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2019 opponent preview: The Chicago White Sox are very hard to predict

After missing out on their top free agent target, the Sox are hoping their young talent takes a step forward in 2019.

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Chicago White Sox v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Rebuilds are hard. We hear plenty about the success stories, of how teams went from worst to first and achieved postseason glory. The 2006 Detroit Tigers are still a gold standard on that front, going from an American League record 119 losses to the World Series in just three years. Recent examples like the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, teams that have stripped their roster to the studs before building a champion, are the new blueprint for other MLB clubs looking to return to the promised land.

Everyone forgets about the failures, though. People forget that the Kansas City Royals saw their young core struggle for a few years before finally putting it all together — or that they endured a postseason drought of nearly 30 years before that first World Series appearance in 2014. The Pittsburgh Pirates went 20 years without making the playoffs, and the Seattle Mariners are currently on year 18 of their own skid. Think of how many draft busts and ill-advised signings the Tigers made in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It’s still too early to worry about the Chicago White Sox and their ongoing rebuild... but the last year hasn’t been great. The Sox took a step backward compared to 2017, and suffered the franchise’s first 100-loss season since 1970. Their top prospects reached the majors, but struggled mightily in MLB action — in the way that leaves many questioning if those players are capable of leading the Sox back to the postseason. Yoan Moncada led the majors in strikeouts. Lucas Giolito was baseball’s worst starting pitcher. And while Michael Kopech showed flashes of brilliance in his brief stay in the majors, he ended the year on the operating table.

Then there’s everything beyond that. The Sox made a half-hearted offer to Manny Machado, only to see him take more guaranteed money (what a surprise!) with the San Diego Padres. Machado, Chicago’s top target, would have started a lot of the same conversations on the South Side that he has in San Diego. Instead of Fernando Tatis Jr. (oh, what could have been), outfielder Eloy Jimenez could have been Machado’s middle-order partner in crime. And, with how weak the rest of the division projects, that conversation could have started this season.

But Machado or not, the success of Chicago’s rebuild depends on their ability to produce good homegrown talent. They have the building blocks in place, with the players mentioned above and several other promising prospects, but still have to execute their vision in order to get back to the postseason.

Team at a glance

2018 record: 62-100 | 2018 pythag: 62-100 | 2019 farm system rank: 6
Manager: Rick Renteria (3rd year)
First series vs. Tigers: April 18-21
Key additions: RHP Ivan Nova, RHP Alex Colome, 1B Yonder Alonso, RHP Kelvin Herrera
Key subtractions: RHP James Shields, OF Avisail Garcia, C Omar Narvaez, LHP Hector Santiago, IF Matt Davidson

Does Yoan Moncada have a breakout season in him?

The fastest way for all of these concerns about Chicago’s rebuild to disappear is for Moncada to make the leap from promising young player to actual star. He was worth 2.0 fWAR in 149 games last year, a respectable total for a player’s age-23 season. He drew plenty of walks, hit for some power, and played passable (if slightly below-average) defense at second base. He also struck out 217 times, the highest total in the majors, and was ultimately a below-average hitter (97 wRC+) in the end.

Moncada’s issues are weird, though. He was incredibly passive, swinging at just 41.1 percent of the pitches he saw. Only 20 qualified players swung at a lower percentage of pitches, and many of them are household names. On this front, Moncada is in great company. He also only swung and missed at 12.2 percent of pitches he saw, a respectable rate that, while higher than league average, should not translate to leading the league in strikeouts.

So, what gives here? Moncada struck out looking 85 times, representing nearly 40 percent of his punchouts in 2018. He was understandably awful in two-strike counts, with a scant .417 OPS in 372 such plate appearances — over 100 points lower than the league-average hitter. Meanwhile, he was a beast in other situations, with a 1.109 OPS in the 278 plate appearances that ended before a two-strike count. If Moncada can find the right mix of patience and aggression at the plate, he could take the big step forward Sox fans are hoping to see.

Can Lucas Giolito regain his old form?

Shortly after he was drafted in 2012, Giolito was on a short list of the best pitching prospects in baseball. He quickly moved himself to the top of that heap with dominant seasons in 2013 and 2014. Even after suffering a bit of adversity in 2015 — he still held his own in Double-A as a 20-year-old, let’s not overstate things here — he was still considered one of the five to 10 best prospects in baseball.

Since then, things have only gone downhill. There were whispers of mechanical issues and declining fastball velocity even before he was traded to the White Sox, and those issues were further magnified in 2018. Giolito was the worst qualified starter in baseball, with the highest ERA and FIP of any pitcher who threw at least 120 innings. He also led the league in walks and earned runs.

We can’t call 2019 a make-or-break season for Giolito. He is still only 24 years old, and the Sox are going to give him another year or two to make adjustments before cutting bait with the once-promising prospect. His fastball is ticking up again after he overhauled his deliver during the offseason, which could also help him rediscover that incredible curveball that made so many scouts drool when he was in the minors. He will need to sustain these changes over a full season, of course — The Athletic’s James Fegan noted that Giolito’s new delivery puts a lot of the onus to generate velocity on his lower half, which could lead to a second-half letdown.

But if anyone has the build to sustain this over 30-plus starts, it’s the 6’6, 245 pound Giolito. We’ll have to see how it plays out.

Down on the farm

The White Sox have already graduated a few highly regarded prospects to the majors in recent years — including previous top overall prospect Yoan Moncada — but still sit sixth in Baseball America’s 2019 organizational rankings.

They are the rare team hoping for a big drop in that number next season.

The reason? The Sox have several very talented prospects on the cusp of the majors, including outfielder Eloy Jimenez, a consensus top-five prospect in all of baseball (more on him below). Joining him this year will be righthander Dylan Cease, another former Cubs prospect who is drawing rave reviews across the game. Infielder Nick Madrigal, the No. 4 overall pick in last year’s draft, and Cuban outfielder Luis Robert are also highly regarded, but longshots to play in the majors this year. Both Michael Kopech and Dane Dunning are in the “will definitely not play” camp because they are recovering from Tommy John surgery. Zack Collins and Blake Rutherford have both taken a hit after rave draft day reviews, but also possess a decent ceiling for the Sox to dream on.

Player to watch: OF Eloy Jimenez

Now that Jimenez has signed a team-friendly contract, White Sox fans will (presumably) no longer have to wait three weeks until to see their team’s prized prospect in action. Jimenez, a consensus top-five prospect in all of baseball, struggled in spring training action this year, but posted monster numbers in the minor leagues last season; he hit 22 home runs between Double- and Triple-A ball, and maintained a .961 OPS across the two levels. He was arguably big league ready last year, and would certainly have been called up shortly after service time shenanigans this year before he signed his new deal.

With Manny Machado out of the picture, Jimenez will be the top dog in Chicago’s lineup from day one. Fortunately for them, he might be up to the challenge. Statistical projections think he will be a three-win player from the jump, with ZiPS predicting a 133 wRC+ from the 22-year-old slugger this season. He isn’t much of a runner and projects as a below-average defender, but with potentially elite raw power, Jimenez will hit his share of tape measure home runs this year — if not fully turn into the tour de force the White Sox are hoping he will become one day.

Projected record: 70-92

I don’t know if these White Sox feel like a 70-win team. They seem like a club that will either shoot out of the gate, riding Jimenez, Jose Abreu, and improvements from some of their young players to a hot first half before cooling off. Whether they make the playoffs in this scenario is irrelevant; they would finish well above the 70-win mark if things go well.

And if Jimenez falters, and Moncada, Giolito, and Co. don’t improve? The Sox don’t have the veteran depth to pick up the slack, and would likely falter to a 60-ish win season like they did last year. The subpar AL Central may help a bit, but Chicago’s boom-or-bust potential seems a bit more insulated from the rest of the division than one might think. Give me either 60 or 80 wins, not 70.