Saturday Stew: White Sox all Smiles as Cactus League Play Opens

There’s a common theme in White Sox camp thus far — smiles. And why not, right? The club made the trip to Glendale among the favorites in the American League, and pretty much anyone you ask at Camelback Ranch is talking World Series aspirations this season. What a time to be a White Sox fan, ain’t it?

October worries about Tony La Russa taking over a club of twenty-somethings seems to have been all but erased at this point. Tim Anderson after admitting he had concerns initially, is now “110 percent” behind the 76-year-old skipper.

La Russa has made it clear that he’s inherited a near-finished product from his predecessor Rick Renteria, and doesn’t take for granted the work he did to help create a top-notch clubhouse leadership structure and doesn’t intend to disrupt that culture, only help maintain it. Even despite team leader and reigning American League MVP Jose Abreu absent from camp due to a positive COVID-19 test during the intake process, Camelback Ranch has no shortage of positive vibes on the White Sox side as they get ready to open Cactus League play on Sunday when they take on the Milwaukee Brewers in the next step on their consensus voyage to the Fall Classic.

I wrote about a handful of stories to pay attention to this spring in a recent column, and while there’s not much up for debate in camp with a roster ready to compete, there’s a few crucial decisions that will play out over the next month or so. Let’s take a look at where some of those stand after 11 days of camp.

Designated Hitter Competition

Photo: San Francisco Chronicle

The White Sox opted to address their void at designated hitter with an internal solution this spring, and as of today, it seems that it’s a three-man race with Andrew Vaughn leading the pack. 2017 first and second-rounders Jake Burger and Gavin Sheets have emerged as long-shot suitors as well through the first portion of camp.

White Sox skipper Tony La Russa had plenty of praise for the former third overall selection this week:

“I’d say (I’ve seen from Vaughn) probably the three most important things a hitter has to have,” La Russa said Tuesday. “First of all, if it’s in a cage or if he’s taking live batting practice — and I’m sure it would be the same in a game — he doesn’t ever step in there where he’s not ready to do damage. He’s got that hitter-ish attitude.

“Second, he’s got no fear. And third, he works left-center, right-center, which is what high-average hitters do, produce a lot of RBIs, a lot of home runs, they start a lot of rallies.

“In other words, what I’m saying is, very impressive.”

High praise from a Hall of Fame manager who has a bevy of Hall of Fame players that have played for him. However, La Russa wasn’t high on Vaughn alone, and left the competition open to Jake Burger and Gavin Sheets, whom La Russa is so high on he said he’d, “like to be his agent.”

Sheets newfound ability to play the outfield as well as first base and of course designated hitter will bode well for his major league hopes, whether they come to fruition in Chicago, or somewhere else. Jake Burger is the epitome of perseverance, and as he told me in our conversation during the offseason, him even being where he is today was in serious doubt not too long ago.

While I’m thrilled to see Burger and Sheets in the conversation in Glendale, my money is on Vaughn winning the competition and breaking camp with the major league squad as the everyday designated hitter. Danny Miller dove deep into the designated hitter competition on Thursday and you can check that out, here.

On the designated hitter front, I leave you with this clip of Andrew Vaughn obliterating a Jimmy Cordero offering in live batting practice on Thursday.

Yoán Moncada

Moncada told reporters this week that he’ll walk up to the plate to the beat of his newly released single, ‘Desastre Personal,’ this season, which is likely more of a marketing move than a motivational move, but quite frankly I don’t care what song plays as he walks up to the plate. I care about the sound of the baseball leaving his bat, and where it ends up.

Moncada’s 2020 season was hampered by lingering effects from COVID-19 that he dealt with during Summer Camp in July, and a return to form for Yoán will be crucial to the White Sox realizing their lofty self-imposed expectations.

“It was very, very difficult for me to keep playing because I wasn’t feeling like myself,” Moncada said. “I knew that I wasn’t 100 percent, but I had to be there, I needed to be playing in order to help the team in the capacity that I had at the moment. It was definitely a struggle.”

Photo: Getty Images

Aside from some arm soreness that he’s dealing with right now in the early part of camp, Moncada says that he feels 100 percent physically.

“In all sincerity, I feel very good right now,” Moncada said. “I feel strong, I feel good. I am prepared to handle 162-plus games. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for me to handle the season.”

Tony La Russa concurs.

“Compared to the problems he had last year with health and so forth,” manager Tony La Russa said, “I can tell he’s healthy and that’s a heck of a place to start. His swing looks very productive from both sides.”

Starting Rotation

As we’ve already stated, spots one through four in the rotation are all but set with Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn and Dylan Cease will comprise the thick of the rotation to open the season, but that fifth and final spot will be decided in the coming weeks.

“We have guys into a five-day rotation right now so they’re building up for the season,” pitching coach Ethan Katz said. “The back end, obviously there is some competition and guys are going to have the opportunity to start for as long as possible, to prove themselves, to see if they are in that slot or not. But the plan is to give some guys some options and see what they can do with those opportunities.”

Carlos Rodon is one candidate, and new pitching coach Ethan Katz has already identified some issues with the veteran southpaw’s lower-half that they’ve been working to correct in the early stages of camp.

“He’d get very quad dominant, get in his toe and then he gets very cross-fired and had the issue staying healthy, obviously,” Katz said. “The minute we signed him back we’ve been on the phone, talking, going through that process, and once we got here, been able to work hands-on. He’s starting to understand how his lower half is supposed to move more efficiently. And it’s just going to take time. When you’ve done something for a long time it’s hard to get out of that but over time we hope we can tap into things that he hasn’t been able to do.”

Talent and stuff have never been the issue for Rodon, but rather reaching his potential, and more specifically, staying on the field long enough to reach that potential, has been the downfall of the former first-rounder. If Katz can make progress with Rodon’s delivery and get him throwing more strikes, he’ll likely be the first choice to round out the White Sox rotation come Opening Day.

Reynaldo Lopez is the other likely candidate, and even after a demotion to Triple-A and being left off of the Postseason roster last season, Lopez isn’t counting himself out of the competition.

“There’s always competition,” López said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “Every year you come here to compete. It doesn’t matter if you have a secure spot in the rotation or not. When you come here, you come here with that mindset that you have to fight for a spot. This year is no different. My mindset is the same.”

Lopez, like Rodon, has never failed due to a lack of talent and stuff, but more so an inability to find that ceiling with any semblance of consistency during his years in the Chicago rotation. While I’d bet that Rodon emerges as the fifth starter on Opening Day, the spot is up for grabs and he and Lopez are the two front-runners. Their performances in Cactus League games over the next few weeks will paint us the final picture.

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