Playing Pepper 2020: Chicago White Sox

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

Chicago White Sox
72-89, third in AL Central
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

For a team that hasn’t finished over .500 since 2012, there’s a lot of excitement and buzz around the White Sox.  Of course, that sort of losing should let you get some exciting new talent into the system and the White Sox have done so, either by draft, trade, or international signing (the Luis Robert thing still hurts).  Now it seems like the Sox are poised to start capitalizing on that.  Is this the year they break out?  Let’s read and see!

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Samiya Green Southside Showdown miyaxxv
Josh Nelson Sox Machine soxmachine_josh
Brett Ballantini South Side Sox BrettBallantini
Jordan Lazowski Sox On 35th SoxOn35th

C70: The White Sox have done a lot this offseason to supplement their young core. Which move made the most sense and which one are you not as sure about?

Samiya: The White Sox have made a lot of great moves in the offseason, but I think signing Dallas Keuchel was the most important move. The White Sox starting pitching was not great beyond Lucas Giolito last season and to compete in today’s league, a team needs a couple of good pitchers behind their starting ace. Keuchel is not only a veteran but a Cy Young winner as well which is a great presence to have in the clubhouse amongst all of the young pitchers on the team. I remember when the announcement broke that the White Sox acquired Nomar Mazara and White Sox fans were not happy because of all the hype surrounding Nicholas Castellanos. At the time, fans were starving for another breakout move like Yasmani Grandal and Mazara doesn’t fit that bill. I’m cautious saying bringing Mazara to the White Sox made sense because his numbers aren’t that great, but he has power. Leury Garcia played the right field position well last season and finished with better numbers than Mazara, so I’m not sure what to make of his signing yet.

Josh: Signing Yasmani Grandal brought a seismic shift to the White Sox offseason. His defensive ability and pitch calling should help boost a young starting pitching staff that needs Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease, and Michael Kopech to take a step forward in their development. The fact he’s a very productive bat is icing on the cake as the White Sox needed another left-handed bat vs. RHP.

On that left-handed hitting topic, that’s the reason why they traded for Nomar Mazara. There is a chance Mazara breaks out for the White Sox in 2020, but he didn’t in four seasons with the Texas Rangers. Plus, the White Sox decided that Mazara was the best option for RF while free agents Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna, and Yaisel Puig were available in free agency. Better options were available to improve RF, and that’s why those who cover the White Sox are still skeptical of the trade. However, the skepticism will subside if Mazara hits 30+ home runs with a higher than 100 OPS+/wRC+.

Brett: Luis Robert made the most sense, but that’s question 2. So, a close second is signing Yasmani Grandal. Frankly, it’s a move that should have been made last year, when the team could have nabbed him for five years and less AAV. But, four years it is. Grandal immediately becomes the most important player on the White Sox, no small feat given some of the talent on the South Side. But, simply put, he’s the best catcher the White Sox in, wow, 35 years or so? His offense alone — particularly OBP — will be a big plus. But his defense — framing, working with a young crop of starters and having the savvy to command respect from veterans as well — is a massive upgrade for the team. It will be hard to quantify Grandal’s overall value to the White Sox, but no matter, it will be huge.

The least sense? The right field treatment. Even if we can argue that losing Steele Walker to bring over Nomar Mazara to play right is no big deal, I would have liked to see a better commitment there. Yasiel Puig comes to mind as a guy who would have fit on a reasonable two-year deal. Or a swap for Joc Pederson, especially now that we’ve seen the discount rate the Dodgers have been willing to let him go for. Mazara in right would have made better sense a year ago, when the White Sox were still loathe to commit to key pieces. In “going for it” mode, I’d like to see the team better equipped than a flier on Mazara and a platoon with Adam Engel.

Jordan: This offseason was easily the best in recent memory for the White Sox. As you mentioned, they made several win now-type moves that supplement the strong, young core they’ve built. The move that made the most sense for the White Sox was their first signing: Yasmani Grandal. Though James McCann was an All-Star last season (and is a Sox On 35th favorite), his numbers fell back down to earth in the second half. Combined with his subpar pitch framing, it made much more sense for McCann to serve as one of the league’s best backups this season. Grandal fills a pretty large hole at Catcher – one that’s been barren since the days of A.J. Pierzynski and Tyler Flowers – and adds a power left-handed bat (well, switch-hitting bat) in the middle of the lineup.

The move I’m not as sure about is the deal for Edwin Encarnacion. While this is a win now move, and I am happy for that, the move blocks two prospects from getting many at-bats in the majors this year – Zack Collins and Yermin Mercedes. Collins is a former 13th overall pick, and Mercedes has shown he can hit at whatever level he plays at. With Encarnacion and Jose Abreu filling the 1B/DH roles, and Yasmani Grandal behind the plate, the roster might not even have room for one of them, much less both of them. I personally feel the White Sox may have jumped the gun a bit with this move – seeing what Collins and Mercedes can do would be that final piece of the rebuild stage. If this move came in 2021, I’d be thrilled. I’m not disappointed by the win now approach, though.

C70: Chicago made headlines by signing Luis Robert to a big deal before he even played a game. What did you think of that and do you think it’ll start a trend across baseball?

Samiya: Luis Robert’s arrival to the White Sox was highly anticipated amongst fans and I believe his contract lives up to his performances in the minor leagues. Robert has already been named USA Today’s minor league player of the year and MLB Pipeline’s minor league hitter of the year. He’s also been called “the next Mike Trout” by Eloy Jimenez and he’s not far off. Robert is fast and powerful at the plate. Last year, he hit 32 home runs and stole 36 bases. Robert has the potential to be a superstar, so I wasn’t surprised by his signing. I don’t think his contract will start a major trend across baseball. I think there will be more conversation about the amount of time a player spends in the minors, but a contract like that will only go to high caliber prospects.

Josh: I thought it was a smart move by the White Sox to extend Luis Robert. Yes, there is a risk committing $50+ million to a player that’s never played in the majors before, but the talent is indisputable. Robert should be the early favorite to win Rookie of the Year, and could provide the same impact Ronald Acuna Jr. did for Atlanta. Will this be a trend? I think it depends on the owner, but I do see teams trying to sign deals earlier to avoid arbitration.

Brett: Extending Robert was a great deal for both sides; Robert gets security, as a guy who’s never played close to a full season professionally, while the White Sox have their CF-RF tandem locked in through age 30, at friendly prices. The White Sox committed similarly to Eloy Jiménez in the same fashion last year, so it’s not exactly new territory. But for more injury-certain position players (vs. pitchers) I can see this trend continuing, for sure — fair deals that offer a player security and a team a discount on “best case career” arbitration salaries.

Jordan: The White Sox have done an excellent job locking up some of the crucial pieces of the rebuild core – Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez, Aaron Bummer, and Robert – to deals that look to extend the window of the rebuild. The signings of both Robert and Jimenez came with their obvious risks – paying a player over $70M before they even play a game in the majors is an incredible risk. That being said, there is incredible reward that can come from these moves as well – the player could easily outperform his contract value. We’ve already started to see some of these types of deals around the league – both Scott Kingery and Evan White come to mind – and the White Sox have certainly been on the forefront of this movement. However, this movement is very much the result of service time games that teams are playing in order to gain an extra year of control. So, whether or not this becomes a league-wide trend will depend on the results of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

C70: There are a lot of exciting young talents on this team. Which one stands out the most to you?

Samiya: Left-fielder Eloy Jimenez is a player I’m excited to see this season because of his performance in his rookie season. Unfortunately, he dealt with injuries that sidelined him for 40 games but when he returned, Jimenez finished the season with 31 home runs. In relation, he also signed a big contract before he played a major league game and he’s on track to have a big sophomore year. Jimenez was one of the first few moves the White Sox made to improve the team by acquiring him and trading Jose Quintana, which greatly benefited the future of the team.

Josh: Luis Robert, easily. This is a player that has 60 grade power with 70 grade speed. He’s a very good defender who covers a lot of ground in center field, and early projections have him hitting 20 to 30+ homer runs in 2020.

Brett: Robert is going to worm his way into every answer, isn’t he? Well, Luis Robert is a five-tool talent who might eclipse even Yoán Moncada as team MVP. But until some of the holes in Luis’ swing get stitched up, I’m going to opt for the five-tool play of Yoán as the most exciting young talent on the team. Robert makes jaws drop, but Yoán is more a lunchpail MVP candidate. Just because he is still very young but has proven himself at the major league level, I’ll vote Yoán.

Jordan: Luis Robert is an easy answer here – the comparison he’s garnered from his teammates are other-worldly, and it will be exciting to see him as a finished product in the years to come. However, I think Andrew Vaughn is my answer. Vaughn is an incredibly polished hitter – he doesn’t make many of the mistakes players his age with his lack of experience usually would. He has played incredibly well early this spring, and I look forward to July when, hopefully, White Sox fans are clamoring for his promotion to the big leagues. White Sox fans have been looking for a prospect who can come up and be a star right away, instead of having to go through the classic adjustment period. I think Andrew Vaughn has the best chance to be that prospect.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Samiya: The AL Central runs thin with the competition. The Kansas City Royals still have a lot of work to do and the Detroit Tigers need to have a complete rebuild. The Cleveland Indians have solid hitters and some of the best pitchers in the league, but the drama with Francisco Lindor might be a distraction. I believe the White Sox have the most consistent batters in their division and will be fighting for the top spot. I do not see the White Sox finishing third again at all.

Josh: The White Sox should snap their seven consecutive losing seasons streak in 2020. Right now, I think they are still behind Minnesota and Cleveland on paper in the AL Central. My preseason prediction is 85-77. 

Brett: Expectations for the White Sox are high, and understandably so. The division is still weak, and the White Sox spend smartly to patch some of their many holes. While Minny is still the favorite and you can’t sleep on Cleveland, I like the White Sox’s chances to be right in the mix through September. And many foresee 100 wins for the Twins, I don’t think so; I say low 90s wins the division. And in that framework, the White Sox have a shot at it. I’ll split the difference between third and first and put the White Sox in second place, within five games of a wild card. But best case, division title and a little scare into somebody in the first round.

Jordan: Despite the presence of the Royals and Tigers in the division, the AL Central is still an incredibly strong division at the top. With the Twins and Indians both winning over 90 games last season, it will be an uphill climb for the White Sox. In addition, this rebuild isn’t exactly complete just yet. Michael Kopech, Nick Madrigal, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez, and Luis Robert, among others, still need plenty of seasoning in the majors. If all goes right for the White Sox, this team has the ceiling of an 87-90 win team. Realistically, after winning 72 games last season with one consistent pitcher (Lucas Giolito), I would expect the White Sox to be in a position to win 82-84 games. I think Vegas has set the O/U on the Sox at 83.5 wins. I’ll take the over by one game: 84-78, good for third place in the division. Starting in 2021, though, I would expect the AL Central to be the White Sox’ division to lose.

C70: What’s the main topic White Sox fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Samiya: I don’t think it’s obvious that White Sox fans are passionate about Nick Madrigal’s Major league debut. It’s no secret he’s been a top prospect the past two years and the White Sox need that steady second baseman. Madrigal has exceptional plate vision and had the best strikeout rate amongst his peers in Double-A. When Madrigal joins the starting lineup, he’s going to add more consistency to the lineup.

Josh: How the starting rotation will look like mid-season when Michael Kopech and Carlos Rodon are healthy enough to pitch in the majors.

Brett: Honestly there’s not a big on-field topic that jumps out at me, but how about the impending implosion of Alex Colomé? No White Sox fan is rooting for it, of course, but we’ve seen his peripherals from 2019 and realize he was … lucky? … to remain the closer all season and finish with 30 saves and a 2.80 ERA (4.08 FIP!). One of the reasons the White Sox gave one of the longest (if not THE longest) extensions to a reliever who hadn’t yet reached arbitration (Aaron Bummer) is that Bummer may well be the heir apparent to close. Heir apparent like, as soon as May-June. 

Jordan: So, White Sox fans get riled up over a few things pretty easily: the value of Nick Madrigal, Projections (They’re stupid because they don’t project the Sox to win the division!!!!!!), Ownership (Did you know the White Sox have never paid over $100M for a free agent?!?!?), Rick Hahn’s evaluation, the Nomar Mazara trade, and Ricky Renteria’s evaluation, among many, many other things. Yet, the thing I will choose to focus on is the “window of contention” debate.

This “contention window” debate has been the most ugly and divisive one among Sox fans, and it boils down to this: when should we as fans reasonably expect the White Sox to field a team that is expected (key word) to win the division? Many fans want the “window” to open this year to prevent wasting another year of Lucas Giolito’s and Yoan Moncada’s rookie contract. Others are fine with seeing it open next year, once all the pieces of the rebuild puzzle have reached the majors, and realize that the timeline changed based upon player injuries. No matter which side of the debate you are on, you should expect to receive backlash. White Sox Twitter is a crazy place, man.

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Samiya: I’m looking forward to seeing pitchers like Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech this season. Kopech has been such a high-quality pitcher for so long and fans just want to see him excel in the majors. A pitcher with his velocity can do damage on the mound for the White Sox and that’s needed. Both pitchers plagued by injuries played a factor in their success and I think Cease has the potential to make a comeback this year.

Josh: Winning baseball. Rebuilding is not fun for fans to endure. There is only so much minor league baseball and draft prospects to follow to keep one’s attention. 

Brett: GETTING BACK TO THE PLAYOFFS. Or, really, just finally having a season where the team is competitive and “in the race” all season. It’s been seven years since we’ve had a season like that, which is like 580 in hot dog years.

Jordan: Besides the regular joys of being at the ballpark, I am excited to watch a team with expectations for the first time in a while. Sure, getting cheap tickets and sitting close to the action is fun – and easy when your favorite team is rebuilding. However, despite the bad reputation White Sox fans have for attendance, there is a sleeping fan base just waiting to be awoken by good baseball. I’m most excited for the buzz that is hopefully going to be returning to the ballpark this season. I look forward to meeting many of the personalities I interact with online at the ballpark!

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