White Sox

With Zack Wheeler off the board, where do White Sox go next for starting pitching?

With Zack Wheeler off the board, where do White Sox go next for starting pitching?

Zack Wheeler won't be joining the South Side starting staff, though not for lack of trying on behalf of the White Sox, who made a richer contract offer than the five-year deal Wheeler got from the Philadelphia Phillies.

But that effort alone won't plug the two holes in the White Sox rotation, and they'll need to go elsewhere to find the upgrades they need. Where?

Well, they can keep swimming in the same free-agent waters they hoped to pluck Wheeler out of, with a second tier of free-agent starters still out there populated by Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dallas Keuchel. You might ask why we're just skipping over Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, the perennial Cy Young types at the tippy top of the market, and that's a good question. But the White Sox haven't been linked anywhere near as strongly to either ace as they were to Wheeler, with MLB Network's Jon Heyman going as far as saying there's "no belief" the White Sox would pursue either guy. Though it's worth wondering whether Wheeler's decision to head to Philly makes the White Sox reconsider.

Anyway, we'll stick with those second-tier guys for now.

Bumgarner has long looked like exactly what this rotation needs, an accomplished pitcher who could serve as the Jon Lester for this Chicago rebuild. Bumgarner's a three-time World Series champ and might very well be the best pitcher in the history of the World Series, where he owns a career 0.25 ERA in five appearances. Even though he's already logged 11 big league seasons and has pitched in four different playoffs and has a combined 1,948.1 innings between the regular season and postseason, he's just 30 years old. The mileage on his left arm might make some wary, but after a couple of injury-shortened campaigns in 2017 and 2018, he made 34 starts for the San Francisco Giants last season. It's worth noting his 3.90 ERA in 2019 was the highest of his career, though it was also lower than Wheeler's 3.96 ERA.

In the wake of Wheeler picking the Phillies, the White Sox were already reported to be among the "heaviest suitors" for Bumgarner's services.

Ryu, meanwhile, had the lowest ERA among qualified starting pitchers in baseball last season, at 2.32, that dazzling number coming a season after he posted a 1.97 ERA in 15 starts. Durability has been Ryu's bugaboo. He missed the 2015 season, made just one start in 2016 and has averaged 22 starts in the three seasons since. But he's undoubtedly been excellent when he's been on the mound the last two seasons. Ryu is significantly older than Bumgarner; he'll turn 33 before Opening Day 2020.

Keuchel, who will turn 32 on New Year's Day, would also bring a winning history to the rotation. He's been through a rebuild and come out the other end a world champion with the Houston Astros. In 2015, he won the AL Cy Young Award. He hasn't been overwhelmingly consistent, following up the 2.48 ERA he posted during his Cy Young season with a 4.55 ERA in 2016. He had a 2.90 ERA the year the Astros won the World Series, but he's finished with 3.74 and 3.75 ERAs in the two seasons since. Keuchel was a victim of the draft-pick compensation triggered when he rejected the Astros' qualifying offer an offseason ago, remaining unsigned until June. The Atlanta Braves scooped him up then, and he did well down the stretch for the NL East champs, with a 3.75 ERA in 19 starts.

It should be noted the White Sox have other holes on the roster that need addressing this offseason, even if none might be more pressing than starting pitching. But should they decide to spend big on, for example, a right fielder (such as Nicholas Castellanos or Marcell Ozuna), perhaps the trade market is a more realistic possibility for finding that starting pitching.

It's also important to note that the White Sox are searching for two starting pitchers, meaning the second might be found in a lower tier than the one housing the three names discussed to this point. Past those three, the market thins significantly, with Michael Pineda and Tanner Roark potentially being the next most attractive options.

Options exist, yes. But they aren't exactly bountiful, especially if one of the two starters is desired to be a top-of-the-rotation type that can pair with Lucas Giolito to create a formidable 1-2 punch. If the White Sox are forced into shallower waters in their search for starting pitching this winter, that would put some more pressure on Michael Kopech, coming off Tommy John surgery, and Dylan Cease, coming off a 5.79 ERA in his first taste of the majors in 2019, to quickly blossom into top-of-the-rotation types.

There's a lot of offseason left, of course, and the White Sox are expected to continue their aggressive search for upgrades. As Wednesday showed, however, being aggressive and being willing to spend don't always equal success.

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Discussing 2020 White Sox expectations

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Discussing 2020 White Sox expectations

SportsTalk Live is on location at McCormick Place to preview SoxFest 2020. Chuck Garfien and David Haugh join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00 - White Sox manager Rick Renteria joins the guys to talk about the team's big offseason and the expectations for the 2020 season. He also talks about how the team with handle Michael Kopech (4:00) and what Dallas Keuchel brings to the rotation. (6:00) Plus, he explains how guys who turned the corner in 2019 like Lucas Giolito and Yoan Moncada can stay hot in 2020. (15:00)

17:00 - Steve Stone joins the guys to explain how the White Sox rebuild is going according to plan despite not landing one of the top free agents this winter. Plus, he updates his Twitter follower battle with Jason Benetti (23:00) and talks about how he would handle Michael Kopech's return. (25:30)

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

White Sox reward for winning the offseason: They get to talk playoffs ... or bust

White Sox reward for winning the offseason: They get to talk playoffs ... or bust

The White Sox know there is no trophy for winning the offseason.

Make no mistake, they did win the offseason, Rick Hahn’s front office adding enough veteran cache to vault the 89-loss South Siders from just another rebuilding team with a bright future to a team whose future is pulling into the station.

But there was no self-congratulating at Hahn’s pre-SoxFest press conference Thursday.

“Quite candidly, we haven't accomplished anything yet, we haven't won yet,” he said. “This whole process was about winning championships, was about finishing with a parade at the end of October down Michigan Avenue. Until that happens, I don't think any of us are really in a position to feel satisfied or feel like we've accomplished anything.

“We've had a nice winter. We've had, frankly, in our opinion, a real nice three years since we started (the rebuild) with the Chris Sale trade. We think very bright days are ahead of us, and we look forward to enjoying them. But in terms of feeling like we've accomplished something or feeling satisfied, ask me after the parade.”

Give me a second while I email that last bit over to our marketing department. They might be able to conjure up a few things with “ask me after the parade.”

But in all seriousness, Hahn is right. There is no trophy for winning the offseason. The act of signing free agents does not balance out all the losing over the last three seasons. Only winning can do that.

There has been, however, a reward for winning the offseason. Rick Renteria — and presumably all his players this weekend during SoxFest — get to talk about playoff expectations. Real ones.

“I would be disappointed if we don’t make the postseason,” Renteria said during his own session Thursday. “We want to break through. We want this to be an impactful season.”

As recently as a year ago, no matter how bright the future appeared to be, that comment would have raised eyebrows. It would not have been taken seriously. Now? It is the expectation.

Renteria has not been shy about the rebuilding White Sox turning the corner in 2020. He spent the last few weeks of the 2019 campaign making similar postseason proclamations. But now Hahn has backed his manager up with all this winter’s acquisitions.

The White Sox place in the standings by the end of September still figures to have a lot more to do with Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito and Eloy Jimenez and Tim Anderson and Luis Robert than any of the individual newcomers, even players as talented and accomplished as Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel. The core is that important. But the outsiders brought in this offseason have embodied the turning tide — and given Renteria the chance to talk seriously about these kinds of big expectations for the first time in his tenure as the South Side skipper.

“I think, man for man,” he said, “now we at least have a little bit more ammunition to be able to go out and compete hopefully on a consistent basis and put those victories on the board.

“I’m not afraid of talking about high expectations and winning. … If we do our job and we go about preparing and hopefully the actions and performances come to fruition, we should be on top of the victory column in terms of wins and losses. And there’s nothing beyond my thought that doesn’t say that I expect us to compete and be in conversation for postseason play.”

Hahn isn’t quite as willing to declare the 2020 season “playoffs or bust” because he’s still got his eye on the long term, the same place it’s been throughout this rebuilding process. That next parade down Michigan Avenue is supposed to be merely the first.

And so while the White Sox can reap the rewards of Hahn’s offseason work in the form of preseason talk, he’ll bask in nothing more than setting up his team for that long-term postseason success.

“I think the expectations are understandably high, at least when you talk to Ricky or the coaches or any of the players or anyone in uniform. Their expectation is that this team is in a position to win in the 2020 season, which is exactly where all of us in the front office would want them to be,” he said. “That said, whether you're talking Jerry (Reinsdorf) or Kenny (Williams) or myself, the entire purpose of this rebuild was to put ourselves in a multi-year position to win multiple championships.

“So the progress that we make in any given offseason has to be viewed not just about what's going to happen in that upcoming season, but what position that puts us in toward accomplishing that long-term goal. We want to make sure that we are well positioned, once that window opens, to win as many championships as possible.

“When that window opens, we're going to find out together. I certainly think the players in uniform think it's going to happen come Opening Day of this year. Whether we're blessed with good health and continued progress from our young players, we're going to find out together.

“But we look at it, in the front office, from a multi-year perspective. The guys in uniform are going to do everything in their power to make it about now, which you've got to appreciate.”

That’s going to be the theme of this weekend, as White Sox fans descend on SoxFest with more excitement than they have in years. This is a White Sox team expected to reach October, and that hasn’t exactly been common, as evidenced by the franchise’s more than decade-long postseason drought.

Hahn can talk about putting the team in good position for 2021 and 2022 and 2023 and beyond all he wants. The fans are finally — and with good reason — thinking playoffs or bust for the upcoming season.

And the manager agrees.

“I see our club, and I want to go into this season thinking I don't want to miss an opportunity,” Renteria said. “That's my goal right now, not to miss this opportunity. Expectations bread opportunities. I'm not afraid of expectations because it breads opportunity. I want to attain and complete those tasks that I think our club is going to have a chance to be able to do.

“I'm not afraid to say it.”

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