OK, you’re going to call me crazy.
But there’s a way the White Sox win the World Series.
I know, I know. It probably sounds like I’m not just sipping the Kool-Aid but gulping the Kool-Aid down like I’ve been crawling through the desert for the last few days.
Because that’s where the White Sox have been the last few years, in baseball’s desert. While the front office has been rebuilding from the ground up, the major league club has, in Rick Renteria’s three seasons as manager, lost a total of 284 games. The last time the White Sox played a game that counted, they were wrapping up the 89-loss 2019 campaign.
And from that, there’s a way they can win the whole thing?
It’s July. And instead of talking about which teams are looking like contenders and which are looking like pretenders, we’re just getting the 2020 season started. Everyone’s a contender. And yet we’re just two months from the playoffs.
Indeed, this season will be unlike any other. It might get to the point where you have to throw everything you know about baseball out the window. Hearing the players describe it, this season is going to be a mad 60-game dash to the postseason where every game is super meaningful and anything can happen.
All that uncertainty could work in the White Sox favor. In a season where surprise teams could become commonplace, what bigger surprise than the franchise’s more than decade-long playoff drought coming to an end?
But that’s the thing. I’m not sure that would count as a surprise anymore.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to the White Sox themselves, who have spent months talking about playoff expectations. Renteria got it started at the close of last season, talking about the need for his team to enter winning mode as a young core of Yoán Moncada, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jiménez and Lucas Giolito blossomed in front of his eyes. Giolito put together an All-Star season, his transformation from the pitcher with the game’s worst numbers into the no-doubt ace of the South Side staff was the team's biggest story of 2019. Moncada went from 217 strikeouts to the team’s best all-around player. Anderson went from a .240 hitter to the big league batting champ. Jiménez socked 31 homers as a rookie.
All that made what happened next possible, as Rick Hahn backed up his promise from the day Manny Machado spurned the White Sox for the San Diego Padres. “The money will be spent,” he said that day, and an offseason later, the White Sox added veteran heft and winning experience to that young core. Yasmani Grandal, one of the best all-around catchers in baseball and veteran of five straight postseasons, bought into a bright future driven by young pitching talent. Dallas Keuchel, who’s won a Cy Young Award and a World Series, joined up to be the veteran presence on a pitching staff with a ton of potential. Edwin Encarnación, already 37 years old, is a one- or two-year hired gun, but what a gun, one that’s fired 30-plus homers out of big league ballparks in each of the last eight seasons.
But the most impactful newcomer might be the one who was signed three years ago, a 22-year-old five-tool threat they call “La Pantera.” Luis Robert, so the evaluators say, could be the best of the White Sox collection of talented youngsters. He’s yet to play a major league game, but he’s dazzled during “Summer Camp” with tape-measure home runs, line drives into the Wrigley Field ivy, near home-run robberies, a command of the outfield, a strong throwing arm and blazing speed on the base paths. His home run hit while falling over in an intrasquad game set the baseball-loving segment of the internet on fire, growing the legend of the potential AL Rookie of the Year. He won’t have as much time as anticipated to adjust to big league pitching. It might not matter.
The White Sox are better positioned now than they were when they thought their season would be starting back in March. Baseball lay dormant for months while the league watched the COVID-19 pandemic and fruitlessly negotiated with the players’ union, but White Sox pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery continued their rehab. Carlos Rodón, along with prospects Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert, is now a full-season option for the White Sox rather than a potential midseason addition, bolstering the rotation. Even with Michael Kopech deciding not to play this season, the same team that trotted Odrisamer Despaigne and Manny Bañuelos out for ineffective starts in 2019 now seems to count pitching depth as one of its strong suits.
So how do the White Sox take all that talent and turn it into a championship?
The young core keeps growing. Moncada jumps from star in the making to bona fide star and an MVP candidate by building upon what he did last season. Anderson stays aggressive and silences any idea of him being a one-year wonder, all while making his vowed improvements on defense. Jiménez makes these two months look like the final month of his rookie season, doing more than what he did last season, when he was just scratching the surface of his big league potential. Giolito carves up the competition like he did last season, firmly gripping that ace role and the title of one of the American League's best arms. José Abreu, the team leader back on a multi-year deal, keeps being José Abreu.
The veteran newcomers do what they were brought here to do. Keuchel puts the idea of aging on hold and recaptures the stuff that won him a Cy Young Award in 2015, influencing the young pitchers around him along the way. Grandal not only frames his pitchers into strikeout heaven, but he brings on-base skills to a lineup that sorely needs them. Encarnación is unlikely to make it nine straight 30-homer seasons with just 60 games at his disposal, but he makes sure the parrot is a frequent guest on trips around the bases.
And the rest of the youngsters emerge. Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López and Rodón find the consistency that eluded them in years past. Nick Madrigal’s anti-modern, high-contact, singles-hitting approach translates to the major leagues. The White Sox tap the supposedly stored-up potential they see in power-hitting newcomer Nomar Mazara. Even in a season squished down to just two months, this still growing team, its blind youth mixed with some added veteran know-how, races out to a fast start and learns how to win.
If it all comes together, this team could not just climb out of rebuilding mode but soar into contention mode.
They won’t go far, of course, if they can’t hold their own against the reigning class of the AL Central. The Minnesota Twins were among baseball’s best last season after winning 101 games. While that sort of thing will happen when you can spend the summer drubbing the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals and, yes, the White Sox, the Twins were undoubtedly terrific when it came to slugging, setting a new major league record for home runs with more than 300 of them. Much of that thunderous lineup is back for 2020 and now counts regular MVP candidate Josh Donaldson as a member. The only thing more impressive than his steady, elite production are his career numbers against White Sox pitching. But for as terrifying as the Twins’ lineup is, their pitching staff leaves a lot to be desired. After getting past José Berríos, the starting staff is a collection of veterans that doesn’t intimidate.
Then there are the Cleveland Indians, who narrowly missed the postseason last year. They seem perfectly capable of competing for the division crown again in 2020, though they face the inverse problem of the Twins. The Cleveland starting rotation — which in the last calendar year has lost Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber to trades — might still be baseball’s best. Topped by Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber, it can throw a dangerous arm at a lineup every single night. But despite continuing to employ a pair of MVP types on the left side of the infield in Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez, the Indian’s lineup is woefully top heavy.
Preseason prognosticators can look at the White Sox and do their own nitpicking, of course. But should the South Siders get positive answers to the questions they need answered as the 2020 campaign opens, it’s no stretch to suggest the White Sox could not just be the most balanced of these three AL Central contenders but the best.
A division title is one thing — and no small thing, considering it hasn’t happened for these White Sox in a dozen years; I was 18, for goodness sake — but winning a World Series is entirely another. The White Sox will go through this most unusual of regular seasons without seeing the New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland Athletics, playoff teams the lot of them a season ago. That, of course, could help the White Sox reach October in the first place, but it would present unknown quantities when it comes to reaching the Fall Classic. Not only do we not know currently how the White Sox would stack up against the class of the AL outside their own division, but we won’t know in October, either, even if they establish themselves as the top team in the Central and wind up in the playoffs.
Same goes for the impossible task of projecting what National League team would be waiting for them should they make it all the way to the World Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers seem the team to beat in the Senior Circuit. Before arguing, though, that there’s no way these White Sox could hope to topple the Dodgers, let’s make sure this weird season doesn’t do something like vault the Miami Marlins to a pennant.
What we can evaluate is what we’ve seen from the White Sox, and what we can see is a rebuilding project that appears ready to bear fruit. All the potential in the world doesn’t mean a thing unless it’s realized, and Hahn will be the first to point to this as a long-term endeavor, one not judged by the outcomes of an unpredictable 60-game season but by what this team has accomplished at the end of the decade. And he’s not at all wrong.
But this team looks capable and hungry. Most importantly, it looks talented. The lineup is deep, the pitching staff is deep.
It all needs to go right. It always does, for any team that wins the World Series. Health is more important than ever in a season played in the middle of a pandemic. And it might turn out that the biggest threat to the White Sox making a championship run might not be the Twins or the Astros, the back half of the rotation or any Robert growing pains, but the virus and its effects on baseball and the United States, in general.
In closing, maybe we should take a little cue from José Abreu, the long-suffering team-leader and No. 3 hitter who’s molding all these youngsters into hard-working, White Sox-loving, high number-wearing producers like himself. He spent the entirety of the 2019 season, his sixth straight losing campaign in a White Sox uniform, talking about how badly he wanted to be a part of this team moving forward because he saw what was coming, what the rebuild could yield, and he knew it was going to be good.
During spring training, Abreu stopped talking about this team in the future tense. It was no longer going to be good. It was good. The White Sox, in Abreu’s mind, had reached that moment he’d been waiting for.
“I think it's just about time for us to start winning,” Abreu said in February, through team interpreter Billy Russo. “It's just that time for us to start winning games and start to be relevant.
“The team that the front office put together, we're going to be able to do it. We have to be united. We need to be strong in good times and bad times if we want to be successful this season. With the guys that we have right now, that's something that's doable. That's our goal.
“I think expectations are high because we all know that this is the time for us to win.”
How much winning can they do? Why not all of it?