The 2016 White Sox had the makings of a competitive team: average to above-average bats at six positions, an exceptional one-two punch in starters Chris Sale and José Quintana, former no. 3 overall pick Carlos Rodon in his first full year in the rotation, and a few good relief pitchers.
But after a hot start, the Sox faded to 78–84 and a fourth-place finish in the AL Central, which made it a typical campaign under Robin Ventura, who in five years led the White Sox to an average record of 75–87 before he resigned after the end of this past season. It would’ve been sad if it weren’t so boring.
Then, in the span of two days, GM Rick Hahn traded probably his two best players, Sale and Adam Eaton, for pretty much every Red Sox and Nationals prospect he could get his, um, Hahnds on. Quintana might be out the door soon too, along with Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera, José Abreu, David Robertson, and anyone else who’s old enough to have seen Jurassic Park when it first came out.
It’s a shame that the White Sox couldn’t make it work with a core of Sale, Eaton, and Quintana — who were all 27 years old last year and combined for 16.3 WAR for only $17.3 million in salary. But if a couple of things go right, the return will be well worth it.
Going by MLB Pipeline’s rankings, two of the seven players Chicago got back — infielder Yoan Moncada and right-handed pitcher Lucas Giolito — are the no. 1 and no. 3 prospects in baseball, respectively. Chicago’s top four prospects, and six of its top 10, were in other organizations as of Tuesday morning.
Moncada’s value, as a switch-hitting line drive machine with speed and the ability to play either second or third base, is clear. Between Moncada, Brett Lawrie, and shortstop Tim Anderson (himself a former first-rounder who posted a 102 OPS+ as a rookie), the White Sox will have the infield most likely to be mistaken for an NFL defensive backfield, and that’s exciting on its own.
But adding the pitchers it acquired over the past two days to the arms already in the system means Chicago has an astounding collection of talent that presages an intriguing next few years.
Let’s focus on seven White Sox pitchers, all age 23 or younger. Three were acquired this week, the other four early in the past three drafts:
- Giolito, 22 (Eaton trade)
- Reynaldo López, 22 (Eaton trade)
- Michael Kopech, 20 (Sale trade)
- Rodon, 23 (drafted no. 3 overall, 2014)
- Carson Fulmer, 22 (drafted no. 8 overall, 2015)
- Zack Burdi, 21 (drafted no. 26 overall, 2016)
- Alec Hansen, 22 (drafted no. 49 overall, 2016)
These pitchers have two things in common to varying degrees: Outrageous raw stuff, and a scouting report that ends with “… if he can throw strikes.”
Giolito, in case the rankings didn’t give this away, is the gem of the bunch — a 6-foot, 6-inch giant who, in 2012, could’ve become the first high school right-hander to be drafted no. 1 overall — ahead of Carlos Correa, among others — until he had Tommy John surgery as a senior. At times, his fastball hit triple digits, and that’s paired with an equally nasty curveball. This year, when ESPN’s Keith Law praised Jason Groome’s hook, he called the pitch “the best high school curveball I’ve seen, at least since Lucas Giolito’s.” Before the 2014 season, Baseball Prospectus prospect writer Jason Parks, now of the Chicago Cubs, dropped double potential 80s (the highest grade on the scouting scale) on the fastball and curve.
Three years later, Giolito’s not throwing quite as hard, and his command and change-up are still developing. Baseball Prospectus ranked outfielder Victor Robles ahead of Giolito in the Nats top 10, a list that Parks’s successor Jeffrey Paternostro accompanied with an essay titled “What if Lucas Giolito is a reliever?” Meanwhile, Giolito got his first taste of big league action and didn’t exactly dominate; he posted a 6.75 ERA and walked more than he struck out over 21.1 innings.
Still, the potential to become a like-for-like Sale replacement — a 220-inning, 150 ERA+, 30 percent strikeout rate bell cow — remains for Giolito to a greater extent than any other pitcher in the minor leagues. You know, if he can throw strikes.
Unlike Giolito, López stands an even 6-foot and signed out of the Dominican Republic for $17,000. But like Giolito, he’s a hard-throwing fastball-curveball guy who rocketed to his big league debut in 2016, then watched his ERA and walk rate swell up like a weather balloon. Still, he was BP’s no. 3 prospect in the Nats system before the trade, and MLB Pipeline has him at no. 38 overall.
Much has been made of Kopech’s alleged 105 mph fastball in a start this past July — it’s been years since so bullshitty a report was swallowed so credulously by the baseball-following public. Nevertheless, Kopech is a right-handed Texan, which means he’s big …
… and throws hard. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen had Kopech’s fastball at 96–100, touching 101, in the Arizona Fall League this year. That’s plenty fast, even if it’s not 105. But Longenhagen went on to write that Kopech’s no. 2 starter ceiling is contingent on his learning to throw strikes. I’d add that it’s also contingent on his learning to use his non-pitching hand when he punches his teammates, but baby steps.
When he was at N.C. State, Rodon generated an astonishing number of superlatives. Before the draft, MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo called him “the best college lefty since David Price.” In 2014, Aaron Fitt, then of Baseball America, said, “Rodon, of course, owns the most explosive slider in college baseball.” I’ll add to that: Rodon’s the best college pitcher I’ve seen in the past five years. He is an industrial-strength ass-kicker whose potential would be the talk of any organization that didn’t also employ first Sale and now Giolito.
Rodon, who’s now thrown 304.1 big league innings since he was drafted, has established himself as a strikeout-an-inning guy, but has managed only a 101 ERA+ in his career, thanks in part to wildness. Since 2015, 76 pitchers have thrown 300 or more innings, and Rodon has the ninth-highest walk rate among them. A look at Rodon’s peripherals conjures up images of Trevor Bauer, only bigger, left-handed, and with an extra 50 points of opponent BABIP.
But Rodon’s already evolving, using his fastball more and his sinker less in 2016, and he cut his walk rate from 11.7 percent as a rookie to 7.6 percent last year. And 19.7 percent of the sliders he threw got a swing and miss — better than Matt Harvey. He’s still got no. 2 starter potential, if he can throw more strikes.
Fulmer’s the best college pitcher I’ve seen since Rodon, but as a bespectacled right-hander who must’ve bribed someone on the PR staff to get listed at 6-foot, Fulmer certainly looks nothing like Rodon. I saw him pitch a few times during his sophomore and junior years at Vanderbilt, and while I’d recognize his face, I couldn’t tell you anything about his delivery. My mental image of Fulmer pitching is less of a human than of a glowing metallic cube that spits out lightning and baseballs. It’s unique, violent, and polarizing, but it can put some wild-ass spin on a curveball, one of as many as four potentially average offerings, which represent the potential for a pretty decent starter in the hands of someone who knows where they’re going.
Of course, in his first taste of big league action in 2016, Fulmer struck out 10 and walked seven in 11.2 innings. He needs to throw more strikes.
Burdi’s the only one of these seven pitchers who’s a nailed-on reliever, but with a fastball that legitimately tops out at 102 and a high-80s slider that must’ve made him look like a cross between prime Brad Lidge and Phobos, the Greek god of fear, to ACC hitters last season. Nobody outside of big league hitters is prepared for stuff like Burdi’s, because nobody outside of big league pitchers has that kind of repertoire. Burdi struck out 14.1 batters per nine innings as a junior at Louisville, then rocketed to Triple-A by season’s end, with a K/9 of 12.1 in 26 appearances across four levels.
Burdi’s got two main weaknesses: First, the degree to which his stuff plays up in short stints confines him to the bullpen, and second, he posted a 4.7 BB/9 in the minors. He’s got to throw more strikes.
Hansen’s the weirdest of the bunch. First of all, you need to do yourself a favor and take a look at his pitch face. Whenever he throws, Hansen looks like he’s trying to stab an elephant to death and fit a whole tomato in his mouth at the same time.
A 6-foot-7 right-hander, Hansen throws in the mid-90s with a potential plus slider. That combination made him a contender for the no. 1 overall pick in this past year’s draft until, during his junior year at Oklahoma, he lost the strike zone to a truly alarming degree. By season’s end, Hansen got booted all the way out of the rotation and dropped to the second round in a fairly weak draft, but the White Sox have already started to fix him. Hansen posted a 6.8 BB/9 his junior year at Oklahoma, but in 12 pro starts his BB/9 was 3.3. You’ll never get out of Double-A walking seven batters per nine innings, but teams can live with a 3.3 BB/9, particularly from a late-inning reliever, which Hansen could become even if he can’t stick in the rotation.
But he needs to throw more strikes.
If all seven of those pitchers reach their full potential, the White Sox will have one of the best rotations in recent baseball history, plus a top closer in Burdi, plus Hansen in reserve. Of course, that’ll never happen, but Hahn has given himself a lot of spins of the roulette wheel, and a few of those spins — Giolito and Rodon in particular — have a decent shot at panning out.
Now they need to tilt the table.
The first thing Chicago needs to do is make sure it holds on to pitching coach Don Cooper, one of a handful of coaches across the league with a reputation for working miracles. Cooper, formerly Chicago’s minor league pitching coordinator, helped turn Sale from a maybe-reliever to a top-five starter by, among other things, cutting his walk rate. He turned Esteban Loaiza from a journeyman with a 95 career ERA+ to the AL Cy Young runner-up in 2003, and resurrected Gavin Floyd’s career, to say nothing of turning Quintana from a minor league free agent into an All-Star. Now entering his 15th season as Chicago’s big league pitching coach, Cooper has seldom had so much good raw material to work with.
Second, Hahn needs to go get a catcher who can catch. Last year, Chicago’s two primary catchers, Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila, were two of the worst pitch framers in the big leagues. Navarro finished 16.8 runs below average, worst in the league, and Avila bumbled in at 6.8 runs below average. That’s no good for a young staff that has problems throwing strikes from time to time. Losing strikes around the margins is not only bad for its own sake; it drives up pitch counts and is bad for the morale of developing pitchers. And even though the White Sox just spent a first-rounder on catcher Zack Collins, Collins is known more for his bat than his glove and might not even stick behind the plate. Hahn has to get his young pitchers some more help back there no matter what.
Third, even though Hahn’s given himself the best prospect in baseball plus a few other pieces by trading Sale and Eaton, he’s still got more pieces to move if the rebuild is supposed to evolve into a tank job. Cooper’s already got seven cracks at developing the next Sale, but he’s even more likely to succeed with 10.
Or Hahn could just stand pat. Losing Sale and Eaton hurts, but one of the most amazing things about these two trades is that the White Sox, for the most part, got players who were pretty close to the majors, not a bunch of Single-A projects. Moncada, Giolito, and López all got a taste of the big leagues last year. Among returning prospects, Fulmer has major league experience and Burdi will get there soon. Add them to a rotation with Rodon and Quintana, who’s on a team-friendly deal through 2020, and the White Sox could shoot the moon and return to .500 in a year or two if everything goes right.
By their nature, prospects are unpredictable, but seldom has one team acquired so many good ones in such a short period of time. Such a windfall has turned the White Sox from a sad and boring team to one of the clubs to watch in 2017.