White Sox

The three big questions everyone's asking at SoxFest

The three big questions everyone's asking at SoxFest

SoxFest 2018 is a happening place.

Sold out, the event is packed with rebuild-loving White Sox fans ready for the much-discussed future of the organization. Autograph lines are packed to capacity, the hallways are buzzing, and Rick Hahn and Rick Renteria had a full house for their Saturday-morning seminar at the Hilton Chicago.

Fans asked the general manager and the skipper a bunch of questions, but there are certain hot topics on everyone’s mind. And just like they did in a smaller seminar Friday night, fans lobbed the most pressing questions at Hahn.

Here are the three questions everyone’s asking at SoxFest.

1. When will Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez make it to the major leagues?

Perhaps the biggest overarching question of the upcoming campaign. Fans want to know when the two biggest stars of the rebuild will make it to the South Side.

The answer is actually an easy one: No one knows yet.

But it seems like a good bet to assume that Kopech, at least, will reach the bigs sometime this season after he dominated at Double-A Birmingham last year and forced Hahn & Co. into an unscheduled promotion to Triple-A Charlotte. Jimenez, meanwhile, hasn’t played much above the Class A level, meaning seeing him advance to the majors is perhaps less likely than Kopech — but also still possible considering how he’s mashed his way through the minors so far.

Hahn offered up a more nuanced explanation of what the “reasonable” expectations are for two guys who have a ton of hype surrounding them — and who have each said in recent days that they’re ready when the call to big leagues comes.

“Kopech and Eloy, not too dissimilar from conversations and questions we had about (Yoan) Moncada last year. Now, Moncada was a little bit more advanced than Eloy in terms of age, he’s a year older, he’d already been in the big leagues, he’d spent a fair amount of time in Double-A. Eloy has four weeks above A-ball, and he just turned 21. In theory, it would a perfectly acceptable developmental season at age 21 to spend the whole year at Birmingham in a tough, tough league, the Southern League, and do well. That’s great. That’s what puts him on track to be a potential impact big leaguer for a long time.

“Similarly with Kopech. He has 16 innings in Triple-A at 20 years old. If he spent the whole year in Triple-A and did well, fantastic. At age 21, that’s a real good season for a pitcher in the International League. Up the innings total he has under his belt, continue to refine his off-speed pitches and be ready to make an impact in the big leagues next year. That’s fine.

“That said, the good ones, and you’ve heard me say this many times, have a way of forcing your hand, changing that timeline. … Conceivably, they could blow right past that given their ability and given their upside. We’re not putting any cap on what they’re going to do this year, but we have a sense of what’s a reasonable development year for each of them.”

That might not be exactly what White Sox fans want to hear, considering there are plenty hoping Kopech, in particular, can dazzle in Arizona and make the big league roster out of spring training. But remember that the rebuilding White Sox are blessed with time, and there’s no reason for Hahn & Co. to order a promotion before any prospect is done cooking in the minor leagues.

2. How close were the White Sox to trading for Manny Machado — and will he eventually come to the South Side?

The buzz of the Winter Meetings was the supposed derby for Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, a young star who the O’s reportedly put on the market last month when baseball was gathered down at Walt Disney World. The White Sox were one of the teams reported to be interested in landing Machado, and he’s a player the team’s fans have long coveted in social-media discussions.

Obviously, the White Sox didn’t end up making a trade for Machado. No team has yet, as the 25-year-old is still an Oriole. But the debate still rages whether trading for Machado would’ve been a good move. Netting him obviously would’ve cost Hahn a sizable portion of the prospect capital he’s built in the last year plus, a risky move to say the least considering Machado is slated to hit the free-agent market after the 2018 season. That said, Machado is a special talent, and if the White Sox could have given themselves a leg up in that upcoming sweepstakes, perhaps that would’ve been worth consideration.

Unsurprisingly, Hahn was asked about it Saturday morning. In fact, the rebuild-loving questioner explained how he had hoped Hahn wouldn’t make such a move. But plenty more are wondering if the White Sox will still compete in the bidding war for Machado next winter — with questioners even bringing up the team’s history of not signing players to the kinds of monster deals that have popped up around the game.

So what’s the latest? A tough question to answer considering Hahn can’t talk about players on other teams.

“I’m going to try and avoid a tampering fine at SoxFest. I don’t think that’s in our budget,” Hahn joked.

“Everything we’re doing right now for the past year plus has been aimed at putting ourselves in the best position for the long term. And we absolutely are not going to do anything that’s going to compromise that for a short-term gain. Over arching, there’s a plan in place that we’re not going to deviate from.

“That said, when intriguing talent becomes available, we are going to at the very least check in, have conversations, understand the value of our players that are asked about … and if we feel like we can acquire something that’s controllable on a shorter term that we might be able to extend for a longer term, we’ll take that opportunity seriously. Obviously there was no transaction this offseason that involved us giving up prospects for short fixes.”

Hahn reiterated what he’s said a few times this winter, that the team has shattered expectations in what it’s done during the last year plus, starting a full-scale rebuild and making a trade with the Cubs being two examples of Hahn doing things fans thought the White Sox would “never do.” There’s a certain assumption that the White Sox also won’t shell out the big bucks that it would take to land Machado, who’s expected to get one of the larger contracts in baseball history. Hahn said again Friday that fans shouldn’t expect the team to conform to those kinds of expectations.

So there’s that.

3. What was the cost of trading for Christian Yelich?

Another big name the White Sox were tied to at various points this offseason through a variety of rumors was Christian Yelich, the now-former Miami Marlins outfielder who was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers earlier this week.

Much like the discussion surrounding the White Sox and Machado, it figured that the price would be steep in terms of prospect capital, and that ended up being the case for the Brewers, who traded away a four-player package headlined by their No. 1 prospect to bring Yelich to Wisconsin.

Where could the Marlins have got that sort of idea?

“You’ve seen some teams extract pretty high prospect prices in the last year or so,” Hahn deadpanned, sparking plenty of applause.

The thing with Yelich, however, is his contract, which unlike Machado’s, keeps him under team control for another five seasons. That made for a much different argument when it came to the White Sox, considering their contention window is expected to open before the end of those five years, making him a long-term acquisition like Hahn talked about.

At this point, it’s all just for discussion purposes considering Yelich has a new home, but fans were interested in what it might have cost to bring Yelich to the South Side.

Hahn said Friday that the White Sox “had an understanding of what it was going to take” to acquire Yelich and added that it was “not a level we were comfortable with.”

Upon seeing what the Brewers gave up, you’d have to figure the Marlins were asking for at least one of the White Sox highest-rated guys, perhaps a Kopech or a Jimenez, though of course that’s just speculation. If that was the case, fans should be happy Hahn didn’t pull the trigger on a trade for Yelich.

The bottom line appears to be — and Hahn has even hinted at the possibility of next offseason being a much different one for the White Sox — the team doesn’t yet appear to be in the position where they’re adding big-time pieces from the outside.

One thing Hahn said repeatedly over the past two days is that the White Sox have enough major and minor league talent where they could project out a "championship-caliber" player at every position on the big league team. And that’s true, with the caveat that all those prospects need to blossom into what they’re projected to be. But until they do or don’t, there’s no knowing what holes will exist and which ones will need filling.

“We objectively have options at every position, guys who could, if they max out and hit their ceiling, provide us with championship-caliber players at every position on the field and on the pitching staff,” he said Friday. “Unfortunately, player development isn’t always linear and cruel things happen and the baseball gods likely have some hiccups in store for us along the way, so ultimately not everyone is going to hit those ceilings in all probability. Once we know more, which could be a year from now, it could be 18 months from now, about which of these players are truly going to come close to approaching their ceilings, then we’ll be able to more aggressively address what remaining holes may exist at that time.”

James Shields wraps impressive 2018 campaign, but is it last he'll pitch in White Sox uniform?

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USA TODAY

James Shields wraps impressive 2018 campaign, but is it last he'll pitch in White Sox uniform?

James Shields is unlikely to go down as one of White Sox fans’ most beloved pitchers.

It was always going to be hard to erase the memories of his first two seasons on the South Side, which saw him post a 5.99 ERA and give up 58 home runs.

But Shields, a 36-year-old veteran who doesn’t figures to have much of a place in this rebuilding franchise’s long-term plans, made a heck of an impact and did a heck of a job during this losing season, one that could end up being felt when the team does transition to contention mode.

Shields capped his 2018 season with another six innings Tuesday night. It didn’t end up his 20th quality start of the season, with him giving up four runs, but he reached the 200-inning mark for the 10th time in his 13-year major league career, as good an example as any of how reliable and how steady a veteran presence he’s been this season.

As of this writing, baseball’s 200-inning club in 2018 looked like this: Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Aaron Nola, Zack Greinke, Dallas Keuchel and Shields.

“Going into this season, I was really taking pride in being able to get to that 200 mark again,” Shields said. “It’s my 10th time I’ve done it in my career, so that was kind of looming over my head a little bit, and to be able to get that, it’s just all the hard work I’ve put in this year and I’m really really proud of that.”

The other numbers might not scream “overwhelming success” of a season, even if it was by far his best year in a White Sox uniform. Shields finished with a 4.54 ERA and 154 strikeouts. The 34 home runs he gave up are the second most in baseball. His 78 walks put him in the top five in the game in that category.

But Shields’ impact has been as much about what he’s done off the mound as what he’s done on it. He’s served as a mentor to this team of young players, one that keeps getting younger with every highly touted prospect that gets his call to the big leagues. He’s been a particularly strong influence on Lucas Giolito, with the two set up next to each other in the clubhouse all season — that is until Michael Kopech arrived and Shields requested Kopech slide in between him and Giolito, again for mentoring purposes.

That’s a valuable thing on a team that figures to stay young as this rebuilding process moves along toward planned contention.

“I think more than anything, when you see how he’s continued to pitch and work through all of the things he’s done over the course of his career, I think he’s been a big factor by example,” manager Rick Renteria said prior to Tuesday’s game. “He goes out there and shows you how to get through innings, grind through some rough outings and continue to eat up outs. I think these guys are seeing it. He’s been someone that’s shown them why he’s been around for so many years.

“I think these guys have taken on some of his personality, some of his traits. Hopefully it’s something they can cling to and continue to help each other with. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have someone that’s something like that. He’s done everything he could to help with both between the lines and being in the clubhouse.”

“I’ve done it my whole career,” Shields said of that leadership, mentorship role. “Ever since I was in Tampa, I’ve prided myself in being a leader in this clubhouse and just helping the guys out and being a good teammate. Hopefully these guys take all of the advice and the experience that I’ve had over the years and take it to heart.”

Shields’ 2018 season is over, but is his time on the South Side?

He is expected to hit the free-agent market this winter, though given how impressive he was as a reliable arm and as a team leader in 2018, perhaps the White Sox opt to bring him back. Not only do they have a recent track record of making similar additions — see Hector Santiago and Miguel Gonzalez this past offseason — but they have a need in the starting rotation, two holes to fill in Shields’ spot and that of Kopech, who will miss the 2019 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.

It’s an option, if it’s something Shields and the White Sox both want to do. Certainly he’s given them reason to consider it with what he did this season.

“We’ll see where life takes me after this season’s over,” Shields said. “I’ve loved my time here, the guys are great, the coaching staff’s a great coaching staff, and the training staff, I can’t say enough about what they’ve done for me over the last three years. And just the organization itself has been an amazing organization to be a part of. So we’ll see where it goes this offseason.”

Keep it simple: How Daniel Palka has emerged as the clutch king of Chicago

Keep it simple: How Daniel Palka has emerged as the clutch king of Chicago

Daniel Palka’s been asked a lot about his approach in clutch situations, mostly because he keeps coming through in them.

Palka flexed his walk-off muscles again Tuesday night, driving in the tying and winning runs with a base hit off Cleveland Indians strikeout machine Carlos Carrasco in the bottom of the ninth and giving the White Sox an exciting win in their penultimate home game of the 2018 season.

It was just the latest in an increasingly unbelievable series of clutch hits from the guy White Sox fans have fallen in love with during this rebuilding season. He now has 10 hits, two doubles, six homers and 13 RBIs in the ninth inning this season. Heck, it wasn’t even the first time he’s walked off these Indians this season.

You might think that explaining how to come through with a game-winning hit against a major league pitcher is easier than actually doing it. But that’s the thing: Palka’s making it look easy specifically because he’s trying to keep it easy.

“I just try to keep it as simple as possible,” Palka said, a reasonable follow up to what he said after a big home run earlier this season. “What were you trying to do in that situation?” was the question lobbed his way. He hit the answer to that one out of the park, too: “I was trying to hit a home run.”

Palka’s big moments continue to fuel the conversation surrounding his place in the long-term plans of an organization with its eyes squarely set on the future. He long ago took the title of Surprise of the Year, considering he wasn’t on the Opening Day roster and yet will almost certainly finish as the team leader in home runs. He’s five ahead of his closest competition, the injured Jose Abreu, with a team-best 27 dingers and five games to play. Tim Anderson and Matt Davidson would need seven apiece over the next five contests to catch Palka.

Whether Palka’s place on those planned contenders of the future is as an everyday designated hitter or an everyday outfielder or a platoon guy or simply a left-handed power bat off the bench, he’s looking more and more like the totally unexpected success story of this rebuilding effort. Of course, there’s still a long time to go — and plenty of prospects still to develop and reach the major leagues — before any final assessments on lineups of the future can be made.

Still, it figures Rick Hahn’s front office could find a spot for a guy with such a flair for the dramatic and a knack for big hits in big moments.

And for someone who makes all that so easy.

“I think the outcome is just based on him keeping it simple,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He really doesn’t complicate it. He really does focus on the baseball and tries to get something he can handle and tries to hit it hard. It’s kind of that simple. You can’t control what happens once the ball leaves your bat, but you can control how simple you approach the at-bat. And he does that.”

White Sox fans know how they feel about Palka’s heroics. How does Palka feel about them?

“Yeah, it’s cool.”

See? Simple.

“I don’t really know what else to say about it besides I like that moment and I’m happy to be in that moment. That’s it.”