With opening day a few days out, the White Sox find themselves in a position similar to 2017 — still a bit away from contention conversations and focused on a long term rebuild. By wins and losses, 2018 is shaping up to be a dismal campaign. The prognosticators have the Sox pegged around 70 wins (PECOTA has them at 72). Unless you’re a Keanu Reeves in Hardball, the difference between a 70 win and a 73 win campaign won’t mean much. In fact, even Neo had the good fiscal sense not to bet on the Sox (although before crediting him with too much financial savvy he does fork out for 10 seats behind the Cubs dugout, so, maybe he’s not the second coming of Warren Buffet).
All of this to say, a successful 2018 campaign will be less about wins and losses and more about an oft repeated term: progress. You may remember our own Collin Whitchurch writing as much this time last year. In this piece we’ll take a look at what progress means to one very important member of the organization: Rick Hahn.
For a general manager coming off a 67 win season and an eleven year run of declining attendance, Hahn has not shied away from acknowledging a dreary outlook for the major league squad in 2018. In his own words, losing makes him and the front office unhappy. So, in a season that will surely involve a good deal of unhappiness, what might bring a smile to the GM’s face at the end of this season? Look no further than the following checklist:
1) Player progress (duh)
3) Fan base enthusiasm
Most obvious here is that the White Sox 2018 campaign will be judged by how the youth movement continues to progress. For the opening day squad the areas of necessary improvement are plentiful. Just to name a few:
- Will Yoan Moncada hit and power tools progress and allow him to reach his .280 average and 30/30 potential?
- Will Lucas Giolito’s improved curveball and velocity stick, returning him to the front-line starter conversation of 2015?
- Will Reynaldo Lopez find the plate with enough frequency to prove he can stick in the rotation?
- Is Avisail Garcia actually good? (Please let him be good.)
- Can Tim Anderson rebound from a dreadful 2017 and become a .280, 20/20 player?
- Will Carlos Rodon return to the mound in June and build on the potential he’s flashed his entire career?
- Will anyone emerge from the bullpen quagmire as 2018’s Kahnle/Swarzak trade chips?
- Can Nicky Delmonico stick as a major league regular and win 2018’s Most Handsome Player?
On the minor league side, the opportunities and potential are even better documented. I imagine Hahn will be watching the affiliates’ progress as closely as the major league club to answer any of the following.
- How much longer will Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech’s inevitable marches to stardom be paused in Birmingham and Charlotte?
- Can Alec Hansen‘s and Dylan Cease’s electric stuff help them continue to rocket up the affiliate charts?
- Will Zack Collins be able to improve his hit tool to go along with his solid plate discipline, and stay behind the plate defensively?
- What is a Luis Robert?
- Will Dane Dunning lock up that sweet Rec Specs sponsorship?
Realistically, not every player is going to take the necessary steps forward this year. The volatility of prospects is certain to break a few hearts, and Sox fans have seen too many seasons of Gordon Beckham or Dayan Viciedo to assume promising players are destined to reach potential. This Spring Training’s injury bug has already secured setbacks for Robert and Jake Burger, which leads us of an essential component to a successful season: organizational health.
For a long stretch Herm Schneider’s voodoo magic kept White Sox players on the field at an unprecedented rate. In 2017 that magic ran its course. The season began with 60-day DL placements for Carlos Rodon and Charlie Tilson and the injury demon progressed to consume Nate Jones, Zack Putnam, and Geovany Soto. Now spring training has been marred by high profile injuries that will slow the progression of Burger and Robert. Hansen seems to have avoided catastrophic injury, but all of this serves to remind us how delicate the elbow of a flame-throwing 23-year-old can be. If the club can avoid any more major injuries and the impressive stable of young pitchers are able to turn in complete seasons, Hahn will certainly be a happy man.
While the performances on the field are the most visible metrics of success, another factor is a little less tangible: fan enthusiasm. By the clearest statistic, attendance, the past decade has not been kind to the Sox. Aside from a small bump following the spending spree of 2015, attendance has been down every year since 2006. Last year, the turnstiles of Guaranteed Rate Field registered just over 20,000 fans per game. Only three clubs averaged fewer fans and those clubs play in either a nightclub-aquarium, a football stadium, or St. Petersburg, Fla. Not quite the company you’re hoping for. Despite the exceptionally lackluster showing at the park, one could argue that team enthusiasm is at a high not seen in years. The front office is banking on the infusion of young talent to drive fan interest and, if a sold out SoxFest is an indication, it’s working. Giolito starts have the potential to become must-watches, and the continuing progress of Moncada should have every fan tuning in. But arguably the most marketable draws will begin the season in the minors. While their play will ultimately dictate their promotion schedule, don’t be surprised to hear early fan clamors for the arrival of Kopech and Jimenez.
Balancing player progression against fan interest will be Hahn’s most delicate task in 2018. If Sox attendance drops below 20,000 per game, James Shields/Hector Santiago/Carson Fulmer continue to get shellacked, and Kopech continues his development as a cross between Nolan Ryan and Hansel, Hahn will have a difficult time justifying keeping the blue-chipper in Charlotte. Need a sellout and a good marketing gimmick? Then flip open your Sox schedule and put a big circle around July 30 for Kopech’s debut with the Red Sox making their way to Chicago. How about Hansen on the mound for a few starts in September? A decent performance from the veterans would alleviate a lot of this pressure, but the emergence of the next wave of stars is certain to put butts in otherwise empty seats. If the Sox marketable prospects can lead to an uptick in ticket sales in September, look for Hahn to use it to try to pry open Jerry Reinsdorf’s pocketbook next offseason.
And on the topic of fan enthusiasm, we already know Nolan Arenado looks good in pinstripes…
Lead Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports