GLENDALE, Ariz. — This was Day 1 of spring training, when pitchers and catchers report to officially open the baseball season, when almost every team dreams a little (or a lot), loses its grip on reality and believes that if things happen to fall right, it can be a contender, no matter how thin the roster might be.
The White Sox, in Year 2 of a rebuild and coming off a 95-loss season, probably shouldn’t be one of those teams harboring unreasonable expectations. As bright as their future appears with an improved farm system, people with sound baseball senses know this.
Maybe next year — and that might even be a stretch — the Sox will be positioned to contend for the postseason.
But not now.
Unless, that is, your ears have been open to what players, young and experienced alike, as well as manager Rick Renteria, have said since SoxFest and continued to say the first day of spring training Wednesday.
“A lot of people say that [we won’t win], but this is baseball,’’ said newcomer Joakim Soria, 33, the top candidate to be the Sox’ closer in 2018. “Baseball has a lot of surprises. You’ve seen through the years teams that are rebuilding, and they have postseasons. I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up winning the [American League Central].’’
Early metrics systems for forecasting player performance such as PECOTA peg the Sox for a 73-89 record. Oddsmakers projecting Sox win totals in the 60s see a team that won 67 games with Todd Frazier, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Melky Cabrera and Anthony Swarzak on board for much of the season and know Soria and catcher Welington Castillo were the big offseason additions.
Right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, for one, would take the over.
“We’re probably going to surprise a lot of people,’’ Gonzalez said.
Pitching coach Don Cooper is also bullish on the Sox. He said if young pitchers Lucas Giolito and Carson Fulmer, whose solid work down the stretch helped the Sox finish on a 22-22 high note in 2017, take another step, and if the Sox play hard like they did under Renteria, look out.
“If we do that individually and somehow make it collectively, I wouldn’t be surprised if we make a little noise,’’ Cooper said, “because I think we’re getting closer.’’
The Sox did have six pitchers on the list of candidates for the AL Rookie of the Month in September: Left-hander Aaron Bummer (0.96 ERA), Fulmer (1.64), Giolito (2.23), Gregory Infante (1.42), Reynaldo Lopez (4.10) and Juan Minaya (six saves). And projected future star second baseman Yoan Moncada had a .276/.349/.469 slash line with five home runs in the last month.
“You see it’s the tip of what we can do,’’ said right-hander Nate Jones, the longest-tenured Sox player. “You believe in that and say, ‘Heck yeah, we did that at the end, and we can do it in the beginning [of 2018].’’
Rebuild or no rebuild, Renteria managed every game to win last season, and he’ll do the same this year.
“I’m not going to sell them short,’’ Renteria said after workouts. “We’ll shoot high, and we’ll see where we fall from there. I’m not going to lower the bar and be happy if we surpass that bar. I’m not that person.’’
General manager Rick Hahn likes the enthusiasm he’s hearing from players and was aware of players and some media pushing the “don’t count the Sox out” angle, but he was the voice of reason during his first media scrum of camp.
“The enthusiasm is great and a lot of it is coming from these players who think they have the ability to surprise some people,’’ Hahn said. “That’s the mentality Ricky and his staff created.
“We love the excitement, not only coming out of that clubhouse but from our fans. We’re not going to do anything to stifle that level of excitement. At the same time, we know we’re one year into a rebuild. These things traditionally take longer than that.’’
But hear more on this final note from the clubhouse:
“Baseball is a different animal, and you never know if this is going to be the year,’’ Soria said. “If everybody has the best year of their career, we can go on a good run.’’
As they say, it’s why they play the games.
Follow me on Twitter @CST_soxvan.