The American League Central Division is an oft-confusing place, and will likely find a way to be such again in 2020. The Central was historically bad in 2018, then boasted the best team in baseball for a large stretch the following year, yet it was not its three-time defending champion.
As things stand currently, it makes sense to believe that both the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians will regress towards the mean, and we should be primed for an even more interesting battle next season.
Not much about the Chicago White Sox indicates that they are on the cusp of making a run for the division. They finished 20.5 games back of even the Indians in 2019, with a -124 run differential, even outperforming their expected record of 69-92 by three games.
Yet Chicago is at an interesting point in their rebuild. They saw significant steps forward from their young core of Yoan Moncada (24 years old), Tim Anderson (26) and Lucas Giolito (25). Top hitting prospect Eloy Jimenez got a year under his belt while posting 33 homers, as well as exceptional xSLG (86th percentile), exit velocity (87th) and hard-hit% (92th) marks.
There are more bats on the way, too. Luis Robert bolted through the minor leagues in 2019, posting a 1.432 OPS over 19 games in High-A to start the season, making a 56 game stop in Double-A, and finishing the year with a .974 OPS in 47 contests at Triple-A. The 22-year-old will likely languish in the minors long enough to avoid a year of service time before joining Jimenez in the outfield.
The call may not be so quick for 22-year-old Nick Madrigal, who only posted a .822 OPS in 29 games in Triple-A, but that was with a .398 OBP. The fourth overall pick from the 2018 draft was pegged as the most complete player in that class, and has overcome power-sapping injuries to still post gaudy hitting marks.
Combined with Robert, the pair came into 2019 as the 32nd- and 43rd-ranked prospects in the game, respectively. Between graduations and big seasons, each will be high in 2020. MLB Pipeline already lists Robert as the third-best prospect.
This is all without mentioning the 17th prospect on Pipeline’s list, starter, Michael Kopech, acquired alongside Moncada in the deal for Chris Sale in 2016. There has been a reason that no pitcher has been mentioned since Giolito so long ago. The Sox severely lack pitching, an issue which was exacerbated by Kopech’s need for Tommy John in 2019. Kopech should be ready for 2020, and says the surgery was “the best thing to ever happen” to him.
The 23-year-old and his 80-grade fastball will not solve the Sox’s rotation alone, and no team wants to rely on only a handful of 22-to-25-year-olds to propel them to the playoffs. Luckily for him, Jerry Reinsdorf has his team perhaps most under their salary budget relative to all other clubs. While Reinsdorf and the word ‘cheap’ are often paired together by Chicagoans, general manager Rick Hahn says he will spend the $250 million offered to Manny Machado last winter.
If Hahn believes the window is now, he has the money to splurge on Stephen Strasburg, should he decide that a 31-year-old pitcher would accelerate things. Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler and Jake Odorizzi are also reasonable 30-and-under arms that would make sense. They could also wait and make a run at Trevor Bauer or Marcus Stroman next winter as well.
There are not currently many promising arms in the team’s system outside of Kopech, unless Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and/or Carson Fulmer make considerable jumps here soon. When it seems like time to go for it, it makes sense for Hahn to spend on pitching.
It is also reasonable to think that they could make a splash for Anthony Rendon. Though it would force Moncada back to second base, the Sox would reasonably have one of the top-two offenses in the division.
We all know that money and prospects mean nothing, but the White Sox have a considerable magnitude of each. The current iteration of the team leaves much to be desired, but the potential of their young players are as high as any in the game.
It may not be in 2020, but the White Sox have the opportunity to insert themselves into the AL Central race sometime soon. With the Royals and Tigers still tearing down more than building up, the Sox taking a step forward could insert some randomness into their record, and further randomize the Central.
They’re poised to do so. Hahn, once positioned as one of the top GM candidates in the game, must finally prove the hype, much like his stable of young players.