When you walk into the Cubs’ circular clubhouse, you can’t miss left-hander Jon Lester’s locker. As you stand at the entrance, it’s at 12 o’clock, straight across the room. Either he’s there or his shadow is.
No one was more important to the Cubs’ lurch from rebuilding toddler to contending adolescent to title-winning adult. When the Cubs signed Lester, a two-time World Series champion at the time, to a $155 million contract after going 73-89 in 2014, they immediately became somebody. It marked them as irrefutably serious about winning.
With the strides the White Sox have been taking this season, it raises an obvious question: When are they going to get their Lester? When will they announce, loudly, that their time is near?
It has to be this offseason. Has to be. This awakening of a season has given the offseason massive meaning.
Before this season began, the Sox tried — and failed — to get All-Star infielder Manny Machado, who would have been a Lester-like signing, the kind that sends a message to a fan base and an industry. It was a bold attempt by a team that had won only 62 games last season. But the Padres offered $50 million more in guaranteed money than the Sox did, and, the last anybody heard, cash still does all the talking in pro sports.
Will the Sox do what it takes when the time comes? They simply have to. Dragging fans through a rebuild and then not landing a top free agent when the time to win arrives constitutes baseball malpractice. With the fruits of the rebuild looking so promising on the South Side, it’s impossible not to look at 2020 and think of third baseman Anthony Rendon or right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who has an opt-out clause, in a Sox uniform.
When Sox rookie Eloy Jimenez hit a two-run home run in the ninth inning to help his team beat the Cubs last week at Wrigley Field, it felt like a moment of import. Our modern obsession with the here and now could have been doing the talking, but it felt like something, just as the Sox’ flirtation with .500 this season feels like something after a 100-loss 2018.
Catcher James McCann, who signed with the Sox in the offseason after four-plus seasons with the Tigers, certainly feels it.
‘‘Absolutely,’’ he said. ‘‘One of the things that I notice is the constant fight. There were days playing against the Sox last year where — I don’t want to say they didn’t fight, but we’d take a lead on them and felt comfortable. Now . . . we might be down 7-1, and I feel comfortable that we’re going to make a comeback.
‘‘It’s just a different [attitude] now. As an outsider watching the team and now being an insider part of the team, it’s a culture of complete buy-in. No one guy is more important than the other. Guys truly want their locker mate to succeed. It’s been a lot of fun to be part of.’’
The Sox are without left-hander Carlos Rodon, who had Tommy John surgery in May, and never had the chance this season to use flame-throwing right-hander Michael Kopech, who needed the same surgery after only four starts last year. Yet they have a respectable record (36-39 through Sunday), even if their minus-62 run differential says they shouldn’t.
Lots of young, exciting players populate the Sox’ clubhouse. But there isn’t a player of Lester’s status or bearing, no one who commands a room by his presence and record the way he does.
‘‘I’d say, at this point in the season, this team is a contender,’’ said McCann, who is hitting .324 and is a finalist to be an All-Star. ‘‘Who knows what’s going to happen down the road? But you have guys in [Class AAA] that are coming up. A guy like [catcher Zack] Collins is here, ready to contribute. We’re one, two pieces away from making a big-time statement in this division.’’
Those pieces aren’t going to come this season, not with the Sox trailing the Twins by 13 games in the American League Central. But next season is a must. General manager Rick Hahn has said over and over that the franchise will spend when the time is right. That right time will be this offseason. And coming up short in free agency isn’t an option.
The Cubs recently found money to sign high-priced closer Craig Kimbrel. That’s what teams trying to win do. That’s what the Sox will have to do soon.
After all the losing, isn’t it fun to talk about them in this way? With success in mind?
‘‘What you’re seeing is that the White Sox are on the rise,’’ McCann said. ‘‘Our organization is getting back to competing for a championship. The Cubs are competing for a championship. There’s nothing better for the city of Chicago than two teams that, who knows, might be playing against each in the World Series one day.’’
For now, we’ll have to settle for a Cubs-Sox rematch July 6-7 at Guaranteed Rate Field. A World Series appearance is going to take a lot more work by the Sox. The offseason beckons.