White Sox

White Sox developing what Lucas Giolito says 'can be one of the most dominant rotations in baseball'

White Sox developing what Lucas Giolito says 'can be one of the most dominant rotations in baseball'

General manager Rick Hahn has said since SoxFest that the 2019 season will be judged more on the progress and development of young, core players than it will be on the number of games the White Sox end up winning.

Well, consider Sunday's loss to the visiting Oakland Athletics a perfect encapsulation.

Well, maybe not a perfect one, with the White Sox bats effectively silenced by former White Sox hurler Chris Bassitt. But Lucas Giolito, one of those young, core players, was excellent. He struck out 13 batters to set a new career high in that category and owns a 3.42 ERA in this All-Star season. He's transformed himself from the guy with baseball's highest ERA a season ago to the ace of this White Sox staff.

That's the kind of positive progression that outweighs a loss in another rebuilding season that will end without a chase for a playoff spot.

The White Sox have seen a good deal of that kind of progression lately from its young starting pitchers. Giolito's been doing it all season, obviously, but Reynaldo Lopez is in the midst of a second-half renaissance and Dylan Cease is coming off two of his better starts as a big leaguer.

There's a great deal of focus on what pitcher or pitchers the White Sox might add to the rotation this offseason — and Hahn has made no secret about the fact that the team will be shopping for starting pitching — but the majority of the 2020 rotation is developing right before fans' eyes. And with how they're performing of late, there should be a great deal of confidence that the White Sox starting-pitching fortunes will be much better next season and in the seasons after that than they've been in 2019.

"I think that in the future we can be one of the most dominant rotations in baseball," Giolito said after Sunday's game. "You look at the raw stuff we all have, it's there. It's just a matter of continuing to build confidence, gain experience and at the end of the day, just going out there and executing.

"It's all part of the growing and learning process at this level. For me, I'm really happy to see what Reynaldo's done the second half. He took it upon himself after the first half he had and said, 'This isn't going to happen anymore, I'm better than this.' And he's been showing that. Dylan's learning from each and every outing, getting better and better and better commanding.

"It's great to see. I think with more time and experience, we're just going to continue to get better and better."

Hahn has made it clear that the 2020 rotation will not be entirely homegrown. But four of the five spots figure to be locked up by homegrown guys, pitchers who have been long hyped since arriving in various rebuild-launching trades. Giolito and Lopez both came over from the Washington Nationals in exchange for Adam Eaton following the 2016 season. Dylan Cease was acquired in the midseason Crosstown trade with the Cubs in 2017.

And then there's the heretofore unmentioned Michael Kopech, currently recovering from Tommy John surgery, who was acquired in the Chris Sale trade with the Boston Red Sox in 2016. Kopech will be back from his recovery in 2020 and installed alongside the three youngsters currently pitching at the major league level. There's still plenty of belief that the flame-throwing Kopech could still be the best of the bunch, even with Giolito now an All Star.

Organizational starting-pitching depth has been a crippling deficiency for the White Sox this season, leading to a parade of fifth starters including Ervin Santana, Odrisamer Despaigne, Manny Banuelos, Dylan Covey, Hector Santiago and Ross Detwiler. But with the four youngsters combined with offseason additions, plus the eventual returns of Carlos Rodon, Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert from their Tommy John surgeries and the continuing development of a prospect like Jonathan Stiever, the script could be wildly different.

"You look ahead to the future — if you just go strictly internal, which won't be the case — but if you look internally at Giolito, Lopez, Cease, Kopech, Rodon, Dunning, Lambert, Jonathan Stiever. You've got five really good ones in there, and you're insulated, as well, against potential injury," Hahn said during the White Sox Talk Podcast on Thursday. "That said, when you have championship aspirations, you are going to have to augment that.

"Whether it's the biggest name on the free-agent market or whether it's solid, mid-rotation guys to help stem the tide of any losing streak or give you a reliable output every fifth day, those have value. We like, once healthy, where this organizational starting-pitching depth is going, but we at the same time know if they all click, augmenting it externally makes sense, as well."

Fans will get excited about the team's intent to improve the rotation via free agency or a trade this winter. Gerrit Cole will be at the top of everyone's wish list, though he's expected to have many suitors and demand a monster contract. Elsewhere on the free-agent market, options could include Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Keuchel, Jake Odorizzi, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Wheeler. Trade candidates are obviously much tougher to project, especially this far out from the start of Hot Stove season.

But no matter who Hahn's front office brings in, the 2020 rotation's fortunes will likely be determined more by the homegrown arms who are already here, considering they figure to make up 80 percent of it.

 

Even with the promise of Giolito and Lopez from their days as prospects, Kopech and Cease have more recently been viewed as the two potential aces in the organization. Giolito's terrific 2019 season has put him back in that conversation, as well, and the White Sox still view Lopez as a top-of-the-rotation type guy. So those are four guys with pretty high ceilings who figure to already have claims to spots on the 2020 starting staff.

And that's before the White Sox go out and add anything to that mix.

The White Sox didn't win Sunday. They haven't won very often since the All-Star break, and they were under .500 at the close of the first half. But the positive development is happening. It's happening with important pitchers who hold the fate of the 2020 rotation in their hands. The recent success for Giolito, Lopez and Cease show that rotation could be a strong one.

One of the most dominant in baseball? Maybe one day.

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Renteria believes Kopech is 'looking far more advanced than people might think'

Renteria believes Kopech is 'looking far more advanced than people might think'

On the first day that Dane Dunning threw live batting practice since having Tommy John surgery last March, leave it to Michael Kopech to steal his thunder.

Not to minimize the pivotal and symbolic breakthrough for Dunning, one of the White Sox top prospects, who is definitely someone to watch in 2020, but after Kopech completed his own live batting practice against White Sox hitters, the words coming from manager Rick Renteria about Kopech was the biggest pitching news of the day.

“Honestly, he’s looking far more advanced than most people might think,” Renteria said about Kopech, who is six months ahead of Dunning in his return from Tommy John.  “I think he’s commanding a lot better. Changeup, breaking ball, fastball, the misses are minimal. The ball is coming out of his hand loose and hot. Looks really good.”

Kopech agrees.

“Yeah. I’m a lot more comfortable already than I thought I would be. With all the work I put in last year and ending the season on a good note with a couple innings there, I felt like coming into spring was a little more relaxed for me, because I wasn’t having to get here and then prove that I can still pitch,” Kopech said. “I do feel like I’m in a good spot. I do feel like there’s some things that need to be worked on. I’m in a better spot than what I thought I would be.”

Kopech faced some menacing White Sox hitters. Among them Yoan Moncada and Yasmani Grandal. The new White Sox catcher, who is coming back from an injured calf injury, tested the calf by running out of the box to first base several times, showing no signs of problems.

With a flamethrower like Kopech, you might be wondering about his velocity. Ask Kopech, and he’s not thinking about it at all. At least, not yet.

“To be honest, I don’t want to know until I’m in a game. There’s no point in me finding out how hard I’m throwing right now.  It would just be something I’m conscious about that I don’t need to be conscious about.”

He’ll throw another batting practice session in five days and says that his first Cactus League appearance could come after that.

“I think I’m getting close.  Breaking balls are something I’ll need to fine tune a little bit.  I need to be a little quicker with them,” Kopech said. “I feel very comfortable.  I’m pretty relaxed. I don’t feel like I’m getting too far ahead of myself, but I haven’t been in a game situation yet so I can’t really speak to that very well.”

As for Dunning, taking the mound against live hitters for the first time in more than a year, he was thrown straight into the fire. Moncada was the first batter he faced.

“I was a little nervous because it was my first time facing hitters. I was a little amped,” Dunning said about pitching to Moncada. “If one runs away from me, I think that would have been really bad for my career. Luckily enough I was able to actually throw some strikes. It was fun.”

Dunning was able to locate his fastball. “I was getting after it. It was a controlled hard,” he said. He got a feel for his changeup and spun some breaking balls as well.

Considering the long sludge that is Tommy John recovery, how big of a step was this for Dunning?

“I feel like it’s that hump I just got over, facing live hitters again. Getting back in action again, it’s exciting for me because I know that games are coming soon.”

 

James McCann can still play 'a pivotal role' for White Sox

James McCann can still play 'a pivotal role' for White Sox

James McCann went from backup to All Star and back again.

The White Sox upgraded at catcher this winter, adding Yasmani Grandal on a team-record contract. Make no mistake, Grandal’s signing is an inarguably good thing for the South Siders. He’s got a track record of success both at and behind the plate, with the winning experience necessary to help this team get to where it wants to be.

But it might not have been the best thing for McCann, individually, after he earned the starting job with what he accomplished in 2019, going from a career backup to a spot on the AL All-Star team.

Any frustration at returning to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart is more than understandable.

“There’s things about the business that you can’t control,” McCann said on the day pitchers and catchers reported to Camelback Ranch. “All you can control is how you handle your own self and how you handle your own preparations, and that was my main focus throughout the offseason and that will continue to be my main focus: how to make myself better and how to help the team win.”

Of course, even with Grandal slated to get the majority of the playing time behind the plate, McCann is still expected to play a valuable role on this White Sox team, one looking to play October baseball for the first time in more than a decade.

After all, two All-Star catchers are better than one, right?

“A hallmark of a good team is having quality depth,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “That's something we talked about from the start of being one of the goals that we set out to accomplish through this rebuild, and quite frankly, it was one of the things I've talked about publicly perhaps of not being entirely there yet in terms of organizational depth at certain spots. Catcher isn't one of those spots.

“We've got two All-Star caliber catchers, both of whom we anticipate contributing to a good club this summer.”

Independent of how often he’ll find his way into the lineup, whether McCann can produce at the same level that earned him an All-Star nod is very much an uncertainty. After slashing .316/.371/.502 in the first half last season, he struggled mightily after the All-Star break, hitting just .226/.281/.413. Those second-half numbers were far more in line with the numbers he put during his five years with the Detroit Tigers than what he did in his first few months with the White Sox.

That uncertainty is no longer a season-defining issue now that Grandal sits atop the catching depth chart, but McCann can obviously still have a positive effect on this team. In addition to simply providing depth, he showed last season a great ability to work with White Sox pitchers, particularly Lucas Giolito, and earned rave reviews from his teammates for his work ethic and dedication to game-planning.

“A pivotal role,” manager Rick Renteria said of how important a part McCann would play for the White Sox in 2020. “We have two catchers that are two All Stars, potentially.

“He’s an integral part of who we are as we move forward. … You can't run a catcher out there every single day. You can't expect one guy's going to catch 162 games. It's not gonna happen. I ran Mac out there trying to catch almost 162 games, and you start to break down a little bit.

“Having two guys who you can truthfully trust and being able to manage the pitching is a huge benefit to us, and we're happy that we have these two guys to balance us out.”

White Sox pitchers like Dallas Keuchel have touted the catching tandem as being an ultimate luxury. And for what it’s worth, both catchers said that having the two of them on the roster is a positive.

“James has been great,” Grandal said. “Obviously, I’ve needed him here just to go through a few things. For the most part, we’ve just been talking catching and how we can get in that aspect. … For me, it’s going to be how can I get in his head in order to kind of see it the same way and then we can talk about it and go from there.”

“It’s a good group,” McCann said. “Obviously Yaz strengthens that. I’m going to take stuff from him, as I’m sure he’ll be able to take some stuff from me. That’s what makes a team good, when guys can grow from each other and push each other.”

Who knows what will end up happening with McCann. The White Sox would figure to be better with him than without him, someone who does reliable work behind the plate and is capable of All-Star production with the bat, even if there’s no certainty those numbers will return in 2020.

But McCann is also slated to hit free agency at season’s end, and perhaps some team comes calling, putting the White Sox in a position to deal from a position of strength. After all, Zack Collins is still a part of this organization and its catching depth, a first-round pick who flourished offensively at Triple-A last season.

But for any understandable frustration that might be lingering, McCann spoke with the same type of confidence about the 2020 White Sox as everyone else during the early days of camp.

Heck, he might have come off more confident than anyone.

“If I said we weren’t trying to win a World Series, then I’d be lying,” he said. “It’s win now, and it’s not just get to the playoffs, it’s win a World Series.”

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