Baseball bracketology: 2020 White Sox’s Final Four, Cinderellas, Upsets, and Bubble Watch

 


Selection Sunday has now come and gone, with gone being the operative word, as the entire Men’s and Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournaments were outright canceled due to the global pandemic known as COVID-19.

Pair that with the fact that Major League Baseball’s Opening Day now has no definitive start date, with the initial two-week being delay usurped by the CDC’s recommendation to not conduct nationwide gatherings of more than 50 people for at least eight weeks. That would make the soonest that Opening Day could theoretically happen May 11.

My “bracket” is a little dubious on that date being a reality, but you never know. With all that said, with everyone self-quarantined, working from home, running to the stores with more raw speed than Adam Engel, and finding themselves with more free time than ever, we all could use a respite and also a way to fill the void.

From where I sit behind my keyboard, there’s no better way to do that than fill the vacuum of both no baseball and no March Madness with one composite article.

This clocks in at just more than 4,500 words, but we all have some free time on our hands and we have an itch for White Sox baseball, March Madness, and sports in general. And if not sports, then even text on a screen about sports. So this is broken into sections. Read it in full, or parse it out, consume it in bits, and wash your hands for 20 seconds with hot water for each hot take in-between sections (especially after the Upset section, as you may need to cleanse). We don’t have sports, but we have the game of words and through that we can have some strange version of White Sox March Madness –– in a real world that currently doesn’t have either.

With that said, I’m going to lay out my picks for the Chicago White Sox’s Final Four –– a core of players that will be the most valuable in 2020 –– who may surprise (Cinderellas) or underperform (Upsets), projected regression that may not happen, (think the annual trendy expert upset pick), and outline which prospects will see the big lights this season (“on the bubble”).


I tried my hand at a similar piece over at another publication back in 2016. Like any bracket, I had my share of red (losses), but also some notable prognostications in the green (wins) as well.

My Final Four consisted of Chris Sale, José Abreu, Todd Frazier and Jose Quintana.

Sale made it to the final weekend, turning in an 3.34 ERA All-Star season and setting career highs in wins (17) and innings pitched (226 ⅔) that may have been driven by his league-leading six complete games. He’d ultimately finish fifth in Cy Young voting and notch MVP votes despite being on a non-playoff team. 

Abreu got bounced after the Sweet 16. He had a decent enough year, but it took a potent second half to bounce back from a fairly dreadful first two months to salvage his season. He failed to hit the 30-home run mark or make the All-Star team but still ripped 100 RBIs for his fourth straight season and finished with a respectable .820 OPS.

Frazier didn’t make it out of the Sweet 16, either. He made a lot of shots –– 40 home runs, to be exact –– but overall did not live up to expectations or his seed line. His final line was .225/.302/.464, with clear shortfalls in average and OBP. He was worth 2.8 fWAR, which fell short of a projected four-win season.

Quintana, my outside Final Four pick, delivered in earnest. He joined Chris Sale at the All-Star game, put together a 3.20 ERA over 200-plus innings, got a 10th place Cy Young vote and had what to date has been the best season of his career.

I also identified two Cinderellas: Adam Eaton and Carlos Rodón.

Eaton surely did not disappoint. He actually edged Sale and led the 2016 White Sox in fWAR with a 5.9 mark. He got on base at a .362 clip, swiped 14 bags, but most importantly flashed an absurd glove after a position shift to right field –– propped up by an arm that could hit triple-digits on release and nail runners like clockwork. He also led the AL in triples and garnered a 19th-place MVP vote at years end.

Rodón didn’t quite have a “breakout” year, but he did have what unfortunately remains the best season of his White Sox career thus far by racketing up 168 innings over 28 starts while posting playable numbers in a 4.04 ERA and 9.2 K/9 in what was really his first big-league season as a full-time starter.

For upsets, I thought Adam LaRoche would be downed by a back injury. It turns out he got “upset” by something entirely different: His 14 year-old son Drake LaRoche not being allowed in the clubhouse. This set off what was quite truly an international firestorm when he retired over the matter, and it oddly sparked a broader discussion about the place of children in the workplace. You can’t make this stuff up, and no my bracket did not have the details –– only that he’d have an early exit.

I had Jacob Turner upsetting John Danks for a rotation spot, predicting that the White Sox would actually eat Danks’ contract midseason in the midst of contention, a bold call considering the conventional Jerry Reinsdorf behavior. I was dead wrong about Turner, who was absolutely atrocious during just two starts and 24 ⅔ innings pitched in a starter/bullpen hybrid role. Turn down the backlight on your screen so as not to burn your eyes when you read about his 6.57 ERA, near 2.000 WHIP, and a 5.8 BB/9 to just 6.6 K/9. Chicago did release and eat the rest of Danks’ $15.75 million salary in May, so this pick was mixed.

My two players on the bubble, Tim Anderson and Carson Fulmer, both made it to the majors, so there’s that.

Now that I’ve proven at least a modicum of credibility in my baseball bracketology, here’s a similar exercise for 2020. It is going to be semi-challenging given the uncertainty of baseball this season and how disrupted conditioning and a late and shortened season may impact performance and sample sizes, but here goes.


Final Four

C Yasmani Grandal

This was a move White Sox fans have been waiting for ever since A.J. Pierzynski was forced out of town only to be supplanted by the polarizing Tyler Flowers. Not only was the four-year, $73 million dollar Grandal deal the largest free agent outlay in White Sox history, but the backstop has been an absolute turnstile for essentially the last four seasons. There’s not better way I can demonstrate how much of an upgrade Grandal will be than this:

That 5.2 fWAR made Grandal the second-most valuable catcher in the majors last year and would have also made him the second-most valuable player in Chicago by that same metric. He posted an absurd 17.2% walk rate, per FanGraphs, which helped him achieve a .380 OBP.

Pair that with a career-high 28 home runs and a glove that gets rave reviews from both the pitch-framing eye test and advanced metrics, to say nothing of his ability to be a beacon for a staff, and Grandal looks like he’ll be a linchpin for the White Sox and deliver a massive season. If we weren’t looking at a truncated year, I’d say 25-30 home runs would be in the cards.

Either way, Grandal will provide pop and on-base percentage from both sides of the plate and be the perfect steward for Chicago’s rotation. He’s what we’d call a blue-blood No.1 seed –– a lock –– and your best bet to reach Chicago’s Final Four from a composite value perspective.

LF Eloy Jiménez

Jiménez had his first taste of big-league action from the jump last season after signing a winter extension. He ended up missing some time with a pair of IL stints, one for a right ankle sprain and another one for sustaining a nerve contusion in his arm during an outfield collision.

Through 122 games, Jiménez still managed to break the 30-home run mark with 31 bombs, and some of them were truly tape-measure shots. There was a little swing-and-miss to his game (26.6% K-rate) but he slashed .267/.315/.513 on the whole with a .246 ISO.

Jiménez is like that upstart program that is suddenly elevated with a slew of top recruits but is felled by injuries and exits earlier than expected. Not in 2020. The roster of prolific batting tools will be coming back, so to speak, and with an expectation of health.

Jiménez barely tapped into the value of Guaranteed Rate Field as a hitter’s park last season (.748 home OPS compared to an .892 away) which is an aberration that is unlikely to be in play again. His torrid pace to end the season (.340/.383/.710 slash line with nine home runs in September) could very well be a prelude of what’s to come. Eloy will simply mash in 2020.

SS Tim Anderson 

Anderson had a breakout campaign last season in a full-fledged attempt to #changethegame You could call it akin to mid-major that ends up leaving a lot of red in its wake and rubs teams and their fans the wrong way in its run to the Final Four; but at the same time also exhilarates a whole new brand of play and ends the tourney with much more name recognition. Anderson invented the “Javelin Bat Flip,” after all.

In 2020, he’ll make good on last year’s run and be a favorite to repeat the performance. Anderson got his title game of sorts last season by leading all of baseball with a .335 batting average. That hardware came with 32 doubles and 18 home runs in just 123 games, as the shortstop battled an ankle sprain.

Had he not missed the time, he likely would have produced his second consecutive 20/20 season. Anderson ended up being worth 3.5 fWAR last year despite the injury bug and the fact that he was actually negative on the other side of the game, committing a league leading 26 errors –– many of the throwing variety.

Expect the Chicago shortstop to clean that up this season as defense has been mentioned publicly as a priority for him, and no one on the club has a more tenacious work ethic. People looking for an upset might point to the fact Anderson walked at just a 2.9% clip and posted an unsustainable .399 BABIP.

But Anderson has proven that he’s going to play his game, from the javelin bat flips to his aggressive approach at the plate. Net-net, his game plays up due to plus raw speed, plus plate coverage, and the fact that he hits the ball to all fields with minimal infield fly outs –– all ingredients that will aid in his maintaining at least an above-average BABIP.

Regression there could be offset by someone who hasn’t even turned 27 yet and likely still has more playable power in his game. Once again, if this were a full season, a 25/25 year could have been on the table, with an outside shot at a 30/30 year if he really broke out.

Given Moncada’s in-game speed has not played as much in the way of base stealing, Anderson along with Robert could be Chicago’s best shot at a 30/30 player. The shortened season makes it much more unlikely, but expect Anderson to be a star nonetheless and both cut down the errors and the nets as his visibility as a face of the game becomes even more high-profile.

3B Yoán Moncada

Moncada was like Anderson last season in the sense that he was more of a No. 3-to-4 seed that made his way to the final weekend. Imagine a very talented team that doesn’t see things click as a group until their junior season.

That’s what happened for Moncada last year as he slashed .315/.367/.548 en route to a team-leading 5.7 fWAR, in part thanks to a glove that played up at third base as opposed to the keystone. He cut his strikeout rate from an abysmal 33.4% in 2018 to a very playable 27.5% in 2019.

Moncada smashed 25 home runs, 34 doubles, and five triples despite missing a chunk of time with a hamstring strain. There are some regression worries due to a high BABIP, which will be addressed later, but there’s more ceiling for Moncada in 2020 — and that should be a scary thought for opponents.

He showed a solid walk rate during his pro ball days in the minors and in his 2017 debut (12.6 %) which fell to just 7.2% in 2020. With excellent plate discipline, there’s certainly reason to believe that number reverts a little closer to above-average range or at least the double-digits, which will raise his OBP. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old will likely continue to show even more in-game power, as he can certainly hit moonshots and the long ball should come with more regularity.

Finally, someone with 70-grade speed should quite frankly be swiping more bags. Moncada made just 13 attempts last year despite a 76% success rate. Moncada should be swiping 20 bags with ease in a full season and possibly even in a shortened season.

So tapping into more in-game power, more playable speed, and just natural growth for the White Sox’s most tool-ridden and physical specimen outside of Robert, Moncada will have more than “One Shining Moment” in 2020 and potentially make an MVP bid. He is the odds-on No. 1 seed for 2020.

Cinderellas

SP Reynaldo López

López makes for a very interesting cinderella pick as he could very well “bust” some brackets in 2020, especially brackets that are labeling him a “bust.” Will 2020 truly be the year of “hindsight is 2020” for these fans and pundits alike? Here are a few reasons why the slipper, or rather cleat, may fit for López.

He absolutely has the former prospect pedigree. Coming up with the Nationals, some evaluators painted López as even more of a star than his often more-touted teammate Lucas Giolito. That seemed to prove true as he flashed nastier stuff than a struggling Giolito and ended 2018 –– his first full season as a big league starter –– on a high note.

Rather than López carrying that over into 2019 for a breakout, it was instead Giolito who had a surge, and López ended up being an unmitigated disaster –– “good” for a 5.38 ERA over 33 starts and an unforgiving FIP of 5.04 that wasn’t noticeably better.

López quite frankly was all over the plate, even showing lack of concentration at times. His HR/9 clocked in at 1.71, which is eye-popping bad, while he also walked more than three batters per nine innings. There wasn’t obvious bad luck either, as he had a pretty in-line .316 BABIP against and a 69.2% strand rate.

So what could possibly be the positives? Well the raw stuff is certainly still there. López’s fastball velocity still runs up regularly over 95 mph while his curveball can still look sharp at times. His K/9 was actually a full batter improvement from 2018, settling at 8.27 per nine, and despite his struggles he’s been durable with two consecutive seasons of more than 180 innings pitched and such durability has led to two straight two-WAR seasons as well. So it’s not all entirely bad.

Sometimes these things just take time. Grandal has already been reported to have a positive effect on López, apparently identifying some ways López can leverage his off-speed stuff better; this being one of the paramount reasons Grandal was a good add.

We’ll see if it carries over into the season, but for López the stuff is there and so is the durability. Now it’s all about that elusive control and command, which if realized, could give the White Sox a very solid power righty. If not, maybe he’s a two-pitch pitcher who plays up in the pen. The 2020 season will be a litmus test, but one worth giving for sure.

OF Adam Engel

Engel has been a trendy Cinderella for years. When you get body and tool comps to Mike Trout, that tends to happen. These types of comps are always unfair, but not unusual this time of year when a team is regarded as “the Butler, VCU, or Davidson of year X.”

I don’t think Engel will be a Cinderella in the traditional sense, where he parlays his myriad of tools, build, and athleticism into some huge Elite Eight run as a double-digit seed, but he can be a Cinderella in the sense that he carves out a niche on this roster.

The glove has always been playable — more than playable actually; in fact, plus. He’s the perfect roving outfielder to come in as a late defensive replacement or pinch-runner where his plus speed can play up late in a game during a crucial moment.

It’s not worth getting into the annual narrative of mechanical adjustments and swing changes, but the fact remains that Engel can fill a role in 2020 and be of value. It was a small sample, but Engel hit .313/.360/.482 versus LHP in 2019 and he’s always been better against southpaws in his career. Not as flashy as that line, more like a .679 OPS type, but still –– better.

Given Nomar Mazara will be manning right field, Engel could be a serviceable platoon partner for him and generate additional value defensively and on the basepaths, with some occasional pop here and there.

Once he’s no longer overexposed in a starting role, Engel may go from a liability to a competent utility piece, and that would certainly be a Cinderella story for someone who otherwise would be on the fringe of being out of the game entirely. Maybe 2020, is Adam Engel’s Sweet 16 –– where he was once regarded as an intriguing prospect.

Upsets

Upsets: you love them and you hate them, depending on your bracket and allegiance of course, but they always happen. In this context, upsets are always negative –– well, mostly. You’ll see a few qualifiers. Upset will be ranked as most likely to happen to least likely as described by traditional NCAA Tourney seed vernacular. A 16-over-1 is historically unlikely while a 10-over-7 is a relatively safe bet and really anything 12-over-5 and less isn’t mind-blowing, at least to those who dig into the numbers.

Roster Spot Crunch (10) over Zack Collins (7)

With the signing of Grandal, the White Sox now have not one but two All-Star catchers on their roster when you factor in holdover James McCann. The fact that Abreu is still manning first base, Grandal can also play that corner infield spot, and the additional fact that Edwin Encarnación was signed with the explicit intent of full-time DH duties, the roster composition is not looking kind to Collins, a former Top 10 draft pick back in 2016 who has hit for power and OBP in the minors but whose profile has been dampened by a poor hit tool and subpar defensive outlook as a backstop. The shortened season means even less chance for opportunity, as a limited schedule may not be as taxing for players. Factor in that with the logic of getting Collins regular ABs at Charlotte, and he does not look to get a lot of time under the bright lights in 2020.

Bullpen Role (11) over (6) Carlos Rodón

This would be an upset in the sense that Rodón was not taken with the No. 3 overall pick out of N.C. State back in the 2014 draft to be used as a bullpen piece. He was drafted to be a front-end starter. But Rodón has been a disappointment no matter how you frame it. Save for a 2016 season in which he made 28 starts to compile 165 innings of respectable 4.04 ERA ball with a 9.2 K/9 as a 23 year-old, it’s all been a massive slide from there.

You can blame injuries, underperformance, or a combination of the two, but Rodón has just not gotten it done from the mound. After those 165 innings in 2016, he’s thrown just 224 ⅔ combined in the three years since with a 4.33 ERA, 4.66 FIP, and 4.1 BB/9 over that span.

Now coming off Tommy John Surgery and with a shortened season ahead and a crowded rotation, it makes loads of sense to take Rodón’s fastball and slider, which have looked like a deadly combo in the past, and see how they play in the bullpen.

A lefty coming out of the pen with nasty stuff could be just the trick for Rodón. It would be less taxing on his arm and possibly lead to actual, tangible value. Chicago has just one year of control on the pitcher after 2020; they might as well get something out of him.

As a Scott Boras client, Rodón seems like a change of scenery guy when he hits free agency. Rodón and Boras may be “upset” by this upset, but White Sox fans may be pleasantly surprised. And if he does turn into Chicago’s version of Andrew Miller –– a modern-day, two- or three-inning bullpen slicer with explosive stuff –– then he may have an even better chance at a payday.

Win-Win.

Shortened Season (13) over Luis Robert (4)

Robert is dripping with talent. If well-rounded prospects are tool sheds, then he’s five top-of-the-line toolboxes inside of a tool shed. Robert may be the best player of the whole critical mass when all is said and done.

He has the bat, mammoth power, leopard speed, and platinum glove. But Robert also has zero big league experience and despite video game numbers in Charlotte, the hit tool is still a bit raw. It is quite possible there will be a lag, a period of adjustment.

The 2020 season had a good chance to shake out as a coming-out party for Robert with real Rookie of the Year potential, but a shortened season won’t help in masking early struggles. If those make up a disproportionate portion of the 2020 campaign, then Robert’s road to true stardom may have to wait until 2021.

COVID-19 (15) over Major League Baseball (2)

There’s something that’s been eating at my mind, and that’s the possibility that baseball doesn’t happen at all. With every waking day, the value of social distancing and flattening the curve with COVID-19 rises even more to the forefront. And with it usually comes new CDC recommendations on limiting crowds to smaller numbers and for longer periods.

Speculation is abound and there’s been some lines of thinking that baseball may not start until midsummer and that even if it does, it may have to occur without fans or with limited attendance. The systems to properly screen and re-integrate into society may simply not be in place.

There’s also conjecture that if baseball were to be canceled entirely by the league due to a “national emergency,” the MLBPA may not be able to stave off contracts being invalidated. That’s a win on overhead for the owners.

Sure, there’s boatloads of money on the table to be lost. Out of sight, out of mind is at play, too. But at some point –– especially if a decent chunk of games would have to be played with no fans –– then the ROI, not the revenue, but the actual income over fixed operating costs may be very minimal — or worse, projected to be negative.

If that’s what the tea leaves start to say, then there is at least a chance the owners lobby with Major League Baseball to pull the plug on the 2020 season entirely. This would be an upset for the ages, but it’s not one to write off entirely.

The Trendy Upset That Won’t Happen

BABIP (12) over Yoán Moncada (5)

Every year there is one team that all the pundits pick to shock the world, and the shock is that it doesn’t happen. In recent years, think any South Dakota State team with Mike Daum on it, or a New Mexico St. team that could always crash the boards but instead crashed dreams of bracket perfection instead (Thanks Aggies!)

The trendy upset pick this year in the baseball world is that the league leader in BABIP, Moncada, will see massive regression and that this said underlying number was a key driver of his breakout season.

Moncada had a .406 BABIP last year, up from a .344 BABIP the year prior. That screams regression, until you look at the fact that Moncada also lowered his infield fly ball rate, raised his hard contact rate, and increased his line drive rate. Those are all immediate explanations for why he had a higher BABIP, and again, his baseline in a down year was .344.

Want to dive deeper into the stats? He increased his exit velocity between 2018 and 2019 from 90.6 to 92.8 (seventh in baseball) and his barrel % from 9.6 to 12.2, per Baseball Savant. That barrel % is nearly twice the league average of 6.3.

Moncada also brings other drivers that can make a BABIP more sustainable, like hitting to all fields, possessing raw speed to leg out infield hits, and the fact that he actually is hitting the ball out of the park way more than before. You don’t have to worry too much about your BABIP when your ball isn’t in play as often, and it’s less in play for the good reasons like home runs and walks, not the bad one: strikeouts.

Another interesting note: speaking of those infield hits, Moncada had an 8.9% rate in 2018 and only a 4.6% in 2019, so he may actually leg out more infield hits in 2020, making the sustainability of a higher BABIP all the more buyable.

The bottom line is this –– even if Moncada’s BABIP recedes, his overall ceiling may not. The best is yet to come and over-inflating one statistic that isn’t as alarming as it seems will do a disservice to your baseball bracket. Avoid this trendy upset pick.

On the Bubble

2B Nick Madrigal (IN)

Madrigal was likely going to be here by mid-April at the latest. The high-IQ player who simply does not strike out is an easy at-large bid despite the small stature. Service time considerations and how they will apply to a shortened 2020 are still up in the air, but it won’t matter with Madrigal. The mature rookie with the slick glove will be manning second at some point.

1B Andrew Vaughn (OUT)

Vaughn has impressed mightily in his initial taste of pro ball. He is an extremely polished college bat who may be the best pure hitter in the whole organization. He truly could be a 60 hit/60 power guy which could shake out to a perennial near-.300 average and consistent 30-bomb player. But the shortened season will make a September (November?) call-up unlikely even if Chicago is in contention. He just won’t have enough requisite ABs in the minors to make the jump.

SP Dane Dunning (OUT)

The crowded rotation already put Dunning in a dangerous position on the bubble, and that’s without even referencing that he’ll be coming back from Tommy John surgery. He’ll need more than just a tuneup in the minors before seeing the big leagues. He may find his way in if there are injuries, or the season actually starts in May rather than July, but if not, Dunning will have to wait until 2021 to hear his name called.

SP Michael Kopech (IN)

You could actually say Kopech is in a somewhat similar boat as Dunning given the developing circumstances, but he’s had his time in the minors –– and a short stint in the bigs –– so it’s more about purely rehabbing. While we’ll see less of Kopech in 2020 than we would have without COVID-19, we will see Kopech –– or the lightning power arm I like to call “Zeus” –– in 2020 at some point. If not, it will be a major snub.


I hope this fulfilled the gaping black hole that’s a result of the lack of sports during what is an unprecedented global crisis. From me to you the reader, stay safe, stay healthy, and remember: There are sunnier days ahead. Days where the sun will be beaming down on ballplayers.

Patience is a virtue, and hope is currently our best medicine.

 

Michael Kopech can transform the White Sox in 2020

Powerful stuff: Kopech lit up the radar gun in his one-inning comeback from Tommy John surgery on Tuesday. (Tiffany Wintz/South Side Hit Pen)


On Dec. 6, 2016, the Chicago White Sox made one of the biggest trades in the franchise’s history, a move that they hoped would eventually make this team a perennial contender not just in the American League Central, but for World Series championships.

Chris Sale was the face of the franchise, a five-time All-Star, and a perennial Cy Young candidate in Chicago. He ranks third all-time in White Sox history with a WHIP of 1.065, fourth in hits per nine (7.48), first in strikeouts per nine (10.09), and sixth in strikeouts with 1,244 in just 1,110 innings.

But on that day in December, the White Sox traded the former first-round pick to the Boston Red Sox for Michael Kopech, Yoán Moncada, Luis Basabe, and Victor Diaz.

It was a trade that absolutely had to pay off for the White Sox. When you trade someone like Sale, you have to make sure you’re getting back elite-level talent.

At the time, the White Sox certainly felt like they were getting at least two players who would shape the future of this franchise in Kopech and Moncada. Before the 2017 season, Moncada was ranked as the second-best prospect in all of baseball by many publications, while Kopech ranked as high as No. 10 before the 2018 season.

These two were tabbed as the ones to take this team back to the promised land.

After a couple of subpar years, Moncada finally looks like that guy. And the White Sox have made that official by giving him a nice contract extension.

As we all know, Kopech was on the verge of making his mark in 2018 before injury struck and Tommy John surgery followed.

Since that time, we’ve been waiting for the talented right-handed pitcher — who is still just 23 years old — to get back on the mound and remind us why the White Sox gave up the face of their franchise for him.

That finally happened on Tuesday, as Kopech made his spring training debut. You could tell it was a big moment for the big righty as he was amped up, throwing several fastballs at 100 mph and higher, including a fastball painted on the outside corner at 101 to end the first inning with his only strikeout.

I won’t read too much into one inning from Kopech, but his fastball and breaking ball looked really sharp.


Kopech’s handling in 2020

Tuesday was obviously a big first step in his return, but the White Sox are going to rightfully be cautious with their prized arm in 2020.

We already know Kopech will be on an innings limit this season; the only question is what that limit will be. He’s never thrown more than 141 innings in a season, so I would guess that’s the number we’re looking at in 2020.

There are several ways the White Sox can handle this Kopech’s workload:

1) Put him in the rotation and let him start every fifth day until he hits his limit

This is the least likely scenario, and one I hope they don’t employ. The White Sox are hoping to play meaningful games deep into the season, and I’d rather save Kopech’s bullets.

2) Use him as an opener to start the season

I’m not exactly sure who you pair him with, but with the opener craze, perhaps Kopech starts games but goes only two or three innings. Maybe someone like Reynaldo López follows him up.

I don’t love this idea, but it makes sense, as you keep Kopech as a starter and slowly work him into things — kind of like an extended spring training.

3) Use him in the bullpen

Kopech could move to the bullpen in 2020 and be deployed as a multi-inning guy to help limit his innings.

I don’t love the idea of moving Kopech to the bullpen, but it might be the best way to utilize him effectively and limit his innings. But it may hamper his development as a starter and throws him out of rhythm not knowing when he’ll pitch.

At the same time, having someone coming out of the bullpen who can regularly hit 100 mph in short stints with a nasty breaking ball is quite deadly.

4) Lastly, you could start him in the minors and let him build his strength up there 

This is my least favorite option, but it also makes sense to let him get his feet wet again in the minors before throwing him into the fire. This also fits a model of service-time gaming that most MLB teams employ these days.

The downside? If Kopech looks great in spring training, fans will be pretty upset if he’s wasting those bullets at Triple-A.


As someone who is also an Atlanta fan, the Braves faced a similar situation in 2012 with Kris Medlen.

Medlen had basically missed the entire 2011 season after having Tommy John surgery, so the Braves used him in the bullpen to start the season. Medlen made 38 appearances as a reliever that season with a 2.48 ERA in 54 ⅓ innings with 36 strikeouts (he wasn’t nearly the power pitcher Kopech is).

And then in the second half, the Braves moved Medlen into the starting rotation and he went on one of the greatest stretches in the history of baseball, posting a 0.97 ERA in 83 ⅔ innings (12 starts) with 84 strikeouts.

Overall that season, Medlen had a 1.57 ERA in 138 innings with 120 strikeouts appearing in a total of 50 games.

I’m not saying Kopech will have that same type of success, but I remember how huge it was for the Braves that year, as they went on to win 94 games. Kopech could be that same type of weapon for the White Sox this season — depending on how he handles a bullpen role.

Something to keep in mind in this example is that Medlen had 175 ⅓ big league innings under his belt already, while Kopech only has 14 ⅓ . But with the White Sox already having five solid options in the starting rotation to start the season, there is no reason to rush Kopech in there.

The best plan is to let Kopech work out of the bullpen in the first half, and then move him into the rotation in the second half (or when the need arises) to help limit his innings and get the most out of him.

As far as what to expect from Kopech in 2020, I would expect to see someone who looks completely dominant one outing and can’t find the zone the next. We all know command is the last thing to return post-Tommy John surgery. Kopech is going to have outings his year when he just can’t locate his pitches.

But for the most part, especially as a reliever, he has enough dominant stuff to get by and be an effective pitcher for the White Sox. And if everything goes well, Kopech has the ability to transform this season for Chicago and help lead them to the postseason, like Medlen did for the Braves.

Just like we all envisioned when that trade was made in 2016.

 

 

 

Kopech throws 100, but Sox offense lags behind

Good news first: Michael Kopech dropped some jaws with a high-octane first inning; it was downhill from there for the White Sox. (@CST_soxvan)


Michael Kopech got on the mound and quickly showed that he is back. Not just, “Hey, it’s my first game of competitive ball since 2018!” No. Kopech is BACK back, and tweets are a little better at describing the the pure joy of having the righthander back.

That … was … ELECTRIC! Kopech only went one inning, which is a good approach as he is coming off of Tommy John surgery. Odds are he will be in Chicago after the first month of the season, and maybe that estimate even pushes back until June. Whatever the case is, hitting 100 mph multiple times is the best news the Sox have had this spring training.

However, that was just the top of the first inning, so there was a lot more game to go. Let’s put it this way: The excitement went away pretty quickly.

Maybe Drew Anderson was busy fawning over Kopech like everyone else, but he came into the game and did not do well out of the gate. Drew was all over the place, allowed three hits and walked two in his first inning on the bump, although Tim Anderson did not help any, with his third error of the spring. Drew’s second inning was much better, but he was finally lifted for Carson Fulmer in the fourth after allowing his fourth run. Really the only positive during Anderson’s outing was that Yasmani Grandal added another spring hit to his tally.

Quite frankly, depending on injuries and how well Andrew Vaughn continues to do when the games matter in the minors, today’s lineup looked like an August or September down-the-stretch lineup (maybe sans Adam Engel, but he was hitting ninth so it still fits).

But, more excitingly, back to Kopech.

Back to Yasmani Grandal:

Man, Grandal can do anything — what a fantastic signing. There are no holes in his game.

Now, back to Fulmer:

This game did not have a lot of positives, but Fulmer was one. Almost his entire spring has been great, and even that breaking ball on the Grandal caught-stealing had pretty good late movement. Even though Fulmer was pretty bad last season, he showed clear signs of improvement on just about everything. Obviously, it is very early to say the former first round pick is finally looking like it, but Fulmer has been very impressive. He now has a 1.86 ERA so far this spring.

Other than Kopech and Fulmer, no other pitcher really did well today. Codi Heuer finally looked like a minor leaguer, and Kodi Medeiros allowed the ninth and final run to the Rangers.

As for the offense, it finally added some runs — once the bench guys came in. There were not fireworks with these runs, they were not because of big hits, but runs are runs. Gavin Sheets finally broke the Sox out of the goose egg with a sac fly in the eighth inning. Zack Collins added the second and final run for the Sox with a single. With that, Collins is now hitting .333 and has an OPS of 1.261. So, while Yermín Mercedes is getting headlines (including from myself), Collins is still doing well enough to hold him off for the Opening Day roster at this point.

Sure, the Sox lost, but the best news of the day was that Kopech stole the show.


If you want some back-field work, James Fegan has you covered with some young guys.

AL Central Big 3: The intangibles

Hammer down: Ricky Renteria, seen here with batting champ Tm Anderson, is looking for some team hardware of his own in 2020. (@WhiteSox)


It’s been quite the interesting offseason in the AL Central.

The White Sox have added a number of solid veterans to its young core, while also granting extensions for veteran slugger José Abreu and phenom outfielder Luis Robert. The Twins added Josh Donaldson to its already potent offense while adding rotation depth in the forms of Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill. Cleveland, in the meantime, has basically maintained their status quo with the exception of trading pricey hurler Corey Kluber for reliever Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields Jr. as they hope to maintain their success by simply staying healthy.

Of course, based on last season, there’s quite a bit of separation among the three teams: The Twins are coming off a 101-61 season, Cleveland a 93-69 record, and the White Sox a 72-89 mark. But as there should unquestionably be some better bunching at the top this season (PECOTA projects 93, 86 and 82 wins, respectively), we’re ramping up to the start of Cactus League play with three looks at the Big 3 ball clubs, on offense, pitching and intangibles. 

This final piece will be less data-based and more analytical, as looking into the intangibles that could affect each team’s attempt at a division title.


Minnesota Twins

The Twins, after adding numerous pieces to a team that finished 78-84 in 2018, soared all the way to 101-61 last year. Many teams, after such an improvement, level off the following year in part because it took a bevy of career years to reach those unexpected heights.

Just ask the Chicago Bears. Remember them? The Bears, after undergoing a coaching change and seemingly adding to every position after a difficult 5-11 season in 2017, skyrocketed to 12-4 in 2018 before falling to 8-8 last year. While there are some similarities between the Twins and those Bears, the Twins likely won’t drop to .500 in 2020. This is in part because there’s no salary cap to hinder the addition of potential stars, and also because of the weakness of the bottom two teams in the AL Central (Kansas City and Detroit). While the Twins didn’t get that premier starter they were looking for via free agency, they did add Kenta Maeda and a couple aging, veteran starters who’ll pick up the slack for Michael Pineda (out due to suspension) and Rich Hill (out due to injury). Did I forget to add that they added slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson to their record-breaking lineup?

While the Twins obtained their vast improvement on the strength of many career years in 2019, the team should still be a force to be reckoned with. For one, they didn’t rest on their laurels, continuing to add more muscle into its lineup. From the moment he was first introduced as the new Twins manager in October 2019, Rocco Baldelli spoke earnestly about his emphasis on building relationships and creating a fun, comfortable clubhouse environment to empower his players, and those elements laid a strong foundation for his collaboration with his staff and team executives as the 38-year-old skipper learned on the job in his first season at the helm. He’s employed a sabermetric approach that did nothing but aid his young offense, and it’s clear that his players love playing for him. Of course, over time, players may eventually take advantage of his good nature — but don’t expect that to happen right away.

What will happen if the Twins find themselves struggling for a divisional title in 2020? The Twins strike me, based upon their acquisitions via trade and free agency, as a team that would certainly consider trading some of their higher-end prospects to fill holes — holes built into their pitching staff, or created by injuries. Royce Lewis, the first pick in the 2017 draft, is just one such player who could be an attractive commodity despite hitting just .236 in Double-A last year; he’s currently ranked ninth by MLB Pipeline among all prospects and is just 20 years old.

While the Twins may have some prospects who’ll contribute to the squad this year (Lewis Thorpe), many won’t be expected to be key contributors for 2020 and could potentially be considered for trade: Alex Kiriloff, Trevor Larnach, Jordan Balazovic and Nick Gordon are just a few of the team’s prized prospects who could help the Twins add key contributors for their playoff run if need be. The Twins have a Top 10 system, and that’s even after the departure of flamethrower Brusdar Graterol. 


Cleveland

Despite a 93-69 season last year which actually eclipsed its division-winning record of 91-71 the year before, Cleveland seems to be entering a period of decline driven by financial concerns. The team has been rock-solid over the past four years, averaging 95 wins and winning three divisional titles and a league pennant. However, Cleveland’s best pitcher during that stretch (Corey Kluber) was dumped off traded to the Texas Rangers for a reliever and a backup outfielder, and more such miserly moves seem inevitable.

But even though Cleveland may be at the beginning stages of a decline, that doesn’t mean it should be disregarded as a divisional competitor. In fact, they still have the best pitching staff in the division while possessing several outstanding bats including Francisco Lindor, José Ramírez, Carlos Santana and Franmil Reyes. If everything goes well for this team, they could easily put together another 90-win season.     

The team is managed by two-time AL Manager of the Year Terry Francona, who has won an impressive 1,667 games during his 19-year tenure with the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox and Indians. He’s won three pennants and two World Series titles during that span, and it would have been three championships if he hadn’t discovered a way to over-manage the over-managing Joe Maddon in 2016. Francona’s always found ways to win with above-average talent, and players generally enjoy playing for him. It’s difficult to find managers with a more impressive track record. 

But Cleveland does appear to be on the beginning stages of decline, not unlike what the Cubs endured last year. It’s not to say the team is bad — the Tribe still has numerous offensive and pitching weapons at their disposal, along with a venerable manager. Trade rumors regarding Lindor dominated the headlines this offseason, but none came to fruition. Expect those rumors to multiply for Lindor, as well as Carlos Santana and Ramírez, if the Indians get off to a disappointing start. Sometimes, those rumors take a life of their own and distract the players to perform at less-than-optimal values. Fortunately for Cleveland, Francona should be able to help the team avoid such distractions.

The Indians, unlike the Twins, seem unlikely to add significant talent if the team needs additional help at the trade deadline. Aside from the acquisitions of second baseman Cesar Hernandez and Domingo Santana, Cleveland really didn’t add to their team (OK, Emmanuel Clase came via the Kluber trade). There is some talent in the pipeline available for trade, such as third baseman Nolan Jones and Triston McKenzie, in addition to recent draft choices like Daniel Espino, Ethan Hankins and Bo Naylor. However, with Cleveland crying poor, it would be counterintuitive to swap away cheaper young talent in a postseason push.   


Chicago White Sox

The White Sox, as most fans know, have undergone an 11-year playoff drought since last appearing in the postseason in 2008. Now, after a massive rebuild which began in 2016 with the trades of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, the team now appears to be on the precipice of long-term pennant contention. Youth, and productive youth at that, seems ready to blossom in 2020. Thanks to recent free-agent acquisitions such as Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Gio González and Edwin Encarnación, the team has now added veteran leadership to a young core of Eloy Jiménez, Yoán Moncada, Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease. If this young team can gel at the same time, it could easily contend for the divisional title; if not, there should still be enough talent to succeed in 2021 and beyond.

Ricky Renteria, with a career record of 274-373, has by far the worst winning percentage among these three managers. To be fair, he’s really only been given rebuilding teams to work with. Renteria, because of his coaching style that his players enjoy, seems up to the task in perhaps his most pressure-packed role to date. He’s always been considered the type of manager who could take his team from Point A to Point B thanks to his teaching abilities and patience; however, as highlighted by the Cubs’ willingness to fire him in favor of Joe Maddon, he’s been perceived as a manager who isn’t suited for taking a squad from Point B to Point C. While Renteria’s willingness to bunt has been well publicized, it will be extremely interesting to see how he manages a team with such a unique combination of youngsters and seasoned veterans. If he somehow steers this team to a divisional title he could easily be Manager of the Year. If the team struggles to even attain .500, however, questions will only increase regarding his ability to make a good team better.

The White Sox also may be willing to strike a trade to improve their team during their trade deadline by swapping minor leaguers, but there’s a catch. Three of their top four prospects (Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and Michael Kopech) will likely be key contributors in the majors by the deadline, which means that all the White Sox will be able to offer are Andrew Vaughn, Jonathan Stiever, players who struggled in Double-A last year, and players who missed much time due to significant injuries in 2019. If most of these players rebound and post great starts to 2020, the White Sox would indeed have the talent to offer in a megadeal to improve the team at the major league level.

One more caveat: it’s certainly possible that the team doesn’t relinquish much prospect capital at the trade deadline, for the reason being that the White Sox window of contention really doesn’t fly open until 2021. It certainly would be interesting to see what this team would do if dealt the “dilemma” of division title contention one year early!


              

 

     

AL Central Big 3: The pitching

Leading man: The White Sox will need Giolito to be on his A-game, while also needing improvements from its young nucleus of starters, in order to contend for this year’s division title. (@LGio27) 


It’s been quite the interesting offseason in the AL Central.

The White Sox have added a number of solid veterans to its young core, while also granting extensions for veteran slugger José Abreu and phenom outfielder Luis Robert. The Twins added Josh Donaldson to its already potent offense while adding rotation depth in the forms of Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey and Rich Hill. Cleveland, in the meantime, has basically maintained their status quo with the exception of trading pricey hurler Corey Kluber for reliever Emmanuel Clase and Delino DeShields Jr. as they hope to maintain their success by simply staying healthy.

Of course, based on last season, there’s quite a bit of separation among the three teams: The Twins are coming off a 101-61 season, Cleveland a 93-69 record, and the White Sox a 72-89 mark. But as there should unquestionably be some better bunching at the top this season (PECOTA projects 93, 86 and 82 wins, respectively), we’re ramping up to the start of Cactus League play with three looks at the Big 3 ball clubs, on offense, pitching and intangibles. 

Projected 2020 stats are per Steamer, and players’ ages listed in parentheses are as of Opening Day.


Minnesota Twins

Starting Rotation
José Berrios (R) 4.48 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 198 IP, 2.71 BB/9, 8.63 K/9, 3.0 fWAR
Jake Odorizzi (R) 4.59 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 172 IP, 3.19 BB/9, 9.36 K/9, 2.3 fWAR
Kenta Maeda (R) 4.66 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 154 IP, 3.23 BB/9, 9.09 K/9, 1.9 fWAR

Homer Bailey (R) 5.02 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 153 IP, 2.92 BB/9, 7.21 K/9, 1.4 fWAR
Randy Dobnak (R) 5.03 ERA, 1.43 WHIP,   90 IP, 2.72 BB/9, 5.50 K/9, 0.7 fWAR

Injured or Suspended Starters
Michael Piñeda (R) 4.63 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 129 IP, 2.22 BB/9, 8.22 K/9, 1.7 fWAR
Rich Hill (L) 4.42 ERA, 1.29 WHIP,   88 IP, 3.25 BB/9, 9.41 K/9, 1.2 fWAR

Aggregate Rotation Numbers: 4.60 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 2.77 BB/9, 7.95 K/9, 12.2 fWAR

Bullpen
Taylor Rogers (L) 3.44 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 65 IP, 2.64 BB/9, 10.65 K/9, 0.9 fWAR
Sergio Romo (R) 4.94 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 67 IP, 3.00 BB/9,   8.35 K/9, 0.1 fWAR
Trevor May (R) 4.13 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 60 IP, 3.65 BB/9, 10.65 K/9, 0.5 fWAR
Tyler Duffey (R) 3.81 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 65 IP, 2.63 BB/9, 10.09 K/9, 0.8 fWAR
Tyler Clippard (R) 4.99 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 55 IP, 3.35 BB/9,   9.13 K/9, 0.0 fWAR
Zack Littell (R) 4.37 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 45 IP, 3.22 BB/9,   8.79 K/9,  0.3 fWAR
Cody Stashak (R) 4.68 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 40 IP, 2.53 BB/9,   8.82 K/9,  0.1 fWAR
Matt Wisler (R) 4.63 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 20 IP, 2.40 BB/9,   8.34 K/9,  0.1 fWAR

Aggregate Relief Numbers: 4.30 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 3.06 BB/9, 9.50 K/9, 2.8 fWAR

Total Twins Pitching: 4.51 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 2.86 BB/9, 8.43 K /9, 15.0 fWAR   

Certainly, some regression was expected for the Twins on the offensive side, but Steamer is anticipating regression for many Twins pitchers as well — especially in regards to top starters Berrios and Odorizzi. Regression is also expected for new acquisition Maeda, who is leaving the friendly pitching confines of Dodger Stadium. Piñeda won’t return from his league-mandated suspension until mid-May, while Hill won’t return from his offseason surgery until sometime around the All-Star break. In the meantime, a three-way battle will exist for the final spot between Dobnak, Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe. While the Twins bullpen doesn’t feature many big names, it does a competent job by posting impressive strikeout totals and keeping walks down. Aside from their closer, the Twins have no southpaws in the bullpen unless they decide to move Smeltzer there at some point. All Minnesota’s pitching has to do is keep the team in the game, as its offense should be exciting enough (even with the expected regression) to score five runs per game.     


Cleveland

Starting Rotation
Shane Bieber (R) 3.66 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 198 IP, 1.80 BB/9, 9.74 K/9, 4.6 fWAR
Carlos Carrasco (R) 3.80 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 173 IP, 2.19 BB/9,  9.86 K/9, 3.5 fWAR
Aaron Civale (R) 4.81 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 148 IP, 2.31 BB/9, 7.06 K/9, 1.4 fWAR
Zach Plesac (R) 5.07 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 119 IP, 2.91 BB/9, 7.37 K/9, 0.7 fWAR
Logan Allen (L) 4.90 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 101 IP, 3.82 BB/9, 7.80 K/9, 0.5 fWAR

Injured Starters
Mike Clevinger (R) 3.65 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 197 IP, 3.05 BB/9, 10.87 K/9, 3.6 fWAR 

Aggregate Rotation Numbers: 4.18 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 2.58 BB/9, 9.07 K/9, 14.3 fWAR  

Bullpen
Brad Hand (L) 3.68 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 65 IP, 3.23 BB/9, 11.10 K/9, 0.7 fWAR
Nick Wittgren (R) 4.49 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 65 IP, 3.03 BB/9,  8.66 K/9, 0.1 fWAR

Emmanuel Clase (R) 3.78 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 55 IP, 3.39 BB/9,  9.57 K/9, 0.5 fWAR
Oliver Perez (L) 4.06 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 68 IP, 3.14 BB/9,  9.73 K/9, 0.3 fWAR 
Adam Cimber (R) 4.54 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 60 IP, 2.90 BB/9,  6.67 K/9, 0.0 fWAR
Hunter Wood (R) 4.44 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 35 IP, 3.11 BB/9,  8.93 K/9, 0.1 fWAR
James Karinchak (R) 3.58 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 40 IP, 4.79 BB/9, 12.60 K/9, 0.4 fWAR
Adam Plutko (R) 5.20 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 48 IP, 2.37 BB/9,   7.71 K/9, -0.1 fWAR

Aggregate Relief Numbers: 4.18 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 3.20 BB/9, 9.33 K/9, 2.0 fWAR

Total Cleveland Pitching: 4.18 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 2.80 BB/9, 9.15 K/9, 16.4 fWAR

The top three in Cleveland’s rotation (including Clevinger) is among the best trio of starters in the league, while the bullpen features four guys who strike out more than a man per inning. For obvious reasons, losing Clevinger for any significant period of time will hurt the Indians in the divisional chase; it’s not expected that he’d miss more than three or four weeks to begin the season. In the meantime, the fourth and fifth spots are potentially vulnerable due to limited experience in the majors. If one of Civale or Plesac should struggle, don’t be too surprised to see Plutko inserted into the rotation while James Hoyt gets promoted from Triple-A to fill his spot. Cleveland also has several minor leaguers (including Triston McKenzie) who can help the team if needed, and they have the best rotational depth in the division overall.


Chicago White Sox

Starting Rotation
Lucas Giolito (R) 4.26 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 191 IP, 3.44 BB/9, 10.31 K/9, 3.2 fWAR
Dallas Keuchel (L) 4.38 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 197 IP, 3.00 BB/9,   6.85 K/9, 2.4 fWAR
Reynaldo López (R) 4.96 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 159 IP, 3.18 BB/9,   8.27 K/9, 1.5 fWAR
Dylan Cease (R) 4.52 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 108 IP, 4.17 BB/9,   9.54 K/9, 1.4 fWAR
Gio González (L) 4.89 ERA, 1.47 WHIP,  133 IP, 3.81 BB/9,  7.72 K/9, 1.1 fWAR

Injured Starters
Michael Kopech (R) 4.78 ERA, 1.39 WHIP,   91 IP, 4.29 BB/9, 10.25 K/9, 0.9 fWAR
Carlos Rodón (L) 4.73 ERA, 1.38 WHIP,  37 IP, 3.66 BB/9,   8.65 K/9,  0.4 fWAR

Aggregate Rotation Numbers: 4.59 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 3.53 BB/9, 8.68 K/9, 10.9 fWAR  

Bullpen
Alex Colomé (R) 4.33 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 63 IP, 3.23 BB/9,   9.08 K/9, 0.3 fWAR
Aaron Bummer (L) 3.74 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 65 IP, 3.72 BB/9,   9.33 K/9, 0.7 fWAR
Steve Cishek (R) 4.71 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 65 IP, 3.77 BB/9,    8.63 K/9,  0.0 fWAR
Evan Marshall (R) 4.43 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 60 IP. 3.60 BB/9,   8.18 K/9, 0.2 fWAR
Kelvin Herrera (R) 4.51 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 50 IP, 3.04 BB/9,   8.97 K/9, 0.3 fWAR
Jace Fry (L) 3.86 ERA, 1,38 WHIP, 67 IP, 4.71 BB/9, 10.47 K/9, 0.4 fWAR
Jimmy Cordero (R) 4.40 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 35 IP, 4.36 BB/9,   8.56 K/9, 0.1 fWAR
Carson Fulmer (R) 5.08 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 25 IP, 4.89 BB/9,   9.24 K/9, -0.1 fWAR

Aggregate Relief Numbers: 4.31 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 3.81 BB/9, 9.10 K/9, 1.9 fWAR

Total White Sox Numbers: 4.50 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 3.62 BB/9, 8.81 K/9, 12.8 fWAR

It certainly doesn’t appear that Steamer did the White Sox pitchers many favors with its projections. One can see that Cease and López are expected to gain some improvement in the rotation, but the rest of the rotation is projected to struggle. To be fair, Giolito’s projections are at least closer to his 2019 numbers than to his disastrous 2018. Also, it is incredibly difficult to project rotational pieces who have shown little consistency from year to year. Keuchel and González, unsurprisingly, are expected to decline as they’re both into their 30s. There’s also a chance that Kopech begins the year in the rotation, with González perhaps to be the designated long man after each of his starts. As for the bullpen, the only pitchers expected for improvement (albeit moderate) are Herrera, Fry and Fulmer. It’s interesting to see their projections for Cishek fall to such a degree, but that’s why they play the game. If everyone reaches the ceiling, the White Sox could easily pass the Indians in fWAR by year’s end; however, the likelihood that all cylinders run with perfect profusion, especially for such a young staff, is quite minimal indeed. Fulmer’s listed as the last guy in the pen, if for no other reason that he has no options left; there likely will be heavy competition for this final spot from among Ian Hamilton, José Ruiz, Jacob Lindgren and many others.


When looking at the rotation stats, Cleveland has a clear advantage thanks to its big three of Clevinger, Bieber and Carrasco. The White Sox and Twins rotations are actually quite even, as both teams have solid top-twos but question marks afterward. There’s not much separation among these three teams in the bullpen, but Cleveland appears to have a slight edge on both the White Sox and Twins. If the White Sox staff can avoid free passes, which Steamer doesn’t think it can, the White Sox should definitely beat their overall projections.   

These aggregate fWAR totals for each team are only based upon each team’s projected Opening Day rosters (plus contributions of those either on the injured or suspended lists), so they don’t include contributions from those expected to begin the season in the minors. Combined with the offensive fWAR numbers published yesterday, the Twins have the best preseason projections among its 26-man roster (44.3 fWAR); Cleveland falls second at 38.7, while the Sox are a close third at 36.9.

This doesn’t man the White Sox should simply give up the season; it just means expectations should be tempered just a bit. It truly appears that the White Sox offense should be just fine; however, the team will only go so far as its pitching this year. A lot may also depend upon the health of these three teams as to who’ll go the furthest. While each will be hoping and anticipating great starts, it’s perhaps most imperative for the Tribe because  a rocky beginning to 2020 could impel the team to rebuild instead of contend. Fortunately for everyone, games aren’t played on paper and/or projections, but are played on the diamond. It should be an exciting an and compelling 2020 campaign!


 

State of the White Sox bullpen as the Winter Meetings approach

Tag sale: The White Sox to take on Wade Davis’ salary, they likely can pick up a former elite closer for free. (YouTube)


With the news that Marcell Ozuna could be signing with the White Sox on Monday, it certainly looks as if the team has a chance to compete for a playoff spot in 2020. Adding Ozuna and Yasmani Grandal, along with the possibility of adding a couple of starting pitchers makes adding bullpen help a priority for the Sox this offseason.

While the 2019 edition of a bullpen wasn’t bad for the Sox, they lacked an ability to miss bats on a regular basis. Alex Colomé and Aaron Bummer were the back end options for the Sox in 2019, and while they were good, both of them pitch to contact and don’t pile up Ks. They both could be due for regression in 2020.

The Sox have a couple of other pieces on the roster that could be good options in 2020, such as Jimmy Cordero, Evan Marshall, and bounce-back candidates Kelvin Herrera and Jace Fry, but none of them beyond Herrera have track records as dominant bullpen pieces on a yearly basis in the bigs. Putting too much trust into those pieces without adding some outside help with upside could prove costly for the 2020 team.


Free agents

The free agent bullpeners who had the best years in 2019 look to be a bit redundant given what the Sox currently have in house. Will Harris (9.30K/9), Sergio Romo (8.95K/9), Sam Dyson (7.94K/9), Daniel Hudson (8.75K/9), and Brandon Kintzler (7.58K/9) are good pitchers, but might not be the smartest options for the Sox in free agency, at least as a main option. When the Sox are in late-inning, close-game situations, they need have guys that can get big strikeouts.

The most intriguing and talented option is Dellin Betances. Dellin has a big arm, is still young, and could be the perfect fit for the White Sox. Betances has a career 12.36 K/9, and from 2014-18 was absolutely dominant, posting a 1.40 ERA/1.64 FIP in 2014, 1.50 ERA/2.48 FIP in 2015, 3.08 ERA/1.78 FIP in 2016, 2.87 ERA/3.22 FIP in 2017, and 2.70 ERA/2.47 FIP in 2018. The problem? After dealing with shoulder and lat injuries that cost him most of 2019, Betances came back in September 2019 and promptly tore his Achilles after getting two outs. It was said to be a partial tear, and as far as Achilles injuries go, it shouldn’t be too serious of a recovery. But Jake Burger’s Achilles debacle was tough for the organization to swallow, so it may be hesitant to sign someone coming off of that type of injury. The injury also could present the Sox an opportunity to land an elite reliever at a non-elite price, which might be a chance they’re willing to take.


Minor league options

The White Sox do have some intriguing options in their system as it stands. Zack Burdi was taken after Zack Collins in the 2016 draft because of his huge arm. He elevated quickly through the system, and seemed primed for a chance to pitch in the bigs in 2017, before he tore his UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery. Burdi has had bumps in the road trying to come back from elbow surgery. He had a tough time regaining his big velocity, and tore his right patella tendon in June 2019. While Burdi has some work to do to prove he deserves to be with the big club in 2020, if he’s healthy and regains that big velocity, he has a chance to be a good one.

Tyler Johnson was another relief prospect who was elevating quickly through the system before a knee injury sidelined him for the first few months of 2019. Tyler finished last year with Birmingham, and had pretty good success. He has the ability to miss bats with his big fastball and good slider, and could be a midseason call-up candidate.

Ian Hamilton was another pitcher who was on the rise before injuries really hurt his status. He was dominating in hitter-friendly Charlotte in 2018 before he got a call-up. He didn’t have much initial success with the big club, but looked like 2019 was going to be a chance for him to shine. But freak injuries derailed his 2019, first with a car accident in spring training, then being struck with a line drive in the head after he made it back to action. Before the bad luck, Hamilton was impressing with a big fastball, and a pretty good slider. Maybe 2020 will be a bit kinder.

Zach Thompson is the other reliever who seems to have a chance. The big righthander was dominant in Birmingham to start the 2019 season, but hit a snag when he got to Charlotte. The hitter’s park and juiced baseball really hurt Thompson, as he gave up 14 homers in 75 ⅔ innings. The Sox converted Thompson to relief in 2018, and he dominated from the moment the change was made … until Charlotte. If Thompson proves he can make the adjustment in Charlotte at the beginning of 2019, a trip to Bridgeport could be in the works.


Trades

If the Sox are looking to trade for a relief pitcher, they would be looking at teams that probably aren’t looking to compete in 2020. If they want to find bullpen help, a trade might be the best route.

Elite Options include Josh Hader (2.62 ERA/3.10 FIP, 16.41 K/9), Liam Hendricks (1.63 ERA/1.82 FIP, 13.23 K/9), Brandon Workman 1.88 ERA/2.46 FIP, 13.06 K/9) and Ken Giles (1.87 ERA/2.27 FIP, 14.09 K/9). If the Sox decide to go this route, it will be costly in prospect capital. Of these pitchers, Hader would probably be the most costly because of age and contract status. A trade for Hader would probably cost the Sox their best prospect not named Luis Robert, and thus wouldn’t make sense. The other elites could possibly be obtained for a package centering around a tier-2 prospect like Dane Dunning or Jonathan Stiever. These types of deals would be more realistic at midseason, as the Sox would probably want to confirm that the team is competing before giving up real prospect capital in exchange for a relief pitcher.

Buy-low candidates are the type of guys who would make the most sense in the offseason. They fit the track record of the types of moves that the Sox front office likes to make as well. Andrew Miller (4.45 ERA/5.19 FIP, 11.52 K/9) and Wade Davis (8.65 ERA/5.56 FIP, 8.86 K/9) would be interesting options. Miller has been trending downward for the last couple of years, and has a lot of miles on his arm. Plus the Cardinals are a team with playoff aspirations. I wonder if they would welcome the salary relief, along with an interesting prospect in return like Luis Gonzalez or Blake Rutherford. Wade Davis’ second year with the Rockies was a miserable one, after signing a big contract in 2018. All of his numbers are down, and age could be catching up with him. But 2019 was a weird year: The ball was juiced, Denver is juiced, and there was some time on the IL for Davis as well. Two years ago with the Cubs, Davis was a much different pitcher (2.30 ERA/3.38 FIP, 12.12 K/9). Maybe getting out of the thin air would be just what the doctor ordered for Davis and the Sox. It wouldn’t take much to get Davis if the Sox offered to take on most of the contract.

Starter to reliever options would entail, for example, the Sox deciding to use Michael Kopech as a relief pitcher as he recovers from Tommy John. The Sox have a track record of using young starters in the bullpen before they start full-time, and Kopech could be a big weapon in a late-inning role. Reynoldo López would be another candidate to move to the bullpen. He has a big fastball, but has had trouble developing his secondary pitches. A move to the bullpen might allow López to focus on developing just one plus secondary pitch, as opposed to worrying about developing multiple secondaries. Plus López struggled with his concentration at times in 2019, so maybe one inning per outing would be a better option. Carlos Rodón also could be a bullpen option whenever he’s able to come back from his arm injury; another lefty in the pen is always good, and with Rodón’s injury history, a change in roles could be in the works.

 

Early moves close the book on the rebuild — it’s time to start winning!

It’s a Yaz! So far, White Sox fans are seeing less of the labor and more of the baby this offseason. (YouTube)


At this time last year, the White Sox were embarking on a seemingly endless journey in pursuit of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The club had a minimal payroll heading into the 2018 offseason, and seemed like they were in a good position to land one of the big fish. Even though the team wasn’t completely ready to start winning and they still had to work on the development of some of their own key players, Rick Hahn and Co. knew this was an opportunity that they couldn’t pass up.

With Harper and Machado having a smaller market due to their steep price tag, the White Sox were aggressive in their pursuits early as they tried to sell both players on the future of the ballclub, and how they would have a great opportunity to win consistently on the South Side. Unfortunately, we all know how this story ends, as the White Sox came up completely empty. It was yet another offseason where the White Sox were actively engaging with the big free agents, but swung and missed, leaving a lot of fans in doubt about the team’s future.

Sure, the White Sox do have talent in the farm system. However, it’s almost impossible to win on homegrown talent alone. Teams need to be able to supplement what they already have with players from outside of the organization, whether to fill holes, bring over veterans to guide younger players, or make the most of an opportunity to sign/trade for a player who once might’ve looked like a longshot. There are many reasons why free agency and trades are important, and after last offseason’s shutout it started to feel like the White Sox were running out of time to strike and make an impact move.

Fast forward to this offseason, where the White Sox once again found their name in the rumors surrounding almost all of the top free agents available. There was a little more skepticism from fans this time around, and rightfully so, as they didn’t want to get their hopes up again in what could be another failure of an offseason. Hahn acknowledged the frustration, and knew this offseason was important when he addressed the media at the GM Meetings earlier this month:

And he was right. White Sox fans are tired of “having a seat at the table” as Hahn likes to say, and want the front office to start making things happen. Being in the mix for top tier free agents and coming up empty is an exhausting practice, especially for a fan base that is starving for a winning team. At the conclusion of the 2019 season, the team was trending upwards, in large part due to the developments of core players, the arrival of Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease, and with Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal on the way shortly. In addition to that, the team would be getting Michael Kopech and Carlos Rodón back for the upcoming season as well.

With all the positive developments that came from last season, the White Sox still needed a few dominoes to fall, and had to make something happen this winter in order to start putting out a product that could win consistently. The team still has quite a few holes to fill with starting pitching, left-handed hitting, and right field being the most notable. This free agent class was littered with plenty of names that could fill those gaps and instantly be an upgrade, and it was time for the White Sox to, in Hahn’s parlance, show us the baby.

It didn’t take long for the organization to show they were serious about winning this offseason, as they came out of the gates quickly and inked Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million deal that gave the catcher the largest contract in the history of the franchise.

Grandal checks off a lot of boxes for the White Sox. He’s a switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate, gets on base frequently, and is one of the best defensive backstops in the game. This is that type of immediate-impact signing that will benefit the club and pitching staff in many ways. Everything Grandal brings to the table makes him the complete package, and his name was up there as one of the best available free agents. The White Sox were able to get the deal done and outbid the rest of his suitors, which is a result that isn’t common on the South Side.

After a painfully long 2018 offseason, it was beyond refreshing to see the White Sox get a deal of that significance done early in the process. It also goes to show that Hahn and Co. are ready to get down to business this year. Not to mention, having Grandal as a member of the team now makes the White Sox a more attractive destination for other free agents, especially pitchers. He’s a highly-respected catcher throughout baseball, and just about anyone would benefit from working with him full-time. His elite framing ability is going to get the most out of the pitchers he works with, as he’s sure to get them a ton of extra strikes during his time in Chicago.

One free agent pitcher that the White Sox have been linked to this offseason is Zack Wheeler, one of the most prized pitching targets this winter. Members from the Mets media and other Mets outlets started mentioning the White Sox as serious suitors for Wheeler. Danny Abriano of SNY even went as far to say that the White Sox were among the “leading group” of teams bidding for Wheeler’s services. This news dropped just days before the Grandal signing became official, so Hahn was working on signing not just one significant free agent right away, but two.

Hahn could’ve sat around and celebrated the first big signing, but instead immediately went right back to work, focused on making the White Sox a winning team, and making them a winning team now. There hasn’t been much movement on the Wheeler front since those initial tidbits of information dropped, but at least the club has identified what would be another major upgrade — and they wouldn’t have to spend $200 million or more for that upgrade, as they would have last year. Sure, Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg would both be incredible additions, but those two are likely going to be out of price range. It would be wise to allocate the money among multiple players, as opposed to sinking most of it into one arm. Wheeler is in a tier slightly below Cole and Strasburg, but he has the potential to be a very good pitcher for a long time — and at half the price.

In addition to that, the White Sox outrighted Yolmer Sánchez and signed José Abreu to a three-year, $50 million dollar contract. The Abreu deal didn’t make much sense at the time, especially considering the fact that he recently accepted the qualifying offer. However, with the extension, the White Sox will save money this year and it won’t hamper their ability to continue to sign free agents. Not to mention, Abreu has been around some rough teams during his White Sox career and he deserves some security for the next few years. As far as Yolmer goes, that decision was made primarily because he was due to make $6.2 million in arbitration. Even though he’s fresh off of winning a Gold Glove, defense is about the only value he provides to the team, unless you count being a clubhouse guy/Gatorade showers.

The White Sox could’ve easily been OK with paying Yolmer the $6.2 million, because they still aren’t committed to a high payroll as of now, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they did that. However, with Madrigal being ready to take over second base in the not-so-distant future, it didn’t make sense to pay Yolmer to ride the bench. The team also has Danny Mendick, who can contribute much more offensively than Sánchez, and while he’s not a Gold Glove-caliber defender, he is solid defensively and can play multiple positions. Mendick is a perfect fit to hold it down at second base while Madrigal finishes up his development in Triple-A. Barring any surprise trades or signings, I would expect Mendick to take that job for now.

So what happens next? Well, the White Sox are off to a good start this winter, but their work isn’t even close to being done. Grandal was a great signing, but they still need to add more. We know the White Sox are once again in the mix with a lot of free agents, but this time around it feels a little different. They’ve made some noise early, and it finally seems like the front office is ready to shift their focus towards winning and being more competitive. They’ve already shown the willingness to outbid other teams and set the market for certain players, and hopefully they will continue to do that with their other targets.

The AL Central is the worst division in baseball right now. With a few more moves and the arrival of some of the highly-touted prospects, the White Sox could potentially be in the heat of a divisional race for most of next year. At the very least, there should be significant improvement, and the team might be able to squeeze their way into a wild card spot. A lot would have to go right for the White Sox to be fighting for the playoffs in 2020, but for now, at least the team is closing the book on the rebuild and is ready to start winning.

Deep Dive: Charlotte and Birmingham right-handed starters

Long wait: Michael Kopech should be a key cog in next year’s White Sox starting rotation. (@KopechDad)


“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  5. Free agent options at that position

For all the hand-wringing over lack of majors-ready arms in the upper levels, there are at least a few names here you’ll be seeing on the South Side soon.

All players’ ages listed below are as of April 1, 2020.


Charlotte Knights

Michael Kopech
6´3´´
205 pounds
Age: 23

OK, I’m cheating here! Kopech is actually on the major league roster, but since he still is rookie-eligible he’s listed here instead. Kopech, a native of Mount Pleasant, Texas, enjoyed a terrific prep career, culminating with an 0.44 ERA, 18.14 K/9, and .115 OBA in his senior season. With those results and a fastball already reaching 94 mph, Kopech was unsurprisingly ranked among the top prep prospects entering the 2014 draft. When he fell to the 33rd selection, the Boston Red Sox couldn’t resist choosing him and signing him to a $1.5 million bonus in order to pry him from his verbal commitment to the Arizona Wildcats.

In his first three years in the Red Sox system, Kopech combined to post a 2.60 ERA and 1.20 WHIP while posting 11.49 K/9, 4.60 BB/9, and .201 OBA over a combined 135 innings. Kopech made headlines in Single-A ball when one of his fastballs was clocked at 105 mph.

However, during his Red Sox tenure, he also made the wrong kind of news. On July 15, 2015, he was suspended 50 games for testing positive for oxilofrine, a banned stimulant that was hidden in many dietary supplements sold over the counter. Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse when, in early March 2016, he broke a bone in his pitching hand during an altercation with a teammate. As a result of those two incidents, the most he pitched in the minors in his first three seasons was in 2015, when he pitched just 65 innings.

Perhaps in part due to concerns regarding his maturity, the Red Sox traded Kopech, Yoán Moncada, Luis Basabe, and Victor Diaz to the White Sox on Dec. 6, 2016 for southpaw ace Chris Sale. In 2017 for Birmingham, Kopech maintained a 2.87 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 119 ⅓ innings, allowing just 77 hits (.184 OBA) but 60 walks (4.53 BB/9) while striking out 155 (11.69 K/9). Despite vastly exceeding his combining inning totals from the previous three years, Kopech got better as the season went along; In July and August, Kopech threw 44 ⅓ innings with 26 hits (.166 OBA), 11 walks (2.23 BB/9) and 58 strikeouts (11.77 K/9). As a result, he finished the season with three solid starts in Charlotte.

Struggles, primarily with control, haunted Kopech in 2018 — particularly in May and June. In those two months (totaling 58 ⅓ innings), he allowed 45 hits (.216) while striking out 76 (11.73 K/9); however, he walked a whopping 45 hitters (6.04 BB/9) which gave him an ERA of 5.25 and WHIP of 1.54 for that stretch. However, just like in 2017, Kopech kicked it into overdrive during July and August by ceding just 42 hits and eight walks over 47 innings and fanning 65 — posting a tidy 2.49 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in the process. His control paid dividends, as he finally earned a promotion to Chicago for his first career start, on August 21. Unfortunately, after doing well in three mostly rain-abbreviated starts, Kopech tore his UCL and ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery.

Kopech currently ranks second among White Sox prospects, and 18th overall, according to MLB Pipeline. MLB also grades Kopech as 80-fastball, 65-slider, 50-changeup, and 45-control; what MLB Pipeline doesn’t say is that Kopech was actually getting great results from another pitch — a curveball. The key for Kopech, other than of course staying healthy when he returns in 2020, is to maintain his command while providing a nice speed variance between his fastball and off-speed pitches. If his fastball can return to pre-surgery levels while trusting his secondary offerings and maintaining the command he showed from July to September in 2018, the White Sox will indeed have a perennial Cy Young contender on their hands.

Odrisamer Despaigne
6´0´´
200 pounds
Age: 32

Despaigne, after posting a 61-43 record with a 3.55 ERA and 1.75 K/BB ratio over eight seasons in Cuba before defecting, signed a $1 million pact with San Diego on May 2, 2014 as a 27-year-old. After beginning that season in Double-A San Antonio, he made his MLB debut with the Padres less than two months later. In what’s turned out to be his career year in the majors to date, Despaigne posted a 4-7 record with a 3.36 ERA and 1.22 WHIP over 16 starts. In his six-year career, which has seen him spend more time in the minors than the majors, Despaigne already has pitched for the Padres, Orioles, Marlins, Angels and White Sox with a combined 13-26 record, 5.11 ERA and 1.45 WHIP.

After signing a minor league deal with the White Sox this May after opting out of his contract with the Reds, Despaigne performed quite well for Charlotte, earning a prompt promotion due to the majors. After three disastrous starts spanning 13 1/3 innings for Chicago in June (9.45 ERA, 2.33 WHIP, .407 OBA, 10.3 BB%, 10.3 K%), he was demoted to Charlotte, where he actually finished as that team’s best right-handed starter by season’s end, and by a wide margin. In 16 appearances for the Knights this year (14 starts), Despaigne posted a decent 3.25 ERA and 1.34 WHIP over 83 innings by relinquishing 83 hits (.263 OBA), 28 walks and 84 strikeouts. Considering the weak state of the Knights rotation, combined with the knowledge that southpaw Bernardo Flores may be the only lock for promotion from Birmingham to begin the season due to injuries in the system, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Sox ink Despaigne to another minor league pact for 2020.

Donn Roach
6´0´´
195 pounds
Age: 30

Roach began his college career with the University of Arizona, but transferred to the College of Southern Nevada to be closer to home. After excelling during his sophomore season, Roach was selected in the third round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Angels. After spending parts of three years in the Angels organization, Roach was traded to the Padres, where he eventually made his MLB debut in 2014. Over the years, he’s pitched for a myriad of organizations, including the Cubs and Mariners (for whom he also pitched briefly in the majors). In 21 games spanning 39 innings at the highest level, Roach has posted a 5.77 ERA and 1.77 WHIP by allowing 51 hits and 18 walks while fanning 20.

The White Sox signed Roach to a minor league pact in 2018 and he pitched quite well for the Charlotte Knights, earning a spot on the Triple-A All-Star team with a 2.65 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. In 16 outings spanning 95 innings, he relinquished just 95 hits (.262 OBA) and 21 walks (5.4%) while striking out 61 (15.6%). He then asked for his release in order to play professional ball in Japan.

Roach returned to the Knights this year, but with far worse results. In 18 appearances totaling 79 1/3 injury-marred innings, he surrendered 127 hits (.362 OBA) and 26 walks (6.8%) while fanning 53 (13.9). His results likely suffered not just to injuries but thanks to the live (MLB) baseball as well. It’s a shame for Roach that he didn’t have the 2018 season this year, because he likely would have found a spot in the back of the White Sox rotation. As it is, Roach can only hope he’ll have another opportunity to pitch for Chicago next year.

Spencer Adams
6´3´´
171 pounds
Age: 23

After a spectacular senior season for his varsity baseball team in the Atlanta area, the White Sox happily pounced on Adams with their second round selection in the 2014 draft. After a terrific season for the AZL Sox that year, in which he struck out 59 batters while walking just four in 41 2/3 innings, it certainly looked like the sky was the limit for Adams.

Adams continued to post solid numbers with every new stop in the organization, but his stuff seemed to back up as his strikeout rates continued to plummet. In 2017 for the Birmingham Barons, he posted a 4.42 ERA and 1.38 WHIP over 152 2/3 innings by relinquishing 171 hits (.281 OBA) and 40 walks (6.1%) while fanning just 113 (17.2%). He again posted decent overall numbers with Birmingham and Charlotte for 2018, but with concerning peripherals: 3.79 ERA and 1.38 WHIP over 159 innings allowing 162 hits (.267 OBA) and 58 walks (8.6%) while fanning 95 (14.2%).

Adams’ 2019 just never got off the ground, due to a combination of ineffectiveness and injuries. Of course, the injuries caused many of the issues, but a combination of a lack of overpowering stuff and the live Triple-A ball didn’t help matters any. In five games (three starts, with his last outing on April 28), Adams posted an 8.00 ERA and 2.39 ERA over 18 innings as he allowed 35 hits (.412 OBA) and an unusually high eight walks (8.3%) with 10 strikeouts (10.4%). A back injury is what finished Adams’ season prematurely, and it’s hoped that he could return to Charlotte in 2020.

Adams, who was a former Top 10 prospect in the White Sox organization, did have 50 grades with his low-90s fastball and changeup, while he graded a bit better according to MLB Pipeline with his control (60) prior to his injury.


Birmingham Barons

Dane Dunning
6´4´´
200 pounds
Age: 25

Dunning had a successful three-year run with the Florida Gators, beginning as a reliever in his freshman season, transitioning to starter, and finally switching to a swing-man role for his junior season. Why a swingman, instead of an ace? It may have had something to do with the fact that A.J. Puk, Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, and Alex Faedo (all eventual first-round picks) were in the Gators rotation as well. Dunning did, however, post his best collegiate marks in his junior season, with a 2.29 ERA and 1.02 WHIP over 77 ⅔ innings. In his 33 outings (five starts), he allowed just 68 hits (.235 OBA) and 12 walks (1.39 BB/9) while striking out 88 (10.20 K/9). Due to those results and obvious potential, the Washington Nationals selected him in the first round (29th overall) of the 2016 draft.

Dunning pitched well for the Nationals short-season affiliates in 35 ⅔ innings over eight starts, posting a combined 2.02 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and 32 strikeouts (8.07 K/9) while relinquishing just 26 hits (.198 OBA) and seven walks (1.77 BB/9). Following the season, on December 7, he was traded to the White Sox, along with Reynaldo López and Lucas Giolito, for Adam Eaton.

To say Dunning dominated Kannapolis in his four starts there in 2017 was like saying the earth is round. In 24 ⅓ innings for the Intimidators, he posted a microscopic 0.35 ERA, 0.58 WHIP, and 33 strikeouts (11.42 K/9) in 26 innings while allowing just 13 hits (.143 OBA) and two walks (0.69 BB/9). His results with Winston-Salem, while not quite as fantastic, were still top-notch. In 22 starts for the Dash totaling 118 innings, he posted a 3.51 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 135 strikeouts (10.30 K/9) while ceding just 114 hits (.250 OBA) and 36 walks (2.75 BB/9).

Dunning started 2018 with Winston-Salem in four starts, before earning an early promotion to Birmingham. In 15 starts covering 86 ⅓ innings for both squads, he posted a nifty 2.71 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. In those innings, he allowed just 77 hits (.235 OBA) and 26 walks (2.71 BB/9) while fanning 100 hitters (10.42 K/9). Unfortunately, Dunning began suffering through elbow issues in late June that year, ultimately leading to Tommy John surgery in mid-March of this year.

As evidenced by his low walk numbers throughout college and the minors, Dunning has exceptional control, and with the relatively low number of hits allowed for a control pitcher, he has exceptional command as well. His fastball peaks at 95-96 mph, but is extremely effective due to its heavy sinking action. He also features an above-average slider, which grades slightly higher than his improving change.

Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned surgery, Dunning will be expected to miss some time in 2020. There’s a possibility he begins the season with Charlotte upon his return, but it’s much more likely Dunning starts with Birmingham. Though he ranks fifth among all White Sox prospects per MLB Pipeline, he (unlike the aforementioned Kopech) has fallen out of MLB’s Top 100 list entirely. If recovery goes well and he doesn’t miss a beat upon return, Dunning likely will earn a promotion to Charlotte if not Chicago before 2020’s end.

Jimmy Lambert
6´2´´
190 pounds
Age: 25

Lambert spent the majority of his three years for the Fresno State Bulldogs in the team’s starting rotation, and his junior season was easily his best with a 3.13 ERA and 1.20 WHIP over 97 2/3 innings, as he relinquished 98 hits and just 19 walks while striking out 78. Those results were good enough for the White Sox to select him in the 2016 draft. After the draft, he pitched well for the AZL White Sox but unsurprisingly struggled with Kannapolis to end the season.

Jimmy, older brother of Rockies hurler Peter Lambert, mastered Kannapolis in 12 starts spanning 74 innings to begin the 2017 campaign with a 2.19 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, as he surrendered 77 hits (.274 OBA) and 11 walks (3.7%) while striking out 43 (14.3%). Just like the previous year, Lambert struggled with his midseason promotion to Winston-Salem as he posted a 5.45 ERA and 1.51 WHIP over 76 innings as he ceded 86 hits (.290 OBA) and 29 walks (8.7%) while fanning 59 (17.7%). Lambert returned to the Dash in 2018 and fared much better in 13 starts, totaling 70 2/3 innings as he compiled a 3.95 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, allowing just 57 hits (.217 OBA) and 21 walks (7.3%) while striking out 80 (29.0). Lambert earned a promotion to Birmingham, and excelled with this promotion to the tune of a 2.88 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 25 innings as he relinquished just 20 hits (.217 OBA) and six walks (5.9%) while striking out 30 (29.7%).

Lambert started 2019 with Birmingham well, as he turned six quality starts in his first eight outings. However, his final three outings (May 23 to June 3) were vastly subpar — ultimately dropping his numbers to a 4.55 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in 11 starts spanning 59 1/3 innings, allowing 62 hits (.272 OBA) and 27 walks (10.4%) while striking out 70 (27.0%). It turned out Lambert needed Tommy John surgery, which was done in late June.

Lambert presently ranks 18th among White Sox prospects by MLB Pipeline, thanks in part to increasing oomph on his fastball over the past couple of years due to an arm slot change that altered his delivery to more over-the-top. The heater (which usually runs 91-94 mph and tops out at 96) and curveball are considered by MLB Pipeline as his two best offerings with grades of 55, while his slider and changeup are given a solid 50 grade. Because of his late surgery, it’s possible Lambert may not even pitch in the 2020 season. If he does, he may be given a rehab assignment in the AZL before returning to Birmingham. Lambert is eligible to be selected in the upcoming Rule 5 draft.

Blake Battenfield
6´3´´

220 pounds
Age: 25

Battenfield, a resident of Tulsa, remained in his native state to play with the Oklahoma State Cowboys. His first three years were primarily spent in the bullpen, where Battenfield crafted a respectable 2.60 ERA and 1.35 WHIP over 97 innings. During that time, he allowed 86 hits while posting a mediocre K/BB ratio (1.47), with 45 walks and 66 strikeouts. He split time evenly with the Cowboys as a senior (2017) between the rotation and bullpen, posting middling results: 4.91 ERA and 1.49 WHIP over 69 2⁄3 innings, while walking 31 and striking out 58.

These results obviously weren’t spectacular, which explains why Battenfield slipped all the way to the 17th round of the 2017 draft. Battenfield served exclusively out of the bullpen that year for Great Falls, where he posted mediocre ERA (4.88) and WHIP numbers over 31 1⁄3 innings in the high altitude, but some of his peripherals stood out. Opposing hitters batted .271 against his offerings, but he punched out 40 hitters (28.6 K%) while walking only eight (5.7 BB%). Partly based on those numbers, the Sox decided to convert him to a starter for 2018.

Battenfield pitched outstandingly for Kannapolis in his 13 starts in 2018: 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 52 hits (.210 OBA), 16 walks (6.0 BB%), and 69 strikeouts (25.8 K%) over 67 innings, earning a promotion to Winston-Salem on June 21. As expected, Battenfield’s numbers declined a bit in nine starts (53 1⁄3 innings) for the Dash, but were still respectable: 4.22 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 50 hits (.248 OBA), 13 walks (6.0 BB%), and 46 strikeouts (21.1%).

After a terrific six starts to begin the season with the Dash, Battenfield earned an early promotion to Birmingham where he did struggle with his command. In 19 starts for the Barons totaling 95 2/3 innings, he posted a 4.52 ERA and 1.38 WHIP by allowing 107 hits (.287 OBA) and 25 walks (6.1%) while fanning 69 (16.9%). He especially labored against lefties (.299 OBA, 1.59 WHIP) in comparison to righties for Birmingham (.278 OBA, 1.23 WHIP). His 36.8% ground ball rate didn’t do him any favors, either.

Battenfield has an impressive repertoire that includes a natural sinking fastball, a rising four-seamer, an effective slider, a big-breaking curveball with good spin and depth, and a changeup that still needs work. He doesn’t appear to throw especially hard. I haven’t seen any projections, but we’re probably looking at the low 90s, as he was in the mid-80s as a varsity athlete according to Perfect Game and has gotten stronger since then. But the righthander’s movement and speed variations help his fastball play up. His changeup has yet to be mastered, as evidenced by the success Double-A lefties enjoyed against him this year. Success with the changeup may dictate how Battenfield will progress going forward.

Expect Battenfield to return to the Barons for the 2019 season, with an opportunity for midseason promotion if he does well.

Lincoln Henzman
6´2´´
205 pounds
Age: 24

With the exception of two starts in his freshman season, Henzman was exclusively a reliever for the Louisville Cardinals. His best season was as a junior, when he pitched in 27 games (saving 16) totaling 37 23 innings with a terrific 1.67 ERA and 0.85 WHIP — allowing just 22 hits (.169 OBA) and 10 walks (2.39 BB/9), striking out 37 (8.84 K/9). With those results, the White Sox drafted Henzman in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, with the intention of converting him into a starter. After receiving a signing bonus of $450,000, Henzman pitched for the AZL Sox and Great Falls. In 11 combined outings (seven starts), he maintained a respectable 3.86 ERA and 1.29 WHIP over 28 innings, allowing 27 hits (.262 OBA) and nine walks (2.89 BB/9) while striking out 17 (5.46 K/9).

Henzman went deeper into games in 2018 for Kannapolis, starting 13 and pitching 72 23 innings, with better-than-expected results. For the Intimidators, Henzman posted a 2.23 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, and allowed just 68 hits (.241 OBA) and eight walks (3.0%) while striking out 60 hitters (20.4%). He was promoted to Winston-Salem on June 21, but was held to pitch counts as Henzman had already far exceeded his career high in innings. In 14 outings totaling 34 23 innings for the Dash, he posted a 2.60 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, ceding 34 hits (.256 OBA) and 10 walks (6.8%) while striking out 20 (13.7%).

The 2019 season saw Henzman go through some struggles — particularly with putting hitters away. In nine starts spanning 41 innings for the Dash, he posted a 4.61 ERA and 1.37 WHIP as he relinquished 46 hits (.288 OBA) and 10 walks (5.8%) while fanning just 18 (10.4%). He did earn a promotion to Birmingham in early June, and struggled against his more advanced opponents. In 15 starts totaling 79 1/3 innings for the Barons, Henzman compiled a 5.56 ERA and 1.44 WHIP as he surrendered 96 hits (.301 OBA) and 18 walks (5.2%) while striking out 44 (12.7%). While he maintained his above-average control this year, his command was lacking as he didn’t miss many bats due to a high OBA and low strikeout rate. On the positive side, he finished his last three starts with a combined 1.76 ERA and 0.85 WHIP, so he may have figured some things out.

Henzman features a heavy sinking fastball that runs anywhere from 90-95 mph according to MLB Pipeline, and despite his struggles this year, still induced a 53% ground ball rate. He throws an upper-80s cutter, while also throwing an above-average changeup. That changeup has helped Henzman, as lefties have consistently hit him for a lower average than have righties during his young career. MLB Pipeline grades his fastball as 60, changeup at 55, and control and cutter at 50. Expect Henzman to return to Birmingham to begin the 2020 campaign.

Felix Paulino
6´1´´
200 pounds
Age: 25

Paulino, who turns 25 next March, is a Dominican native and started his career with the Phillies organization in 2014. His best year was with their Gulf Coast League squad in 2015, when he posted a 2.34 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in 50 innings as he relinquished just 41 hits (.223 OBA) and five walks (2.5%) while fanning 46 (23.0%). He’d actually been a useful swingman, as his career numbers have generally been good if unexceptional. On Aug. 22, 2018, he was traded to the White Sox for southpaw reliever Luis Avilán. With Birmingham, Paulino finished the year with two rocky starts as he battled through some uncharacteristic wildness — no doubt trying too hard to impress his new team.

In six outings (five starts) this year for the Barons, Paulino certainly held his own as he posted a respectable 3.86 ERA and 1.40 WHIP over 35 innings as he ceded 36 hits (.265 OBA) and 13 walks (8.4%) while striking out 30 (19.5%). In all six of his outings, he pitched at least five innings. Unfortunately, his last outing was on May 5 as he was then placed on the injured list, from which he never returned.

According to Baseball America, Paulino works 91-96 mph with his fastball and has a sinker in the lower end of that velocity band. His low- to mid-80s slider flashes plus potential but is inconsistent, and he has a firm changeup that lacks deception. Paulino shows flashes of everything working together, but hasn’t been able to put it all together yet. His ability to tighten up his control and firm up his secondaries will determine how high he climbs. Paulino is eligible for this year’s Rule 5 draft, and if healthy, would likely return to Birmingham to begin the 2020 season.

A.J. Puckett
6´4´´
200 pounds
Age: 24

Puckett is an interesting story. He was a promising two-sport athlete in high school before a car accident left him in a medically-induced coma for two weeks to slow his blood loss. After that accident, he made a a full recovery and went to Pepperdine University, where he was the West Coast Conference pitcher of the year in 2016 after fashioning the third-longest (45 23-inning) scoreless streak in NCAA Division I history. All Puckett did in his junior season was pitch 99 innings over 14 starts, posting an incredible 1.27 ERA and 0.92 WHIP; he allowed just 65 hits and 26 walks (2.36 BB/9) while fanning 95 batters (8.61 K/9). As a result of his efforts, the Kansas City Royals selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft, signing him to a $1.2 million bonus.

For the AZL Royals and Lexington (Royals A-affiliate) immediately after the draft, Puckett held his own in 13 starts, with a combined 3.68 ERA and 1.11 WHIP and respectable .231 OBA and 2.30 BB/9, but his strikeouts were down at 6.90 K/9. For the Royals A+ team (Wilmington) in 2017, he was posting a 3.90 ERA and 1.41 WHIP through July 30 when he was traded to the White Sox for outfielder Melky Cabrera, in the Royals’ ill-fated run at the playoffs. Puckett struggled a bit at hitter-friendly Winston-Salem in his five starts, as he posted a 4.28 ERA and 1.46 WHIP over 27 13 innings. In those innings, Puckett surrendered 35 hits (.327 OBA) and five walks (1.65 BB/9) while striking out 21 (6.91 K/9).

Puckett began 2018 as the 23rd-ranked prospect in the White Sox system according to MLB Pipeline, and was slated to begin with Birmingham. However, due to an ailing elbow, he missed the entire season (just like Andre Davis, the other player acquired in the Cabrera deal).

Puckett, when healthy, is more about pitchability than power. His best assets are his tumbling changeup, a legitimate plus pitch, and his advanced command. His fastball usually ranges from 90-94 mph (according to MLB Pipeline) with some run and sink, and his curveball can be an average third offering at times, but lacks consistency.

Like fellow highly-touted righthander Dunning, Puckett arrived in Glendale this spring to try working through the elbow pain that sidelined him in 2018. And like Dunning, Puckett ultimately opted for Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2019, and will likely miss a good part of 2020 as well. When ready to return, Puckett likely will undergo a rehab assignment before pitching for Birmingham.