White Sox

White Sox free agency: Madison Bumgarner's flags aren’t as red as you might think

White Sox free agency: Madison Bumgarner's flags aren’t as red as you might think

The rumors are true: Madison Bumgarner has thrown a lot of innings.

But let’s not pretend the only 30-year-old Bumgarner is some sort of withered husk of his former self. Mostly because he’s only six months older than me, and I’m not ready to be a withered husk yet.

Figuring out how much gas the longtime San Francisco Giant has left in the tank is certainly going to be top of mind for the White Sox after they missed out on Zack Wheeler, who took less money than the South Siders were offering to go play for the Philadelphia Phillies. They’re now forced to look elsewhere in their quest to upgrade the starting rotation, and Bumgarner leads a pack of free agents still on the market, a group behind elite arms Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg that also includes Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu.

There are legitimate concerns over what kind of effect 1,948.1 combined regular-season and postseason innings will have on a pitcher who will get a multi-year contract. Bumgarner wasn’t the same pitcher in the last three seasons as the one he was from 2013 to 2016, when he finished in the top 10 in NL Cy Young voting four years in a row. But there were some promising developments in 2019 to suggest there’s plenty of life left in his arm.

Bumgarner made just 38 starts in 2017 and 2018, shelved with freak injuries: He injured his shoulder in a dirt bike accident in 2017 and was hit in the hand with a line drive in 2018. Then he turned around and made 34 starts in 2019, the most in baseball. Those specific injuries shouldn’t ring any alarm bells when it comes to long-term health concerns.

Then there are the numbers, some of which ticked up significantly in 2019. Yes, his 3.90 ERA was a career high, but it was still lower than the 3.96 ERA Wheeler delivered. But Bumgarner finished the season with an 8.8 K/9, his highest since 2016, and a 1.9 BB/9, a dramatic drop from the 3.0 BB/9 he posted the year prior. His 4.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the fourth best of his 11-year big league career.

As The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently pointed out, Bumgarner’s fastball in 2019 was as fast as it had been since 2015, and the increase in his fastball’s spin rate — for all you spin rate fans out there — from 2018 to 2019 was the biggest jump in the game.

Of course, not everything was sunshine and lollipops. In 2019, Bumgarner finished with the highest hard-hit percentage of his career, with 43.8 percent of the batted balls he gave up hit hard. His 35.8-percent ground ball rate was the lowest of his career. And while 207.2 innings — the most he threw in a season since 2016 — had a lot to do with certain stats looking large, he did give up a career-high 30 home runs and a career-high 90 earned runs.

Who knows whether Bumgarner will receive the same five-year deal that Wheeler did. Wheeler might be of similar age, just eight months younger than Bumgarner, but has a significantly less taxed throwing arm after he missed two seasons due to injury. But speculation abounds that Bumgarner will receive a similarly expensive deal, one richer than $100 million after Wheeler agreed to a $118 million pact with the Phillies — and turned down a contract offer worth more than $120 million from the White Sox.

Bumgarner, though, brings plenty Wheeler never could. He’s a three-time World Series champ and arguably the best pitcher in World Series history, with a 0.25 ERA in five Fall Classic games. That kind of winning experience would be invaluable to a team like the White Sox, whose veteran leader, while incredibly deserving of his status in the clubhouse, has played for sub-.500 teams in all six of his major league seasons.

In that regard, because their resumes are so similar, Bumgarner can be a Jon Lester of sorts for this Chicago rebuilding effort. Lester was the first big-name player to sign up with the then-rebuilding Cubs, inking a gigantic free-agent contract after a 2014 season in which the Cubs — who had yet to even call up Kris Bryant, Addison Russell or Kyle Schwarber — lost 89 games. With Lester (and those youngsters) aboard, the Cubs went to the NLCS in 2015 and won the World Series in 2016.

Coincidentally, the 2019 White Sox also lost 89 games. Coincidentally, Lester was also 30 years old and had World Series rings on more than one finger when he signed his big deal. (For what it’s worth, Lester had logged a combined 1,680 regular-season and postseason innings when he joined the Cubs.) Bumgarner buying into the vision on the South Side would be oh so reminiscent of Lester doing so on the North Side.

Lester was more than just a symbol for those Cubs teams, pitching as well as — if not better than — any pitcher they’ve had (save maybe Jake Arrieta) since he signed. Bumgarner would have to do the same to have the same kind of impact, obviously. But the jumps in those statistics just in 2019 signal he could be capable of doing just that.

This isn’t to say the White Sox “lucked out” in missing out on Wheeler or that Bumgarner is guaranteed to be a slam-dunk success for whichever team he signs with. But there are still some very good options on the free-agent market, even past Cole and Strasburg — who, it should be noted, the White Sox haven’t been tied to much at all, with MLB Network’s Jon Heyman going as far to say there’s “no belief” the White Sox would be in on either.

And the White Sox, if they’re indeed pursuing Bumgarner already, are likely to face steep competition, just like they did in the Wheeler sweepstakes. The Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals have been linked to the lefty, too.

There are reasons to question the pursuit of any player, Bumgarner included. But he can provide so much for a young rotation and a young team. Plus, he’s still a damn good pitcher. We’ll see if the White Sox willingness to spend the biggest bucks on Wheeler applies to their next target, too.

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Believe in 'Magic': For White Sox, a matter of when, not if, Nick Madrigal starts raking in the majors

Believe in 'Magic': For White Sox, a matter of when, not if, Nick Madrigal starts raking in the majors

When will Nick Madrigal reach the majors?

That, now that Luis Robert's path to an Opening Day roster spot has been cleared by a big-money contract extension, is the most pressing of the prospect-related queries facing the 2020 White Sox, a team that, it should be noted, will be turning its focus away from the minors and toward playing big league baseball in October for the first time in more than a decade.

Not unlike Robert, Madrigal shredded minor league pitching in 2019, playing at three levels and showing just how successful his elite bat-to-ball skills can make him as an offensive producer. He stepped to the plate 532 times and struck out only 16 times.

There's a reason even Rick Renteria is already calling the 22-year-old "Magic."

The general feeling seems to be that Madrigal will start the season at Triple-A Charlotte, though with the waiting game apparently over on the South Side and the intent to win as many games as possible, perhaps a strong showing at spring training will see Madrigal starting at second base in the March 26 opener.

That's a question better answered after the White Sox have been in Glendale for a few weeks.

But Madrigal's goal is clear.

"I definitely want to be in Chicago as soon as I can," Madrigal said earlier this week at the team's hitters' camp out in the desert. "I know they have a plan for me one way or another, but I think that’s the ultimate goal: being in Chicago and winning with that team.

"I know this offseason there’s been a lot of moves, and I’m excited to be a part of that, hopefully, in the near future. The ultimate goal is winning. There’s nothing else at this point."

Madrigal might not have blown the doors off the minors like Robert, who finished with a 30-30 season, but he wasn't fazed by climbing through the system. Madrigal put up good-not-great numbers in nearly 50 games at Class A Winston-Salem but exploded for a .341 batting average and a .400 on-base percentage in 42 games at Double-A Birmingham before batting .331 and reaching base at a .398 clip in 29 games at Charlotte.

That he didn't even reach 30 games in a Knights uniform could signal that the White Sox might prefer a little more seasoning, but he didn't see any problems facing the pitching at Triple-A.

“Honestly, it wasn’t too different at all. There was nothing I hadn’t seen before," he said. "There were some older guys in the league, more consistent arms. I thought it wasn’t anything too different.”

Madrigal's earning high praise all over the place, rated among the best prospects in the game. He's earned rave reviews for his ability on both sides of the ball, picked by team executives (in an MLB Pipeline poll) as having one of the best hit tools and gloves of any player in the minor leagues.

There still might be some skepticism, or perhaps mere curiosity, as to how Madrigal's skill set will translate to the major leagues. Players like him, who focus on making contact and putting the ball in play, are becoming rarer in today's game, which sees a focus on power and launch angle and an acceptance of strikeouts. His manager, one of "Magic's" biggest fans, isn't too concerned about Madrigal finding success once he finally makes the jump to the bigs.

"Watching him swing the bat yesterday, I'm amazed at his bat-to-ball skills. It's incredible," Renteria said Wednesday from Arizona. "He's actually filling out a little bit more. All these guys, we've seen them for the last four years, they're growing up. And even though Magic just joined us last year, you can see a difference in him, physically speaking.

"I think his skill set, in terms of his bat-to-ball skills, as he continues to develop, you may see a ball leave the ballpark here and there. But the fact he can put the bat on the ball and manage the barrel as well as he does, he'll be able to find holes. Continuing to improve upon and cleaning his swing path, staying through the ball a little bit more and still being able to use all parts of the field, his skill set will play. He'll find a way to get on base at a high rate through probably contact and eye recognition, pitch recognition."

Rick Hahn has said that he expects Madrigal to be the White Sox second baseman for the bulk of the 2020 campaign, so even if he doesn't make the 26-man roster out of spring training, keep your eyes peeled for a Madrigal sighting not too deep into the baseball calendar.

This is a matter of when, not if. So the walk-up music folks at Guaranteed Rate Field better start getting ready. Will it be "Magic Man" by Heart? Or "Strange Magic" by Electric Light Orchestra? "Do You Believe in Magic" by The Lovin' Spoonful is, of course, also acceptable.

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Focus shifting to major league White Sox, but they still have some of baseball's best prospects

Focus shifting to major league White Sox, but they still have some of baseball's best prospects

White Sox fans suddenly have reason to stop focusing on the minor leagues.

Rick Hahn's front office has done an incredible amount of work this winter adding impact veterans to the team's young core, and because of it, there are realistic playoff expectations on the South Side. The summer figures to be spent focusing on what Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease are doing at the major league level rather than what the potential stars of the future are doing in the minors.

In other words, the future is here.

But it's worth noting that the White Sox still have some of the best prospects in the game. It's true that a few of the biggest names among that group won't be prospects for much longer. Luis Robert just got a high-priced contract extension that clears the way for him to be in the lineup on Opening Day. While Michael Kopech will be limited in some fashion as the White Sox manage his workload in his return from Tommy John surgery, it's hardly out of the question that he could be a part of the 26-man group that leaves Glendale at the end of March. And Nick Madrigal, Hahn has said, figures to be the White Sox second baseman for the bulk of the 2020 campaign after he reached the doorstep of the majors last year.

The point is, however, that the White Sox core is not done growing. Moncada, Giolito, Anderson and Jimenez all broke out in big ways in 2019, and the veterans added to that group could push the team into contention mode as soon as this season. But Robert, Kopech, Madrigal and Andrew Vaughn are set to join that core, too, expanding it to one the White Sox hope will power championship contenders for years to come.

The Athletic's Jim Bowden ranked Robert as his No. 1 prospect in baseball, picking the 22-year-old center fielder to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award. And that's no stretch after the way Robert lit the minor leagues on fire in 2019. Playing at three different levels, he slashed .328/.376/.624 with 32 home runs, 92 RBIs, 31 doubles, 108 runs scored and 36 stolen bases. He's a true five-tool threat who receives rave reviews that peg him as potentially the best of all the White Sox young talent. MLB Pipeline is in the middle of rolling out their rankings ahead of the 2020 season, and we'll learn where Robert ranks on the site's updated list next weekend during SoxFest. But most recently, Robert was the site's No. 3 prospect in the game.

Kopech still has prospect status despite the fact that he made his big league debut in August 2018. That Tommy John surgery limited his major league experience to this point to just four games, wiping out his 2019 season. Whether he'll be the same elite pitcher that was promised prior to his surgery is one of several important questions facing the 2020 White Sox, but it doesn't seem to be deterring the rankers. Bowden has Kopech as the No. 11 prospect in baseball, and MLB Pipeline ranked him as the No. 4 right-handed pitching prospect in the game. Kopech is said to still be capable of unleashing the blazing fastball that made him such a tantalizing prospect in the first place. The big question now is how often he'll be able to use it, with the White Sox planning to limit him in some capacity. We'll have to wait until spring to find out exactly what those limitations look like.

Madrigal might not spend a long time at Triple-A Charlotte, expected to be manning second base for the big league White Sox for the majority of the 2020 season. But like they did with Moncada, Jimenez and Robert before him, the White Sox have no plans to rush Madrigal to the majors. Bowden has him ranked as the No. 14 prospect in the game, and we'll find out soon where MLB Pipeline has him among second basemen. We already know they think the world of his glove — which was touted as Gold Glove caliber by the White Sox the night they drafted him in 2018 — naming him the second baseman on their all-defense team (he won a minor league Gold Glove for his work last season, too). MLB Pipeline also polled general managers, scouting directors and executives across all 30 teams, and Madrigal's name popped up often, voted to possess the third best hit tool, the third best glove and the highest baseball IQ among all of the game's prospects. The guy struck out just 16 times in 532 trips to the plate last season, so he's obviously doing something right.

Vaughn is receiving similarly rave reviews this winter. Bowden ranked him as the game's No. 35 prospect, and MLB Pipeline might end up putting the White Sox most recent first-round pick even higher, naming him the top first-base prospect in baseball. A slugger whose bat earned high praise when he came out of Cal last summer, Vaughn might not reach the South Side in 2020 like the rest of the guys discussed here. But he does figure to have a similar impact when he finally does. He played just 52 games between Class A Kannapolis and Class A Winston-Salem after joining the organization, hitting a combined five homers at those stops. He's still swinging the bat that launched 50 homers and drove in 163 runs over three seasons in college. That aforementioned MLB Pipeline executive poll? In it, Vaughn was picked as having the second best hit tool in the game. The White Sox just gave Abreu a three-year contract extension that will keep him on the South Side through at least the 2022 campaign, but the 37-year-old Encarnacion could be here as briefly as one year (his contract has an option for 2021), potentially opening up a spot for Vaughn should everything go right in the minors.

And this is without even mentioning guys like Dane Dunning, Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever, who could all wind up playing important roles on the pitching staff.

So while there is plenty of reason for your minor league interest to wane — because meaningful baseball is expected to be happening at the major league level in 2020 — know that the White Sox farm system (at least the tippy top of it) is still worth salivating over. These guys should be on the South Side soon, only adding fuel to the fire Hahn has built this winter.

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