White Sox

State of the White Sox: Left field

State of the White Sox: Left 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 left field.

What happened in 2019

After all the service-time talk, Eloy Jimenez made his debut with the big league team on Opening Day, the product of a multi-year contract the White Sox worked out with him during spring training. Jimenez’s rookie season was a strong one, one that will land him high in the AL Rookie of the Year vote, but it wasn’t without the growing pains that aren’t exactly unexpected for a guy getting his first taste of the major leagues.

The good: Jimenez blasted 31 home runs, the third most by a rookie in team history. His power was frequently on display, sending balls out to dead center and routinely disturbing the foliage on the batter’s eye. His most majestic long ball of the season touched down on the stairs leading up to the Fan Deck. And of course he lifted the White Sox to a Crosstown victory over the Cubs with a game-winning, broken-bat dinger in his first game against the team that dealt him away in 2017 — perhaps the most thrilling moment of the White Sox rebuild to date.

Jimenez also impressed alongside core pieces Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson with a white-hot final month of the season, slashing .340/.383/.710 with nine homers, eight doubles, 25 RBIs and 19 runs scored. Jose Abreu declared that the 2020 season started in September, and Jimenez was one of a few guys who backed those words up.

The less than good: Jimenez’s final averages were nothing special. He finished the season with a .267/.315/.513 slash line. While those aren’t horrendous by any stretch, they’re probably not close to what fans, the team or Jimenez himself expect from a guy billed as a long-term middle-of-the-order bat.

Now, some of that can be blamed on a pair of injuries that sent Jimenez to the injured list for extended periods of time. The first came when he attempted to rob a surefire home run, spraining his ankle when he planted his leg into the left-field wall at Guaranteed Rate Field. In the second half, he crashed into Charlie Tilson in the outfield in Kansas City, suffering an ulnar nerve contusion. Those IL stints halted some of Jimenez’s in-season momentum and prevented him from playing in a full schedule. He finished the year with 122 games played.

Jimenez also had a mixed bag of a season defensively. Early on, there were plenty of ugly plays in left, including the one on which he suffered that sprained ankle. Communication with infielders ranging back for pop ups proved a repeated issue, and he rarely looked graceful on what might have been considered routine plays. But those issues did improve as the season went on, as manager Rick Renteria kept hammering home. At the very least they happened with much less frequency.

But in general, Jimenez’s rookie season put his potential on display and sent fans dreaming about those lineups of the future with him very much an integral part.

What will happen this offseason

With right field, designated hitter and starting pitching on the offseason to-do list, the White Sox are in no way going to be looking to shuffle things around in left field. But the question remains, regardless of its validity, about whether or not Jimenez is going to spend his career in left.

Those defensive moments that seemed glaring at times during his rookie season were enough to spark conversations about whether Jimenez would end up moving away from left, to first base or DH or wherever. The White Sox, for their part, seem to have no desire to move Jimenez in the foreseeable future, and everyone should expect him to be the guy in left.

“He's too young for me to view him as a DH, to be honest,” Renteria said when Jimenez came off the injured list at the end of July. “And I think he's shown so much improvement in the outfield that it would be, I think, derelict on my part and on our part as an organization to limit the ability for him to play on both sides of the baseball.

“He's an extremely hard worker, he's very conscientious, he's been going through a lot of the things that we need him to go through. He sincerely has improved out there a lot. And so we want to see if we can maximize his ability to do everything he can as a Major League Baseball player.

“And then time will tell us. If that ends up ultimately being his lot — I don't foresee that. But if that ultimately becomes his lot, that becomes his lot. But I think right now we're going to continue to use him on both sides of the baseball, for sure.”

The White Sox figure to bring Abreu back, and he could be destined for some more time as a DH, despite the fact that he doesn’t like it. The White Sox just spent the No. 3 pick in the draft on Andrew Vaughn, whose own defensive questions as a slugging first baseman could have him destined for the DH spot. And with DH on the offseason to-do list, adding a big stick like J.D. Martinez wouldn’t be out of the question, gobbling up the at-bats at DH for multiple years.

So even if Jimenez was better suited to be designated hitter — and the White Sox are confident he’ll be just fine in left field — there might be no DH spot for him to slide into. Meaning he’s the left fielder.

What to expect for 2020 and beyond

While Jimenez didn’t live up to those oversized preseason expectations, he’s nowhere near done trying to live up to his career-long expectations. In fact, no one is expecting for this to be anywhere close to it for a guy who has so much potential — and showed much of it during the 2019 season.

And so while 31 homers is nice, what to expect in 2020 and beyond is a lot more. Not just home runs — though a healthy season from Jimenez in 2019 probably would’ve seen him hit close to 40 of them — but everything. Throughout the season, he talked about not wanting to solely be a power hitter but an all-around hitter and a good defender in left field, too.

“Fantastic rookie season,” Renteria said at the end of the season. “There are a lot of rookie across the major leagues right now that are exploding onto the scene and doing great things. He's one of them.

“I think the two stints on the IL took some games away from him, but he continued to learn, grow, improve, take the experiences he was gaining. He worked extremely hard on both sides of the ball to try to put himself in a good position. Still more work to be done, but certainly has put him in a position where he can help us win ballgames.

"I think he wants to be a complete major league player. He doesn't worry about the homers because he's got the power that naturally provides some of the things that he's been doing. I think he wants to improve as a hitter.”

So moving forward, sure, expect more dingers. But expect the rest, too, everything that made Jimenez one of the most hyped players in recent memory to begin with.

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What's the deal with second base at White Sox spring training?

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CHARLOTTE KNIGHTS/LAURA WOLFF

What's the deal with second base at White Sox spring training?

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Not to go all Seinfeld on you, but what's the deal with second base?

Between the breakout seasons from young core players in 2019 and an influx of veteran additions, the White Sox starting lineup is rather easy to project. Obviously Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Edwin Encarnacion are locked in as everyday starters, and even Nomar Mazara seems to be in that category at the moment, with talk of a potential platoon in right field all but disappearing over the last couple months.

That leaves just one position in the realm of the unknown: second base.

Over the course of the entire 2020 season, the majority of the starts there figure to go to Nick Madrigal, one of the top-ranked prospects in baseball. But whether he'll break camp with the White Sox or start the season at Triple-A Charlotte is still uncertain. The latter seems more likely, based on how he's been talked about this offseason, though how he fares this spring could produce the opposite result after he played at three different levels of the minor leagues in 2019.

"We made the assessment at the end of last season that Nick Madrigal wasn’t quite ready for the big leagues," general manager Rick Hahn said Tuesday during Cactus League Media Day. "He was sent home with some specific things to work on. He can very well come to spring training this year, show he’s made certain adjustments and find himself on the Opening Day roster.

"That said, we also have guys like (Danny) Mendick and Leury (Garcia) who we fully believe can hold down the fort until such time that Nick is ready.

"We’ll have somebody come Opening Day sitting over there."

Indeed, the White Sox manning every position on the field seems a safe bet.

Nothing against Garcia nor Mendick, but Madrigal is such a talented up-and-comer that it's quite possible he's the team's best second baseman right now. But Madrigal saw just 29 games' worth of Triple-A pitching last season, and it's possible the White Sox will leave Glendale believing he needs to see some more before they bring him up to the major leagues.

Madrigal's job is to convince them otherwise, and he's been prepping to do exactly that all winter.

"I actually stayed here (in Arizona) this whole offseason, so I've been around a while now," Madrigal said last week. "I started coming to the complex about two or three weeks ago."

The kid's a real go-getter, as you can tell. There might not end up being much that separates Madrigal starting the season as the second baseman in Chicago or as the second baseman in Charlotte, but obviously the difference between those two jobs is huge. A big performance in Cactus League play could show the White Sox, a team that's gone from making a priority of development to making a priority of winning games and competing for a playoff spot, they're better served with Madrigal playing 162 games as a big leaguer rather than a smaller number.

"It's kind of out of my control. The only thing I can control is showing up every day and playing as hard as I can," Madrigal said. "They may think I need to add some stuff to my game, or whatever it may be. I feel confident right now the way I'm playing out there. Just can't worry too much about that at this point.

"I know there's a lot of time from here to the season, there's a lot of games you've got to play, so anything can happen. But I'm going to try to show up every day and play my game."

But if the White Sox still think Madrigal needs further minor league seasoning, then what?

Well, as Hahn mentioned, someone will be starting at second base on Opening Day.

The likeliest candidate is Garcia, the utility man whose versatility makes him a lock to make the 26-man roster out of camp. But while utility reserve will likely be his primary role once Madrigal arrives, until then, he could be the team's starting second baseman.

Mendick, who had some good moments as a September call-up last season, would likely be the reserve infielder, and he could see plenty of time at second if Renteria opts to send Garcia to spell starters in both the infield and outfield.

So there's not an update so much as there is a setting of the table as the Cactus League schedule begins Saturday. There might be nothing bigger to watch during the exhibition schedule than whether Madrigal can play his way onto the Opening Day roster. If that happens, the White Sox will have their transformed lineup ready from Day 1 as they look to chase down the AL Central crown.

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Rick Renteria won't lock in Lucas Giolito as Opening Day starter just yet

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USA TODAY

Rick Renteria won't lock in Lucas Giolito as Opening Day starter just yet

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Your 2020 White Sox Opening Day starter is ... (drumroll, please) ... we don't know yet.

That's not entirely true, of course, as Lucas Giolito is the overwhelming favorite to take the mound March 26, when the White Sox open the season against the Kansas City Royals at Guaranteed Rate Field.

But if you're talking about an official announcement from the manager, well, you're going to have to wait a little longer.

"You want the scoop?" Renteria teased Wednesday at Camelback Ranch. "We won’t lay out a scoop yet."

Giolito has expressed on multiple occasions during the early days of camp that he hopes to be the guy that gets the Opening Day nod. In his first meeting with the media this spring, he said he'd "hopefully" be the Opening Day starter and expanded on that in a couple interviews Wednesday.

Giolito's enthusiasm for the job isn't enough to convince Renteria to move his announcement up to the first week of full-squad workouts. But even the skipper, known to take his time before announcing such things for public consumption, can't deny that Giolito, after his transformational 2019 campaign that saw him go from the pitcher with the worst stats in baseball to an All Star and the ace of the South Side staff, has earned a shot at the title of Opening Day starter.

"I’m glad he wants to be the Opening Day starter. He’s really grown, and I certainly wouldn’t say to you that you would be surprised if you saw him doing it.

"He’s definitely earned an opportunity to possibly have the Opening Day start."

Giolito was sensational last season, posting a 3.41 ERA with 228 strikeouts in 29 starts. Even with this offseason's signing of Dallas Keuchel, who has a Cy Young Award and a World Series championship on his resume, Giolito still looks to be the ace of the staff heading into 2020.

Finishing sixth in last year's AL Cy Young voting would seem to indicate that Giolito has reached the status of one of baseball's elite arms. But here's a question: Can he get better? After all, he's just 25 years old, and many of these young White Sox are said to only have scratched the surface of what they can do. Can Giolito surpass what he did in 2019?

"I don’t know I want him to go past it as much as remain consistent and just continue to have incremental growth," Renteria said. "That was a huge jump for him. And it was a great jump for him. He learned a lot from that season. He learned a lot over the previous year and made the adjustments he needed to over the winter. He came in and did what he needed to do and was able to go ahead and be so effective for us.

"All in all, good health, knock on wood, he gets back out there and he has a chance to continue to do what he does. His pitch sequencing, his pitch mix gives him an opportunity to do that. Hard to pick up a ball out of his hand, now with the new delivery. He just needs to get back out there and pitch."

Certainly that's what Giolito is hoping to do, particularly after he gets past the strained chest muscle he suffered trying to work a little too quickly while still feeling the effects of the flu last month. As Giolito said last week, though, he has a "zero-percent" concern that injury will have any significant impact on his readiness for the season.

So bring on the Opening Day start, right?

"Hopefully," he said last week. "We’ll see. I’m excited.

"That’s not my decision."

Well, it shouldn't be too difficult of one for the person whose decision it is.

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