There has been a war being waged within White Sox Twitter over the last few days, and boy has it been a doozy. It has all centered around the state of the White Sox rebuild and whether or not this organization is positioned for the “sustained success” that we were told was the goal of this operation.
There are seemingly two camps in the war: on one side you have the individuals that think, by and large things are going well and on the other side, you have the doom and gloom members of White Sox Twitter. So where is the organization really at two and a half years into this process? Truth be told, I think the answer is complicated. While you may not like this, I believe the real answer is somewhere in between the two viewpoints.
There are positives and negatives that can be taken from the first half of this 2019 season, which would allow you to state your case on either side of this argument. So let’s take a look at the positives and negatives of the White Sox season just past the “midway” point.
The Sox have seen significant development out of some integral pieces to this rebuild. Yoan Moncada, Tim, Anderson, and Eloy Jimenez have given us all a glimpse of what should comprise the core of the next contending Sox team. Moncada has shown that he is a budding superstar, amassing 3.6 fWAR through the season’s first half with increased power production and a relatively smooth transition to 3B.
While Anderson has shown incremental growth into a potential 25/25 player up the middle. TA has given the team 1.7 fWAR to this point before being slowed by an ankle injury, cementing himself as a more than competent Major League shortstop. Jimenez is beginning to show signs of being the middle-of-the-order masher the Sox believed he would be when he was acquired for Jose Quintana.
Eloy swatted 13 bombs since coming off the DL in May before hurting himself again in the outfield more recently. The Dominican was improving with each passing week and gaining more confidence and understanding of what it takes to be a successful Major League hitter though. I expect he will fully have his legs under him to close out his rookie campaign which could be a scary proposition for pitchers.
The development of these three young players takes precedent over anything else that has happened for the Sox this season and I firmly believe that. But along with these three, the Sox may have stumbled onto a potential fit at the catcher position in James McCann. McCann’s first half renaissance resulted in his first All-Star appearance.
McCann has received glowing praise from teammates and the organization for his ability to call games and manage the pitching staff. His offensive exploits thus far, have been a much welcomed bonus. It will be interesting to see if this is able to continue going forward. Even with some regression, McCann could provide the stability to the backstop position the Sox have lacked since A.J. Pierzynski departed after the 2012 season.
On the pitching side, Lucas Giolito‘s emergence into a reliable big league starter has been huge given he was the league’s worst pitcher a year ago. In fact, one year ago today I published my first column detailing his struggles and surmised that he was at a point of no return in his career. Boy, has he answered the call since that column. Including an up-and-down second half in 2018, Giolito has posted a 4.12 ERA, 3.86 FIP since 7/11/18.
We’ve all seen the development this year as a refined mechanical approach has led to Giolito having improved control and command that has helped turn him into one of the top starters in the American League. Given the injuries and under-performance that has plagued this pitching staff at the major and minor league levels, Giolito’s emergence as a fixture at the top of the rotation was sorely needed for the success of this rebuilding process.
In the bullpen, Aaron Bummer has the makings of a lethal weapon from the left side as I documented recently. Bummer’s rise couldn’t come at a better time, given the league’s shift towards bullpenning and the overall importance of high leverage relievers in today’s game. The ability for Bummer to get hitters out regardless of handedness could prove to be of critical importance should the Sox find themselves playing in more high leverage innings in the near future.
Don’t look now, but since coming off the DL last month, Jace Fry has reverted back to his solid form from a year ago. Fry has pitched to a 1.42 ERA and 2.10 FIP since his return, giving the Sox a pair of southpaws in the bullpen that could cause lineups to have fits in the coming years. Having these key pieces of the bullpen already identified, puts the team in position to not have to overpay for relievers on the open market in years to come.
While the positives mentioned above are very significant there have been some real negative aspects to the 2019 season as it relates to the state of the rebuild. Most notably the Tommy John surgery for Carlos Rodon that will keep the southpaw out of the rotation until mid 2020. This was a pivotal year for Rodon as he showed some flashes again of being an above average Major League pitcher that was finally beginning to get the swings and misses we all thought he would when arriving out of NC State.
However, the new slider heavy approach appeared to be too much for his UCL as he went under the knife in May. Rodon will be a free agent after the 2021 season and frankly, I’m still not sure what the Sox have here. He hasn’t shown an ability to stay healthy for a full season, let alone prove that he can be the top of the rotation arm the team expected when they chose him 3rd overall in the 2014 draft. The lost innings this season put a dark cloud over his future on the Southside as his contractual control moves closer to its conclusion.
Aside from Rodon, the stalled development and regression of Reynaldo Lopez has been very disheartening. Lopez had taken the mantle from 2018 Lucas Giolito as the league’s most disappointing pitcher prior to a three start run of steadiness of late. Among qualified starters, Lopez had the league’s worst FIP at 5.78 (now down to 5.23). His inability to consistently miss bats with high level fastball velocity pointed to a needed change in repertoire or mechanics if he was to approach his potential in any way.
Lopez was looked at two years ago as being a potential mainstay in the Sox rotation as we move into the next decade, but we were fast approaching a point where that ship appeared to be sailing. Barring his significant second half improvement continuing, I’m not sure how anyone can assume he is a capable Major League starting pitcher for a team with postseason aspirations.
Coming into the season, I had high hopes for the Sox young core of relievers as I believed they would be an unheralded strength for this team. Well, my hopes have been dashed thus far into the season. As Dylan Covey, Ryan Burr, Ian Hamilton, Jose Ruiz, and Zack Burdi have all battled injuries of varying degrees and drastic under-performance. There is still hope for many of these relievers but season-ending injuries to the likes of Burr, Hamilton, and Burdi will result in more lost development time further clouding the picture of this team’s future bullpen composition.
By and large, the negatives at the Major League level haven’t been that drastic given that this team still has a significant share of its roster comprised of players, that for lack of a better term, don’t matter. The club still has given too much playing time to the likes of: Adam Engel, Yolmer Sanchez, Ryan Cordell, Ivan Nova and the parade of clowns that filled the number 5 spot in the rotation. One can easily fault the front office for putting the team in this position, and that’s a point I wouldn’t take issue with really.
Down on the farm, it’s been pretty similar to what we’ve seen at 35th/Shields. We’ve seen a few notable players give high level performances but that has been balanced by drastic under-performance and injuries from many of the system’s Top 20 prospects. The system has been viewed by many publications as still being a Top 10 system, but the combination of injuries and sub-par performance call into question how much longer that will be the case. Areas of depth heading into the season, like corner outfield, are turning into question marks. However, the high level performances of some top tier players leads optimists to say that they are developing potential stars to augment a growing group in Chicago.
Dylan Cease had a tumultuous first half in Charlotte as the bouncy Major League ball came down to the AAA level and Cease’s numbers don’t scream someone deserving of a big league promotion. However, we’ve all known that Cease’s stuff is Major League caliber and the final steps in his development would come at the big league level. He finally got that call on July 3rd, and after some first inning jitters he acquitted himself nicely in his debut. It will be fun to watch his continued development in the second half of this season.
Luis Robert (LuBob or La Pantera, whichever you prefer) has the makings of another monster for the Sox. His promotion to AAA Charlotte signals that he is knocking on the door of an arrival on the Southside, but we know in the interest of managing his bank account, Jerry Reinsdorf will probably stand in the way of the Cuban from seeing a fourth level of pro ball in 2019. Robert terrorized the Carolina League in April before moving on up to AA Birmingham where he has faced his toughest test in affiliate ball.
The Southern League is where hitters typically go to die and you find out quickly who is a true prospect and who isn’t, well Robert passed that test with flying colors. In 56 games with the Barons, Robert slashed: .314/.362/.518 with 8 homers while playing in offensive suppressing conditions in Birmingham. Robert’s performance in Birmingham has us dreaming of his superstar potential and finally filling the black hole that has been center field since the trade of Aaron Rowand in the immediate aftermath of the greatest moment we’ve seen as Sox fans.
Aside from Robert, Nick Madrigal has continued to put the bat on the ball and find holes. I’ve been as tough a critic of Madrigal as just about any on Sox Twitter, and to this point I’ve been wrong. Across A+/AA so far in 2019, Madrigal is slashing: .311/.379/.410. But when you look at his numbers since arriving in Birmingham against the stiffest pitching competition in the minors, Madrigal has posted a .918 OPS.
The power numbers still aren’t there and will continue to be a concern for detractors, but at this point there is no denying that Madrigal has delivered quality play for the organization. He too looks like he is pushing to arrive on the Southside sooner rather than later, but much like Robert, will be subject to the service time games that most teams play, particularly ones with the most frugal owners.
Aside from these two stellar performances, the Sox saw high level power from Zack Collins in Charlotte that prompted a promotion to the big club, although early returns weren’t stellar and he’s since returned to the Queen City. Lower level prospects like Kade McClure, Jonathan Stiever, and Steele Walker have been bright spots for Winston-Salem and look as though they will be continuing to climb the ladder as the season progresses.
On the downside of the farm system, the regression and injuries to: Luis Basabe, Micker Adolfo, Luis Gonzalez, Alec Hansen and others have caused many to question whether the Sox truly have the critical mass Rick Hahn said they needed when this process began. In fact, this has caused a certain pompous prospect evaluator with the four letter network to proclaim the team no longer has a Top 10 system.
As much as it pains me to say this, I have a hard time disagreeing with this statement. Although in the last month, we’ve seen a noticeable uptick in the performances of Blake Rutherford and Gavin Sheets, we need to see a strong second half performance across multiple levels of this system for me to truly feel good about where this system is at presently. I personally have a hard time believing the Sox will have the quality prospect depth needed to acquire talent at the Major League level this winter.
What Does It All Mean?
Look, I admittedly was very pessimistic about things heading into the season. My confidence level in this process was about a 2 on Opening Day. However, the growth of Moncada, Giolito, Anderson, and Jimenez gives me reason for optimism. This is the making of a quality core that could give us a lot of reasons to smile in the coming years. Adding Cease, Robert, and Madrigal to this group provides a glimpse of a homegrown crew that could be among the league’s best.
The Jose Abreu conundrum is yet to be solved, although all signs point to Abreu nearing an extension to remain with the club. The addition of 1st round pick, Andrew Vaughn, who was believed by many to be the most complete college bat since Kris Bryant in 2013, adds another potential weapon to this group. So with all this there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful and to believe things are heading in the right direction.
But the stalled development in the system and injuries have caused many to question how the Sox will complement the exciting core outlined above. It has caused many detractors to believe the team is headed for a repeat of what got us to this rebuild, a stars and scrubs roster composition. I think it’s reasonable to have that fear given who owns the team, but I think the key difference in where the Sox are versus where they were 3 years ago is the improved infrastructure.
The amateur scouting overhaul that was headed by Nick Hostetler has put more potential in the system than previously existed. Yes, some of that has stalled, however, there are more names down in Kannapolis, Great Falls and in the AZL that could develop into contributors than we’ve seen at any point in recent memory. I think this is something that can’t be lost on us as we evaluate where this organization is.
Ultimately, we knew the success of this process was going to be dependent on the Sox ability to go into the open market and bring in quality Major League talent. That hasn’t changed two and a half years into this, and frankly nobody knows if they will be successful in complementing the young, developing core. But I think to say that this process isn’t working or is doomed to failure is hyperbolic.
There is still a lot of work to be done, but the fact that the Sox appear to have several young, cost-controlled star-caliber players on the roster with more potentially on the way, isn’t something to sneeze at. In fact, we haven’t seen this composition of young, exciting star-caliber talent since the drafts of the late ’80s yielded: Jack McDowell, Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, and Alex Fernandez. There is a lot of reason for optimism, and coming from me, a perpetual pessimist, that’s something.
Things could always be better but the doom and gloom nature of some is over the top, in my opinion. I’m not getting my pom poms out and planning on putting money down for Soxtober 2020 yet, but there is a conceivable path to this team contending in 2020 if a certain someone allows the team to do what is necessary. With all things considered, I think my confidence level is at about a 5 right now.
The next 6 months will be the most important for this franchise in well over a decade. Will we see continued development from the young core? Will we see this organization be cheap again this winter and fail to augment this group? Only time will tell, but for the moment I feel like I’m Switzerland in the great Sox Twitter war. I see both sides of the argument, but from my perspective there isn’t one clear cut camp I can side with.
Follow Steve on twitter at @NWI_Steve