MLB: Minnesota Twins at Chicago White Sox

South Side Morning 5: James Shields in 2018?

It helps to be playing the struggling Rangers and Orioles, but with a come-from-behind 3-2 victory on Tuesday the White Sox moved to 4-2 over their last six games.  They’re only 8.5 games out for the division lead!

1. James Shields again finished the seventh inning, allowing only two runs.  He has gone at least five innings every outing this season, barring an extra-inning relief appearance, and has now gone at least six innings six starts in a row, with quality starts in five of those.  While the year is still most assuredly 2018 and not 2011, his DRA on the year sits at 4.73, and his cFIP of 101 are the peripherals of a below average innings eater.  None of this removes the sting of Fernando Tatis Jr. starting to nuke Double-A as a teenager for San Diego.  And, there is still risk for regression here, as his 5.6 percent HR/FB rate and .254 BABIP are on the lucky side.  That said, Shields deserves credit for continuing to make adjustments as he ages into his late 30s and the White Sox desperately need his ability to soak up innings at a credible rate.

2. The White Sox’ outfield situation is dire.  Avisail Garcia was awful and then injured, and is not expected back until the end of June.  Nicky Delmonico’s power evaporated and he will be on the disabled list for 4-6 weeks with a broken hand.  Adam Engel is hitting .183/.262/.229 and opposing managers are intentionally walking batters ahead of him because they realize he can’t hit.  Trayce Thompson is hitting .117/.145/.300.  Tyler Saladino was traded to Milwaukee.  Daniel Palka is hitting perfectly well, for the moment, but putting him in the outfield is … well, extremely detrimental to your run prevention.  We’re at the point where Leury Garcia is hands down the best all-around outfielder on the active roster.

Worse, the alternatives in Charlotte are no better. Charlie Tilson is finally healthy, but he is hitting .237/.279/.288 in Triple-A.  Understandable, perhaps, given how long he’s been out with various lower body injuries, but he’s not in a position to be called up.  Ryan Cordell is hurt again.  Jacob May had his first season in Triple-A in 2016 and hit .266/.309/.352.  He’s hit worse there each year since.

Everyone knows this year is not about major league wins and losses, but at a certain point a sub-.500 OPS from multiple outfield spots just isn’t tenable and isn’t fair to the fans or the rest of the roster.  They’ve brought in Michael Saunders, who was once an underrated and solid player, but has since been destroyed by knee injuries and hit poorly in Triple-A last year.  Presumably Eloy Jimenez and Garcia are intended to be two thirds of the outfield at some point in 2018, but it’s unclear how long you’ll have to wait to get there.  The more advanced outfielders in Double-A like Jameson Fisher and Tito Polo have not hit well enough to merit promotions to Charlotte, let alone to the majors.

Short of a trade, though, I’m not sure what else can be done in the meantime if they genuinely believe Jimenez isn’t ready.  I suppose Seth Smith is still out there?  Perhaps with Jose Rondon looking competent you can see why Rick Renteria is musing on moving Yolmer Sanchez to the outfield as an empty .270 from Rondon would be a huge upgrade on one of these glaringly deficient lineup spots.

3. Unlike the outfield, however, the bullpen has somewhat gratifyingly progressed through the process of shuffling through internal options.  Bruce Rondon is so far putting his name forward as the latest “Don Cooper Reclamation Success Story.”  The erstwhile Tigers Closer of the Future boasts a 2.74 DRA over his first 16 innings on the South Side of Chicago.  A 27-year-old flame-throwing reliever rounding into form is quite common.  Who knows? Maybe Bruce Rondon will be one of those players the rebuild yields due to having innings available rather than a high draft pick or obtained via trade.

Another big boost to the ‘pen has arrived in the form of Jace Fry, who has now thrown 8 1/3 innings while only allowing two walks so far this year.  Fry only converted to relief last year, and he struggled mightily in his first look at the majors.  He’s actually throwing his fastball slower than he did last year, but he’s throwing his slider a lot more — up from 6.45 to 33.64 percent from 2017 to 2018.  So far it’s working really, really well.

4. After a slow start, Welington Castillo is slowly rounding into the normal, power-heavy but above average catcher hitting line one might have expected, as he’s up to .270/.314/.477.  This is unsurprising.  However, 2017 represented a quantum leap in terms of his catcher defense, going from near the bottom of the barrel to well above average.  So far in 2018, he’s reverted back to his poor results.  An area worth monitoring on his BP player card as the season progresses.

Meanwhile, Omar Narvaez has not managed to improve his framing numbers at all, and so far his on-base heavy offense profile has also collapsed as his average has slid well below the Mendoza Line.  Still, with these two and Kevan Smith stashed in Charlotte, there are much better teams with far worse catching situations.

5.  A quick note: as I was digging around in the minor league stat lines, I noticed Ti’Quan Forbes.  The White Sox acquired this 2014 second round pick from the Rangers in August 2017 for Miguel Gonzalez.  However, coming into this season, he had yet to slug above .350 or post an OBP above .315 in two full seasons above Rookie Ball, and so I wrote him off as organizational depth.  But, it’s worth pointing out his 2018 has been a huge step forward, as he’s hitting .276/.343/.402 in High-A Winston-Salem.  He’s walking more and has slashed his strikeouts approximately 10-12 points from his track record, and is down to 12.6 percent on the young season.

The road is very long, and he may turn back into a pumpkin at any time, but he does not turn 22 until August and for the first time he’s showing signs of real progress, and perhaps there’s a major leaguer in here somewhere after all.

Lead Image Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

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