No American League team improved more over the winter than the Chicago White Sox, who made numerous aggressive moves aimed to end a long playoff drought.
In a makeover of their everyday lineup, the White Sox added catcher Yasmani Grandal and DH Edwin Encarnacion in free agency and acquired outfielder Nomar Mazara in a trade with Texas. Super-prospect Luis Robert was signed to a lucrative extension before even appearing in a big-league game, positioning him to start in center field on opening day, service time be damned.
The pitching staff also got a makeover, with Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez joining the rotation and Steve Cishek slotting into the bullpen.
Clear winners of the off-season, the White Sox will be hugely disappointed if they do not earn their first playoff berth since 2008. The road to contender status for Chicago, which finished 72-89 last season, was lengthy.
In December 2016, the White Sox had just completed their fourth straight losing season, finishing no higher than fourth in the AL Central each season. General manager Rick Hahn had concluded that to propel the White Sox to the upper echelon in the division, he must take a few steps back first. And they weren't baby steps either. At the winter meetings, Hahn executed two blockbuster trades that have become the linchpins for his club's potential turnaround.
First, he sent ace Chris Sale to Boston for infielder Yoan Moncada, starting pitcher Michael Kopech and two other lower-level minor leaguers. The next day, he traded standout outfielder Adam Eaton to the Nationals for pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning.
A few months later, about halfway through the 2017 regular season, Hahn completed the final deal that has made the White Sox's future so bright. Jose Quintana would have been the ace on most every other team had he not played in Sale's shadow. The lefty was clearly Hahn's last big trade chip, and he capitalized on him in a big way by making a rare White Sox-Cubs swap. Quintana was shipped a few miles north to the Wrigley for youngsters Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease and two other players.
All three of the aforementioned deals have become home runs for Hahn and the White Sox. Let's examine his returns:
In 2019, Moncada slashed .315/.367/.548, hit 25 homers, 34 doubles and five triples and stole 10 bases. In 49 starts in the minor leagues, Kopech had a 3.28 ERA and appeared on the brink of big-league stardom before losing all last season because of Tommy John surgery. He should be back sometime this summer.
Few American League pitchers last season were better than Giolito, the White Sox's ace. In 29 starts, the big right-hander had a 3.41 ERA with a 1.06 WHIP, limited hitters to a .206 batting average and struck out 228 in 176.2 innings. He led the majors with three complete games (including two shutouts), and was deservedly selected to his first All-Star team.
Lopez was tremendous for Chicago two years ago, and while he took a small step back last season, he's still a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. Dunning has yet to crack the bigs, but he has a 2.74 minor league ERA and should begin the 2020 season in Triple-A.
Jimenez rocketed 31 homers in only 468 at-bats as a rookie, and is well on his way to becoming one of the more feared right-handed hitters in the AL. In 14 starts last season, Cease struggled (5.79 ERA), but his minor league track record indicates he is better than that, and he'll get another chance as No. 5 starter in 2020.
Most importantly, the trades imported young, core talent without breaking the bank. Jimenez, Giolito, Moncada, Lopez, Kopech, Cease and Dunning will make just north of $5 million combined in 2020. That's why Hahn was able to go on one hell of a shopping spree this winter.
In Grandal, the White Sox added probably the best two-way catcher in the game not named J.T. Realmuto. The veteran is durable, has tremendous power -- as evidenced by the 28 bombs he crushed for the Brewers last season -- and can do it all defensively. He also brings just about every intangible you could want, and don't be surprised if he emerges as de facto captain.
Encarnacion is one of the more consistent right-handed hitters in baseball. He has hit 32 or more homers in nine straight seasons. Mazara is only 24 and just a couple seasons removed from knocking in 101 runs for the Rangers.
Keuchel and Gonzalez will slot nicely between Giolito and Lopez in the rotation, and add veteran leadership and stability to a young pitching staff. Cishek has been one of the more consistent set-up men in baseball for a decade. Robert is arguably the best prospect in the sport, and most experts agree he'll be an instant star.
That group will join a lineup that already had the American League's batting champion (shortstop Tim Anderson) and RBI leader (first baseman Jose Abreu).
Yet, the question remains: Will all these moves be enough to get the White Sox into the playoffs?
In 2019, the Minnesota Twins set a major league record by blasting 307 homers as they ran away with the AL Central. And they added more power this winter in third baseman Josh Donaldson, a former MVP. The Twins have pitching questions, but they are the favorites to repeat in the division.
With so many new faces, Chicago unsurprisingly will need time to gel, but it's positioned to give Minnesota a run for its money. At the very least, the White Sox should be in the wild-card hunt with the Angels, Rays, Athletics and Indians.
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