Second verse, same as the first?
The White Sox need a post All-Star break surge if they’re going to make up for a .500 first half and reach the postseason, something we never thought we’d be talking about back in the spring.
Unfortunately, those efforts got off to a stumble of a start Friday, the South Siders plagued by many of the same issues that consistently sank them throughout the season’s first three and a half months: not enough offense, some shaky defense and an off night for a starting pitcher.
Though the rotation was far from the team’s biggest problem as it went into the break sitting third in the AL Central standings, Lucas Giolito – who lasted just three innings and gave up six runs Friday – and Lance Lynn continuing their searches for their typical selves is an unshakable storyline at the moment, not precluding Rick Hahn from looking for another starter before the August 2 trade deadline.
“I would love for these (five starting pitchers) to be the five here on out. If there’s a chance to add to it and get better, we’ll look at it,” Hahn said Friday. “I’m not sure about that market having a ton of volume in it right now. We’ll just have to wait and see.
“We’re not going to say no to anything that could potentially make us better.”
If that’s the case, then Hahn’s got a lot to consider if he’s going to get this White Sox team into the realm we thought it’d be in by now, among the game’s World Series contenders.
After an 8-2 clubbing by the Guardians, the team directly in front of them in the division race, it looks like there are plenty of avenues Hahn can go down, because right now, this team doesn’t look like much of a contender.
But this organization didn’t go through a years-long rebuild to not buy at the deadline with the championship window open.
So what will Hahn do at the deadline to try to salvage this season?
The general manager specified the bullpen as one of his front office’s likely priorities, and that makes plenty of sense with Garrett Crochet recovering from Tommy John surgery and Aaron Bummer on his way back from a strained lat. The former will not be a factor for the rest of the year, and Hahn mentioned the possibility that the same might be true for Bummer, who is not yet throwing off a mound.
“We do project him to return at some point, but that’s not guaranteed,” Hahn said. “So I would say bullpen’s probably the most obvious need.”
While the White Sox’ closer has gone to the All-Star Game in each of his first two seasons in the team’s employ and the multi-year contract for Kendall Graveman has been a solid investment so far, the rest of the relief corps has been hit or miss, most of the other arms having their moments of glory before slipping back into inconsistency. The exception there is perhaps Reynaldo López, who is currently taking his turn as the team’s third high-leverage reliever.
Joe Kelly was supposed to fill that role, alongside Bummer, but has experienced multiple injuries and owns a 7.13 ERA. His October experience could still make him a valuable member of the relief corps down the stretch, but the White Sox’ desire to bulk up their bullpen is no shock, something every contender tries to do this time of year, and for them, specifically, a left-hander seems a likely addition.
But the White Sox rank middle of the pack in relief ERA, making it far from the biggest issue on the roster. That would probably be the team’s lack of power (24th in home runs) and its failure against right-handed pitching (26th in OPS vs. RHP). The offense, in general, has improved, and the team ranks middle of the pack in runs scored, too. But those specific offensive shortcomings are killers, not to mention something Hahn can try to address before the deadline.
“If we keep hitting dingers,” Hahn said when asked if he believes this offense can do enough to reach the championship-level goals that were set back in the spring. “We had a good week last week. That offense looked a lot more like we anticipated.
“Not to put it on any one player, but it’s good to have (Yasmani Grandal) back, the skill set he brings. The way (Yoán) Moncada looked over the course of the trip looked much more like the 2019 (version of) Moncada, one of the most impactful players in the league. Obviously (José) Abreu, Tim Anderson have been phenomenal over the last two months.
“We saw glimpses over the last seven to 10 days. I’m optimistic we’ll see more consistency out of that going forward.”
It’s not fair to put that quote there and then bring up the fact that these White Sox mustered only two runs Friday night. But it was an evening emblematic of their season-long struggles, a letdown in the immediate wake of a potential turning point.
Grandal and Moncada have been focal points as everyday, star-level types who have performed outrageously below their capabilities. Grandal returned from a lengthy IL stay Friday and still has a batting average well below .200, though not the on-base and power numbers he used to make that number irrelevant last season. Moncada has fared much better in recent weeks but is still digging out of a sizable hole, statistically, and owns a batting average of .210.
And yet it wasn’t catcher or third base where Hahn went to describe positions that could be upgraded over the next couple weeks. He specified second base and right field as areas that might be targeted, while complimenting the improved offensive efforts of Josh Harrison and Gavin Sheets.
Those two guys have been bright spots, at times, over the last two months, but they also aren’t hitting so well they’re the slam-dunk answers at their respective positions, with Hahn calling them “options” Friday. Grandal and Moncada, on the other hand, aren’t going anywhere.
“Moncada being Moncada and Yaz being Yaz are kind of part of what makes this team go. So you’re not switching that out,” Hahn said. “You’re going to try to make that work, if they’re healthy, the best you can with those players because of what they’re capable of doing when they’re right. We saw what Yaz did last year when he came off the IL. He damn near carried this team for a little while. So I think pivoting from four- or five-win players midstream is probably not the strategy you want to follow.”
A possible search for a new bat that can play right field will obviously turn folks’ attention to Juan Soto, the Nationals’ superstar right fielder who could be the hottest name on the trade market. He’s one of the best players in the game, the answer to any team’s offensive woes with an OPS north of .900 and the status as a perennial MVP candidate.
He also just reportedly rejected a 15-year contract extension from the Nationals worth $440 million that would have made him the highest-paid player in the history of the sport. If the Nationals do decide to trade him this summer, the strategy would be undoubtedly to reload their farm system. The White Sox have plenty of young talent at the major league level – and it’d be hard to label anyone untouchable when talking about a player as good as Soto – but also boast one of the lowest-rated farm systems in the game, making it difficult, perhaps, to build a return package that would top all others.
Hahn stuck to his usual strategy of leaving the names of other teams’ players out of his mouth. But he did talk generally – very generally – about the White Sox’ past pursuits of big-name players, doing another thing he usually does: not taking any possibility off the table.
“I’m for the most part going to stay away from any speculation about any specific player,” he said. “I will say, historically, as long as I’ve been here working for Jerry (Reinsdorf) and Kenny (Williams), there hasn’t been a premium player that changed teams that we haven’t at least had a conversation about.
“We may have been a little too forthright or upfront in very recent premium free-agent pursuits that led to fans being frustrated when we didn’t wind up converting on them. So I think at this point, I’m going to err on the side of that White Sox ‘stealth mode’ that (the questioning reporter was) referring to. And if we make the deal, I’ll happily explain how it all came together.”
A focus on second base and right field speaks to Hahn’s offseason work to address those two positions not succeeding, a return to the drawing board of sorts. Harrison’s early season struggles impacted his ability to be a diamond-in-the-rough find for Hahn on a limited free-agent pile. And the team’s trade of Craig Kimbrel for AJ Pollock has yielded someone who’s played far more left field than right (due to injuries elsewhere) and an OPS around .600.
Though the White Sox have spent months now preaching that their immense amount of talent should allow them to turn things around and play like the kind of team that was expected, the day of such consistent production has yet to come for anyone besides Abreu, Anderson and Andrew Vaughn. A dramatic shake-up that would see every other player on the roster replaced in the starting lineup will not happen, for plenty of obvious reasons, and it will mostly be on those who have yet to produce to awaken from hibernation if the White Sox are going to do anything close to their preseason expectations.
But Hahn can do what he can, the bigger the splash, the bigger the help it will be to a team in dire need of playing a lot better baseball.
It’s the only way, perhaps, to make the second verse of this season different from the first.
“We’ve had a bunch of conversations, not just (between) us but obviously with the scouts and the coaching staff and the front office, and we’ve got a bunch of different ideas about possibilities,” Hahn said. “You’ve got a lot of teams in it right now. So the so-called true sellers are a little bit limited right now, and what they have may not exactly align with what we need.
“It will be a fun couple of weeks from the standpoint of playing with different ideas, and hopefully we find a way to make this team better.”