If there is any other team around that finds themselves in a similar position to the Tigers in their success life-cycle, it’s the Chicago White Sox. The Tigers’ AL Central rivals went all-in on a rebuild, trading off star players for hot prospects, and everyone believed they would be poised for a victory season in a few short years.
Those short years have passed and the White Sox aren’t quite there yet. With the first of many games against the Tigers scheduled for Thursday, we took a moment to talk to Brett Ballantini, managing editor of the SB Nation White Sox blog South Side Sox.
We traded details on exciting prospects and young players, and asked if he was at all worried about the team’s young pitching staff. (Spoiler alert: he is)
BYB: The Tigers are in the midst of a rebuild. I think most people would agree the White Sox are as well, and maybe a year or two ahead. How do you feel like the White Sox rebuild is going?
BB: Funny that the White Sox rebuild is ahead of Detroit’s by a year or two, and the Tigers finished with a better record in 2018!
Uh, it’s going … OK? The White Sox had a so-called “aggressive rebuild,” or whatever you want to call it when you have an incredible launching point (Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana). Most people would say, hell, you better get at least three kickass major leaguers from those guys, and even then, you might just be treading water. Well, so far, let’s see the haul: Yoán Moncada, Michael Kopech, Eloy Jiménez and Dylan Cease seem to be at least guaranteed equal value, roughly. So I guess it’s going well? The system is much stronger, but a) it damn well should be and b) when you’re the worst system in baseball, you can only go up, right?
But there’s this lingering, nagging dyspepsia over this past offseason. The White Sox had a unique, truly once-in-a-lifetime, chance to add premium Hall of Fame talent at good value (26-year-old players), and absolutely blew it. They blew it by nickel and diming Manny Machado, and blew it by not recognizing Bryce Harper’s value. They blew it by failing to see you Yasmani Grandal could have impacted their young, aimless pitching staff. The White Sox had a chance to win the division, frankly, buying superstars at the clearance rack (OK, the 33%-off rack) and refused/failed/fumbled. That’s bothersome, of course because they’ll never get a shot at a Machado in dead market ever again. But also because it was sort of a glimpse behind the curtain. We saw the Wizard, and it turned out to be three skinny chickens in a trenchcoat randomly pecking at a cell phone screen, squawking loud and signing nothing.
Did the Eloy Jimenez extension surprise you? Do you think it was a good idea or a bit premature?
Yes, it did surprise me. It’s a fabulous deal for the White Sox, but the idea that this cry-poor team would pay a player even a few million per year more beyond projected arbitration salary, no matter how well the player potentially might be outperforming his deal (surplus value), feels … off. Sale, Quintana, Tim Anderson, even Adam Eaton all signed similar types of deals where they sold potential earnings for security, but each had proven themselves. Anderson is the closet comp, and still, he had a strong half-MLB season under his belt.
It speaks to how revered Eloy already is in the organization. He’s a sweet kid, who aspires to great leadership and superstardom, and is willing to do the expected things (work his ass off) as well as some unexpected (aggressively learning English, doing some interviews already in a tongue foreign to him).
He’s our new Frank Thomas, and whether you did a spit-take reading that or not, let us have it, guys. It could be another 100-loss season.
Are you at all worried about the young pitching staff?
Is there a stronger word than yes? Carlos Rodón is solid, but let’s face it, as a Boras client he will price himself at 800 gajillion dollars and won’t be here to re-sign with the club, so he’s not really a “next wave” guy. The injuries (our top three young starters in the pipeline, Kopech, Dane Dunning and Cease have all had TJS) have been terrifying and depressing. Pitching prospects are so hard to ever get a good night’s sleep over; we’re going to be waking up every two hours throughout the night worrying about and feeding and burping and nursing this young pitching until Cease turns 30, and in the interim we’ll be as exhausted and grey-haired as new parents of triplets.
The young guys with the team now, beyond Rodón? Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López are projecting as either mediocre MLB starters, or, long-term, relievers. So disappointed might be the word, not worried.
Do you think Yoan Moncada is figuring himself out? Some people think he might be poised for a breakout season.
YES. I never doubted Yoán. His contact was crushing last year. He was called out on a majors-worst 60 strike threes outside the zone, and if you turn half, or a third, of those into walks (offhand I don’t know how many of his b.s. calls were on 3-2 counts), that flip alone makes his stat line way more palatable. He’s a monster. Five tools.
The concern was over Yoán learning how, if the umps won’t budge, to shank those borderline pitches foul in order to reel a pitcher into his comfort zone, the juicy fastball or mistake breaking ball stuff. It was going to take a lot of work in the offseason, especially from the right side, where he was pretty raw as a switch-hitter. He did it, and faster than anyone thought he would. A 5.0 WAR season is not out of the realm.
Who would you consider to be an “under the radar” player that maybe non-Sox fans might not know about?
I’ll keep it at the major league level, because why the hell would you care about some Double-A dude mashing? And on a crappy team, we gonna have to back into it. I’ll say Leury García. He’s the closest thing the club has to a Swiss army knife kinda guy who can play infield or outfield, which on a team struggling to field major leaguers, is a valuable thing. García’s just solid. He strikes out too much, so naturally Ricky Renteria likes to bat him leadoff. But in all aspects of the game, he’s dependable, while also showing some clutch tendencies. He’s been getting a bunch of starts at CF and RF, which is where you’ll probably see him all series.
Which Tigers player do you think will be the biggest threat in this coming series?
Forgive me for not knowing enough about the Tigers to have this thus be too challenging. But I’ll say Castellanos. We share a birthday. And he murdered the White Sox in cold blood last season, right? (Forgive me, the first 100-loss season of my fandom still has me a bit shell-shocked).
How far do you think the White Sox are from contending again? How well do you think they’ll do this year?
I had the White Sox at only 67 wins this season, the most dour of our staff predictions. Here’s something creepy: The White Sox have just won four of six or five of seven or something, so I figured I was way low on that forecast right now. NOPE. Through 17 games, the Sox project to … 67 wins. But then, I also predicted Tim Anderson would be the biggest disappointment, so I’m an idiot.
As for contending, without repeating the above, the division was/is/still could be out there for the taking, because the ALC is embarrassingly, nauseatingly awful. Are your friggin’ kidding me that Cleveland or Minny are going to get the playoffs gift-wrapped to them for winning, like, 86 games. So the answer COULD have been … this year. Instead, between injuries and free agency faceplants, the window for true contention seems to not have even been cracked yet. 2020 had been the goal. Guess it’s 2021 now. 2022? Twelfth of never?