White Sox

White Sox Team of the Future: First base

White Sox Team of the Future: First base

What will the next championship-contending White Sox team look like?

That's what we're setting out to determine (or at least make a guess at) this month. Ten members of our White Sox content team here at NBC Sports Chicago put our heads together to try to project what each position on the diamond would look like in one, two, three years. Basically, we posed the question: What will the White Sox starting lineup be the next time they're capable of playing in the World Series?

That question can have a bunch of different answers, too. We didn't limit ourselves to players currently a part of the organization. Think the White Sox are gonna make a big free-agent addition? Vote for that player. Think the White Sox are gonna pull off a huge trade? Vote for that player. We wanted to see some creativity.

Well, you could argue that our pick at first base shows absolutely no creativity or a whole lot of it. Why? Our first baseman of the future is Jose Abreu, the same guy we picked as our designated hitter of the future last week.

How can this be? Well, sometimes things like this happen in this democratic voting process of ours. The big takeaway, though, should be this: Five of our voters picked Abreu as the first baseman of the future, with four others picking him as the DH of the future, meaning nine out of 10 voters believe Abreu, who is entering the final season of his current contract, will end up staying on the South Side for the long haul.

That's significant, in that the White Sox would need to sign Abreu to an extension (or a new contract after he hits the free-agent market) to make that happen. All but one of us believe that will happen, and it's no illogical conclusion given the rave reviews Abreu constantly receives from White Sox brass and his teammates in the home clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field. He's discussed as a model for the younger players arriving from the minor leagues, an example of how to put in work, prepare for games and generally go about things the right way. It's why Yoan Moncada, such a big part of the team's long-term plans, has his locker right next to Abreu's.

Abreu saw a dramatic dip in his statistical production last season, unable to make it a fifth straight with at least 25 home runs and 100 RBIs. Of course, that was due to an uncharacteristic, prolonged slump in the middle of the season and a pair of freak injuries toward the end of the year. Still, he was elected as the American League's starting first baseman in the All-Star Game and won the second Silver Slugger of his career.

Full health and a more typical go of things should make for a bounce-back campaign in 2019. The White Sox made a move to help that become more likely, acquiring Yonder Alonso in a trade with the Cleveland Indians. Abreu and Alonso are slated to share first base and DH duties in 2019, with Abreu perhaps seeing more time at DH than in past seasons to keep him off his feet. Is Abreu a better fit for first base or DH in the long term? That likely depends on how some of the White Sox prospects develop. But his reduced workload in the field in 2019 should help with either scenario.

Outside of last year, Abreu's production since arriving from Cuba ahead of the 2014 season has been sensational, and he's already established himself as one of the best hitters in White Sox history. Given that consistent on-field production and his much-loved off-the-field contributions, it would be no surprise to see him get a new contract and stick around for the transition from rebuilding to contending on the South Side.

Of course, there are other options for the ever-flexible White Sox, who could conclude that Abreu's long-term prospects — he'll turn 32 later this month — don't align with those of the many young players coming up through the system. They could decide a midseason trade to acquire younger players might be more beneficial to the long-term future.

But with how beloved Abreu is within the organization, it would make sense that keeping him a part of it — something he's expressed a desire for — would be the preferred course of action.

Other vote-getters

Yonder Alonso. The aforementioned Alonso will split time with Abreu at first base and DH during the 2019 season. And while Alonso isn't guaranteed to be with the White Sox past the 2019 season (neither is Abreu, of course), one voter believed the White Sox would like what they see enough to keep him in their plans. Alonso has certainly played a lot of first base, and he's just two years removed from an All-Star season in which he posted an .866 OPS with a career-high 28 home runs. His numbers took a tumble last season in Cleveland. He'll turn 32 shortly after Opening Day. Is he a long-term option? Most likely no, but that doesn't prevent him from hitting his way into those long-term plans.

Zack Collins. Questions about Collins' defense have been present since the White Sox drafted him in the first round in 2016. He's moving his way through the farm system, spending all of the 2018 season at Double-A Birmingham, though he wasn't included among baseball's top-10 catching prospects, per MLB Pipeline's just-released rankings for that position. Last season's .382 on-base percentage was phenomenal, and continuing that kind of production could land him in the majors soon. But the questions about his defense haven't gone anywhere. In fact, while splitting some time with Seby Zavala last season, he played just 74 of his 122 games at catcher, the others at designated hitter. There exists a scenario in which Collins' bat is major league ready but his glove isn't, meaning perhaps first base is the best place for him. Of course, the White Sox have a ton of faith that he'll be a big league backstop.

Gavin Sheets. Sheets was a second-round pick of the White Sox in 2017, and he posted some good numbers in his first full season in the organization. Playing at Class A Winston-Salem last year, he batted .293 with a .368 on-base percentage. Of course, first base is a power position, and Sheets hit only six home runs in his 119 games. But he's still ranked as one of the top 15 prospects in the organization, and it's most definitely in the realm of possibility for Sheets to be the first baseman of the future.

Paul Goldschmidt. If the White Sox miss out on Manny Machado and Bryce Harper this winter, the need for a "finishing piece" to this rebuilding project will still exist, and the team will likely be as aggressive in their pursuit of one during the next round of free agency. One of the biggest names in next winter's free-agent class is Goldschmidt, the new St. Louis Cardinals first baseman who has been one of baseball's best hitters during the first eight seasons of his big league career. He's been an All Star in each of the last six seasons, won three Gold Gloves and twice finished the runner up for NL MVP honors. In other words, he'd be a heck of a "finishing piece" for the White Sox, and one voter thinks he could be the guy manning first base in the future.

Justin Bour. One of our voters likes the idea of Bour arriving on the South Side as a not too flashy but perhaps important addition to a contending roster at some point down the road. He's hit 83 home runs over the last four seasons, mostly with the Miami Marlins, though he played in 29 games with the Philadelphia Phillies last season. Bour has some pop and some good on-base skills, so his bat would perhaps be a welcome addition down the line.

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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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