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The Rebuild Returns

We interrupt this program - that being the euphoria up on Sheridan Road - to remind our readers that we have a baseball season returning on Thursday when The Rebuild continues for the White Sox, starting in Kansas City.

The past couple of months had been a wasteland as far as local sports were concerned until the unheralded Ramblers - the local papers hardly covered Loyola until it was clear they were going to the Tournament - awakened a city thirsty for something to cheer about.
Hope has turned into reality for the college hoops team in Rogers Park.

As far as the Sox are concerned, there is a tinge of hope, but it has yet to spring eternal. Yet most fans are more than willing to sit back, observe on television rather than at the ballpark, and wait.

We know this is working. At least we think it is.

All one has to do is investigate the defending World Series champion Houston Astros. This is the way things are accomplished. Not long ago, the Astros lost 324 games in three seasons, 2011-13. By 2015 they finished 86-76. Last season's 101 wins led to the Series triumph.

Jeff Luhnow came over from the Cardinals prior to the 2012 season to assume the reins as Houston's general manager much like Theo Epstein did in 2011 for the Cubs on the North Side. The formula for both young executives has become very familiar - one that obviously is being followed by Sox GM Rick Hahn.

MVP Jose Altuve already was wearing an Astros uniform when Luhnow arrived, but he added Marwin Gonzalez (2012) and pitcher Dallas Keuchel (2012), who won the Cy Young in 2015. George Springer was next (2014), and then came Carlos Correa (2015) along with other prospects and trades that reaped the likes of Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick.

One scenario says that the Sox are moving much faster than either Houston or the Cubs. One indication came last July when Hahn fleeced Epstein by swapping Jose Quintana for Eloy Jimenez, right-hander Dylan Cease, and two other minor leaguers. Quintana is a solid No. 2 or 3 in a club's rotation but not an ace. The Jimenez Watch will begin immediately with fans hoping to see the slugging outfielder, the fourth-ranked prospect in all of baseball, in a Sox uniform by mid-July. Cease is rated the Sox' fourth top prospect, thanks primarily to a fastball that can reach 100 along with a sharp-breaking curveball.

Already contributing to Jimenez's mushrooming stature is the home run he hit three weeks ago against the Cubs. Sidelined with knee tendinitis but feeling lots better, Jimenez had just one at-bat in the spring games when he begged manager Rick Renteria to pinch-hit against the team that dealt him. His opposite field blast got the attention of people from both sides of town. May we suggest a walk-up song for the Dominican prospect? How about John Fogerty's "Centerfield." Oh, put me in coach, I'm ready to play, today seems appropriate.

In past seasons, we watched every fifth day as Quintana recorded more no-decisions than any other pitcher in baseball. The 2-1 and 3-2 defeats were de rigueur. Compare that to an image of the 21-year-old, 6-foot-4, 205-pounder patrolling left field and hitting fifth in the lineup. Forgive us if we're overly eager.

Also consider that Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, two right-handers, are starting the season in the team's rotation. Is that worth Adam Eaton, whom Hahn dealt to Washington for the pair of pitchers? Without question.

Sourpuss Chris Sale will be Boston's Opening Day pitcher, and he'll challenge once again for the Cy Young Award. But Hahn got Yoan Moncada in the deal, along with fireballer Michael Kopech. Advantage White Sox.

Moncada modestly broke in last season with a slash of .231/.331/.730, but he hit .276 in September and has continued on that pace during spring training. The guy looks like he could play point guard in the NBA or wide receiver in the NFL. It seems inconceivable that he won't jump-start the offense this season batting leadoff in Renteria's order.

So what should we expect for 2018? The latest Las Vegas Over/Under for wins lists the Sox at 71 - or six more wins than a year ago. That should be doable.

A year ago on Opening Day, Melky Cabrera was in left field, Jacob May in center, and Avisail Garcia in right. Todd Frazier played third, Tim Anderson at short, Tyler Saladino at second, and Jose Abreu at first. Quintana was the pitcher with Omar Narvaez behind the plate.

Garcia, Anderson and Abreu are holdovers. Will Garcia hit .330 again? Probably not, but he's a legitimate major league hitter as is Abreu. And Anderson, another impressive athlete, is just 24 and figures to keep improving.

Melky, still an unsigned free agent, gets the nod over Nicky Delmonico, who will be in left on Thursday, but May failed miserably at the beginning of last season, going 2-for-36. The grandson of Lee May and grand nephew of former Sox Carlos May was playing in Charlotte a month into the season.

May's eventual replacement Adam Engel, who can go get the ball in the mold of Ken Berry and Aaron Rowand, hit just .166 a year ago, but he's had a hearty spring, slashing .383/.453/1.155 with four homers. He won't hit .166 again.

Yolmer Sanchez will be the third baseman on Thursday because he's the best the team has. Nevertheless, Sanchez had a fine year in 2017, and Frazier never lived up to the hype he earned in the National League.

New catching addition Welington Castillo, a veteran at age 30, hit .282 with Baltimore last season, slugging 20 homers. Narvaez will back him up, giving the team an upgrade behind the plate.

Cody Ashe was the DH on Opening Day. Matt Davidson is a genuine improvement.

The Sox ranked 12th in the American League last season in runs scored. They should improve on that this year.

The pitchers will dictate how far that improvement goes. A year ago, the five starters were Quintana, James Shields, Derek Holland, Miguel Gonzalez and Dylan Covey. Shields is the Opening Day designee this season despite being 9-19 with an ERA of 5.99 in parts of two seasons with the Sox. Gonzalez returns, and he'll be joined by Giolito, Lopez and Carson Fullmer. At least the rotation is a breath of the future instead of place-holders.

If 71 wins is the target, the bullpen has to perform better than it looks on paper. A year ago there were real, live major league pitchers such as David Robertson, Zach Putnam, Tommy Kahnle, Anthony Swarzak, Jake Petricka, Dan Jennings and Nate Jones. Only Jones remains from that group. He's joined by journeymen Joakim Soria, Luis Avilan, Danny Farquhar and Gregory Infante. Add Juan Minaya and Aaron Bummer, and you have the potential for many late-inning collapses.

However, keep in mind that the Tigers and Royals will provide 38 games of competition for the Sox. Last season the South Siders were 20-18 against their division weak sisters. They should do better than that this year because those two clubs are in rapid decline. Against frontrunners Cleveland and Minnesota, our athletes went 13-25, a low target to shoot for this season.

Also, the Sox face all five teams from the National League Central this season. The Cubs and Brewers are formidable, but the Reds and Pirates are not. The Cardinals figure to be middling. So there could be some success in that regard.

A bit more than an hour after Loyola tips off against Michigan on Saturday, the Sox will be playing in Kansas City. No one will be watching. But if the young talent on the South Side begins to come of age later this summer, that won't be the case and 71 wins should be within reach.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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