For the last three seasons, the debate around the White Sox was persistent: Was management reloading or retooling? Were the Sox contenders in need of a tweak or pretenders destined to stay on the wrong side of .500? After three years of being stuck in the middle, management finally made a call. Rebuild.
Goodbye, Chris Sale. Farewell, Adam Eaton. Hello, seven prospects who immediately upgraded the farm system from one of the 10 worst in baseball to one of the 10 best. Expect the Sox to make more moves during the spring and through the trading deadline. They likely won’t contend until 2019. But at least they have settled on a direction.
How do you replace a guy who made the last five American League All-Star teams while averaging 203 innings, 227 strikeouts, 14 victories and 5.5 wins above replacement value? Ask new manager Rick Renteria and Sox veteran pitching coach Don Cooper. That is their assignment after Sale was traded to Boston for four prospects. Jose Quintana has averaged better than 190 innings with a 3.41 earned run average for five seasons. That’s ace territory, evidence Quintana deserves to be the No. 1 starter — if he isn’t also dealt. Cooper believes Carlos Rodon has ace stuff, too; but Rodon must improve his command, trust his changeup and keep hitters in the park. Rodon was hurt by 23 home runs in 165 innings. The White Sox rotation has tilted heavily toward lefthanders in recent seasons. That won’t change. Their primary free-agent signing was Derek Holland, who won seven games for the Rangers last season after missing most of 2014 and 2015 with knee and shoulder injuries. Miguel Gonzalez’s 3.73 earned run average suggested that he pitched better than his 5–8 record. James Shields profiles as the fifth starter, but only because the Sox owe him half of the $44 million he is guaranteed on the final two years of his contract. Shields will be on a short leash as the Sox hope a young arm such as Lucas Giolito, Carson Fulmer, Reynaldo Lopez or Spencer Adams is ready, at least by midseason.
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Does a team that’s a long shot to make the postseason need an $11 million closer? Sox management must debate that question about David Robertson, who has two seasons left on his deal. He saved 37 games, but his walk ratio more than doubled and his strikeouts declined for the second consecutive season. Nate Jones looks primed to take over the ninth inning with his 100-mph fastball and crisp slider. His strikeout ratio and control were better than Robertson’s last season. Dan Jennings emerged as a dependable lefty who could retire more than left-handed batters, allowing only one home run in 60.2 innings. Spring training will separate the rest. Zach Putnam and Jake Petricka are veteran righthanders trying to return from injuries. Chris Beck struggled in his three-month big-league debut. Tommy Kahnle throws hard but without command. Giovanni Soto and Brian Clark will get looks as the other left-handed options. One of the young righty starters, perhaps Lopez, might also fit here because Cooper likes giving new guys experience in the pen.
Tim Anderson arrived ahead of schedule and immediately became the most encouraging story of the Sox season. In less than four months, Anderson scored 57 runs, delivered 37 extra-base hits, stole 10 bases and showed he could handle shortstop with range and reliability. Although he hit a respectable .283, Anderson must learn to control the strike zone to become an elite player. Renteria’s biggest infield decision will be at second base — Brett Lawrie provides more power while Tyler Saladino has a better glove and more speed. Yoan Moncada, a flashy middle infielder acquired for Sale, has the bat and speed to force his way into the lineup by midseason.
Third baseman Todd Frazier (40 home runs) and first baseman Jose Abreu (25) were the only consistent power threats, but management must decide if they’ll be part of the rebuild. With one season on his contract, Frazier is most likely to be dealt because of his 163 strikeouts and Lawrie’s ability to play third base. Abreu finished with his usual numbers, but most of his production came after the Sox fell out of contention. He pledged to become a better team leader, and Renteria will need that.
Look for the Sox to pursue outfield prospects in deals as the rebuild continues. Melky Cabrera remains a professional hitter in left field, but he is a below-average defender in the final year of his contract. Translation: another trade candidate. If his torn hamstring is healed, Charlie Tilson profiles as the starting center fielder because of his plus speed and left-handed bat. He lacks power, so his strength must be his glove and ability to get on base. Acquired for Jake Peavy in 2013, Avisail Garcia has not developed as a run producer. Once a top Padres prospect, Rymer Liriano missed last season after being hit in the face with a pitch in spring training. The White Sox also signed veterans Peter Bourjos and Cody Asche to minor league contracts and invited them to spring training. With the outfield depth as it stands, either of these guys could end up earning a spot on the 25-man roster.
Help wanted. Omar Narvaez tops the Sox catching depth chart, and his record shows 117 MLB plate appearances and 10 career RBIs. His backup, Kevan Smith, is less experienced, showing two hits (both singles) and no RBIs in 16 big-league plate appearances. The Sox will be looking to add a veteran who can handle a pitching staff, as their catchers ranked among the worst in the American League in pitch framing last season. This is why former NL Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto was signed to a minor league deal and invited to training camp. Minor leaguers Roberto Pena and Zack Collins also will be a part of the mix in the spring.
The Sox collapsed after their 23–10 start last season. Injuries and a thin bench ranked high on the list of reasons. Backup catcher Smith as well as infielder Matt Davidson are unproven big-league hitters. Leury Garcia brings speed and outfield/infield versatility but no pop. Infielder Carlos Sanchez is another good glove/no stick option. Saladino remains the best reserve, capable of playing every infield position as well as driving in runs. Adam Engel and Jacob May, both young outfielders, profile as outfield backups because of their speed and gloves, but Bourjos and Asche could work their way into the picture with strong showings this spring.
Theo Epstein certified Renteria as a top managing candidate in 2014 because of his patient ability to work with young players as well as his bilingual skills. Those were the same attributes Sox general manager Rick Hahn lauded after promoting Renteria from bench coach to Robin Ventura’s replacement. Cooper, the pitching coach since 2002, is energized by the assignment of remaking his starting staff and believes he can fix Shields during spring training. The focus this season will be on teaching, fundamentals and patience.
The Sox won’t contend in 2017, but at least there is a plan. Fans will be eager for the prospects acquired for Sale and Eaton to arrive and for even more trades as management sells the future. The Sox ranked 11th in the AL in runs scored last season, and the struggles will intensify as more veterans are traded. After years of patching holes, the rebuild is underway.