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How the Regional Plan Affects the White Sox

The most recent plan towards baseball materializing in 2020, first announced and outlined by Bob Nightengale on Tuesday, featured some significant differences to the way baseball could be played in 2020.  While Nightengale did point out that plans are (obviously) still fluid and nothing concrete has been determined, it did seem this one had some legs to.  The changes were a mix of minor and drastic, with some carrying more weight than others.

Among these changes were:

  • The season would be slated to begin sometime between late June and early July, before the 4th of July (symbolism, anyone?).
  • The season would consist of at least 100 games, with games played at teams’ home parks.
  • The postseason being delayed accordingly, running into late November or early December.
  • The season would be preceded by an approximate 3 week Spring Training period, at the usual Cactus League/Grapefruit League locations.
  • The regional realignment of baseball into 3 divisions (East, Central, West), with all teams only playing divisional games. The widely-reported proposed divisions would be as follows:

And then on Wednesday, in a separate report, it was reported that the Minor League Season would not occur, with the alternative being expanded MLB rosters and a developmental league to accommodate minor leaguers.

Conflicting reports did come out later debating whether or not this is the case.

So while Minor League Baseball may live another day (for now), there is at least a possibility that no minor league games, in the form that we know them, would be played in 2020.

Obviously, all of these things present interest wrinkles to each and every MLB organization, but I’m going to be focusing on the White Sox perspective.

Pros of the Regional Plan for the White Sox

The Rotation May Actually Be OK After All

Obviously, a season of uncertainty isn’t ideal for anyone, but there are some reasons to believe that this plan can help the White Sox out in 2020.

First, this should help with injury concerns surrounding the rotation.  While it’s hard to know exactly how both Carlos Rodon and Michael Kopech will respond to Tommy John recovery, availability should not be a huge concern for either in 2020.

All signs pointed toward a mid-ish season return for Rodon, which as fate would have it be when the season will start.  While Rodon obviously will need some starts to get himself going, having to weather less of a season without the former first round pick is big relief for the White Sox.  Even if he is not at his best, being available as a serviceable or better starter would be a huge boost for a 100 game sprint of a season.

Kopech, on the other hand, was throwing gas in live action in Arizona, but was anticipated to begin the season in Charlotte.

With the season being pushed back, the hope with Kopech is, like Rodon, is that he will miss a less significant portion of the season with the extra time prior to the season starting.

While neither will likely be able to jump right in at an All Star level, having both available early in the season gives the Sox some free depth they were seemingly missing.  Trotting out a rotation that could include Rodon and Kopech along with Dallas Keuchel, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease, and Gio Gonzalez is huge for a team struggling to find consistency up and down the rotation.

While that rotation still features some unproven players, having all 7 more or less ready to go for the bulk of a 100ish game season gives a lot of needed flexibility to Ricky Renteria, in terms of the bullpen, the rotation, and managing innings for Kopech and Rodon.

Smaller Sample Sizes Cannot Hurt

Second, having the season shortened likely helps the White Sox, if by nothing else other than a small sample size.  While things tend to equilibrate over a 162 game season under normal circumstances, a shortened season with a disrupted preparation period throws everything into disarray.  When you’re a team on the rise, looking for some lucky breaks, then chaos should certainly be embraced.

While there are some questions as to how sustainable the breakout production of the young core of Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert will be, having a shortened season makes anything possible.  While it could crash and burn, I’m hoping the chemistry that group has will lead to Lady Luck looking towards the South Side of Chicago more favorably.

On top of that, a shorter year. bodes well for veterans like Edwin Encarnacion, who may not have been effective over 162 games at 37 years old, especially after a 109 game season in 2019.  However, being able to be deployed strategically over a 100 game season may be just what he needs to be most effective as a DH.

It should also keep the catching group intact, with James McCann and Yasmani Grandal able to hold up to the grind and maintaining regular, productive at bats.  With catching obviously a strong suit of this team, the less wear on both players will be big towards keeping the White Sox in the playoff hunt.

The Regional Rivalries Will Be Incredible

We may not see this factor really come to fruition without fans in the stands, but man oh man this would be fun.  Yes, having so many good teams is brutal, but playing 10 games (ish) each against the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals will lead to some heated regional rivalry games this sport needs.  Especially given the fact that these games would matter.

While not a regional rivalry per se, seeing how the White Sox compare to a young team a few steps ahead in the Atlanta Braves would also be fun to watch.  Rough, of course, but still a matchup that would set a barometer for the next few years.

All I know is adding these regional rivalries from NL Central teams, along with the traditional AL Central opponents, should lead to more fireworks than the Grapefruit/Cactus League or Arizona Plan set ups were leading to.

Who knows, maybe if all goes well MLB would consider more permanent realignment to add fire to the sport.  In any event, here’s to hoping we get to see a hell of a lot more moments like this.

Cons of the Regional Plan for the White Sox

The Central Division is a Juggernaut

On the flip side of the coin for the actual alignment, taking the White Sox out of the AL Central is obviously a downside.  While the regional plan still gives the Sox some cannon fodder in the Royals and Tigers, having to compete with four 2019 playoff teams (Twins, Brewers, Cardinals, Braves) and two others that were in it until the end (Cubs, Indians) is a tough draw.

Instead of hoping for down years in Cleveland (and perhaps a trade of Francisco Lindor) and a return to normalcy for the Twins, and some luck, there’s now additional juggernauts to deal with.  Across the league, the East and West only have 3 2019 playoff teams each, so this is obviously a tough draw.

While there hasn’t been much light shed on the playoff structure, I’d have to imagine that there will be somewhere between 10-12 playoff teams in total.  Having to play about 80 games against the non-Tigers and Royals is a tough draw for a team hoping for a breakthrough year.  A lot has to go right for the White Sox to make a playoff push, and this alignment certainly puts them in a deeper hole than the AL Central did.

The Depth of the Sox Farm System is Full of Questions

Secondly, and perhaps more damaging longterm, is the effect of this plan on player development.  It’s no secret that the White Sox farm system is going to take a big hit in terms of rankings once Nick Madrigal, Michael Kopech, and Luis Robert graduate from prospect status in 2020.  That really leaves Andrew Vaughn and a lot of question marks, and not much depth.

To put it simply, if there is no Minor League baseball in 2020 the franchise could have some serious problems on the horizon.

First, I’ll touch on Vaughn.  Obviously, I’m not saying he’s going to just suddenly go bad.  He looked good in Spring Training, and I still have all the confidence in the world in his ability to be a big piece.  However, not getting proper development in his first full season is bad.  While he was certainly good in 2019, only having about 250 plate appearances, with none coming above High A ball, doesn’t have him close enough to the majors to warrant an aggressive, Chris Sale-like call up.

Expanded rosters may help get some prospects up earlier than anticipated, but with a lineup full of first base-DH types, I can’t see the White Sox bringing Vaughn up.  There just wouldn’t be enough at bats to warrant the stunting of his development.  So, we’ll be left to see how the developmental league can challenge Vaughn, and whether it will render him ready for the big leagues in 2021.

Outside of Andrew Vaughn, this type of minor league alignment is also huge on the number of questions the White Sox have in their minor leagues.  First, the brigade of stalled outfielders in Birmingham from last season (pretend Luis Robert isn’t there):

That group, along with Micker Adolfo, who only played in 23 games in Birmingham due to injuries, needs all the development it can get.  If none of these guys can get over the hump, the organization is extremely thin on outfield bats behind the current major league roster.  With no minor league season in 2020, I have serious concerns about what will happen with this group, saying how none appear to be close to major league ready.

Lastly on the farm, we have the glut of injured and inexperienced minor league pitchers from 2019.  Dane Dunning, who had Tommy John in March 2019, and Jimmy Lambert, who had his own TJS in June, obviously headline that group.  With neither likely to get minor league innings in 2020, this season will basically be a wash for their development.

Then you have some of the further away guys like Jonathan Stiever, Matthew Thompson, and Andrew Dalquist, who all have an ETA of 2021 (Stiever) or 2023.  While an abnormal 2020 won’t cripple their development, it certainly won’t help it.

While the status of Minor League baseball is still obviously up in the air, it will in some way be affected in 2020.  Only time will tell what this does to the long term health of the farm, but if the worst comes to pass the reinforcements behind the current MLB roster are extremely thin.

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