White Sox

Who's the White Sox ace of the future? 'We'll have five of them'

Who's the White Sox ace of the future? 'We'll have five of them'

Monday at Camelback Ranch, there was Michael Kopech, mowing down the Oakland A’s with an array of fastballs ranging from 97 to 101 mph, looking very much like the White Sox ace of the future.

It’s a role he envisions for himself one day. Just not yet.

“Right now, I’m focused on cracking the rotation at some point and helping the team win as much as I possibly can,” Kopech said during a recent interview at White Sox camp. “If that lands me a spot as the ace in the future, then I’ll be extremely honored and grateful, but right now it’s one step at a time.”

It’s one step for Kopech, but what if many of these top pitching prospects take that giant leap and reach their potential in the majors?

Forget about one ace. The White Sox could end up with several.

“Personally, I want the White Sox staff to have five aces,” fellow starter Lucas Giolito said. “Every single day, whoever is taking that mound is the ace of that day and that’s who we’re behind. That’s the ace of the staff on the mound. We’ll have five of them.”

At a time when teams like the Cubs, Astros and Red Sox have given up top prospects to acquire high-end starting pitching, the White Sox system might be loaded with it. Granted, they needed to trade Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Adam Eaton to accumulate a good chunk of that pitching depth (they also got possible superstars Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez in those deals), but if they’re able to hit on most of these hurlers, it’ll be a great problem to have.

Besides Kopech and Giolito, there’s Alec Hansen, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning, not to mention Carlos Rodon and Carson Fulmer.

Forget about a five-man rotation. I joked with Kopech they might eventually need a 10-man rotation to find room for everyone.

“We should. There’s really no point in shortening it,” Kopech said. “Yeah, it’s going to be unbelievable if everything goes as planned.”

The key word here is “if.” Not every top prospect reaches his potential, let alone the majors. Look at Jake Burger, who suffered an Achilles injury in Monday’s game. The White Sox top draft pick could be out for months.

But while you can’t see into the future, you can see all the high-end arms the White Sox possess and feel hopeful about what is possible.

“Especially with the stuff guys have, watching the bullpens, it’s kind of crazy,” Giolito said. “The A-ball guys and up. The current big league guys. Everyone’s got nasty stuff. It’s going to be real fun.”

What does it take to be an ace? Kopech has an idea.

“It’s the guys who want to be great that end up being great for some reason,” Kopech explained. “It has a lot to do with the mindset. I think Hansen has it. I think Cease is another who has it.”

When I read that quote back to Cease, who the White Sox acquired in the Quintana trade, he was at a loss for words.

“I don’t even know what to say. That’s awesome. I really appreciate him saying that,” Cease said. “I want to get better everyday. I want to grow. Wherever that takes me, I’m excited.”

Hansen believes the White Sox have “four or five” possible aces, with him being one of them. He’d personally like to see him and Kopech be 1-2 in a future White Sox rotation.

“It sounds good to say that, and I hope that happens because I think that could be really special,” he said of a Kopech-Hansen combo.

We’ll let them decide who’s 1 and who’s 2. But right now, Hansen knows it’s just talk. Both are miles away from reaching such heights. They’ll need to match those words with action.

“Everyone’s got potential. It’s just a matter of fulfilling it,” Hansen said. “Who’s going to do what it takes to fulfill their potential?”

That’s the big question. If most of these prospects hit their ceiling, the White Sox will love the final answer.

“It’s exciting that we’re all at the same point of our careers,” Kopech said. “I’m really excited to see what the future has in store for us.”

The story of the spring: How Manny Machado's decision affects the White Sox present and future

The story of the spring: How Manny Machado's decision affects the White Sox present and future

GLENDALE, Ariz. — No matter how much the players in the clubhouse want to move on from Manny Mania, there’s no doubting that Manny Machado’s decision to play for the San Diego Padres — or rather, his decision not to play for the White Sox — has been the defining storyline of the first couple weeks of spring training here at Camelback Ranch.

The White Sox will move on. The front office will dust itself off and go after big names again. The players will play with a 25-man roster and nine guys in the batting order, just like they would have. And, yes, even the angry corners of White Sox Twitter will forget Machado one day, which figures to be easy to do once Eloy Jimenez is crushing homers out of Guaranteed Rate Field.

But the 2019 season and those after it will be viewed through this lens, one where the White Sox missed out on an opportunity to sign one of the best players in baseball. Machado opting for the sunny skies of Southern California does not preclude the White Sox from living out Rick Hahn’s wildest rebuilding dreams, nor does it mean a premium free agent will never sign on the South Side. But it does have its obvious effects on the present and future of this franchise.

Here’s a look at some of those effects.

The White Sox will not be as good in 2019 as they would’ve been with Machado

Obvious, I know.

Machado would’ve done a lot of things for the White Sox, and the biggest allure of signing him was that he would’ve done those things for the better part of the next decade. While fans would have been amped to see Machado in action for the 2019 season, he was a White Sox target because as a 26-year-old superstar, he meshed pretty perfectly with their long-term plans.

Had Machado signed with the White Sox, though, he would have made them better in the immediate. He’s coming off a career year in which he slashed .297/.367/.538 with 37 home runs and 107 RBIs. Adding that to any lineup is going to make a pretty big difference.

And while Hahn has talked often about the idea of it being perhaps “a year early” for the still-rebuilding White Sox to be jumping at a free agent that would help vault them into contention mode, a weak AL Central and American League in general provided — and perhaps still does provide — an opportunity to make a surprise run at the postseason. With Machado in the fold, that might have been an even more realistic possibility.

It’s not to say the White Sox still couldn’t threaten to be in the wild-card mix later on this season. But without Machado, that seems to be a significantly taller task. Hahn made many noteworthy additions, but this roster is made up of many of the same players who lost 100 games last season. Another developmental year wouldn’t be at all surprising and would in fact be expected if you look at the recent history of successful rebuilds. The Cubs lost an average of 95 games a season in the first three years of Theo Epstein’s rebuild. The Houston Astros lost an average of 104 games a season in the four years leading up to their ascension to perennial power.

Without Machado, another developmental year — even one with highlights like the arrivals of Jimenez and Dylan Cease — looks more likely than a year early surprise.

Yoan Moncada is the third baseman of the present and future

The biggest on-field development of camp to this point is the White Sox moving full steam ahead with switching Moncada to third base, which was discussed as an option throughout the offseason but never committed to until position players reported to Glendale and Moncada started taking ground balls at the hot corner.

Machado would have been the obvious fit there had he signed with the White Sox, and his saying he’ll play third with the Padres (who are set to install former White Sox prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. as their shortstop of the future) pretty much confirms that he would have played there on the South Side, too.

Instead, it’ll be Moncada, who moves over from second base a season after committing 21 errors, the fourth-highest total in baseball last season. Rick Renteria has been extremely positive about Moncada’s work there so far this spring (it’s only been a couple days, and there’ll be a ton more to go on once games start this weekend), and the White Sox are hopeful Moncada can handle the job, with Renteria going as far to say that the increased focus Moncada will need to play third will help him offensively after he struck out 217 times last season.

We’ll see how things go in both aspects of Moncada’s game, but one thing is for sure: Without Machado, the team’s future at third base remains a question mark. There’s no slam-dunk answer there for the long term. Moncada could easily become that, of course, as the White Sox are still incredibly high on his ceiling and his future. But it’s a mystery as of this moment. Thanks to Jake Burger’s double Achilles tears last year, there are no obvious answers in the minor leagues, either. So it’s Moncada.

Machado passing on the White Sox also means we’ll likely be talking about third base again next offseason, no matter how well Moncada might do this season. Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon are part of a loaded free-agent class.

For better or worse, we’ll have to do this free-agent thing again next offseason

I don’t know what the White Sox big board looks like, so I don’t know if Machado is their favorite player in baseball or not. Meaning, maybe any addition from here on out, no matter how big a name, is a consolation prize, or maybe it gives them an opportunity to chase someone they like better. Regardless of which of those two things is true, we’ll likely have to go through all this free-agent business again with the White Sox next offseason.

Thankfully, the class is jam-packed, featuring the aforementioned Arenado and Rendon as well as Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Paul Goldschmidt, Justin Verlander, Josh Donaldson, Madison Bumgarner, Didi Gregorius and Marcell Ozuna. You can spend forever debating whether any of those guys are as good as Machado. But there’s little argument over the fact that those are a lot of very good baseball players.

Hahn has promised perennial aggressiveness from the White Sox on the free-agent market and in the pursuits of the biggest names and best players in the game. Here’s what he said at SoxFest:

"We belong at the table in these negotiations, we belong as part of negotiations for premium talent. And regardless what happens over the next several weeks with either of these two players (Machado and the still-jobless Bryce Harper), we plan to be at the table and continue to attempt to convert on these guys."

Fans currently stinging over the White Sox getting outbid by the Padres for Machado might choose not to believe Hahn’s promise until they see it in action. But Hahn, in his comments all offseason long and here at spring training, has promised that the White Sox will utilize their financial flexibility in the pursuits of big-name talent. So expect to see them as a featured player next winter as much as they were this winter.

But how will that process be different?

Fans right now are unconvinced that the White Sox will ever be willing to spend enough to land a marquee free agent like Machado, and Machado taking the $300 million guaranteed over the $250 million guaranteed in the White Sox offer has done little to change what Hahn has referred to as a “false narrative.”

The White Sox certainly believed their offer was good enough to get Machado to the South Side, that much was clear by the visible emotions of both Hahn and Kenny Williams on Tuesday. But after losing out in this sweepstakes, will they be able to change that narrative next time around?

Unfortunately, the answer is only if they land a big fish. Certainly, the White Sox were not “cheap” in their pursuit of Machado, as many fans have accused them of being. A commitment to spend $350 million on a player is, by definition, not cheap.

But if they’re in on Arenado or Rendon or Bumgarner or Martinez or any of the players listed above, will they approach things differently? Hahn said there is no magic number of a limit where the White Sox will not spend and said there is no overarching organizational philosophy on opt-outs. And he’s promised that the money saved up for runs at these free agents will be spent, not “sitting around waiting to just accumulate interest.”

Hahn and his front office is rarely one to succumb to pressure from antsy fans. If that was the case, Jimenez would have been a big leaguer long ago. But you wonder how much the desire to add a “finishing piece,” something that’s been part of the rebuilding plan all along, will play into next winter’s pursuits or trade talks at other points in the calendar.

Those aren’t answers we have right now. They’ll come out on the next free-agent go-round.

The White Sox will definitely take their time with their top prospects

There was little doubt this was going to happen, regardless of Machado’s decision. But there was a possibility, as discussed above, that Machado could’ve improved things enough to quicken the timeline of the team’s contention phase. And if that were the case, would the White Sox have felt the need to exhibit a little less patience and try to get some of their top prospects to the majors a little quicker?

That question can’t be answered with anything more than a “maybe,” but now that Machado is in San Diego, it would seem the White Sox will most definitely stick to their rebuilding playbook.

Cease is probably the player this applies to the most. All signs point to Jimenez arriving in the major leagues a couple weeks into the 2019 season, so his timeline is unaffected by this whole thing. Cease, though, starts the 2019 season in a similar spot to where Michael Kopech was a year ago. He’ll likely spend start at Triple-A Charlotte after a dazzling 2018 split between Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham, but the White Sox will give him every opportunity there, just like they did with Kopech last year. Kopech didn’t make his big league debut until August. It seems Cease is on a similar timeline, especially now that, without Machado, there might be no playoff race to leap into. We’ll have to see about that one.

Luis Robert is still so inexperienced in the minor leagues after last year’s injury-plagued campaign. Dane Dunning will be eased into things coming back from his injury; he’s not even in big league camp this spring. Nick Madrigal is a bit more of a question mark, considering the “best all-around player in college baseball” should be able to move through the system a little quicker than someone who wasn’t described in that fashion. But there’s no reason to rush him. Zack Collins could make his big league debut in 2019, but perhaps not until when rosters expand in September.

But, again, with no reason to bump these guys along quicker than necessary, why rush them? Especially if Machado’s absence means the rebuild is on a less rapid timeline.

Does Machado’s decision give current White Sox a chip on the shoulder?

White Sox players were pretty committed to one message on Machado throughout the offseason: It’d be great if Machado came to the South Side, but if he doesn’t, no big deal.

Not exactly the same way White Sox fans feel right now.

But these players have spoken for the last couple weeks about how much faith they have in the current roster — and how much urgency might be seeping in. They’ve heard about the future for a long time and think maybe it’s time to start talking about the present, too.

“I’m sick of losing,” Lucas Giolito said.

“There's a point in time where it’s s**t for get off the pot,” Carlos Rodon said.

And Tim Anderson has been leading the charge. He was the most vocal during the White Sox pursuit of Machado, defensive and adamant about his desire to remain the team’s starting shortstop. In the wake of Machado’s decision, he stood up for his group.

“We’re going to be South Side regardless. Nobody’s decision determines what we’ve got going on in this locker room," he said. "I feel we have a great group of guys here. We’re going to do something special. The White Sox are moving in the right direction. One decision won’t dictate our season.

“We’re going to keep rolling. Either ride with us or get run over. We know who’s on the boat with us and which way we want to sail.”

They won’t necessarily admit to Machado’s decision giving them added hunger, added motivation or an added chip on their collective shoulder. But these White Sox have something they want to prove. And in addition to proving it to fans and observers who are still waiting for 2020, maybe they can prove it to Machado, too.

“He might have,” Anderson said when asked if Machado missed the boat by not signing up with the White Sox.

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After offseason of rediscovery, Carson Fulmer ready to jump back into White Sox future plans

After offseason of rediscovery, Carson Fulmer ready to jump back into White Sox future plans

GLENDALE, Ariz. — “I just wasn’t myself, plain and simple.”

These are the words coming from Carson Fulmer, former College Pitcher of the Year and the White Sox first-round pick in 2015.

“I love the environment, I love big crowds. I love the chance of putting my team in a great position to win, and I lost that. I lost that for a while. It was very hard to understand how and why I lost that,” Fulmer said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago.

This is not the story, nor the career, Fulmer envisioned for himself when he was projected to be a future star in the majors after going 14-2 with a 1.83 ERA in his final season at Vanderbilt.

His college coach, Tim Corbin, who coached All Stars like David Price and Sonny Gray, called Fulmer “the strongest-willed kid we’ve had come through” and compared him to boxer Joe Frazier. “He’d just keep coming and keep throwing punches.”

Now four years after being drafted, Fulmer finds himself fighting to get back in the majors and to get back to being an important piece of the White Sox future. He’s been knocked down, particularly last year. He opened the season in the White Sox rotation as their fifth starter but made only eight starts before being sent down to Triple-A Charlotte, where his struggles continued and he was eventually moved to the bullpen.

But he’s arrived at spring training standing tall, minus more than 15 pounds and his trademark wavy hair. He cut most of it off. He’s lighter, wiser and he promises to be better.

“I’ve heard from a lot of veteran guys that I’ve played with over the last three years that you’ve got to be able to control the environment and the situation, and if you don’t, the game will speed up on you and that’s exactly what happened to me,” Fulmer said. “That’s something I was never used to.”

And losing? Failing? Last year was completely unchartered territory for him. He had an 8.07 ERA in 32.1 innings with the White Sox, a 5.32 ERA with the Knights and didn’t receive a call back to the majors in September.

“I never really faced that much failure in my career,” Fulmer said. “Obviously, the end of last year didn’t work out the way I wanted to. It just really drove me to figure out some things about myself.”

That meant going back to his offseason home in Seattle and joining up with Driveline Baseball, a data-driven player-development company that follows many of the methods he used at Vanderbilt. Fulmer says the White Sox didn’t have a problem with him trying something new, or old, in this case. Among those joining him at Driveline were major league pitchers Adam Ottavino and Trevor Bauer.

“We all threw with each other. We all pushed each other. It was just a great environment and position to be in. I learned a lot about my body and what it’s capable of doing,” Fulmer said.

Even before taking the mound for his first Cactus League game of the year Saturday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Fulmer says he’s already exceeded his expectations coming into camp.

“I’m definitely in a great place now. Physically I feel really, really strong. I feel healthy. I’m back to some of the routines that gave me the opportunity to be in this position in the first place,” Fulmer explained.

That includes a quick, compact delivery where he drives down the mound toward home plate.

“I got away from that for a while, and I think it kind of messed with my control a little bit, and my power. I felt like a lost a lot of velocity and just needed to get back being strong and athletic. I feel great. I looked at a lot of college video and early on video I had in pro ball and it’s pretty close to it now.”

While it might seem like Fulmer was drafted like a decade ago, he only turned 25 in December. Considering his college success and maturity, the White Sox fast-tracked him to Chicago in 2016, one year after being drafted, figuring he was ready for The Show.

Looking back now, Fulmer acknowledges he wasn’t as prepared for the major leagues as he thought he was.

“I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to go up and go to the big leagues so early in my career, but there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the big leagues,” Fulmer said. “The big leagues was a dream come true and I think I got caught up in that a little bit. Being up three times already and going into my fourth season, I have a lot of memories, a lot of experiences I can look back on. I know what I need to do to get ready for this year. This is the best I’ve felt by far, even dating back to college. This is the best I’ve felt mentally and physically. I’m definitely ready for the opportunity.”

As a starter or a reliever?

“I just know that I have to get to the big leagues and I have to have success. If that’s starting or relieving, I have to help this team win. I’ll play any role they want me to be,” he said. “Starting with the ball and ending with the ball is something I’ve always loved to do as a starter, but as a reliever I love to pick the starting pitcher up and really lock down situations I’ve been called upon to take care of.  Anything.

"Any opportunity I can have to help this team win is something I look forward to this year.”

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