At the halfway point of Year 3 of the rebuild...

…a fork in the road emerges.

There have been encouraging signs for the future in the 2019 White Sox season.  Yoan Moncada is not a certain strikeout victim with two strikes.  Tim Anderson makes contact for Texas League base hits when he’s off balance, whereas last year he would have futilely waved at breaking balls away.  Lucas Giolito takes the ball out of his mitt by his ear now, like a shortstop actually, and that mechanical adjustment (along with a perceived confidence adjustment) has catapulted him into the Cy Young conversation.  James McCann, although 29 years old, looks like he could be the catcher and leader of the immediate future.  Jose Abreu is driving in runs at every opportunity, on pace to smoke his career best of 107 RBI. 

Despite all this, the Sox are still four games under .500.  They have, Giolito notwithstanding, a current and future starting rotation in complete disrepair.  Two of the three players who made this year’s All Star team are veterans who aren’t certain to be with the club when (if!) they contend for division, league, and world titles.  The depth of the minor league system isn’t what it was after the trades of Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton, David Robertson, Todd Frazier, and Tommy Kahnle, among others.

Many fans and internet experts (using the term experts with extreme looseness) are glass-half-full on the White Sox at this writing.  Perhaps they’re right.  Let’s take a look at two hypotheticals, the road south (stagnation, non-contention) and the road north (better days, more wins than losses for five to six consecutive years).

The road south:

It is Giolito and a string of question marks in the starting rotation, which could not only slow the rebuild but debilitate it.  Reynaldo Lopez leads the major leagues in earned runs allowed, clearly lacks command of his pitching arsenal, and has a pedestrian strikeout to walk ratio of 83 to 38.  Carlos Rodon has not proven he can stay healthy, and his career with the Sox is in jeopardy.  Michael Kopech is a Tommy John victim, and his mechanics may dictate that he becomes a reliever, lest he continually hurt himself like Rodon.  Ivan Nova, Dylan Covey, Manny Banuelos, and Ross Detweiler are below the standard of a #5 starter on a contending team. 

Reinforcements not named Dylan Cease are in short supply. Prospects Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert are out for the year, the contagion of Tommy John afflicting them as well.  Six foot, seven inch Alec Hansen, a former second round draft pick out of Oklahoma, has been moved to the bullpen in Double A, where his inability to throw strikes has stalled his progress toward the major leagues. Former starting pitcher prospects Jordan Stephens and Jordan Guerrero have 7.21 and 7.52 ERAs in the minors, respectively. 

The bullpen at the major league level is made up of three players that are currently producing, although all three are coming back to earth.  Alex Colome is a legitimate closer with another year left on his contract and definite trade appeal to other clubs as the deadline approaches.  The obvious conversation within the White Sox organization is whether they keep him with plans to contend in 2020 or trade him for prospects before the deadline.  White Sox trades of relievers during the rebuild haven’t strengthened the major league club at this point, however none of those relievers (Anthony SwarzakDan Jennings, and Joakim Soria, for example) carried the trade value that Colome currently does.

The remainder of the three effective bullpen pieces are a journeyman named Evan Marshall, whose ERA was zero in mid June yet now resides at 2.37 and a former 18thround draft pick from Nebraska named Aaron Bummer.  Young ‘4A’ players like Jace Fry, Thyago Viera, and Jose Ruiz have not been able to produce with any consistency and carry ERAs of 5.40, 9.00, and 6.86, respectively.  Young relievers that were deemed to be close to helping the big club have dropped like flies recently due to injury, so scratch Zack Burdi, Ryan Burr, and Ian Hamilton from the list of possible fresh bullpen arms for 2019.  Who knows whether those injuries will linger into 2020 (for Burr they definitely will, as he is another Tommy John casualty).

There is no pitching depth in the White Sox system.  The best available pitchers in free agency for the 2020 season will be Gerrit ColeJake Odorizzi, and Madison Bumgarner.  The trend of competitive teams resigning their free agents to long term deals prior to them reaching free agency could take one or more of these starters off the list.  The only way the Sox may be able to acquire pitching is moving Abreu and Colome. Abreu seems to be the darling of the Sox front office; a leader and positive force they simply refuse to move. And Colome, as mentioned earlier, may be more valuable to keep if the Sox determine next year begins the competitive window.

So who starts on the hill in 2020?  When will Kopech come back and is it realistic to believe he’ll be effective right off the bat?  Fan enthusiasm was high for his debut, but this is Kopech’s line pre-injury:  1-1, 5.02 ERA, 14.1 innings pitched, 20 hits allowed, including 4 home runs.  Will Lopez improve?  Will Giolito be able to replicate what he’s done to this point in the 2019 season? Rodon will be absent for most of the year, Nova will be gone, Covey will be gone, Banuelos will be gone, and Detweiler will be gone.  Who will take their places? 

Finally, will the Sox spend $200 million on a 29 year old Cole, a 30 year old Odorizzi, or a 30 year old Bumgarner when they wouldn’t spend $300 million on a 25 year old superstar position player named Manny Machado?

Nick Madrigal and Luis Robert could be up next year and contribute.  Eloy Jimenez could recognize sliders out of the zone and raise his average as well as his slugging percentage. Abreu could be resigned and contributing to a potent young offense.

But if there’s no pitching, there’s no contention.  Period.

The road north:

The Sox trade Abreu for two minor league starters that are currently in High A or Double A (at least) and less than two years removed from a shot at the major leagues.  The Sox need pitching depth, and this would be a hugely gutsy move on the part of Rick Hahn.  In addition, the Sox move Colome at the deadline for another ranked pitching prospect that is nearly major league ready.  These will not be popular moves, especially in the case of Abreu and especially if the Sox find themselves lingering near .500 in four weeks. However, they are necessary. Without pitching depth, the rebuild goes nowhere.

Next, the Sox overspend. It can’t be any simpler than that. They give Cole, Odorizzi, or Bumgarner a massive contract that could come back to bite them in year four or five, but looks really good in years one and two.  This is a chance they have to take.  They have half a season of Giolito and nothing else to hang their hats on. Six years, $216 million.  The first one to sign on the dotted line wins.

You will see Madrigal take Sanchez’s place at second in 2020.  You will see Robert commandeer center field.  However, young outfield prospects like Luis Gonzalez, Luis Basabe, Micker Adolfo, and Blake Rutherford probably won’t be ready yet, so why stop at just Cole/Odorizzi/Bumgarner?  Marcell Ozuna is hitting .259/.331/.515 with 20 home runs and 62 RBI for the St. Louis Cardinals.  He will start the 2020 season as a 29 year old veteran outfielder.  If the Sox could get him on a four year deal, the signing would cover his 29, 30, 31, and 32 year old seasons.  In signing Ozuna, the Sox could use a trade package of one or more of the aforementioned minor league outfielders in a deal for another starting pitcher.  In this hypothetical, we now have four nearly major league ready starting pitchers for Abreu, Colome, and one or more of the Sox top ranked outfield prospects.

Here is what the line up and rotation would look like for 2020:

CF Luis Robert

3B Yoan Moncada

RF Marcell Ozuna

LF Eloy Jimenez

SS Tim Anderson

C James McCann

1B Zack Collins

DH Melky Cabrera (Hahaha, he’s still hitting and he’d be cheap; until Andrew Vaughn is ready.  Then, Collins and Vaughn could battle it out to see who is going to play defense and who is strictly going to hit.)

2B Nick Madrigal

Starting rotation

P Gerrit Cole

P Lucas Giolito

P Dylan Cease

P Michael Kopech (by midseason)

P Reynaldo Lopez or

P Tanner Houck acquired in a trade for Colome (Boston Red Sox #5 ranked prospect) or

P Matt Tabor acquired in a trade for Abreu (Arizona Diamondbacks #13 ranked prospect) or

P Kyle Freeland acquired in a trade for Abreu or multiple Sox outfield prospects (former top prospect of the Colorado Rockies who performed well last year at the major league level)

The Sox need pitching depth and for Hahn to take a couple monetary risks, eschewing sentimentalism in holding on to Abreu when that isn’t the best strategy long term. 

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