. But Garcia can play six different positions and is beloved on the South Side for his versatility.

What to expect for 2020 and beyond

Robert, and a lot of him.

It might be Garcia or Engel or someone else patrolling center field for the first handful of games in 2020, but once the White Sox can bring Robert up and earn that extra season of club control, he’ll be on the South Side, wowing as a major leaguer. And doing so, eventually, alongside another highly ranked prospect in Madrigal.

"I don't know when exactly Luis Robert will arrive come 2020 or when Nick Madrigal will arrive in 2020," general manager Rick Hahn said during his end-of-season press conference last month. "I would say based upon their seasons, probably have Luis a tick ahead of Nick in terms of projected arrival time. But we'll see how they show up in camp and how that unfolds. I think we can sit here and say that, similar to Eloy a year ago, that we expect Luis Robert to be playing center field for most if not all of the 2020 season. Nick Madrigal playing second base? Probably most of the 2020 season."

As we saw with Jimenez this season — and Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito before that — it might not be fair to expect Robert to start putting up All-Star numbers the second he gets here. That being said, he’s also been lauded as the player to perhaps end up as the best among the many highly touted youngsters the White Sox have acquired during their rebuilding process. For him to reach the major leagues and instantly be the team’s best player should not shock, even if it also shouldn’t be necessarily expected.

The biggest mystery with Robert might be where he’ll end up in the batting order. Rick Renteria has, in the past, stuck new arrivals down in the order to get them better acclimated to the big league game. But if Robert lives up to the hype and quick, will he be in one of the top two spots to best utilize his speed? Or will he be a run-producer in the middle of the order?

Like so many other players around the diamond — Jimenez, Moncada, Madrigal, Tim Anderson — Robert is expected to be a long-term lock at his position in center field. If everything goes according to plan, the White Sox won’t need another center fielder for a long time.

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With Nicholas Castellanos on the market, how important is defense in White Sox search for new right fielder?

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USA TODAY

With Nicholas Castellanos on the market, how important is defense in White Sox search for new right fielder?

We’ve talked about this before.

The White Sox are looking for a new right fielder after getting some of the worst production in the majors out of that spot in 2019. The free-agent market looks to be the most realistic source of any new everyday player considering the team’s potentially weakened trade potential after a season of injuries and under-performance in the minor leagues.

The best outfield bat on that free-agent market? It belongs to Nicholas Castellanos, who long feasted on White Sox pitching as a member of the division-rival Detroit Tigers. He showed just how impactful his bat could be in a playoff race after a midseason trade to the Cubs, posting a 1.002 OPS in 51 games on the North Side. All told, he hit a major league leading 58 doubles in 2019, the 10th highest single-season total in baseball history.

The bat is no question, and it would look terrific in the middle of the White Sox order. But Castellanos’ tremendous offensive reputation is accompanied by a poor defensive reputation. Whether that reputation is deserved or not is another aspect of this discussion, with folks who followed his time on the North Side saying things weren’t that bad in right field. Though certain defensive metrics tell a different story.

And so we continue to wonder, as the White Sox have already been linked to Castellanos this winter, just how much that glove means to them.

Well, we’ve got some new insight from Rick Hahn, and yes, defense does matter. But like everything involving the White Sox offseason, it’s not going to close any doors.

“It’s a legitimate consideration,” Hahn said during the GM meetings last week in Arizona. “We don't want to send somebody out there and it's going to, you know, tax our center fielder too much or tax the pitchers too much by not making plays. So it's a legitimate consideration.

“I pause half a step because we have discussed some pretty good offensive contributors who might not quite be up to snuff to what you want defensively that conceivably at some point in the offseason we wind up saying, ‘They're the best option, so let's move on it.’ So I don't want to just say it's the end all be all.

“But as we sit here today, the prototypical guy that we add to that position will be an above average defender to help lighten the load on the rest of the fielders and our pitchers.”

While that’s hardly an ironclad commitment one way or the other, Hahn voiced a definite preference for someone who can provide some defense in right field. While Luis Robert, who’s expected to spend most of the 2020 season as the team’s starting center fielder, receives positive reviews for his defense up the middle, Eloy Jimenez is still a work in progress in left field. Putting another less-than-stellar defender in the other corner-outfield spot would put a heck of a lot of pressure on Robert as a rookie center fielder.

"You're asking a lot of (the center fielder) if you put a poor defender in right and Eloy continuing to develop and left," Hahn said. "It's a real consideration when we're putting together this outfield.

"We think Eloy's got a real special bat, and even though he's a work in progress and still improving defensively, we like having him out there in left field, even though he's not going to be mistaken for an everyday center fielder defensively. If we're looking and we absolutely had our pick of the litter, we're looking for a guy in right who can contribute with the glove, as well.”

Castellanos might not fit that description. But his offensive abilities could certainly outweigh that and push the White Sox to bring him aboard. Of course, he’s going to command a pricey contract, with his agent, Scott Boras, already talking him up last week with this gem: “Ol’ St. Nick delivers once a year. Young St. Nick delivers all season.”

Certainly the White Sox would enjoy that kind of season-long delivery. They also happen to have a hole that needs filling at designated hitter. If we’re playing fantasy baseball or creating video-game lineups, slotting Castellanos into that spot would make an awful lot of sense. But a guy looking for a long, expensive contract and doing so at just 27 years old probably doesn’t want to do it as a DH.

Maybe the White Sox end up throwing enough money his way that it doesn’t matter. But there’s also the risk of putting someone who doesn’t have DH-ing experience at the position, potentially continuing the not-so-great track record of the likes of Adam Dunn, Adam LaRoche and Yonder Alonso. Castellanos has been a DH in just 41 of his 839 career big league games.

It’s all stuff to think about. It might end up, simply, that Castellanos swings a big bat and the White Sox would like that, no matter what comes with it. Hearing that they prefer a right fielder with a good glove might only apply if they have to move further down their wish list.

Time will tell.

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Lucas Giolito’s most impressive feat of 2019

Lucas Giolito’s most impressive feat of 2019

From the highest ERA in the Majors in 2018 to an All-Star appearance in 2019, Lucas Giolito had a season that nobody could’ve imagined possible.

As Giolito worked a pair of shutout masterpieces during the season, you knew you were watching something special. Then as the season unfolded, for the first time in MLB history four teams reached the finish line with at least 100 wins.

The White Sox, at 72 wins certainly were not among the ranks of the 100-win teams.

But the Astros and Twins both DID reach 100 wins, and something else those teams have in common is a 2019 shutout defeat at the hands of Giolito. Not only were those complete game shutouts the only ones thrown against those teams this past season, but they were the only complete game shutouts tossed against a 100-win team PERIOD. Nobody hurled a CG shutout against the Yankees and nobody pulled it off against the Dodgers.

So Lucas Giolito was the only pitcher in 2019 to toss a complete game shutout against a team that finished the season with 100 or more wins.

But let’s take it a bit further.

From 2012-2019 there were 12 teams who won at least 100 games in a season. And there were only five combined complete game shutouts against those teams. Giolito owns two of the five; Sean Manaea (against the 2018 Red Sox), Luis Severino (against the 2018 Astros) and Jason Vargas (against the 2017 Indians) have the other three.

Going back even further, from 2000 to present, 26 teams won 100 games in a season and there were 25 combined complete game shutouts tossed against those teams. Lucas Giolito & Jason Vargas (2017 vs. Indians and 2011 vs. Phillies) are the only two pitchers to have more than one. But Giolito is the only one to do it twice in a season.

To find the last pitcher with two shutouts against eventual 100-win teams in the same season, you need to go back to 1999 when José Jiménez of the Cardinals did it against the 100-62 Diamondbacks, which in itself is impressive given that Jiménez was only 5-14 with a 5.85 ERA that season. But Jiménez had both of his against the same team. What about the last pitcher to toss complete game shutouts against MULTIPLE 100-win teams in the same season?

Well, the last time THAT happened was 1980, when both Larry Gura and Moose Haas had one shutout apiece against the 103-59 Yankees and the 100-62 Orioles. Gura’s shutout against the Orioles came against eventual 1980 Cy Young Award winner Steve Stone.

As far as White Sox history is concerned, Giolito was the first White Sox pitcher to toss a CG shutout against an eventual 100-win team since both Melido Perez & Eric King shut out the 103-59 Athletics in 1990. And before that, Steve Trout had one apiece in both 1979 (against the 102-57 Orioles) and 1980 (against the 103-59 Yankees). But for the last time a White Sox pitcher did it twice in the same season, it’s Tom Bradley, who remarkably blanked the 101-60 A’s THREE TIMES in 1971.

So while Lucas Giolito’s shutouts were awfully impressive at the time, they become even more incredible when you look back at the season and realize that he was the only pitcher to shut out a 100-win team this season.

And he did it twice. 

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