The White Sox announced Monday the 44-player pool that will be reporting to the second round of spring training — the league is branding it as “Summer Camp” — beginning Friday at Guaranteed Rate Field.
While other small signings could come — the New York Mets have already added former White Sox infielder Gordon Beckham to their player pool — let’s work with the 44 players we know will be under consideration on the South Side and try to predict what the 30-man roster will look like come Opening Day.
Obviously, a ton could change between now and the end of this three-week training. Baseball is trying to get a season off the ground in the middle of a pandemic, and after the NBA and NHL saw roughly five percent of their players test positive for COVID-19 upon returning to camp, the number of positive tests among the as many as 1,800 baseball players reporting could approach triple digits.
Plus, teams are waiting to see what kind of physical condition players are in after a three-month layoff, which could obviously impact roster decisions.
But here’s an educated guess of which 30 guys could break camp and start a 60-game season on the White Sox major league roster.
We don’t know what kind of shape any of these guys will be in when they report to camp Friday, let alone what kind of shape they’ll be in when the season begins three weeks later. Will starting pitchers be able to log their typical six or seven innings? Giolito thinks so, but that might be a rosier outlook than reality allows. James McCann made mention that teams could be extra protective with their pitchers and limit them to just a few innings at a time.
So we could get an entirely new way that Rick Renteria is going to handle his pitching staff. The manager said everything is on the table, including strategies such as an expanded rotation, the use of openers and what baseball people call “piggybacking,” which is using two starters back to back in the same game.
Pending injury or illness, the five starting pitchers who were expected to break with the team back in March should still be there: Giolito, Keuchel, Cease, Lopez and Gonzalez. The big difference the three-month layoff has made is that the pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery have, well, recovered. Expected to be midseason additions, guys like Kopech and Rodon — as well as pitching prospects Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert — could be full-season options.
Kopech, you would expect to be there. While the White Sox could still not find his arm up to full strength, considering he hasn't had any minor league games to play in, a limited number of innings could mean that any innings limit that would have existed gets thrown out the window. Rodon, meanwhile, is obviously not as far along in his recovery, having had the surgery months after Kopech did, but could still be healthy enough to make a full-season contribution.
If both those guys are ready to go, that’s huge news for the White Sox, who would benefit greatly from that extra depth. They could shuffle Gonzalez back to the bullpen if they wanted to stick with the traditional five-man rotation formula. Or they could start incorporating Kopech and Rodon into games as “piggybacking” pitchers who would come in after three or four innings of another pitcher and help bridge the gap to the back end of the bullpen.
There are tons of options — Dunning could even factor in at some point, if the White Sox choose; they were complimentary of how he was progressing through the system before he got hurt in 2018 — and nothing says these guys have to pitch every five days and that’s it in this most unusual of seasons.
With starting pitchers potentially factoring into the mix, the lines between rotation and bullpen could be blurred in 2020. But a strong relief corps figures to be as important as ever with so much mystery surrounding what the starters are going to be able to provide.
The back end of the White Sox bullpen was a strength last season, and the eighth- and ninth-inning men are back, with Bummer and Colome expected to pitch in some of the highest-leverage moments late in games. Cishek will join that group, too, and he brings a strong track record after two seasons on the North Side. Marshall and Cordero were good last year, and the White Sox are hopeful for a bounce-back season from Herrera.
Detwiler can provide some length, which isn’t as great a need as it was back in March, when Kopech, Rodon and the others were expected to be away from the big league club for a while. But again, with starters perhaps maxing out, at least at the start of the season, at three or four innings, someone to soak up some innings is not going to be turned away. Fulmer could fall into that category, as well, though he’s struggled mightily with his command in recent seasons.
Ian Hamilton, Tayron Guerrero or Jose Ruiz could impress in camp, and then there are young guys like Codi Heuer and Tyler Johnson who the team could decide to give a shot to. Also, don't forget the usual roster churn that befalls a bullpen during a season. The Opening Day bullpen is rarely the final bullpen.
It’s possible, too, that guys pegged for the starting rotation back in March or even now could be cycled into relief roles. The number of innings they need to throw are so small now, compared to a normal season, that they might be able to be called on with greater frequency than every fifth day if they’re not going to throw scores of pitches in an outing. Kopech the closer? It's certainly not the team's long-term plan, but would the bizarre circumstances of 2020 convince them to give it a try?
This was the position group discussed the most when it came to the new 26th-man spot back in March. Why not just put ‘em all on the expanded 30-man roster?
Grandal and McCann are locks, obviously, a pair of All-Star backstops. But the debate was whether Collins or even Mercedes could find their way onto the roster with such little playing time seemingly available behind the plate.
Well, Collins, even in his brief time in the majors last year, was practicing at first base and could provide Jose Abreu with some rest. Both he and Mercedes could find some time as designated-hitter options for Renteria, who with a larger bench might be a little more likely to empty it in pinch-hitting situations and the like. While Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion haven’t shown a great need for a ton of days off, who knows what this 60-games-in-66-days format will hold? Who knows if those veterans will need some more time to get their bodies back into in-season shape?
That’s where Collins and Mercedes could come in handy. One thing working against the four-catcher plan: Roster rules will require teams to bring a three-man taxi squad along on road trips, and one of those players must be a catcher. And with four catchers already on the big league roster, that would require the White Sox dipping further down into their farm system to find a fifth catcher for the taxi squad 30 times during the season. Most likely that would mean Seby Zavala, but he wasn’t included as part of the 44-player pool announced Monday. He could certainly still be part of the group training at an alternate site. But perhaps the White Sox would be more comfortable with having Collins or Mercedes man that taxi-squad spot on road trips.
From an offensive standpoint, though, this seems to give Renteria the best options.
Abreu, Anderson and Moncada are no-brainers. Encarnacion is the everyday DH. Garcia and Mendick provide some valuable versatility.
But where’s Nick Madrigal?
Madrigal is perhaps the biggest mystery on this team right now because there are so many different ways the White Sox could choose to utilize (or not utilize) him in 2020, and all seemingly have good reasons behind them.
1. He could be put on the Opening Day roster. Madrigal is the best second baseman in the organization, offensively and defensively, and in a season where it’s more critical than ever to get off to a good start, having him there from Day 1 would give the White Sox the best chance to do that.
2. He could not make the Opening Day roster but show up a week later. Yes, service time is still a thing, and holding Madrigal’s big league debut back just a few days could net the White Sox an extra year of team control down the road. The team has never said that is a factor in its decision-making with prospects, but it’s a reality of the game that could benefit them as they look to extend their contention window far into the future.
3. He could be kept away from the major leagues all season. This doesn’t seem terribly likely, considering Madrigal was expected to be the team’s starting second baseman for the bulk of the 2020 season. But thinking from a service-time standpoint — which remember, the White Sox have never said they do — it potentially makes a ton of sense. In both the winter and spring, the White Sox said they needed to see more from Madrigal before deeming him ready for big league promotion. Well, he wasn’t able to show much before spring training was halted, and there’s expected to be no minor league season in which to show those things. Keeping him away from a brief season could mean the White Sox could wait to start his service-time clock until not just next season but a couple weeks into next season — when they could be better positioned to contend for a title than in this weird season full of unknowns — extending their team control and their contention window even more.
That last one — and probably the second one, too, which seems the most likely route — wouldn’t be very popular with White Sox fans, but it could make the team more competitive for years to come, Hahn’s ultimate goal in his rebuilding project.
No real controversies here. The only other outfielders in the 44-player pool are Nicky Delmonico and Luis Basabe, who would figure to have steep odds to make the club over any of these four. Some more red-hot play from Delmonico like he had in the spring could inch him into a roster spot over either Collins or Mercedes, but with only intrasquad games and a couple of exhibitions against, most likely, the Cubs to show off, even that’s difficult. Garcia’s versatility gives the White Sox a fifth outfielder, especially if he loses an everyday second-base job if and when Madrigal makes his big league debut.
All eyes will be on Robert, who was favored to be one of the leading candidates for AL Rookie of the Year. He’ll definitely still be on that list, though it will be interesting to see if he can set the world on fire, as predicted back in March, without much time to adjust to his first taste of the big leagues. You’ll remember it took Jimenez, Moncada and Giolito — three rebuilding cornerstones — months if not years to make their adjustments. Robert won’t have that kind of time.
Another interesting question is what does the White Sox outfield alignment look like late in games. Engel provides the most value as a sure-handed defender off the bench, and he’s been a Gold Glove finalist in center field. Are his late-game glove skills more valuable than Robert’s in center? Certainly they’d figure to be better than either corner outfielder, but if Engel is a frequent replacement for either Jimenez or Mazara, who mans the vacated corner spot and who plays center between Robert and Engel? That might not be a frequent question that needs answering, but it will be interesting to see what Renteria does when the moment comes.