White Sox

White Sox

The White Sox are heading into the shortened 2020 season with the same expectations they had back when they thought they’d be playing a 162-game schedule: to leap out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode.

The No. 1 reason that looks so possible? You saw it last season, when the White Sox young core broke out in a huge way and showed why the future looks so bright on the South Side.

Yoán Moncada, Tim Anderson and Eloy Jiménez all had big seasons in 2019, laying the foundation for the busy offseason that followed. As excited as fans were when Rick Hahn went on a signing spree during the winter, bringing in the likes of Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel and Edwin Encarnación and giving a new contract to team leader José Abreu, that wouldn’t have been possible without the confidence boost the core gave the rebuilding effort during the summer.

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Moncada struck out 217 times in 2018, the most glaring number from a disappointing first full season as a big leaguer. But he learned from that experience, just like Rick Renteria said he would, and went to work in the offseason. It paid off handsomely, and after a position switch to third base in spring training, he emerged as the best all-around player on the team. Moncada slashed .315/.367/.548 last season, and as will soon become a theme, had an especially gigantic month of September, when he batted .412 in his final 26 games.

Even bigger things are expected of Moncada in 2020. He was discussed as an All-Star snub last summer, and though there won’t be a Midsummer Classic in this most unusual of seasons, the White Sox are confident he can keep growing and provide All-Star type production as one of the most potent bats in their remade lineup.

Anderson went through a stunning transformation in the statistical department, going from a .240 hitter in 2018 to a .335 hitter in 2019, winning the big league batting title. Chalk it up to a dedication to an aggressive approach. You won’t see Anderson draw many walks — he had a jaw-droppingly low 15 last season despite finishing with the highest batting average in baseball — but he prefers to swing away, and it worked beautifully a year ago.

Bat-flipping his way into the national spotlight, Anderson also became a face of the “let the kids play” movement highlighting changing attitudes and the value of personalities in the game. His openness about his own personal history has made him a leading voice in Chicago’s communities as he continues talking about his mission to bring more fun to the game and make the sport appeal to young Black fans.

Both Anderson and Moncada benefitted from statistical good fortune last season, and there are reasonable questions about what kind of production they’ll be able to deliver if that good fortune goes away. But while Moncada has sat out of the first week and a half of “Summer Camp,” placed on the 10-day injured list Friday, Anderson has appeared to pick up where he left off when it comes to hitting the ball hard and flipping the bat big.

“TA is absolutely picking up where he left off last year,” White Sox bench coach Joe McEwing said Sunday. “In this environment right now, the way he’s grinding out at-bats, and if he’s down in the count, getting back in the count. He’s hitting balls hard and driving them to all parts of the field on both sides.”

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Then there’s Jiménez, who despite a slow start made his rookie year one to remember. He hit 31 home runs and had a white-hot close to the season, slashing .340/.383/.710 with nine homers and 25 RBIs in September. Jiménez wasn’t without his bumps in the road, and a pair of extended stays on the injured list stemmed directly from misadventures in left field. But he’s vowed defensive improvement to go along with more at the plate, too.

As good as Jiménez looked when he was blasting balls all the way to the Fan Deck last summer, the White Sox insist he was only scratching the surface of his potential. With one year of facing big league pitching under his belt and a beefed-up middle of the order around him, bigger things aren’t just possible, they’re practically expected.

And that group of youngsters is only continuing to add members, as well. The trade for Nomar Mazara, with four years of major league experience to his name, might have looked like another veteran add by Hahn this winter, but Mazara is just 25 years old, the same age as Moncada. And then there are the rookies, Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal — who we’ll talk more about later this week — but should they show the same kind of potential the rest of the core did last year, we’re talking about a sizable group that will be around for a long time.

“From the first day I got here, just seeing all these guys, all the talent, looking around I was like, ‘Oh my god, I haven’t seen this many talented players,’” Mazara said Sunday. “I’m always with Eloy and Robert (in the outfield) and looking at those guys, I’m like, ‘I’ve never seen something like that, wow.’

“We were really looking forward to playing a full season, but we’re going to play a short season. It is going to be fun for this team, the stuff we are going to be able to do out there.”

Why are the White Sox ready to take the next step in 2020? Because the core of this team took such a big one in 2019, and it’s just getting started.