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State of the Sox: Whirling, whirling, whirling towards freedom

From empty lockers to leather goods, Manny Machado looms over the opening of spring training — but win or lose him, brighter days lie ahead

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox
Natty dread: Rick Hahn’s traditional State of the Sox address at spring training had an unusual cloud looming over it: Machado Watch.

After many trials and tribulations, a few days of sub-zero temperatures, and a lot of questions looming over whether or not certain free agents will be signing on to join the squad at 35th and Shields this season — you’ve made it. You are at the doorstep of redemption that comes in the form of the 2019 Chicago White Sox reporting to spring training at Camelback Ranch on Wednesday morning.

While there have been a flurry of small roster-bolstering moves made over the offseason, with free agency moving at the slowest pace it’s seen in likely the last decade or so there are still pieces of the puzzle that need to be installed to round out this Sox team.

But let’s simply focus on the now, and catch up on what the Sox brass have managed to get done over the offseason, as well as what to keep an eye on as the coming weeks lead this team into Opening Day.

That pesky last rotation spot

Heading into the season, with the subtraction of Michael Kopech and his blazing fastball from the rotation, the Sox now need to continue searching for an arm to plug into that final spot. While the first four spots are locked in right now with a healthy Carlos Rodón, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and newly added Iván Nova — there is still the question of the fifth spot, with the departure of workhorse James Shields.

Over SoxFest weekend, Hahn stated that while the club is still potentially looking for a free agent to add to the fold, there are also perfectly viable internal options as well. Those options? Dylan Covey and Manny Bañuelos.

Now, before you cringe at the name “Dylan Covey,” keep in mind that while he finished the 2018 season with a 5.18 ERA (and a notable 4.39 FIP), that’s an improvement from the 7.70 ERA and nearly identical FIP he carried the previous season. Covey may not be the answer Sox fans are looking for, but for a fifth starter role on a rebuilding team, he’s a decent fit. Covey also threw a career-high 121 innings last season, and managed to lower his walk rate and raise his strikeout rate.

Bañuelos, who told the media on Wednesday morning that his reaction to being traded to the Sox was a “Hell yeah!”, is a very interesting option. Bañuelos is a 27-year old lefty who was once a highly touted prospect, before falling victim to injuries that have left him on the shelf. While Bañuelos could be somewhat of a mixed bag, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Sox potentially plug both Covey and Bañuelos into the rotation. The two offer some diversity being a mix of righty and lefty, and neither have thrown over 120 innings in the last several seasons.

Jon Jay is here!

Jon Jay brings a bevy of interesting qualities to this Sox group. For starters, with the departure of Shields, it’s obvious that the Sox needed to install another veteran clubhouse leader to their roster.

Jay comes with nine years of experience, and though his slash line has dipped a bit as he enters his age 34 season, he isn’t someone who is likely going to be leaned on heavily. Jay fits into the outfield mix well, and with the departure of Avisail García, the Sox needed another player to compliment the eclectic mix of Adam Engel, Leury García, Nicky Delmonico and Daniel Palka. It’s also never a bad idea to have another lefty bat on the bench, and a great leadoff-type hitter who gets on base at a healthy clip. Jay sported an on-base percentage of .374 in 2017 with the Cubs, and .330 in 2018 between the Royals and Diamondbacks.

While that makes for a crowded outfield, perhaps the Sox will be looking to flip someone at the trade deadline — even perhaps Jay himself, should he put up a successful first half. Seeing as Jay is only signed to a one-year deal with the Sox, he would come at as a rental, so he’d likely have to go on a hot streak for a couple of months to earn back anything of value in trade.

But perhaps other White Sox outfielders could find themselves on the block as well. Should Palka continue his baseball-crushing ways, he could fit nicely on a roster looking to boost their left-handed power as they make a playoff run.

Can Yoán Moncada lower his strikeout rate?

Plain and simply put — yes. There is a lot of certainty throughout the organization, from coaches to players to Moncada himself, that point to this being a very successful second full season for him.

Moncada’s willingness to spend time in Arizona working with hitting coach Todd Steverson almost immediately after the season ended shows major initiative, which in and of itself is not a quality to be overlooked.

Moncada is still just 23 years old, and has yet to grow into the player he will become at the major league level. Whether that includes shifting positions in the infield (though manager Rick Renteria has stated that as of now, Moncada is his starting second baseman), working on adjusting his swing path, or keeping his keen eye at the plate and not expanding his zone, remains to be seen.

Moncada spent quite a bit of time in Arizona working to make the adjustments needed to better himself as a player. His even-keeled manner and confidence in himself, coupled with the belief instilled in him from his lifelong friend and now teammate José Abreu and many others throughout the organization simply leave the impression that Moncada is a slow but steady work in progress. Look for Moncada to keep tinkering this season; nothing is going to be perfect right away, because after one full season and a short stint in 2017, Moncada still has a few growing pains to work through.

And of course, the elephant in the room: What about Machado?

At this point, all the speculation is beginning to feel like much ado about nothing. The comments and questions have been worn out. Yonder Alonso has fielded a ton, and Jay as well. Team leader Abreu has shouldered plenty. And on Wednesday, the media loomed large over Rick Hahn, particularly about the mysterious photos of Machado’s 2019 glove (adorned with black and white leather) which surfaced on Tuesday evening.

While small details seem to point to the Sox acquiring Machado, the clock is ticking. It may take another month, but eventually baseball will have its answer as to where Machado will be playing. That is, unless Machado intends to spend the 2019 season sitting at home on his couch with his black and white leather glove.

Fear not though; should Machado land elsewhere, that doesn’t derail the Sox’s rebuilding efforts. There are so many strong pieces throughout the organization, the future looks as bright as ever. Would Machado add to that illumination? Certainly. But the entire rebuild is not hinged on whether or not the third baseman inks a long term deal on the South Side. Let’s keep our wits about ourselves, and not take our eye off the prize.