The Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers share a spring-training complex in Glendale, Arizona, and during the first week of March I drove across Phoenix to watch them play each other there. The White Sox were the designated home team on a sunny weekday afternoon, yet my eyeball assessment of the crowd favored Dodger blue over White Sox black by a margin of three or four to one. That was business as usual, because spring training in low-rise, red-roofed Glendale has been a horse-and-rabbit stew since the facility opened in 2009, with the White Sox always playing the lesser role.
But maybe that’s just as well because the Sox are used to being No. 2, not only in the spring but also during the regular season in their Windy City domicile. First fiddle there is played by the Chicago Cubs, who for reasons many and varied have held that status since about 1985. In 2005, when the Sox broke Chicago’s epic, 88-year baseball-championship drought, they were outdrawn at the gate by a Cubs’ team that went 79-83 in the won-lost column. An attendance spurt that accompanied the opening of the Sox’s new ballpark in 1991 gave the team some earlier spark, but it lasted a brief few seasons. Now that the Cubs are riding high off their 2016 World Series win their recent box-office edge of roughly two-to-one seems carved in stone.
In recent years the Sox’s bid to stay relevant in the Chicago-baseball conversation has consisted of making band-aid fixes in hopes that a few more victories would produce enough juice to avoid a full-fledged gate collapse. That didn’t work, and four straight losing seasons beginning in 2013—with annual sub-2 million home attendance figures—convinced the team’s ownership that a thorough, lose-on-purpose revamp was in order.
That was hardly a novel conclusion since teams like the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and, yes, the Cubs, had done the same thing in recent memory, but the White Sox had avoided it because of fears its place hold might not survive three or four more years in the dumpster. But, finally, things got so bad that no other path presented itself.
The process started last year when the team traded its best pitcher, Chris Sale, for prospects, and did the same with Adam Eaton, its center fielder and lead-off man. As the season progressed it traded its No. 2 starter, Jose Quintana, for more youngsters, and did the same with relief closer David Robertson, veteran third-baseman Todd Frazier and much of its functional bullpen. The trading pace has slowed this year but probably will pick up again as the 2018 race unfolds.
The team’s current main bargaining chip is Jose Abreu, the first baseman it spirited out of Cuba in 2013 and who, with 124 home runs in his four seasons in Chicago, has stamped himself as a certified big-league power hitter. At age 31, and with two more years left on his contract, he would fetch a good price from any team with title hopes.
In its talent dump the Sox have aped what the Cubs did when Theo Epstein took over their front office in 2012, and also in other ways. To manage the revamp on the field the Sox hired the amiable Rick Renteria, who Epstein picked to lead the Cubs in 2014 and who might be leading them still if Joe Maddon hadn’t become available the next year. Further, the Quintana trade was with the Cubs, and in return the Sox got outfielder Eloy Jimenez, the top position-player prospect in the Cubs’ chain and, now, the best in the White Sox’s system.
The Sox have deviated from the Cubs’ model in one important way: to date they have concentrated on pitching in their young-player acquisitions, while the Cubs went after young bats and then shopped for established hurlers. Young pitchers are iffier so this is a more-hazardous course, and it remains to be seen how it will pan out.
The best pitching prospects the White Sox have acquired are Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, in the Eaton trade with the Nationals, and Michael Kopech, in the Sale deal with the Boston Red Sox. Giolito, a jumbo, 23-year-old right hander, looked good when he was brought to the Majors late last season, and is in the team’s projected starting rotation. So is Lopez, 24, also a righty, although his star shines a bit less brightly than Giolito’s. Right-hander Kopech, 21, an off-beat fireballer who sports flowing, golden locks, might be the best of the three but he’ll start this season in the minors, perhaps to extend the team’s contractual control.
The top everyday player the Sox got was second-baseman Yoan Moncada, 21, from Boston. He hit only .231 in 54 games after his 2017 call up, but got better as his stay progressed and is expected to continue the improvement. He’s the kind of player who can help a team in a lot of ways; in one spring game I saw this month he walked twice in three at-bats, stole a base and scored from first on a single when the right-fielder bobbled the hit. And at 6-feet-2 and 220 pounds, he has power potential.
To succeed the Sox will need their prospects to avoid injury, and this has been a problem in spring training. Third-baseman Jake Burger, the team’s top pick in the 2017 free-agent draft (and 11th choice overall), already has been lost for the season by an early-spring Achillies tendon tear, and both Jimenez and Luis Robert, a 20-year-old Cuban outfielder whom it paid $26 million, have been in and out of the lineup with various ills.
Mostly, though, it’ll have to be shown that the team’s front office, led by general manager Rick Hahn, knows talent. If it does as well as the Cubs’ Epstein, an all-Chicago World Series could be more than a pipe dream. If not, Las Vegas or Portland might be in the cards.