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.