I might be back from Arizona, but White Sox spring training rolls on.
Fortunately for the team, there wasn’t much in the way of injury news during my 10-day stay in the desert. But as Cactus League games have gotten underway, there have been numerous bite-size items that have popped up and deserve attention, be they related to player health or anything else impacting the roster and the South Siders’ chances during the 2023 season.
So let’s dive into some of the hottest topics from White Sox camp.
Will Aaron Bummer be ready for Opening Day?
The veteran reliever seems to think so, telling reporters, including the Sun-Times’ Daryl Van Schouwen, that despite not yet throwing off a mound, he expects to be ready to break camp with the team and be available come the White Sox’ season-opener against the Astros on March 30.
Bummer was bothered enough by his shoulder and lat last season that he pitched in only 32 games, down from the career-high 62 appearances he made a year earlier. This is the same area that’s been bothering him again this spring.
Bummer told reporters he’s feeling fine now after some early-camp irritation and he doesn’t foresee any problems in the future. But he’s undoubtedly behind schedule, and even with Bummer and Pedro Grifol expressing confidence that the lefty is “on pace” – certainly a month is a long time to get ready – it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility to imagine the White Sox extending Bummer’s stay in Arizona. Though it was a different situation with a different injury, they did the same thing with Joe Kelly last spring, delaying his season debut until they were sure he was 100 percent.
The White Sox have the benefit of a deep bullpen, though they are expected to be without All-Star closer Liam Hendriks, who is undergoing cancer treatment, and Garrett Crochet, who is anticipated to return to a big league mound sometime in May after completing his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Kelly, Kendall Graveman, Reynaldo López and Jimmy Lambert make up a reliable back end, even without Hendriks, Crochet and Bummer. Veteran Jake Diekman, acquired at last year’s trade deadline, and Nick Avila, a Rule 5 pick this winter, seem good bets to make the Opening Day bullpen, as well.
The White Sox also have plenty of options past this group, with mainstay José Ruiz, recent camp invite Bryan Shaw, trade acquisitions Gregory Santos and Franklin German and recognizable names like Matt Foster and Tanner Banks all available for duty.
We’ll have to see exactly what Bummer’s status is as camp progresses.
Can Jake Burger slug his way onto the 26-man roster?
The short answer is no.
But Burger has been a notable hitter at the outset of Cactus League play, smacking a couple homers in the White Sox’ first few games. The White Sox, of course, already knew that Burger possessed a powerful bat and didn’t need a spring breakout to alter their opinion of him in that regard.
Burger, as good as the bat might be – he hit eight homers and drove in 26 runs in 51 big league games last season – doesn’t have a position, really, and is almost certainly blocked at every place on the depth chart you could suggest he play on this White Sox roster.
Assuming full health, there’s no way Burger would take at-bats away from Yoán Moncada at third base, the position Burger was drafted to play. And the same goes for Andrew Vaughn at first base, where Burger has been lining up this spring, or Eloy Jiménez at designated hitter. Gavin Sheets, as a lefty bat, would seem a more promising option to back up Jiménez at DH, while there’s no shot Burger would be put in the field to play second base – as was attempted at the minor league level in recent years – over Elvis Andrus.
Of course, assuming full health never seems to pan out, and so Burger is a valuable depth piece for the White Sox. In the event of an injury to any of those guys, Burger can be called on to fill in and, at least offensively, do so admirably.
As we saw with hot hitters like Micker Adolfo and Yoelqui Céspedes last year, home-run binges in spring training rarely force teams to shake up their plans for the season. That is especially true in Burger’s case, where the White Sox seem well set at any position he could play.
It’s a great sign for Burger and the White Sox’ depth for 2023. But it shouldn’t affect the plans for the Opening Day roster.
How is Elvis Andrus adapting to second base?
Though Andrus, Grifol and Rick Hahn all expressed immense confidence that Andrus could handle everyday duty at second base when he was signed on the first day of full-squad workouts, it remains true that he’s playing there for the first time in his decade and a half as a major leaguer.
Early in the spring, Andrus talked about his offseason workouts at the position and that shifting the shortstop to the other side of the second-base bag in recent years has prepared him for the transition. He thought it would be a smooth one, and maybe it will be.
But after his first Cactus League game at second base, he couldn’t help but notice a big difference.
“It was completely weird. The weirdest game I’ve played in a while,” Andrus told reporters, including MLB.com’s Scott Merkin. “Even between innings I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ But I’ll get used to it, for sure.”
Andrus is a veteran, and his experience surely infused the White Sox with confidence that he could make the position switch after so many years at shortstop and an immensely positive contribution in the clubhouse last summer. Dating back to last season, no one has expressed much doubt that Andrus could make it work.
But the experience isn’t there at second base, and it’s possible this could be a work in progress even stretching into the regular season. Andrus also won’t have the ability to get in consistent work with Tim Anderson; the White Sox shortstop is soon leaving camp to participate in the World Baseball Classic.
Andrus, though, will get a full Cactus League schedule to practice at second base before the games start counting.
Andrew Benintendi: White Sox No. 3 hitter?
It was 55 degrees and people were freaking out about the starting lineup, so you know it’s officially baseball season in Chicago.
Grifol sent shockwaves through White Sox Twitter on Wednesday when he batted Benintendi, the team’s big free-agent acquisition, third in his spring lineup. Benintendi’s a very good hitter – and someone who probably belongs in the upper third of the team’s batting order – but he doesn’t fit the mold of a stereotypical No. 3 hitter, who often owns the title of a team’s best hitter as well as a good amount of power for driving in runs. Benintendi was signed for his ability with the bat, but power is not one of his greatest attributes; he hit only five homers last season.
Will Benintendi be the heir apparent to José Abreu in the No. 3 hole? We’ll see, though it might be rather difficult to tell while four of the team’s everyday players – including leadoff man Anderson and three-hitter candidates Jiménez and Luis Robert Jr. – are away to play in the World Baseball Classic.
An important thing to remember is that the lineup is sure to shift throughout the season, from day to day, as Grifol plays the matchups and deals with his players experiencing various degrees of full strength and effectiveness. What he sets in the Cactus League will not be carbon copied to all 162 games of the regular season.
“I spent a lot of time researching where to put who, to best give us the value and the production that we need to maximize our run scoring,” Grifol said of his offseason looks at the lineup earlier this spring. “And when you put the names down on paper, you realize this lineup is pretty deep. And then when you add Andrus to the lineup, it gets even deeper.
“It’s a really good problem to have. We have versatile guys that can hit at a lot of different places in the order. I have kind of an idea (of how I want it to look for the regular season), but it’s too early.”
As Cactus League play continues, Grifol will get an even better idea. So stay tuned on that front.