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Reality Check

Chicago White Sox's Tim Anderson hits an RBI single off Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez during the first inning of a baseball game Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Chicago. Yolmer Sanchez scored on the play. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

I went to my first Sox game this week and was lucky enough to be on an elevator with none other than Ed Farmer. Whenever I meet someone I appreciate like that, I try to just say hello, show my love respectfully, and let them move on without too much of a bother. So I always really enjoy it when they initiate engagement beyond that.

And Farmer definitely did – the elevator opened and instead of hopping right out, he held the door and continued telling us about how he gave the squad a pep talk earlier in the day. It was cool he’d keep the conversation going after he had to, and even more cool how amped up Farmer was getting about our Sox! The speech he gave was short and sweet, but it got straight to the point and did include a hefty curse word or two.

Apparently it struck a cord, as the Sox responded with seven straight hits to start that game. They lost the next pair to the Ms, but only by one run each and with plenty to be encouraged about. Because as I said in the first paragraph of my first post – the 2018 ChiSox never really had any realistic “Surprise Wild Card Contender” hopes.

I am glad that the first steps of the rebuild have left such a positive outlook that our fanbase was trying to spin the outlook for this year’s bunch into a legit MLB team. But winning more than losing was just never going to be the reality.

That’s absolutely OK. Remember, last year’s team lost 95 games, and that was after going pretty deep into the season with proven, reliable MLB pieces in Quintana, Melky, Frasier, DRobertson, and Jennings. Plus they had both Kahnle and Swarzak emerge as elite relief options. That’s a frontline starter, two middle of the order bats, and a strong back end of the bullpen. Now they’re all gone, and only a few have been replaced by equally reliable MLB vets.

Maybe Soria, NJones, Avilan, and others will replicate the pen’s success while WCastillo’s production at catcher offsets the loss of Melky or Frasier. But those are big ifs and they still wouldn’t make up for all the veteran help that’s been lost. Instead, the Sox are expecting a lot out of journeymen and youngsters just to get back to where we were last season.

Even then, the Sox only won 67 games! Giving them the 70 wins Pythagoras said they should have had in 2017 still would require massive improvements across the board to contend in 2018.

Instead, a really good season will be around 75 wins. If we threaten .500, that’s an amazing year! Year 2 of this type of complete farm-overhauling rebuild means being a last place team. That is the reality. While the Sox had a rare amount of tradeable talent to accelerate things a bit, we’re still a ways away from anything resembling contention.

Let’s look at the two teams whose model we should be hoping to duplicate – the hated Cubs and the Astros. Theo took over for the Cubs in the 2011-12 offseason, hit (and often hit big) on an absurd amount of his moves, and they still spent three straight seasons in last place before making the playoffs. I’m not as familiar with the timeline of Houston’s rebuild, but it seemingly began in 2011, when they lost 106 games. This was the first of three straight 105+ loss seasons (really!), followed by a 92-loss season, and then the playoffs in Year 5.

So that’s got to be our timeline – Year 4 or Year 5 contention. That’s 2020 or 2021. Again, even if the Sox are ahead of the curve, next year, Year 3, would be the first time you could reasonably hope for anything. And honestly, I don’t see that – I think your rebuild to true contender requires at least three real down seasons.

I expect the Sox to be bad this year and below .500 again next year. The only reason I really see them avoiding last place in either year is because Detroit and KC are also rebuilding, but further behind in the process. For the Sox, there are just so many areas they still need to improve before the wins out-number the losses, and that will take its time.

We’re new to this total rebuild process, so it’s understandable we wouldn’t know what to expect. But that’s why you go back to those who have done this before. Again, think about just how much went right for the Cubs and yet it still took them three seasons of hefty losing.

Theo nailed it with two MVP-caliber bats (Rizzo and Bryant) and two Cy-caliber starters (Arrieta and Hendricks), all of whom quickly reached their full potential. Plus the Cubs lucked into one of the game’s elite managers and hit on both their big pitching signing of Lester and stretch trade for Chapman. They also secured an army of plus support pieces, almost all of whom lived up to what they needed of them.

So quit caring too much about Sox wins and losses this year. Don’t worry if the pen blows a game, if the Sox can’t hit in the clutch, if the offense sputters, the pitching is garbage, and the losses pile up.

I’ve realized that I best enjoy watching the Sox like they’re my fantasy team. All I look at is the stat lines of each player and suss out some of the things I’m hoping to see:

– Have Moncada and Davidson cut down on their Ks and put their averages up somewhere respectable enough?

– Is Anderson consistently getting his walks and steals?

– Is Yolmer still hitting for a plus average with just enough pop?

– Do Avi and Delmonico look more like last year’s All-Star caliber producers or their meh pre-2017 versions?

– Are LGarcia, Thompson, Narvaez, and Engel doing enough to suggest you can count on them as legit big league bench players?

– Are Abreu and Castillo serving as reliable vets who can either bridge us to contention or bring back more helpful youngsters in a trade?

– And eventually, is Eloy flashing true superstar potential?

It’s the same thing with our pitching:

– Are RLopez and Giolito showing they could be plus #3/#4 types on a World Series winning team (think Garland/Freddy)?

– Can Rodon return healthy, stay healthy, and recapture the front-end starter performance he has shown in stretches his whole spotty career?

– Is Fullmer doing enough to harness his movement and steady his delivery to deserve continued starts, or should we begin the process of converting him to an effective RP?

– Can NJones and Soria return to their elite levels, or at least close enough to bring back a meaningful prospect?

– Are any of the many, many journeymen and low-end prospects that will cycle through the bullpen this season looking like the next Swarzak or Kahnle?

– Are Shields, MGonz, Santiago, and Volstad effectively eating innings to keep the Sox competitive and not overtax our roster?

– And eventually, is Kopech harnessing his stuff and proving durable enough that I see true #1 potential?

All I care about every game is getting some evidence of positive answers to those questions (and probably a few others I’ve skipped or might develop as the year goes on).

Of course I still root for our ChiSox to win every game. I had a blast watching SuperMoncada get within a single of the Cycle before the 4th inning was over. Of course it bums me out a bit when they lost close ones in each of the next two. But it’s a minor concern next to seeing how many of our MLB-level assets can improve their longterm value to the club, be it as a piece of a contender or a trade chip.

Finally – don’t sweat the “developing a losing culture” concern. The Sox lost 95 games last year, yet entered this season filled with hope and dripping energy and swagger. If you’ve read anything about the Sox prospects on a personal level, you know this is a group that is brimming with confidence in both themselves and their fellow youngsters in this rebuild. They’ve also got a manager who took over a bad clubhouse and set in motion the development and attitude that Maddon eventually turned into one of the best lockerrooms in baseball.

In fact, let’s look again to the Cubs and Astros for one more bit of hope here. Coming of age right in the heart of long runs of epic losing were none other than Rizzo and Altuve. These guys reached the bigs and did nothing but lose, and lose bad, for years. Yet both turned into not only incredible players, but revered leaders on young championship teams. There’s no reason to worry the same can’t happen on the Southside.

Brian Pollina is a second generation White Sox fan proudly raising a third generation on the North Side.  When not busy trying to get a Sox Mt. Rushmore of Big Frank, Harold, Uribe, and Don Cooper commissioned, he works in the radio industry.