Nobody used the word “playoffs” repeatedly Thursday. Maybe the point is they don’t have to anymore.
The White Sox spent all of spring training talking about their postseason expectations. Three months later, they were supposed to be showing whether those expectations were warranted or not. Instead, they’ve yet to play an inning of the 2020 season, and the most recent regular-season baseball they played finished off an 89-loss campaign.
But while it’s been an undoubtedly deflating stretch for White Sox fans, who were ready for their team to finally leap into the ranks of baseball’s contenders only to see the season postponed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a three-month layoff from baseball hasn’t diminished the expectations one bit on the South Side.
“I’m still extremely optimistic,” manager Rick Renteria said. “We come in with the same mindset, to build on what we were building when we were cut off in the spring. And I continue to be optimistic about how positively we can roll forward.”
Both Renteria and fellow White Sox brain trust member Rick Hahn were obviously excited by the thought of finally getting this team into a regular-season game.
So much was made, and rightfully so, of an active offseason that saw Hahn equip Renteria with veteran additions like Dallas Keuchel, Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnacion. Face of the franchise Jose Abreu returned on a new contract. A long-term contract paved the way for uber prospect Luis Robert to hit the major leagues, with Nick Madrigal not far behind. Michael Kopech’s yearlong absence while recovering from Tommy John surgery was in the rear-view mirror. And then there was that young core of Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Lucas Giolito and Tim Anderson that had everyone so giddy as the 2019 campaign came to an end.
None of that went anywhere. All of it still applies. So it’s no wonder the spirits remain high at the corner of 35th and Shields.
Of course, this will be a season unlike any other. No team, the carefully constructed White Sox included, were built for a two-month sprint to a postseason that might or might not materialize, depending on the next curveball thrown by the coronavirus and the United States’ response to the pandemic.
But amid the mile-long list of unknowns, baseball is off and running toward a 2020 season, and the White Sox seem to be in the same place they were back in March: on the verge of leaping into contention mode.
Sure, the Minnesota Twins added Josh Donaldson, but will their pitching staff match the thunder in their lineup? The Cleveland Indians might have baseball’s best rotation, but will that make up for their top-heavy collection of bats? The White Sox, of course, face plenty of their own questions (and more impactful ones, at that), but their balance — should things go right — could have them outshining their AL Central competition.
“It goes back to the old saying you are going to win 20, you are going to lose 20. It’s what you do with the other 20 that makes the difference,” Hahn joked. “In all seriousness, we are obviously a young club. We have a club with a number of players with high ceilings, and that means we probably have a fair amount of variance in terms of what we are capable of doing over the course of the season. On the plus end, (if) guys come out of the gate quickly and reach their potential early, we could do extremely well in a 60-game sprint.
“If things sort of balance out across the talent level and some guys reach that ceiling and some guys don’t make it there, we feel like we are fairly well balanced in terms of our ability to compete over a two-month stretch.”
What has changed about the White Sox is a change for the better. Kopech and a number of other young arms recovering from Tommy John surgery have, well, recovered. And what was assumed to be a group of midseason reinforcements including Carlos Rodon, among others, could instead provide full-season depth.
“Early on in the season, our pitching depth was a potential issue with Rodon coming back from injury and Kopech having not pitched in a year and a half or so, not to mention some of the young players like (Dane) Dunning, (Jimmy) Lambert, (Jonathan) Stiever, who were sort of building their way back,” Hahn explained. “Now that we've got ourselves down to a 60-game season and all those players are -- knock on wood -- without restrictions at this point from a health standpoint, you suddenly look around at this team and you see we're in a decent position from a pitching-depth standpoint.”
In the end, the White Sox haven’t had their hopes and dreams for the 2020 season upended because they were built for much more than the 2020 season. The long-term thinking that’s been a trademark on the South Side during Hahn’s rebuilding project hasn’t gone anywhere, and because of it, the White Sox are set up well past this year, built with the kind of young talent that is hoped to yield a perennial contender for years to come.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t take advantage of all that talent this season and make that long anticipated leap into baseball’s upper class of competitors over the next few months.
“We’ve been building up to the point where we’re at,” Renteria said. “This shortened season might kind of push it forward, expedite it.”