Quite often in the sports writing world, we’re tasked with answering the question, “What’s next?”
Here’s a perhaps more appropriate question facing the 2023 edition of the White Sox:
Indeed, there’s plenty of overlap when it comes to the answer. But given how shockingly awful things have gone this summer on the South Side, it’s worth wondering what can possibly be accomplished with seven more weeks’ worth of games remaining on the schedule.
It all generally falls under the banner of preparing for 2024, a season in which Rick Hahn has stated it’s “viable” for the White Sox to compete. The AL Central isn’t looking any stronger today, even with the White Sox way out of contention, than it did earlier in the season, when the South Siders were within striking distance. The Twins are not far above .500, and pending any offseason activity by them or the Guardians or the Tigers that dramatically reshapes the landscape, no team should figure to be uncatchable next season.
But what will the White Sox look like by then?
The work of figuring that out is already well underway, and team brass has been talking on that topic since the trade deadline at the beginning of this month, when seven players were shipped out of town and the farm system was stocked with intriguing youngsters.
There’s been a lot of talk about culture-building and roster-building and the things that Pedro Grifol and his staff are going to be working on over the season’s final weeks to get a jump start on 2024, as disappointing as it is for the White Sox that they aren’t playing for anything more down the stretch.
But some questions loom larger than others, so here’s a look at what to look for before the clock runs out on a 2023 campaign most of the South Side is itching to forget.
All eyes on Oscar Colás
It seems no player is receiving more attention from Grifol and the coaching staff than Colás, who was, before the calendar even turned from 2022 to 2023, being discussed as the White Sox’ next everyday right fielder. He won a position battle in the spring and started the season in that spot.
He failed dramatically, with poor offensive results and even a host of poor defensive moments — notable for a guy talked up as part of the team’s defensive improvement in the outfield — in the season’s first month, earning a trip back to Triple-A.
Colás again flourished in the minors, from a results standpoint, and returned to the majors in early July after two months of working on plate discipline and the mental side of the game.
To this point, though, not much has changed at the big league level. Colás’ numbers remain mostly unimpressive — he entered Sunday slashing .226/.255/.312 — and he’s made a shocking number of gaffes in right field, mistakes Grifol has diagnosed as stemming from a lack of focus.
Grifol has repeatedly talked about the amount of work there is to do with Colás, and the importance of that work, to turn him into the right fielder the White Sox need him to be. And indeed, if their free-agent investment in him from a couple years back is any indication, he’s very much a part of the long-term planning on the South Side.
If the White Sox are going to compete in 2024, they’ll need Colás to be a lot better than he’s been in the majors this season. Getting him to that point starts now.
“There’s a lot of things we’re doing with Colás,” Grifol said this week. “Sometimes we feel we give him too much, but this is the time to do it. We’ve just got to stay on him, hold him accountable, and he has to hold himself accountable. It’s part of the process. There’s a lot going on in his mind on top of navigating a major league game offensively, defensively, on the bases.
“We’re giving it to him pretty good, and he’s really doing a good job taking it all in and really trying to apply it all on the field.”
What will happen at catcher?
There’s a lot of time between now and Opening Day next season, but the position battle for the No. 1 catcher’s job will likely start in earnest shortly.
Korey Lee was one of two well regarded minor league backstops acquired in deadline deals, 20-year-old Edgar Quero, now the White Sox’ No. 3 prospect, the other. Lee is closer to the majors than the youthful Quero and even has a handful of big league games on his resume from a cup of coffee last summer with the Astros.
Both Hahn and Grifol have talked fairly adamantly about Lee’s arrival to the White Sox being relatively imminent. Lee was dealing with an oblique injury in the time leading up to the trade, and he’s been working his way back to normalcy with Triple-A Charlotte.
As for when Lee ascends to the South Side?
“Health-wise, he’s good. Catching, he’s good. I’ve seen a couple of his games. On the offensive side, he’s gotten his hits,” Grifol said. “But the rhythm is just not completely there. He’s getting really close. I’m assuming we’ll see him here pretty soon. But he looks good. I’m excited to see him.”
With Yasmani Grandal due to hit free agency and Seby Zavala on the IL at the end of a woeful season from the standpoint of his offensive production, it seems the Opening Day job for 2024 could be Lee’s to grab — at least among those currently employed by the team. The amount Lee impresses before the end of the regular season could be important in the front office charting a course to address the position this winter, be that by searching for a new No. 1 catcher or by locating someone to fill the No. 2 spot behind Lee or by some other method, i.e. waiting for Quero.
It will take months to play out in its entirety, of course, but the next month and a half could heavily factor into that decision-making process, not to mention give fans a glimpse of the White Sox’ potential catcher of the future.
How many rotation spots will need filling?
The White Sox figure to have an awful lot of work to do this winter to get their starting rotation into good enough shape that contention in 2024 still seems “viable.” Right now, Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech and three empty spots isn’t going to cut it.
Fill-ins Touki Toussaint and Jesse Scholtens have looked good, for the most part — Scholtens, in particular, with his 3.20 ERA — but are they full-time answers, guys who can be relied upon for 30 starts’ worth of production next season?
At the very least, it would seem the White Sox would be much better off with some safety nets installed. They might be much, much better off by using those guys as the safety nets and spending the winter searching for a couple pitchers who are closer to sure things, especially considering that Cease’s ERA is not far from 4.50 a year after his second-place Cy Young finish and Kopech has spent the season searching for consistency while struggling mightily with walks and home runs.
In other words, the rotation for next year is more mystery than certainty.
Much like Lee’s performance in a month could help determine what the front office does on the catching front, the performances of Toussaint and Scholtens could help set the number of starting pitchers the front office is on the hunt for this winter.
While the deadline saw an influx of intriguing arms — Jake Eder, Nick Nastrini and Ky Bush all recently joined MLB.com’s list of the White Sox’ top 10 prospects — it would be presumptuous to assume any of them would be ready to be part of the rotation as soon as Opening Day next year, let alone that any would be ready to assume a 30-start workload at the major league level. Davis Martin, too, might not be ready until well after the start of the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
The Toussaint and Scholtens Show sounds like a rebuild-era revival that no one was asking for. But its outcome could be important heading into the offseason.
A brand-new bullpen
Sticking with the theme of young guys being able to show something to the big league decision-makers, there are a bunch of new faces in the bullpen in the wake of the deadline deals.
Hahn traded away Kendall Graveman, Joe Kelly and Keynan Middleton at the deadline, and Liam Hendriks will miss the remainder of this season and much of next season after having Tommy John surgery. That’s basically the entire back-end group gone.
Right now, Gregory Santos is the team’s closer, elevated to that role after Graveman was dealt to the Astros, and certainly he’s earned the shot, looking fantastic to go along with some great numbers so far this season.
“Dylan made a comment: ‘How did we get this guy?’” Aaron Bummer said this week. “It’s awesome to see success stories. People go out there and take a hold of a role and take hold of the ability they had. His ability, I don’t know how many people are able to throw the baseball the way that he does. For him to kind of thrive in the limelight, he’s fun to watch pitch.”
Santos figures to keep getting those ninth-inning shots, and considering Hendriks’ future with the team is a mystery — the All-Star closer said this weekend that he’d like to be back, citing “unfinished business” — he could be the lead candidate to man the ninth in 2024.
But the rest of the bullpen remains a question, outside of Bummer, and the final few weeks might help solidify some of those open spots for next year. Already, the White Sox have promoted Declan Cronin and Lane Ramsey, two young arms who are getting work out of the bullpen — work that might be increasing in difficulty quite soon in an effort to see who the team wants to put its faith in for next season.
“I have (been impressed with them). The next step is to start throwing them into a little bit of crisis,” Grifol said Sunday. “You’ve got to pick the right spot to bring them in: first and second, second and third, first and third, that kind of stuff. Right now, for the most part, they’ve come in in clean innings. But they’re going to graduate here pretty soon.
“We’ve got to find out about all these guys this year so we can go into next season and not have to evaluate this spring.”
Everything hinges on healthy bounce backs
We can talk about rookie relievers till we’re blue in the face, but contention in 2024 is only “viable,” of course, if the White Sox’ core plays up to its potential, something that, for one reason or another, has been impossible over the past two seasons.
That’s been mostly because of injuries, and for the third year in a row, injuries to core players like Eloy Jiménez, Tim Anderson and Yoán Moncada crippled the team’s effort to compete right out of the gate.
Considering the investments made, this core seems already bought and paid for, and moving on from those players seems rather difficult. All three of those aforementioned guys are due for raises next year, and while they remain talented — and therefore somewhat attractive to potential trade partners — their lack of production this season means the front office would be selling awfully low.
It could leave the White Sox, to some degree, again employing the strategy of crossing their fingers and hoping these guys stay healthy and finally produce as envisioned. That’s not likely to go over well with fans, but the realities of the roster might make it so.
Or maybe not.
“You don’t shake something up just to shake it up. That said, what we put out there hasn’t worked the last couple of years now, or hasn’t worked since at least ‘21. So there is absolutely consideration and dialogue and various permutations that we’ve played with to have a different look going forward,” Hahn said at the trade deadline. “What exactly that’s going to be come the ‘24 season? There’s a lot of time between now and then to put that all in place.
“But just as it would be foolish for us to enter the trade-deadline period and not talk about the entire roster and understand the value of our entire club, it’d be foolish for us to essentially say, ‘Nah, it’s going to work better next time with this same group.’”
Anderson’s year has been hampered by his early season knee injury, and while he’s now healthy, he’s far from comfortable at the plate, his strong July ceding to a so-far ugly August. The White Sox would seem likely to pick up their affordable team option and bet on a guy who’s played at an All-Star level. But will the final month and a half give them reason to think harder about it?
Jiménez missed a ton of time, again, and has struggled to find strength in his legs — and the power he’s supposed to provide — since returning to the lineup. While he’s got plenty of club control left, could deadline rumors pop up again this winter? And what will his final seven weeks do to any trade value, or the incentive for the White Sox to keep him in the middle of the batting order?
Moncada admitted this weekend that his springtime back injury threw a wrench into his swing mechanics, and he could use the final weeks to figure out a way to return to what made him worthy of a long-term extension way back in 2019. He expressed a willingness, earlier this year, to play wherever the White Sox need him to, and while the trade of Jake Burger eliminated the in-house candidate to force a position switch, could the team’s eternal quandary at second base have the front office thinking outside the box this winter?
Even Luis Robert Jr., who’s played at an MVP-type level this year, can use the final weeks to get over his latest injury incurred on the base paths and be at 100 percent heading into next year.
Because without this core performing, there’s nothing “viable” about contending next season.
Any chance of regime change?
Regime change is rare at 35th and Shields.
Hahn’s tenure as general manager is now more than a decade old, a tenure that followed that of Kenny Williams, who was GM for more than 10 years years before moving into the role of executive vice president. Aside from the team’s run to a championship in 2005 — nearly 20 years ago — there hasn’t been much in the way of winning under either man, with the White Sox winning just two playoff games since Hahn assumed his current job.
In baseball, such a record typically brings about change.
But as mentioned, the White Sox have not acted typically.
That, of course, could change, but much like the other supposedly assumed behaviors of the team that were proven wrong during the rebuilding years, it’s on the brain trust to change the narrative. It won’t happen by itself.
Hahn’s few comments on his job status this year have been interesting, if only because they had to be made in the first place with how disastrous things have gone on the field. Most recently, he was asked about frustrated fans wondering why he’s getting a chance to fix a mess that was created on his watch.
“I absolutely get that. That’s the nature of pro sports,” he said earlier this week. “The fact of the matter is I probably wasn’t as smart as everyone thought I was when I was winning Executive of the Year a couple years ago, and the odds are I’m probably not as stupid as people think I am now. But this is the nature of the beast and the nature of pro sports.
“At the end of the day, whether I’m here or not is going to come down any of Jerry Reinsdorf or Kenny WIlliams or myself feeling I’m not the right guy going forward.
“Let’s see what happens over the next few weeks.”
Indeed, the next few weeks — more so what goes on behind the scenes than on the field each night — might do more than set up the front office’s work for the winter, it might set up who’s doing that work.