Well, here we are again, at the end of another losing season. The seventh in a row. But for the first time, I legitimately have a good feeling about the upcoming season. Now, clearly it’s too early to make any definitive predictions, since the postseason hasn’t even begun and no transactions will be made until after the World Series (and maybe even after the winter meetings, if last year is any indication of the future), but I’m going to do my best to gaze into the future based on what I hear and read from team sources and the Chicago press, as well as my own guesses culled from 30 years of following this franchise.
A lot of what I’m going to touch on will be taken directly from the end-of-season press conference with White Sox GM Rick Hahn, who, I assume, knows more about what’s going on within his own team than the fans who watch, so I will take his word about things that he is being, shall we say, “forceful” about. Because he is the man in charge.
Beginning with the coaching staff. I am not expecting much, if any, turnover. However, Hahn did make two statements that caught me off guard. First, he refused to say that the staff would remain intact. Second, he made a point of saying that this staff was built to foster player development. Which I found interesting considering that Don Cooper has been the pitching coach for 17 years and hitting coach Todd Steverson has been in his position since 2014. First base coach Daryl Boston has also been at his spot since 2013. So why these “player development” coaches were in place in 2016, for instance, I don’t know. I do, however, think that is giving Hahn some leeway to make some changes.
I do NOT, however, think that any of the previously mentioned coaches will be going anywhere. I had thought that, conceivably, third base coach Nick Capra could be moved elsewhere (he won’t be fired considering he’s been in the organization for well over 20 years as a coach and manager) to allow Birmingham Barons manager Omar Vizquel to have a spot on the MLB staff and, eventually, replace Rick Renteria. I now realize I was totally off on that because the Sox seem hellbent on allowing Renteria to manage as long as he wants to and Vizquel’s name has already been mentioned for the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates managerial openings. It’s hard to keep a good manager secret.
So, if there is a move, I don’t know where it would be. I can’t imagine the Sox getting rid of Joe McEwing, who I believe has a future as a manager somewhere. Curt Hasler in the bullpen? I mean, the Sox let Bobby Thigpen go and no reason was given.
Now, on to the 2019 roster. There was some amazing growth, with Tim Anderson winning the American League batting title (.335 average) out of nowhere (after hitting a lackluster .240 last season) and Yoan Moncada (.315, 25 home runs, 79 RBI) and rookie Eloy Jimenez (.267, 31 home runs, 79 RBI) showing what they’re capable of doing in a full season.
Joe Abreu (.284, 33 home runs, an American League-leading 123 RBI) had an outstanding season, as did James McCann (.273, 18 home runs, 60 RBI), the two most-veteran players offensively. Both of whom I feel should be locked up with long-term contracts, as McCann will be a free agent following the 2020 season and Abreu will be in a month.
But there were also holes. Second base and right field and designated hitter. Second base seems to already have a superior replacement, with Nick Madrigal (.311, 4 home runs, 55 RBI, 35 stolen bases across three minor league levels) replacing all-glove, no bat Yolmer Sanchez (.252, 2 home runs, 43 RBI), especially with Yolmer about to hit around $6 million in salary for the 2020 season and better players (like Danny Mendick, who hit .282 overall with 19 home runs, 68 RBI and 19 stolen bases across AAA and at the MLB level) available to hold down second base until Madrigal is “ready” to take over in mid-April.
Right field was beyond awful, being manned by Daniel Palka (.107, 2 home runs, 4 RBI), Jon Jay (.267, 0 home runs, 9 RBI), Charlie Tilson (.229, 1 home run, 12 RBI) and Ryan Cordell (.221, 7 home runs, 24 RBI) during the season. An upgrade is badly needed.
Now we start to get into what’s available and what’s likely. Clearly, the biggest available name will be Mookie Betts, even though he’s not a free agent, he is expected to be traded and spend his final season before free agency somewhere other than Boston. That “somewhere” will definitely not be with the White Sox, as the cost in players wouldn’t be worth one season before he would invariably leave as a free agent for a $250 million deal elsewhere. Among free agents, there’s not much available in terms of guys who would “fit” the rebuild, though my choice (Yasiel Puig), does on every level. He hasn’t yet turned 29, he will not be cost-prohibitive, and his numbers (.267, 24 home runs, 84 RBI, 19 stolen bases) dwarf the combined numbers of 2019 Sox right fielders. Adding to that, he made $9.7 million in 2019, so even with a pay bump, he should fit right in. The fact that he would be on a team with a number of other Cuban players will help as well.
Then there are the right fielders I’m not fond of hearing about, including Kole Calhoun (.232, 33 home runs, 74 RBI), whom I believe benefited greatly from the juiced ball, as his previous three season totals in home runs were 19, 19 and 18, respectively, and he’s just about to turn 32. Also rumored regularly are Nick Castellanos (.289, 27 home runs, 73 RBI), Gerardo Parra (.234, 9 home runs, 48 RBI, about to turn 33) and our old buddy Avisail Garcia (.282, 20 home runs, 72 RBI) coming off a one-year deal with the Rays. Another good option in right is Corey Dickerson (.304, 12 home runs, 59 RBI) who played only 78 games in 2019 due to injury but won’t turn 31 until may and has a .286 career batting average.
I keep hearing and reading that potentially the Sox can trade for a right fielder, but this brings up two questions. First, who would they acquire and second, what would they send back in this hypothetical deal? Two things we know about the White Sox minor league system is that it is top heavy (outstanding top prospects and little depth) and injury-prone. And with the lack of depth on the MLB roster, the Sox can’t afford to be sending prospect packages out in trades because this rebuild has been razor thin from the start.
So, in a perfect world, the first move I make (outside of contract extensions for Jose Abreu and James McCann) is a four-year deal for Yasiel Puig to handle right field.
That leaves us with a pretty solid group in the field, with McCann behind the plate, an infield of Abreu at first, Madrigal at second, Anderson at shortstop and Moncada at third, and an outfield of Jimenez in left, Luis Robert (.328, 32 home runs, 92 RBI, 36 stolen bases and 108 runs scored across three minor league levels) in center and Puig in right. That is a group with power, speed and sufficient defensive ability assuming there is some improvement from Anderson and Jimenez and Robert is as advertised.
It’s here I want to bring up Anthony Rendon, who is mentioned pretty regularly as a possible target and it literally makes me angry to hear it. This would be signing a guy just to sign a guy, he doesn’t fit an area of need and there’s no logic to it. And I’m glad I waited until today to write this piece, because just a couple of hours ago I found out that the Washington Nationals had offered Rendon a seven-year contract for $215 million which instantly removes him from consideration because the word in the media is 100% unified that the Chicago White Sox won’t spend $200 million on a player. There may have been an offer to Manny Machado last year that in some way was in the ballpark of over $200 million and conceivably close to $250 million, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime offer. Machado was considered a legitimate franchise player, which Rendon is not. And the fact that signing Rendon would probably lead to Moncada moving back to second base, where he is not as comfortable and removing Madrigal from the equation entirely, makes absolutely no sense in any way. So I’m glad we know that offer is on the table from the Nats.
There is one offensive spot that I haven’t talked about yet, and that’s the DH spot, which was horrible last season, as White Sox designated hitters combined to hit .205 with 17 home runs. As everyone knows, the name that keeps coming up is J.D. Martinez (.304, 36 home runs, 105 RBI), who may opt out of his five-year, $110 million deal with the Red Sox.
At first, I was completely against this idea. But it’s starting to grow on me. The main reason I held my nose at the idea in the first place was Adam Dunn, Adam LaRoche and Yonder Alonso, all of whom were signed to be the full-time DH and promptly fell flat on their faces. But now I’m figuring lighting can only strike in the same spot so many times, right? And Martinez is a better hitter than any of the three previous mistakes.
My big issue here is money. I heard on a recent White Sox Talk podcast that the White Sox should just offer him his current deal. OK, I’m not a genius, but even I know that there’s no point in opting out of a contract just to sign an identical deal. His only reason for opting out would be to improve on the deal he already has. So you can scratch five years at $110 million off and consider that below the going rate. Would the White Sox be willing to go five years and, say, $130 million for a designated hitter? Time will tell. Most people (fans especially) seem to think it’s a done deal, J.D. Martinez will be the White Sox DH on Opening Day. I’m warming up to it, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.
The other options among guys who are regular DH’s isn’t exactly anything to get excited over, with Edwin Encarnacion (.244, 34 home runs, 86 RBI and about to turn 37) and Nelson Cruz (.311, 41 home runs, 108 RBI and about to turn 40) as the best of the rest.
While Cruz is an incredible slugger, his age clearly doesn’t fit in with the Sox timetable.
So, my choice here is spend the money, see if J.D. Martinez will sign for five years and $130 million and if not, the Sox may be stuck with a revolving door at DH again, with Abreu and Zack Collins and alternating between the spot, with Collins filling in at first base. I think if this turns out to be the plan, the Sox will need to acquire another catcher or hope that Yermin Mercedes or Seby Zavala can somehow hold down the fort for the season.
With Martinez, the Sox have an incredible lineup, assuming Robert and Madrigal play up to their potential and Moncada and Jimenez continue to improve. I’ll take that lineup against most any in baseball. Without Martinez, they still should score some runs.
But no matter how many runs you score, you still have to give up fewer, which brings us to the pitching staff. And before I even begin, Rick Hahn has said as much (and the press has clearly stated) forget Gerrit Cole, the Sox aren’t signing anyone to a $200 million contract and Scott Boras has already said that $200 million will be the opening bid. So the idea of the White Sox signing the best of the best at any position is a pipe dream.
That does not mean there are not some damn good starting pitchers available. My pick would be Zack Wheeler (11-8, 3.96 ERA, 195 K’s in 195 innings), who won’t turn 30 until May, and due to losing the 2015 and 2016 seasons to injury, he has less wear and tear on his arm (749 career innings) than most pitchers at his age. Other reasonable options include Jake Odorizzi (15-7, 3.51 ERA, 178 K’s in 159 innings) and Alex Wood, who is coming off an injury-plagued season of only seven starts but is only 28 years old and was a 16-game winner (and an All Star) as recently as 2017. Any of the three would be a rotation upgrade over Dylan Covey (6-29 career record, 6.54 career ERA) and the other losers who filled in the rotation last season outside of Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Ivan Nova and Reynaldo Lopez.
With Michael Kopech coming back in 2020, we can basically fill in a rotation spot with him, but Nova (11-12, 4.72 ERA, 114 K’s in 187 innings and lead the American League allowing 225 hits) is a free agent, so his spot will need filling, even if he resigns with the Sox.
I think a rotation of Wheeler, Giolito, Kopech, Lopez and Cease is solid and while it’s not at the level of the offense, I think in a couple of years that it could be outstanding.
As starting pitching goes, the name I hear consistently is Dallas Keuchel, and I didn’t like it last year and I don’t like it this year. He’s basically a .500 pitcher now, as he finished 8-8 with the playoff-bound Atlanta Braves and finished 12-11 with the playoff-bound Houston Astros in 2018. He’ll be 32 in January and he’s definitely not a top-of-the-rotation ace anymore, he’s more along the lines of a third or fourth starter, and definitely not worth three years and $60 million. Look how paying that kind of money worked out for the Philadelphia Phillies with Jake Arrieta, who cashed in with a three-year deal for $75 million and has since gone 18-19 with the Phillies, and he’s only a year older than Keuchel.
There’s not much to say about the bullpen, we know Alex Colome will be back in the closer role with Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Bummer representing the best of the rest. I’m hopeful Jimmy Cordero comes back, he was outstanding in 2019 and definitely deserves a spot, along with Evan Marshall. I hope we’ve seen the last of Covey, Ross Detwiler, Jace Fry and Carson Fulmer, as none of them are legit pieces of a playoff team’s pitching staff.
I have heard multiple times that one reliever the White Sox will be in on is Dellin Betances, in spite of the fact that he pitched in a total of one game in 2019 (pitching 2/3 of an inning with 2 K’s) but I’m not sure that’s the smartest move the Sox could make there.
Most of the available free agent relievers are in their mid-30s and probably won’t be around for any kind of long-term run. They’ll be signed and flipped if the Sox fall out of the playoff race in 2020, or replaced from within once the season ends next year.
So, the team I want to see is clear, as I mentioned above. But I am legitimately worried that one of two things could happen that will ruin the offseason, the first being that the Sox, desperate to show they “belong at the big boy table,” will blow their whole wad on Anthony Rendon, who doesn’t fill a need and just upsets the team at two positions and makes a former first-round pick (Madrigal) seem a waste (which rebuilding teams can’t afford to do a lot of) or they are going to play it cozy and we’ll hear “year four” all season and they’ll sign the likes of Drew Smyly for the rotation (4-7, 6.24 ERA, 120 K’s in 114 innings) and Lonnie Chisenhall (didn’t play a single MLB game in 2019) for right field. As a Sox fan, I am conditioned to expect that the team will lowball and try to find players who won’t make much money and probably won’t make much impact and hope to catch lighting in a bottle, as my good friend Paul Scarpelli says. But that rarely works.
So as of now, with the roster in the shape it’s in at this moment, I see a team that should finish 82-80 and probably eight to ten games out of the Wild Card chase. Bring in Wheeler and J.D. Martinez and Yasiel Puig and I think you have a team capable of 88 to 90 wins and a definitive Wild Card contender. This is, of course, barring injuries to any of the main contributors, because the Sox just don’t have the depth to cover a major injury. The fact that Dylan Covey has made 45 starts and made 60 appearances in three years shows just how bad the depth is in this organization. The Yankees can plug and play because they have outstanding talent and outstanding depth, the Sox lack that depth.
I’m excited about the 2020 season and beyond, because even though the White Sox will never compete for top free agents or ever draft exceptionally well, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a player like Luis Robert or Eloy Jimenez or even Yoan Moncada could be an MVP one day, and Giolito, Cease and Kopech could easily develop into consistent contenders for the Cy Young Award. The talent is here, it just needs to be supplemented with quality players who play positions of need. And they need to stay healthy.
I’ll blog again about this around the Winter Meetings, though I do worry that last year’s lack of activity may be an omen of things to come this year, especially with the possibility of a work stoppage looming in 2021, which would be the ultimate slap in the face to any Chicago White Sox fan after what happened during the last work stoppage in 1994. But we’ll worry about that when the time comes, for now, let’s look forward to the 2019-20 offseason.
Thank you for reading. And GO SOX!