Welcome to Memorial Day, a classic checkpoint for baseball teams trying to figure out exactly who they are in any given season.
Surprises can come after late May, and teams can certainly discover themselves deeper into the 162-game schedule. But traditionally, people talk about Memorial Day as a good time to know which teams are contenders and which are already out of the race.
The White Sox, it seems are not far from where they were at the beginning of the 2019 campaign: still rebuilding, still not ready to compete against baseball’s best, but better than last year. The rebuild, despite the rapidly evaporating patience of a large chunk of the fan base, is still on track.
If the 100-loss season a year ago was the toughest part of this process from the standpoint of what was happening on the field at the major league level, then what was this past weekend in the Twin Cities?
The first-place Minnesota Twins are among the best teams in baseball — no treat after the White Sox had to face off against another member of that group, the Houston Astros, immediately prior — and swinging white-hot bats. The Twins demolished the White Sox in the division rivals’ first series of this season, sweeping the three games by a combined 25-6 score.
It was the first time the White Sox lost three straight games by at least seven runs each since August 2007, during a parade of merciless routs at the hands of the Boston Red Sox, who outscored them 46-7 in four straight.
But the 2019 White Sox were not exactly constructed to go toe to toe with baseball’s best, to make a run at the pennant or stake any claims to belonging atop baseball’s mountain. Instead, the rebuild marches on.
The pieces have yet to all arrive at the major league level, with Dylan Cease, Luis Robert, Zack Collins, Nick Madrigal and more still going through the development process in the minors. The pieces who are here — Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez — are still developing, as well. And Michael Kopech, Carlos Rodon, Micker Adolfo and Dane Dunning aren’t doing anything right now other than recovering from season-ending surgeries.
And so getting crushed by the seemingly postseason-bound Twins (yes, the American League is that top heavy in 2019 that declarations such as that one seem perfectly reasonable) says nothing about the rebuild other than it clearly isn’t done yet. And no one was arguing otherwise before those three hard-to-watch ones in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
On Twitter (the Land of 10,000 Takes, nailed it), the big-picture frustrations over the White Sox big-picture prospects might be growing louder when the fortunes are at their worst at the big league level. But this is still an ongoing process of a top-to-bottom transformation of this organization. And that requires waiting. A lot of it.
While that’s the same unpopular prescription White Sox fans received in 2018, there’s plenty of bright spots and silver linings that have already made 2019 better than last year — and helped contribute to the idea that brighter days are coming.
When the sun came up on Memorial Day, Anderson led the AL with a .337 batting average, third in baseball to only the bonkers seasons of Cody Bellinger and Josh Bell in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, respectively.
To this point, Giolito has exorcised his demons from last season, when he led baseball’s qualified starters with a monstrous 6.17 ERA and the AL with 90 walks. Through his first nine starts in 2019, he’s 6-1 with a 2.77 ERA and a 59:19 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s fresh off maybe his best start in a White Sox uniform, a complete-game shutout against the Astros last Thursday, and he’s set to get another crack at the Kansas City Royals, who he’s pitched well against, on Tuesday.
Moncada might not be free of his strikeout-heavy ways — he’s on pace for 192 more of them this season after punching out 216 times in 2018 — but he’s improved on a woeful first full season in the big leagues, coming into Memorial Day 2019 with a .282/.336/.490 slash line to go along with his nine homers and 32 RBIs, those last two totals both ranking second on the team.
It sure sounds like Jose Abreu is part of the White Sox plans past the 2019 season, and he’s having a fine campaign, slugging .522 with 13 homers and 42 RBIs. And James McCann has been somewhat of a revelation, slashing .322/.361/.504 and perhaps working his name into the All-Star conversation. He’ll very easily be with the White Sox in 2020 if they want him back.
Now, that doesn’t mean all is sunny in the rebuild. While Dylan Covey and Manny Banuelos getting roughed up by the Twins means nothing for the long-term fate of the franchise, Lopez getting equally smoked is potentially more impactful. Lopez was the team’s best starting pitcher in 2018 but has ceded that title fully to Giolito as he struggles with an ERA north of 6.00. He’s given up 14 homers on the season; only two pitchers have given up more, both of whom pitch for last-place teams in Baltimore and Seattle.
The injuries continue to be of even greater concern. Rodon will be out until the second half of next season. When Kopech returns after more than a year on the shelf, he’ll still be getting his feet wet in the big leagues. There are questions about Collins’ defense, questions about Jimenez’s defense, questions about Madrigal’s power. And with the free-agent market drying up thanks to preseason extensions for some of the best players in baseball, there are questions about who that big outside addition is going to be and if he will be one big enough to vault this team into contention mode.
And so the White Sox reach 2019’s Memorial Day checkpoint without outside expectations of pennant-chasing and banner-raising later this year. But that’s no great surprise. The things that have gone well are things that are good signs for the seasons to come, and the things that have gone wrong, largely, are things that won’t doom those future plans. And that has to please Rick Hahn and his front office.
The fan base might, at the moment, be less sated by silver linings after watching the Twins tee off on White Sox pitching all weekend. Bad news in that department: There are 16 games remaining against those Twins. But impatience and frustration are certainly understandable emotions.
All the while, though, the rebuild is still on track. If there’s one conclusion to draw from the first two months of White Sox baseball in 2019, it’s that. The idea is that the bright spots will become increasingly brighter as the summer rolls on, more signs that the rebuild is moving in the direction Hahn & Co. want it to move. And maybe by next Memorial Day, we’ll be evaluating a team that has realistic expectations of involving themselves in a playoff chase.
Until then, Tom Petty keeps proving prophetic for South Side baseball fans: The waiting continues to remain the hardest part.