White Sox, Royals ready to prove skeptics wrong this season

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              Chicago White Sox's Daniel Palka, right, is congratulated on his two-run home run by Eloy Jimenez in the seventh inning of a spring training baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Monday, March 25, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The consensus among prognosticators is that the Chicago White Sox or Kansas City Royals will finish in the bottom of the AL Central, and whichever avoids the cellar won’t fare a whole lot better.

Well, one of them will soon be undefeated.

The White Sox and Royals meet Thursday at Kauffman Stadium for the start of a season-opening three-game series. The rivals are supposed to have Friday off before continuing through the weekend, but there is rain in the forecast for opening day, which could mean pushing back the pomp and circumstance.

Regardless of the weather — or expectations, for that matter — both clubs are eager to get going.

“I say it’s been a long spring,” Royals manager Ned Yost said Wednesday, “but it was really short for me. I enjoyed watching these kids play. But we’ve done enough playing when it doesn’t count. These guys want to play for something. I hope the weather cooperates for us. It’s a little iffy.”

The White Sox and Royals are both coming off 100-loss seasons, leaving them separated by four games in the AL Central cellar. But both are also in the midst of major rebuilding efforts, and the success of that work ultimately could be measured in more ways than simply wins and losses.

Then again, good luck telling anyone in the clubhouse that winning doesn’t matter.

“All these guys realized they can compete here. They got an opportunity last season and they got confidence going into this year that, ‘I belong here,'” Yost explained. “That’s a big step. We have that going for us, which we didn’t have last year.”

Carlos Rodon will take the hill Thursday for the White Sox, their fifth different opening day starter in five seasons. He’s hoping to stay healthy this season after a wave of injuries, and perhaps bounce back from a poor finish to last season.

The spotlight won’t be on Rodon, though. It figures to be on outfielder Eloy Jimenez, one of the top prospects in baseball, who signed a $43 million, six-year deal that takes service time out of the equation and essentially assured he will start on opening day — and for the foreseeable future.

Fellow outfielder Jon Jay is starting the season on the injured list, but the White Sox figure to have plenty of offense from the likes of Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada and Leury García.

“I think we have guys that, if something should occur, we have enough depth and guys that should keep us moving along,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. “Everybody cringes when something happens to a player, and we do too, but I think we’re in a much better place now than we were three years ago.”

The Royals will send Brad Keller to the mound on opening day after the 23-year-old right-hander had an impressive rookie campaign. He went 9-6 with a 3.08 ERA while transitioning from the bullpen to the starting rotation, where he wound up taking the ball 20 times with one complete game.

Behind him, questions abound.

The Royals are trying to return to the speed-and-defense roots that carried them to back-to-back World Series and the 2015 championship. But nobody is quite sure whether the trio of speedster Billy Hamilton, shortstop Adalberto Mondesi and second baseman Whit Merrifield will be able to produce enough runs with their legs alone to make up for what should be modest pop in the lineup.

There are also questions in the rotation and the bullpen, which was retooled with the addition of Jake Diekman and Brad Boxberger after a historically awful 2018 campaign.

The first opportunity to see whether any of those moves paid off will be Thursday.

Or Friday, if the weather turns sour.