Why White Sox could be 2020's breakout team

November 3rd, 2019

Three years ago, the White Sox tore it down, in a manner of speaking.

Unable to build any sort of depth around a core of several excellent players, the Sox shipped out Chris Sale, Adam Eaton and José Quintana, returning, among others, Lucas Giolito, Eloy Jiménez, Yoán Moncada and Michael Kopech. If there's anything such teams as the Astros and Dodgers have proven -- and the Angels have proven in the other direction -- stars-and-scrubs no longer works. You need stars, and you need support.

As GM Rick Hahn said entering Spring Training in 2017:

"The last few years, we've had a very top-heavy roster, and the reason we haven't won had nothing to do with the quality of players at the top end of that roster," Hahn told MLB.com. "When the time comes that we are in a position to contend again, we are going to be approaching that with ideally a much deeper, more thoroughly balanced roster than what we had."

The three years hence have been tough to stomach. The White Sox have lost 95, 100 and 89 games, saved from a single last-place finish only by the weak competition in the American League Central. Only four teams have lost more games. Teardowns, almost by definition, subject fan bases to a whole lot of unwatchable baseball. Teams justify a dismantling by saying that it's leading somewhere, that when they come out of the darkness, the light will be worth it -- which is basically what Hahn said in December 2017.

"When it comes time to add to what we've accumulated or continue this process, it's going to be with the vision of putting ourselves in the position to contend for multiple championships," said Hahn at the time. "In the end, that's what's going to be more important -- the ability to win championships."

Well, that time has come. No, there's likely nothing the White Sox can do this winter that will put them into the Astros-Yankees echelon of elite AL clubs, but that's not the point. The point is that seven straight losing seasons are too many, that trading the club's stars has to have led somewhere and that the fruits of the rebuild have already begun to show themselves at the Major League level -- with more to come.

The White Sox aren't going to be anyone's favorite headed into 2020. They might just be the breakout team you can't say you didn't see coming. Here's how.

1) What makes now the time to push forward?

It's a fair question. Why now, as opposed to later, or any time in the past? It's because of what changed in 2019.

A year ago, this rebuild looked to be in trouble. Kopech's highly touted debut turned sour quickly, as he headed to Tommy John surgery after just 14 1/3 Major League innings. Giolito (6.13 ERA in 2018) was baseball's worst regular starter, and looked as though he wasn't good enough to pitch in the Majors. Moncada, for all of his obvious talent, led the Majors in strikeouts in 2018, with 217. Shortstop Tim Anderson had one of the 10 lowest on-base percentages among qualified hitters. The No. 8 overall pick in 2015, Carson Fulmer, had posted a 6.68 ERA in his first 67 1/3 innings. The No. 11 overall pick in 2017, Jake Burger, missed the entire season (and would so again in 2019) thanks to multiple leg injuries.

Fulmer still wasn't good in 2019 (6.26 ERA in 27 1/3 innings, with 20 walks), and Burger has yet to return. But look what else happened over the 2019 season.

1a) Giolito broke out in a big way. The 24-year-old righty spent the winter making considerable changes to his mechanics, training and mental approach. That all paid off with 176 2/3 innings of 3.41 ERA ball that ought to garner him some down-ballot Cy Young support.

1b) So did Moncada. We took note of his new approach barely more than a week into the season, as a newly aggressive Moncada cut down on the strikeouts, hit .315/.367/.548 with 25 home runs, and combined it all with solid enough defense at his new third-base position that he was considered one of the 20 most valuable players in the game.

1c) Anderson did, too. Anderson's first three partial seasons: .258/.286/.411. Anderson in 2019: .335/.357/.508. That's probably not fully sustainable -- his .399 BABIP is one of the highest of the 21st century, and he doesn't have the same hard-hit skills as Moncada, who had a similarly high mark -- but he did manage to cut down his strikeout rate and improve his exit velocity; he's still only 26.

1d) Jiménez arrived. His defense wasn't great -- his minus-11 Outs Above Average was about as poor as it gets, and two of the three injuries he suffered came while playing the field -- but even if he's a future DH, the bat plays. Jiménez popped 31 homers as a rookie, but more important, he turned a just-OK first half (.241/.303/.482) into a stellar second half (.292/.328/.542). In September he hit .340/.383/.710, the seventh-best line that month behind, among others, Moncada.

Speaking of September ...

1e) September was great. Though the Sox went 12-14, they outscored their opponents, 140-128. It was the first month of at least five games in which they'd outscored the opposition in more than a year, since August 2018; before that it hadn't happened since May 2017. The September Sox had the sixth-most runs scored in baseball and the second-best adjusted batting line, behind only the Astros. Though the pitching didn't cooperate -- Giolito shutting his season down early didn't help -- the offense looked legitimate.

The point isn't that they're a winning team right now; they aren't. It's that it's finally looking like there's something to build upon.

2) Who's coming to help internally?

You're set with Anderson at short, Moncada at third, Jiménez in left or DH, and Giolito atop the rotation. It seems to be a given that free-agent first baseman José Abreu is going to return, so let's just assume he will. Aaron Bummer and his 72 percent grounder rate essentially pitched like Zach Britton in the bullpen. Veterans Alex Colomé, Kelvin Herrera, Jace Fry and Evan Marshall form the beginnings of a decent relief crew. Young Dylan Cease, also part of the Quintana return, struck out 81 in 73 innings and has earned a long look. Reynaldo López probably returns, too.

Who else?

Perhaps not on Opening Day, but soon afterward, 2018 No. 4 overall pick Nick Madrigal, who had the lowest strikeout rate in the entire Minor Leagues -- that's 3 percent, or 16 times in 532 plate appearances -- will step in to take second base. Outfield prospect Luis Robert, who slammed 32 homers across three levels, should be taking over center field at around the same time. Kopech is already back to hitting 100 mph in his recovery and should be available for most or all of the 2020 season, though Carlos Rodon, who had Tommy John surgery of his own, will likely miss most of the season. 2016's No. 10 overall pick Zack Collins, probably can't stick at catcher, but he did show elite hard-hit skills in his brief time up, and in 2018 he had the second-highest walk rate in the high Minors.

They won't all succeed, but you can see how there's going to be a group of highly talented players in Chicago in 2020, not three or five years from now. So: How do they help the Sox?

3) How should they add externally?

It's easy to say "sign Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon," because that's the right path forward for all 30 teams, at least among those that don't already have Nolan Arenado or Alex Bregman at third base. All 30 teams should want Cole, for example. Even if that happens, 29 of them will be disappointed. Chicago isn't likely to be the most desirable location for either, and history has shown the White Sox won't outbid the Dodgers, Yankees or anyone else. They'll likely look elsewhere.

MLB.com's Scott Merkin attempted to answer the question of who they should add in a mailbag in October.

"I ... believe multiple additions are coming: two starting pitchers, a right fielder, a designated hitter, hopefully a left-handed hitter among that mix and a reliever. These next few months will be very active for the White Sox, who have a great deal of room to maneuver payroll-wise."

This is absolutely correct. Two starters should be a minimum, and there are many of them on the market: Think Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jake Odorizzi, Cole Hamels, Rich Hill, Dallas Keuchel, Kyle Gibson, Alex Wood. Think trade options Matthew Boyd, Dylan Bundy or Robbie Ray.

Right field is a given as well, since the 2019 White Sox right fielders posted a .220/.277/.288 line that is, by far, the weakest hitting performance by a team's right fielders in a season dating back to 2002. You'll hear a lot about J.D. Martinez here if he opts out, and a little about Nicholas Castellanos as well. Either would fit wonderfully; Corey Dickerson or Kole Calhoun might be left-handed options otherwise.

But allow us to offer the most valuable option of all: Sign Yasmani Grandal. Prioritize it. It's the only move that helps your lineup and your pitching staff.

It's true that James McCann made the All-Star team last year, but it's also true that was ... somewhat of a fluke.

McCann, Tigers (2014-'18): .240/.288/.366 (.653 OPS)

McCann, White Sox (through June 30): .319/.376/.514 (.890 OPS, .403 BABIP)

McCann, White Sox (from July 1 on): .231/.285/.410 (.695 OPS)

In addition, the White Sox had the second-worst catcher framing in baseball last year, with McCann alone costing nine runs. (Three White Sox pitchers, including Lopez and Giolito, were among the five most harmed by poor framing in 2018.)

Grandal would represent not only a big switch-hitting upgrade at the plate, but as one of the best pitch framers in the game (+17 runs), he would help the staff as well. It's not too much to suggest that he alone would be worth four wins over McCann in 2020, and McCann could be retained as a backup, in part because Giolito values his partnership so much. The White Sox reportedly were interested in Grandal last winter.

There's not one right way to do this. There's not going to be $500 million to spend on free agents, so you have to pick and choose. But in this version, Grandal, two veteran starters and a decent outfield bat is a good way to support this young talent.

It hasn't all worked, obviously. The mid-2017 trade that sent Todd Frazier and valuable relievers Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson to the Yankees has returned almost nothing, as prospects Blake Rutherford, Tito Polo and Ian Clarkin have all been unable to progress. (Only Rutherford remains in the system.) They surely wish they hadn't let go of Marcus Semien (to the A's for Jeff Samardzija in 2014) or Chris Devenski (to the Astros for Brett Myers in 2012) or especially Fernando Tatís Jr. (to the Padres for James Shields in 2016). Successfully signing Manny Machado last winter would have been a boost to the rebuilding process.

Previous mistakes, however, shouldn't prevent future advances.

4) What's the best-case scenario?

The White Sox lost 89 games last year, so they don't have to make the playoffs for 2020 to be an improvement. They could, for example, go from 73-89 to 83-79 -- that would be a 10-game improvement, which is difficult to pull off in one winter, and their first winning season since the Adam Dunn/Paul Konerko/Jake Peavy team of 2012 -- and not make the playoffs, and it would still be a good year, because it would position them to be even better in 2021.

But let's do better than that. Have any recent teams gone from 89 losses one year to the playoffs the next year? Well, yeah. It happens kind of often. Looking back over the last decade, nine teams have done it.

• 2011-12 Orioles, from 92 losses to Wild Card

• 2012-13 Indians, from 94 losses to Wild Card

• 2012-13 Red Sox, from 93 losses to World Series

• 2014-15 Rangers, from 95 losses to Division Series

• 2014-15 Cubs, from 89 losses to Championship Series

• 2014-15 Astros, from 92 losses to Wild Card

• 2016-17 D-backs, from 93 losses to Wild Card

• 2016-17 Twins, from 103 losses to Wild Card

• 2017-18 Braves, from 90 losses to Division Series

It's possible, anyway. You might think it's "too soon," but look at the AL Central right now -- the Royals and Tigers aren't going anywhere, and the Indians seem to be nearing the closing of a window. Ask the 2019 Twins what "too soon" is, though they also had the benefit of a new manager and forward-thinking front office that the White Sox may not.

"We are ready for that next stage when we get much closer to competitiveness to start ramping up here in the next weeks and months into next season," Hahn said near the end of the season.

That next stage has been in the distant future for years, now. It might finally be just around the corner.