What to watch for as the White Sox begin the second half

USA TODAY Sports

Losing could be productive in multiple ways if veterans are dealt at the deadline

The second half of the season starts in a few hours, and it's every man and every fan for themselves. The last one standing, please turn out the lights.

OK, it might not be that dramatic, but wins and losses will take a backseat to individual progress. Depending on the extent of the deadline sell-off, Robin Ventura may be forced to field un(der)qualified players at nearly every turn, and at that point, you're just looking to see which ones are capable of survival.

Losing hard isn't necessarily a bad thing, because the White Sox would stand to benefit with a higher draft pick and bigger pools for amateur talent, stateside or international. But it always strikes me as unseemly to advocate tanking, because it undermines the roster's best competitors, as well as the fans who have invested their money in the product.

Ultimately, the franchise will benefit from taking that medicine, but the paying fans deserve the best possible effort. Those might not be mutually exclusive if Rick Hahn is able to clear the deck by July 31.

But there will still be reasons to watch, even after eliminating the potential/likely outgoing players from the conversation. Here are the top five situations I'll be monitoring over the final two-plus months, in no particular order.

The real Gordon Beckham?

Given Beckham's mental fragility in the past, it was easy to write him off after a physical injury (hamate fracture) cost him six weeks. Miraculously, it failed to knock him off his game. He finished the first half hitting .335/.357/.443, which would be good for a career best 113 OPS+ if he maintained that after the break.

Hand and wrist injuries can sap power for a while, but Beckham's pop is starting to return, as he hit his first two homers in July. That leaves the walk rate as the only lingering concern of the moment, as it's plummeted to an Alexei Ramirez-like 3.6 percent. But watching Beckham, I'm inclined to take that as a good sign, if you can believe it.

I'm not seeing a lack of plate discipline contributing to the lack of walks. He's out-of-zone swing percentage is in line with his previous three years -- the difference is he's more aggressive with pitches in the zone (swinging at 74 percent, opposed to 67 percent), and his contact rate is at career highs.

It's good contact, too, as you can see in the dramatically lower pop-up rate. After battling infield fly rates between 12 and 21 percent over his first four years, he's reduced it to 4 percent this season, while his line-drive rate has never been higher (24 percent). His stance isn't the picture of comfort, but his hands aren't as noisy, which would get to the root of his biggest problem.

It looks to me like pitchers are challenging Beckham like it's his rookie season all over again, and he's responding to it by putting balls in play, and well-struck ones at that. If he keeps up this approach, I imagine pitchers will learn to tread more carefully around him, and the walks will show up as a pleasant byproduct. Until then, I'd hope he stays on the attack.

Young starters with adult workloads

Last year, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana wore down over the last two months of the season as they wandered deep into unprecedented innings territory. They showed it in different ways -- Sale's velocity came and went, while Quintana threw harder, but with diminished command -- but they both crossed the finish line sputtering and wheezing.

Don Cooper espouses the theory that pitchers will only be able to survive the grind of a full season by getting through it, even if it's not pretty at the end. So far, both pitchers enter the second half at full gallop, with signs suggesting they'll hold up better the second time around. The silver lining: With the Sox out of contention, there will be no pressure to skip a fifth starter or otherwise force them out of all available rest days.

Hector Santiago is where Sale and Quintana were last year. He's already surpassed his 2012 workload by three innings, although he's still a number of starts away from reaching his previous career high (127 innings between Winston-Salem and Birmingham). Then again, it's a little harder to throw that many innings in the majors, so he'll be breaking new ground one way or another. His arm has handled far stranger stresses this season.

The evolving catching situation

Tyler Flowers failed his starter audition, so he gave way to Josh Phegley, who has hung tough over his first 10 games. As long as there's no lingering weirdness with his finger, he should get a majority of the starts until he looks overwhelmed.

Flowers still has value as a receiver, as Santiago highlighted with his strong and smooth 7⅓ innings against Philadelphia last Saturday, and it's possible that part-time play will make Flowers more effective in all facets of the game. I can imagine Phegley and Flowers forming a decent tandem between them, which would solve at least one problem, even if not in the way the Sox originally thought.

Bullpen battles abound

Matt Thornton is gone, and Jesse Crain could be dealt within the next 12 days if he proves his shoulder is healthy. Matt Lindstrom is also on the list, and if all three of them are gone, the bullpen is wide open. Addison Reed and Nate Jones are locks, and after that, it looks like a chaotic, bloody game of musical chairs.

Simon Castro moves to the front of the line when a spot opens up, and Donnie Veal looked devastating over the weekend against Philadelphia, featuring the kind of command that made him in a phenomenon in 2012. Even if they stick -- and that's not certain -- there are still spots left, and those are a lot harder to figure out.

Beyond the known placeholders like Ramon Troncoso, David Purcey and Brian Omogrosso, there's a logjam of worthy relief prospects who could make their big-league debuts in August or September. Andre Rienzo is starting now, but a bullpen stint might be a good way to get his feet wet. Jake Petricka has shown new life this year, and Daniel Webb might be able to overcome his early stumbles in Charlotte. From the left side, Charlie Leesman is another starter who could shift to the bullpen, and Santos Rodriguez has his moments.

If all veterans go, the number of unproven relievers could lead to some ugly, lopsided losses over the last two months. That's not necessarily a bad thing if it's the result of Ventura giving the rookies a chance to clean up their own messes. Finding a couple guys who are capable of wearing big-boy pants in considerable-leverage situations will make the offseason shopping list a little shorter, even if all relevant parties take a lot of lumps along the way.

Paul Konerko

The Captain began his rehab stint in Birmingham on Thursday night, going 1-for-2 with a walk. The original plan has him playing with the Barons for four days, after which a decision will be made.

Four days of consecutive action isn't a given. We've seen the spectrum of back injuries before. Alex Rios and Jim Thome recovered from their back problems with a little rest, while Joe Crede and Brent Morel's returns were short-lived. His plummeting production leading up to his DL stint suggests that his injury more closely resembles the latter cases.

He deserves a standing ovation in the final game of the season, because it looks like it could be his last as a White Sox -- or as a baseball player, period. But it's anybody's guess as to whether he can make it to Sept. 29 in playing shape. I wouldn't take that bet sight unseen. Until he plays regularly for a few weeks without complications, it will be hard to say he's in the clear.

At the very least, he won't disappear from the scene like Crede did, clearing out his locker with more than a week to go. However, based on what else we have and haven't seen from Konerko this season, a rosier projection requires a leap of faith during a season that's been one hard reality after another.

What developments interest you the most over the rest of the season?

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