The White Sox officially hit the desert in less than 24 hours.
Plenty of guys are already in Arizona, of course, and have been posting about their workouts for days. But pitchers and catchers report Wednesday, with the first full-squad workout to follow a few days later.
Yes, baseball has begun.
It’s obviously a much different vibe this time around for the White Sox, who are coming off the massive disappointment of 2022, in which a popular preseason World Series pick finished .500 and missed the playoffs. The fan base seems generally disgusted and will need some winning baseball to turn that feeling around, though winning is certainly a possibility.
Thing is, it comes with a lot of “ifs,” a lot of questions that will need to be answered. That’s what spring training is for, and we’ll learn an awful lot about the White Sox over the next six weeks before they head to Houston to open the six-month marathon that is the regular season.
Here are 10 things I’m hoping to learn as I head down to White Sox camp.
1. What did Pedro Grifol & Co. have these guys working on during the offseason?
Rick Hahn said it in his end-of-season press conference: The biggest problem with this team in 2022 was the offense. It was far from the only issue, of course, but simultaneously disappointing seasons from Tim Anderson, Yoán Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, Andrew Vaughn and Luis Robert were too much for the lineup to bear. José Abreu’s departure stripped the team’s best hitter from the roster. So how is this offense going to improve?
Even without any major tweaks, it would be reasonable to expect all those players to have better seasons in 2023. But were there any major tweaks? Was a different message delivered, team-wide, than the one that the guys received in 2022? And while health plays such a major factor in all of this, what has the new coaching staff – the biggest change the front office delivered during the winter – done to fix the White Sox’ biggest issue? We saw evidence of young guys like Oscar Colás and Romy Gonzalez working with some of the new coaches this offseason. What about everyone else, the main players whose responsibility it is to turn the offensive fortunes around this season?
2. What does life after José Abreu look like on and off the field?
As mentioned, Abreu’s illustrious White Sox tenure came to an end this winter, and he’s now suiting up for the Astros. It’s the first spring camp at Camelback Ranch without him in a decade, and for many of these players, the first taste of life in the major leagues without him standing over their shoulder. Abreu was a leader in the clubhouse and a mentor to many of the team’s young players, who he referred to as his sons on a regular basis. He led by example both as a workaholic and someone who gutted out absolutely everything that came his way to help his team win. Did Abreu teach the guys well enough to leave them in a good place? Are they ready to forge their own paths?
Asked earlier this year if there was anyone able to take over Abreu’s role, Eloy Jiménez honestly said that he had no idea. Finding someone or multiple people to help lead will be critical for these White Sox, but perhaps not as critical as finding a way to make up for the consistent offensive production Abreu took with him to Houston. In addition to solving the problems that plagued this lineup a year ago, the players will have to then hit well enough to fill the enormous hole left by Abreu. It’s an unenviable position to be in, to lose the clubhouse leader and the team’s best hitter in one fell swoop. How will the White Sox figure out life without Abreu? Will they figure it out at all?
3. What happens with the No. 5 spot in the rotation, and is there enough depth in the event Mike Clevinger is unavailable?
It remains impossible to guess what will happen with Mike Clevinger, the White Sox’ offseason addition to the starting rotation currently under investigation by the league following allegations of domestic violence and child abuse. The team has committed to not commenting on the investigation until its conclusion. But Clevinger is a pitcher, and there will be plenty of attention on whether he reports with all the other pitchers and catchers this week. Does the league keep him off the field? Or will he remain a presence at camp and with the team until the investigation concludes?
At the very least, the mystery surrounding his status magnifies already-existing questions about the White Sox’ starting depth. Davis Martin was a solid sixth starter last season, but he was only that low on the depth chart because of the success of Johnny Cueto, whose springtime signing and ensuing domination on the big league mound allowed the team to weather Lance Lynn’s injury and the DFA’ing of Dallas Keuchel. Cueto’s a Marlin these days, so who will be there past Martin should the White Sox need to draw on their depth – be it because of Clevinger or just the regular needs of a baseball season?
4. Who wins the right-field job, or how does the playing time get divvied up?
Instead of acquiring a reliable, veteran right fielder during the winter, the White Sox are placing their eggs in the Colás basket. He’s been an exciting prospect since well before the White Sox inked him as the top-rated player in his class of international free agents, and he could very well prove the offseason hype warranted thanks to a combination of left-handed hitting, power hitting and defense in the outfield. He tore up the minor leagues last season and earned a shot at a big league job.
But he’s also never played an inning of Major League Baseball. And so the most interesting position battle at Camelback Ranch will be in right field. Gavin Sheets has more big league experience, obviously, but as a natural first baseman, he comes nowhere close to matching what Colás – a former two-way player who played plenty of center field in the minors – can do in the outfield. So will Colás run away with the job? Can Sheets outhit Colás this spring and force the White Sox to carve up the playing time? And how does Jiménez – who Grifol told to practice as a right fielder this winter – work into all of this?
5. What does the back end of the bullpen look like without Liam Hendriks?
It was tough news to hear the White Sox’ All-Star and all-person closer is facing a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As I wrote when the news broke, sportswriters aren’t supposed to root for anything, but Hendriks, because of his unending list of charitable efforts to his vocal support of people of all walks of life, is someone very easy to root for and I wish him nothing but the healthiest and speediest recovery – and I’m obviously not alone in that.
The White Sox have committed to not updating Hendriks’ status until Opening Day, at the earliest, and you would assume that would mean they’ll need a different pitcher (or pitchers) to man the ninth inning. The bullpen is easily the deepest spot on the roster, so there are plenty of candidates to choose from. But with so many options, Grifol & Co. can take the spring to figure out exactly which is best. Will it be just a “next man up” approach, with a veteran setup man like Kendall Graveman or Joe Kelly getting the keys to the closer’s job? Will fans get to see Reynaldo López get a turn at the gig after projecting him as a future closer all winter? Will Garrett Crochet’s Tommy John recovery be far enough along to throw him into the mix? Or will there just be an “all hands on deck” approach, with a closer by committee?
6. Will Yasmani Grandal’s body allow him to shoulder a full workload of catching duty?
When the White Sox gave Grandal what was then the richest free-agent deal in club history ahead of the 2020 season, it looked like they were set behind the plate for the better part of the next half decade. But 2021 and 2022 brought significant injuries for Grandal, and it’s now a wonder whether he can get back to handling the No. 1 catcher’s job after years of recovery. He was obviously heavily impacted by injuries a year ago, when he had a career-worst offensive season and struggled physically behind the plate, as well, done in by lingering effects of offseason knee surgery and then suffering a back injury in-season. He’s spent the offseason working out like a madman, but will the effects of those injuries truly be behind him?
We’ll find out, seeing if he’s handed back the normal workload of a starting catcher in the big leagues or if he continues to be shifted around to the DH position and maybe even a little first base, like he has been in the last couple years. Grandal’s offensive numbers will of course be of great interest, as well, as he was one of the worst offenders in a season of disappointing performances from White Sox bats, and a return to form there will be equally critical. But physically handling a big catching workload is important for the team’s defensive improvement, as they struggled as a catching corps in 2022. Plus, if Grandal does need significant time as the DH, that means more Jiménez in the outfield, hampering defensive-improvement efforts out there.
7. Will Andrew Benintendi become a tone-setter for the White Sox?
Grifol told me in January that Benintendi, who now sits atop the list of richest free agents in team history, will set the one for how the White Sox play in 2023. It makes sense Grifol could speak confidently on that, as he coached with Benintendi’s former club, the Royals, the past two seasons and knows exactly what type of player the White Sox’ biggest offseason acquisition is. Fans’ reactions to Benintendi’s signing – which were positive but relatively lukewarm – were mostly colored by what he wasn’t: one of the biggest names on this winter’s free-agent market, a player “worthy” of being a team’s all-time most expensive signing and not the only “name” free agent the White Sox signing this offseason. None of that, obviously, was within his control.
The stuff that is in his control seems to be a skill set that will greatly benefit the White Sox in the many areas they needed to improve. He boasts good on-base skills. He’s a good defender with a Gold Glove on his mantle. He’s a heady player with good base-running ability. He’s someone who brings the “take the extra base” style of play that the White Sox so sorely missed in 2022 – and allowed a team like the Guardians to beat them on a regular basis. If Benintendi can do all those things and provide an example for the rest of the roster of how Grifol wants them to play, maybe he can be that tone-setter. He’s walking into a well established clubhouse, which could make that somewhat difficult. But if anyone wants to know what Grifol is looking for, they have a prime example in Benintendi.
8. What happens at second base?
Seemingly the team’s biggest positional need for the second offseason in a row, the front office did nothing to address second base, and so camp begins with a positional battle between a handful of internal candidates who spent the majority of 2022 as minor leaguers. Romy Gonzalez comes in as the favorite after flashes of impressiveness during the tail end of last season. Lenyn Sosa got the briefest cup of coffee in the middle of last season, hitting a homer at Kauffman Stadium and showing little else. Yolbert Sanchez could technically be considered part of the mix, and of course, there’s Leury García, though as always he would figure to be most valuable as a versatile utility piece.
There’s always the possibility of what happened last spring happening again and the White Sox finding a springtime signing like they did with Josh Harrison. Some veteran dependability would be valuable, considering the White Sox are trying to win a championship this year and Gonzalez and Sosa have a grand total of 29 big league starts at second base between them. Hahn said earlier this year that second base was still an area that could potentially be added to, and we’ll see if there’s an addition in the early days of camp. Otherwise, these are the guys fighting for a starting job.
9. Will Lucas Giolito’s second resurrection act be as good as his first?
Giolito and Ethan Katz have been through this before, turning the “worst pitcher in baseball” into an All Star and the ace of the South Side staff. Now, we’ll find out if they can make lightning strike twice. Giolito was far from the worst pitcher in baseball last year, but he was far from the ace he showed he could be in the past, too, struggling to gain any consistency over a season that started with too many changes to handle, be it his offseason weight gain, an Opening Day injury to his core or the early-season COVID infection he dealt with. It never got on track from there.
Katz has proven himself the White Sox’ main fixer in his brief stint as the team’s pitching coach, turning Carlos Rodón and then Dylan Cease into top-of-the-league pitchers. He’s known Giolito since he was a kid pitching under Katz as a high schooler, so you’d figure there’s no one better for Giolito to spend the winter working with in his quest to right the ship. If Giolito can get back to his old self, the White Sox’ rotation could again be a driving force for this team and one of the more impressive units in the AL.
10. Did the White Sox make any big changes to avoid injuries?
Usually, you can sum up a rash of injuries like the one the White Sox experienced last season as really, really bad luck. Not there’s anything nefarious about it, but this is two years in a row of really, really bad luck for the South Siders, who saw one significant injury after another during their division-winning campaign in 2021 and then were just blitzkrieged by the injury bug from start to finish in 2022. Fans are a little quicker to dive in on conspiracy theories and question whether the team is doing something wrong that’s leading to all the injuries, and while bad luck is still likely the biggest culprit, the White Sox could at least try to do something to keep their players healthy.
So, in the wake of 2022’s neverending injury parade, did they? A year after “reimagining” their strength-and-conditioning efforts, they supposedly had some ideas on changes to make, at least if you want to pull something from Grifol’s aside to Hahn during his introductory press conference in November. The spring would seem the perfect time to describe exactly what’s been tinkered with to try to keep these guys on the field after a season in which the core group rarely appeared in a game together. Will any efforts completely prevent injuries? Of course not. But you don’t have to be perfect to be better.