The White Sox’ young core is in place and ready to blossom. Significant veteran upgrades to the roster have been made, and talk of postseason expectations will be in the air as players trickle into the team’s spring-training facility in Glendale, Arizona, in the coming days. The official report date for pitchers and catchers is Wednesday, and a warm, fuzzy feeling of hope for a better era of baseball on the South Side is expected. Here are five questions to be answered over the course of six weeks at Camelback Ranch:
1. What are the Sox going to do with all those starting pitchers?
This is a tongue-in-cheek question, followed by the tried but true adage “You can never have enough starting pitching.” The rotation out of spring training should be set with right-hander Lucas Giolito, left-hander Dallas Keuchel, righty Reynaldo Lopez, righty Dylan Cease and lefty Gio Gonzalez. Even if talented 23-year-old right-hander Michael Kopech — who enters spring training with no restrictions after Tommy John surgery in September 2018 but has made only four major-league appearances — is lights-out in camp, the Sox figure to ease him back to the major-league roster after he logs some time at Class AAA Charlotte. Lefty Carlos Rodon (Tommy John surgery) won’t be back until after the All-Star break. The Sox will cross that bridge when he gets there. It’ll be a nice bridge to cross if the rotation that’s in place is healthy and performing to expectations.
The biggest “will he or won’t he” question mark and perhaps the most vital is Lopez, who has pitched like one of the worst starters in baseball and one of the best in extended spurts over two seasons with the Sox. A strong spring would build a needed foundation and could set an important tone for the 26-year-old.
2. There’s a job or two to be won in the bullpen. Who will win it?
Closer Alex Colome, right-handers Steve Cishek, Evan Marshall, Kelvin Herrera and Jimmy Cordero and left-handers Aaron Bummer and Jace Fry should have spots to lose. A 13-man bullpen would leave a spot for one who makes an impression from a group that includes right-handers Matt Foster, Jose Ruiz, Carson Fulmer (out of options), Zack Burdi and Ian Hamilton or lefty non-roster invitees Tyler Johnson, Adalberto Mejia and Bryan Mitchell. Burdi, who is coming off two injuries, including Tommy John surgery, and Hamilton, who’s back from an injury-plagued 2019, might be long shots to break camp with the team but might not have to wait long to make the roster.
Like Lopez in the rotation, the wild card in the pen is Herrera, who had the worst season of his career (6.14 ERA) after signing a two-year, $18 million contract. He attributed it to the aftereffects from foot surgery and posted a 1.76 ERA in his final 15 appearances. Getting through the spring 100 percent could springboard the two-time All-Star to being the reliever he was signed to be.
3. Who’s on second?
Second-base prospect Nick Madrigal, the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft, will need an off-the-charts spring or a contract like the ones Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez received to emerge as the Opening Day starter. His extraordinary contact skills and exceptional feel around the middle of the infield notwithstanding, the 5-7 Madrigal probably has more to do and likely will have to wait for that opportunity after service-time issues are passed early in the season. Madrigal played just 29 games at Charlotte last season.
“He’s got a few more things to prove,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “Developmentally, he hasn’t necessarily answered all the questions we have for him at the minor leagues.
“We don’t have him written in pen as the Opening Day second baseman, but could he change our minds? Yeah.”
If he doesn’t, utility infielder-outfielder Leury Garcia and/or heady rookie Danny Mendick, who batted .308/.325/.462 in 40 plate appearances in September, will man the position.
4. Who will lead off?
Manager Rick Renteria has 33 Cactus League games to toy with lineups, and the biggest question mark is the leadoff spot. A group that includes Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Edwin Encarnacion, Yasmani Grandal, Nomar Mazara, Jimenez, Robert and probably Garcia has been compared to the mashing “South Side Hit Men” of 1977 by broadcaster Steve Stone but has no obvious leadoff man. Garcia (who batted first 139 times in 2019), Anderson (the reigning American League batting champ who walked 15 times), Moncada and Robert probably fit Renteria’s mold for the job, although Robert wouldn’t have that put on his plate until later in the season, if it all. Renteria mentioned Garcia’s modest on-base percentage (.310 in 2019) as less than ideal for the role, so he’s not a lock. A dark horse? Why not Grandal, who walked 109 times and posted a .380 on-base percentage for the Brewers last season? And don’t count out Madrigal at some point after he arrives. After the leadoff man, two through nine have numerous interchangeable possibilities.
5. What impact will Grandal have on the pitching staff and James McCann?
Signed to a four-year, $73 million contract, Grandal already seems to have made an impact. He viewed tape of Sox pitchers even before he signed and will have studied in-depth and had numerous conversations with them before he catches his first official side session Wednesday. Grandal is an elite pitch-framer, which pitchers should learn to love this spring, and his priority to make them better seems authentic and will be embraced. McCann, who had established himself as staff ace Giolito’s favorite receiver while having an All-Star first half with his bat, worked on framing during the offseason after signing a one-year, $5.4 million deal in December. How McCann responds to a backup role that won’t enhance his market as a free agent after the season will be worth watching, although he profiles as a good soldier who won’t make waves.