White Sox

State of the White Sox: First base

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USA TODAY

State of the White Sox: First base

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.

First up is first base.

What happened in 2019

Jose Abreu was Jose Abreu.

The face of the franchise, this generation’s “Mr. White Sox,” was his typically productive self. In fact, he had one of the more productive seasons of his six-year big league career, capturing the American League RBI crown with a career-best 123 runs driven in and coming three homers shy of a career best in that category, too, finishing with 33 dingers to lead the team.

Abreu went to his third All-Star Game, his second straight, and he could wind up with back-to-back Silver Sluggers when those get handed out later. Many fretted about dips in his rate stats, and his .284 average and .330 on-base percentage were the second lowest of his career, only ahead of the numbers from last year’s injury-shortened season. He set a new career high with 152 strikeouts, compared to 36 walks.

But in the end, Abreu was as productive as any White Sox player, and despite his 32 years of age, he showed no signs of dropping off from the consistently high level of production he displayed throughout his first half dozen seasons in the big leagues.

And all along the way he continued to serve as an off-the-field example to the team’s younger players, a leader and a role model, as well as a mentor to Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez, the latter comparing him to a father earlier in the season. Abreu played in all but two of the White Sox 161 games, even with the plan to keep him off his feet by platooning him at first base and DH, which fell apart when Yonder Alonso disappointed.

What will happen this offseason

Abreu is slated to hit free agency for the first time since arriving on the South Side from Cuba ahead of the 2014 season.

While in a vacuum he would figure to have tons of suitors, given how productive he’s been, he’s spent the entire 2019 season talking about how much he wants to remain a part of the White Sox organization and how excited he is to see the long-awaited transition from rebuilding to contending. He’s gone as far as saying, repeatedly, that if the White Sox don’t re-sign him, he’ll sign himself to a contract and play here anyway.

The team has responded in kind, with Abreu revealing that team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf told him that he’ll never play in another uniform. That coupled with the unending comments from team brass and teammates about how much he means to the club, and it has long seemed a foregone conclusion that Abreu will be back with the White Sox for 2020.

General manager Rick Hahn had this to say during his end-of-season press conference Friday:

“I don’t think they are going to be teaching this in negotiation classes in college any time soon how this one is unfolding,” he said. “But my takeaway from all that is that there’s a strong desire on both sides to figure out a way to keep Jose in a White Sox uniform beyond this year.

“I don’t know quite the path it’s going to follow with Jose just yet, but more often than not when there’s that mutual desire to figure out a way to get something done, you wind up getting something done.”

In the wake of the season finale Sunday, Abreu reiterated that he believes he'll be playing for the White Sox next season.

What to expect for 2020 and beyond

Abreu sure seems to be the guy entrenched at first base in 2020. And if that’s the case, that’s nothing but good news for the White Sox, who can keep his bat in the middle of the lineup, surrounding him with Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson and eventually Luis Robert — not to mention any bats they might add this winter. Abreu, Jimenez, Moncada and Anderson showed how dangerous a middle of the order they can be in September, combining to slash .353/.400/.612 with 21 home runs, 70 RBIs and 78 runs scored.

Hahn and his front office have a designated hitter on their offseason shopping list, so it’s unlikely we’ll see another attempt at a first base/DH timeshare like we did at the beginning of 2019. Still, Zack Collins has been talked of as a potential fill-in first baseman, which could allow Abreu to shift to DH some days. His mom doesn’t like it when he doesn’t play, though, so days off aren’t really an option.

We don’t know how long an eventual Abreu contract will run, so it’s hard to project too far out, but we do know that the White Sox spent the No. 3 pick in this summer’s draft on a first baseman. Andrew Vaughn was billed as one of the best all-around hitters in that draft class, as well as the best power bat. He only made it to Class A Winston-Salem by the end of last season, but given how another advanced college bat, Nick Madrigal, flew through the system in 2019, it’s not out of the question to suggest Vaughn’s big league debut might not be too far away.

But as for 2020, expect to see Abreu back at first base, doing his same old Jose Abreu thing: being a productive face of the franchise and leader for this White Sox team.

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Gio Gonzalez's crazy journey back to the White Sox

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Gio Gonzalez's crazy journey back to the White Sox

GLENDALE, Ariz — When the news broke in December that the White Sox signed pitcher Gio Gonzalez, it sounded like an early April Fool’s joke.

Even Gonzalez himself had trouble believing it, and he was the one who signed the contract.

“Honestly, from the bottom of my heart, I did not think that I would have been on (the White Sox) radar,”  Gonzalez said on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “I didn’t think they wanted me to come back. Lo and behold, I stand corrected. I’m happy I did.”

How Gonzalez is finally back with the White Sox is one of the wildest transaction journeys in franchise history. 

“It’s good to be back again. It was again and again and one more time again,” Gonzalez said smiling.

His 15-year adventure culminated last week at Camelback Ranch with a hug between Gonzalez and White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams, the man who twice traded Gonzalez away.

“The first time around, I’d do it again,”  Williams said about trading Gonzalez. “The second time around, no.”

More on that in a moment.

Drafted by the White Sox towards the end of the first round in 2004, Gonzalez seemed destined for a spot in the major league rotation behind the likes of Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras.

But then, a World Series happened.

And 15 years later, Gonzalez would like to remind us of the other championship won by the White Sox in 2005 — in the minor leagues at Class-A Kannapolis.

“I was a part of that by the way,”  Gonzalez said. “I did something at least for the White Sox in the minor leagues. We got one for Kannapolis!”

But in December of 2005, the White Sox were charging for another World Series title. Believing he needed a left-handed bat in the middle of the order, Williams, then the GM, acquired future Hall of Famer Jim Thome from the Phillies for fan favorite Aaron Rowand and Gonzalez, who was one of the White Sox top pitching prospects at the time.

“That was Jim (bleeping) Thome,” Williams said laughing. “So I would do that (trade) again. Actually not now, because Gio can still pitch and Jim can’t play anymore.”

Williams can joke about it now, but back then he had to put his emotions aside and complete a baseball trade he felt made too much sense to pass up.

“We were trying to repeat. We needed that big left-handed bat, but it was still difficult. Everybody knows how close Aaron Rowand was to my heart so it was difficult enough as it was, but in order to make it happen, they insisted on Gio or it wasn’t going to happen. We felt we needed Jim Thome to try to go back to the World Series,” Williams said.

Gonzalez who was only 20 years old at the time, was overwhelmed to be in the same trade as Thome.

“I was blown away by the name alone, his presence,” Gonzalez said about Thome. “I was also excited because it was going to be another chapter in my life. I was sad to see the White Sox go because that was the team I wanted to be with so bad. You want to play with the team that drafted you. You want to be a part of their history, their legacy. It was unfortunate, but it gave me an opportunity to be somewhere else.”

However, his stay in Philadelphia wouldn’t last long. Almost a year to the day later, out of nowhere, Gonzalez received a phone call from the White Sox.  

“Bam! We’re back (with the White Sox) with another trade,” Gonzalez recalled.

The White Sox re-acquired Gonzalez along with fellow pitcher Gavin Floyd for Freddy Garcia. Life seemed right again. Gonzalez was returning to the organization that drafted him. After a dominant season at Double-A Birmingham in 2007, he was so close to Chicago he could taste the pizza.

But then came the trade Williams admits he regrets to this very day.

The White Sox sent Gonzalez, outfielder Ryan Sweeney and minor league pitcher Fautino De Los Santos to Oakland for a switch-hitting slugger with a big personality, Nick Swisher. The White Sox would make the playoffs that 2008 season with Swisher (or despite him, depending on who you ask), but the marriage didn’t last long. By September, Swisher was often riding the bench and barely played in the ALDS against Tampa Bay. 

The following November, Williams shipped Swisher to the Yankees in a trade highlighted by journeyman utilityman Wilson Betemit who played a total of 20 games with the White Sox. Gonzalez would become an All-Star in 2011 and 2012.

That was an ugly paragraph to write.

“I should have kept him that time. That’s all I’ll say,” Williams said about the second Gonzalez trade. He wanted to say more. Almost did, but instead just repeated the line, “I should have kept him that time.”

Over a decade later, what does Gonzalez think about being traded twice by Williams?

“The first time I gave him the benefit of the doubt,” Gonzalez said. “The second one, we laugh about it now. He brought me back.”

Besides those two All-Star appearances, Gonzalez would lead the National League with 21 wins in 2012 and he’d make eight starts in the postseason with the Nationals and Brewers. Although he was the one responsible for trading him, Williams cheered for Gonzalez every step of the way.

“Especially given the fact that I didn’t think it was fair to trade a young guy like that, so I’ve rooted for him this entire time,” Williams said. “That’s why it was easy when I saw him (at Camelback Ranch) and gave him a hug. We had a good laugh.”

Rick Hahn also brought the funny when he contacted Gonzalez to welcome him back to the White Sox after the one-year deal was finalized.

“I said, ‘I am more confident now than ever that we’re actually going to see you in a White Sox uniform,’” Hahn recalled. “We absolutely laughed about the history when I officially re-welcomed him for a third time to the organization.”

Gonzalez’s third stint with White Sox has been slightly delayed, however. He arrived in Glendale with some discomfort in his left shoulder which has put him about a week behind schedule. Gonzalez says there’s no reason to be alarmed.

“I think we’re making great progress, especially from where I was before to where I am now. It’s night and day.”

So are the White Sox — this spring compared to last.

“It seems like they want to do magic this year and for years to come.”

Better late than never for Gonzalez and the White Sox, reunited again.

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White Sox Talk Podcast: The crazy journey of Gio Gonzalez

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: The crazy journey of Gio Gonzalez

Making it to the majors is a fantastic and rare feat in itself, but White Sox pitcher Gio Gonzalez's path to the White Sox, and from the White Sox, several times over is a journey baseball fans everywhere should listen to. Chuck Garfien is joined by Gonzalez to discuss his pro career and what he sees in this young White Sox team.

(1:40) - Surprised the White Sox wanted him to comeback

(6:00) - Wanted to go a team that wanted to give him a opportunity

(10:00) - Yasmani Grandal is a different kind of person

(13:30) - Thoughts on the Sox young pitching core

(16:20) - Thoughts on the expectations for this team

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

 

White Sox Talk Podcast

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