Grand Opening: White Sox Eye The End Of Three-Year Rebuild
Under general manager Rick Hahn, the White Sox have "won” the offseason before.
Before the 2015 season, they were viewed as instant contenders after a winter haul of veterans brought in righthander Jeff Samardzija, first baseman Adam LaRoche, outfielder Melky Cabrera and relievers David Robertson, Zach Duke and Dan Jennings.
When it was time to prove it on the field, the White Sox went 76-86 and finished fourth in the American League Central.
Before the 2014 season, Chicago added first baseman Jose Abreu(^), outfielder Adam Eaton, third baseman Matt Davidson and pitchers Scott Downs, Felipe Paulino, Ronald Belisario and Javy Guerra. The White Sox finished fourth in that season, too, going 73-89.
It was a classic case of rinse, wash, repeat and fail, and Hahn finally became fed up with filling the roster with unreliable veterans.
Before a 2016 game in late July, the White Sox GM admitted the patch-and-plug plan that helped them win the 2005 World Series was no longer viable.
"We’re mired in mediocrity,” Hahn said. "That’s not the goal. That’s not acceptable. That’s not what we’re trying to accomplish for the long term.”
After the 2016 season, the White Sox traded ace starter Chris Sale to the Red Sox for a package of prospects headed by Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech. One day later, Eaton was sent to the Nationals for three promising pitchers, including Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez.
Along the way, the White Sox also signed monster prospect Luis Robert and used their high first-round draft picks on Oregon State second baseman Nick Madrigal (No. 4 overall in 2018) and California first baseman Andrew Vaughn (No. 3 overall last year).
For years, Chicago chairman Jerry Reinsdorf thought the best way to assemble a large-market team was spending on free agents and trading minor leaguers for veterans.
|The Trades That Made The 2020 White Sox|
|This chart collects highlighted prospects acquired by the White Sox in rebuilding trades. Prospects are listed with their primary minor league classification at the time of the trade.|
|Dec. 6, 2016||LHP Chris Sale||Red Sox|
3B Yoan Moncada (AA)
RHP Michael Kopech (HiA)
OF Luis Basabe (LoA)
|Dec. 7, 2016||OF Adam Eaton||Nationals|
RHP Lucas Giolito (AAA)
RHP Reynaldo Lopez (AAA)
RHP Dane Dunning (SS)
|July 13, 2017||LHP Jose Quintana||Cubs|
OF Eloy Jimenez (HiA)
RHP Dylan Cease (LoA)
In early June of 2016, Chicago sent Fernando Tatis Jr. to the Padres for James Shields. The outcome of that trade—Shields ran up a 5.31 ERA in three seasons with the White Sox; Tatis developed into one of the top young players in the game—likely proved to be the tipping point.
“We’ve had these (rebuild) conversations over a number of years,” Hahn said. “Obviously, in the past, we made the decision as a group not to head down this path.
“When the decision was finally made to head down the rebuild route, Jerry felt the same frustration that all of us had, and all White Sox fans had felt, with what seemed to be on paper some solid efforts but obviously in terms of results and bottom lines were disappointments.
“So he got it. I think his competitiveness and impatience are a constant presence through this in that he hopes it’s done right and hopes it’s done quickly. But he knows where we’re at.”
Chicago has been at the bottom for an extended stretch. The White Sox haven’t had a winning season since 2012 and they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008.
Patience is a big part of rebuilding, and the White Sox have paid most of that price.
After three lean years in the major leagues—manager Rick Renteria is 201-284 (.414) over that stretch—it looks like Chicago is finally ready to launch.
"I would be disappointed if we don’t make the postseason, that would be accurate,” Renteria said at the club’s annual fan gathering in late January. "We want to break through. We want this to be an impactful season. I think, man for man, 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.”
Just like in years past, the White Sox are widely viewed as winter winners.
After shedding veterans for three years and restocking a barren farm system, the White Sox had a busy offseason. They signed all-star catcher Yasmani Grandal, former AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion, Gio Gonzalez and Steve Cishek. Chicago also acquired right fielder Nomar Mazara in a trade with the Rangers.
That’s an appealing package of proven talent, but there’s a big difference. Unlike seasons past, the new veteran faces are joining a stout young core that features third baseman Moncada, ace Giolito, defending AL batting champion and shortstop Tim Anderson and left fielder Jimenez.
"I can definitely tell that lineup is ready to go this year,” Keuchel said. Prospects Robert, Vaughn and Madrigal figure to make the lineup even deeper over the course of 2020 and 2021.
Bringing in a proven pitcher like Keuchel is a big reason the White Sox are heading into the upcoming season with such high hopes, but Moncada, Giolito, Anderson and Jimenez taking such big steps up in 2019 is even bigger.
"Part of what made being a little more aggressive this offseason make sense was the progress we saw from the Giolitos and Moncadas and TAs last year,” Hahn said.
The GM also pointed to Jimenez acclimating himself in the big leagues, Robert’s readiness to contribute and feeling strong about the young core overall.
"There’s still growth there and for some,” Hahn said. "There may be a half-step backward in certain instances before they take their next step forward. It’s just the nature of development, especially at the big league level.
"But the strength of that young group not only put us in a position to be aggressive this offseason but also is going to continue to be key to where this team goes for the long term.”
In 2018, Moncada didn’t look much like the decorated prospect he was with Boston. The switch-hitter batted .235/.315/.400 with 17 home runs in his first full season and nearly set the major league record with 217 strikeouts.
After the season, Moncada headed to the White Sox’s spring training complex in Glendale, Ariz., and worked on his game.
"I went there trying to fix a few things I was doing wrong,” Moncada said. "When I left Arizona, I was in a good spot and I kept working.”
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The extra effort paid off in 2019. Not only did the 24-year-old Moncada hit .315 and finish third in the AL batting race, he also established career highs with 25 home runs, 34 doubles, 79 RBIs and 83 runs. He also reduced his strikeout rate from 33 to 28 percent.
Like Moncada, Giolito looked himself in the mirror after the 2018 season. The righthander was not happy about his 6.13 ERA, which was the worst among qualified major league starters.
Giolito addressed the mental side of his game. On the mechanical side, the 6-foot-6 righthander shortened his arm stroke.
The combination helped the 25-year-old Giolito take off, and he went 14-9, 3.41 while cutting his walk rate per nine from 4.7 to 2.9.
“The biggest focus was making the changes I needed to make and just being a more consistent pitcher,” Giolito said. “I showed I can do that and more, and that’s all I concern myself with. I just want to take the ball every five days and win.”
Anderson led the AL with a .335 average, a whopping jump of 95 points over 2018, and the shortstop somehow won the batting title while ranking last among qualified major league hitters with 15 walks.
There is a sturdy base in place, and Robert, Madrigal and Vaughn represent the next wave of young talent rolling toward Chicago.
Based on Robert’s showing last season—he hit .328/.376/.624 with 31 doubles, 11 triples, 32 homers, 92 RBIs and 36 stolen bases in a combined 122 games at Triple-A Charlotte, Double-A Birmingham and high Class A Winston-Salem—he could emerge as the club’s best player.
After Robert signed a six-year, $50 million contract in early January, the coast is clear for the 22-year-old to be in the lineup and in center field on Opening Day.
Robert has set goals to match his substantial set of skills. “I want to be Rookie of the Year and win a championship,” he said.
While he might very well achieve the first objective this season, Chicago is not going to panic if Robert has some early struggles like Jimenez did a year ago.
“Early last season, you saw how teams treated Eloy,” Hahn said. “They treated him like a seasoned veteran in terms of setting him up and trying to exploit some weaknesses off the plate with breaking balls.
“I think you’re going to see Luis get that same treatment. I don’t think you’re going to see too many guys challenging him early with fastballs because they’re going to know the scouting report.
“He’s not a finished product at age 22. Obviously, he’s a guy who’s played pro ball for a little over two full seasons, basically. But that acclimation period, I think could well come together fairly quickly. We’ll find out together, but we’re certainly very excited to see that development."