Ask just about anyone in the White Sox’ clubhouse for an explanation of what went so, so wrong in 2022, and the answer will include something about injuries.
Fans can tear their hair out – and they would be right to – over the fundamental flubs, the base-running blunders, the defensive miscues and a host of supposedly big bats all having career-worst years at the same time. But there’s no getting around the fact that an unrelenting wave of injuries crippled the White Sox’ chances from start to finish last season.
This spring, optimism has perhaps been slow to take hold in the fan base, given the massive disappointment of the most recent regular season. But if any has taken root, the absence of those injuries – really any injuries to speak of – has surely played a part.
Then the last few days happened. And the sky is falling once again.
I use that “sky is falling” terminology to (hopefully) hammer home that the injury news suddenly flowing out of White Sox camp might not be all that grim. But with Andrew Vaughn on a Cactus League hiatus thanks to a sore back, Yoán Moncada making an early exit from Sunday’s World Baseball Classic semifinal after colliding with a teammate in right field and Eloy Jiménez making a long walk back to the team complex with the trainer Monday after running to first base, the reaction has not been cool, calm and collected back on the South Side.
So much for a spring devoid of injury news.
That seemed to be the main storyline out in Arizona for these White Sox, who still to many have what is the most talented roster in the AL Central. Playing like it is another thing, but the team has high hopes that new manager Pedro Grifol and his coaching staff can succeed in producing a transformation that two free-agent signings and retaining most of the guys who slogged through a .500 campaign did not, at least in the eyes of plenty of vocal fans.
Part of the offseason tweaking that went on mostly outside the lines, personnel changes that involved people who won’t show up in your baseball card collection, was addressing all those injuries that swamped any chance of success in 2022 and hounded the White Sox in 2021, as well, even as that team ran away with a division championship. Despite being in Kansas City for each of those White Sox seasons, Grifol got a question on the injury topic during his introductory press conference and turned to Rick Hahn, asking if it was time to unveil what was in the works. Hahn steered the conversation away from those specifics at the time, but indeed, there were changes afoot.
There’s a new senior director of sports performance on the payroll in Geoff Head, who spent the previous three seasons in a similarly titled role with the Reds and spent a dozen years prior working in the Giants’ organization. The White Sox’ media guide says Head will provide “leadership in the specialties of athletic training, rehab, strength and conditioning, mental skills, nutrition, sports science and wellness education for the major league team and player development system.”
All good, then? Problem solved? New guy heading up sports performance and the injuries are over?
Yeah, not quite.
This is baseball, folks, and no hire or any other strategy to combat injuries – we’ll get to those in a second – will be 100-percent successful. Whatever trends you might have spotted or think you might have spotted watching this team over the past two seasons, the No. 1 culprit was plain old bad luck.
You think you can wipe away the chances of Jiménez getting hurt by taking him out of the outfield? The injury that stole months of his 2022 season came while he was running the bases. You think you can keep Luis Robert Jr. in tip-top shape by telling him to stop with the head-first slides? That wouldn’t have prevented him from contracting the virus that blurred his vision last summer. You think you can prevent Tim Anderson and all the rest from suffering hamstring injuries? OK, but what does that do to prevent Anderson from tearing the sagittal band in his finger like he did last season?
Injuries are part of the game, and unfortunately for the White Sox, they’ve been a big part of the game the last two years. You can’t strategize to completely avoid bad luck.
But you can try your best to keep guys healthy. And that’s what the White Sox attempted to do this winter.
“We had to make improvements in finding a way to, ideally, keep these guys on the field,” Hahn said during the early portion of spring training. “That was a big thing that hampered us last year was from an availability standpoint. We feel like some of the adjustments we made from a staff and process standpoint are going to go a long way toward addressing that, as well.
“A lot of it had to do with the additions we’ve made from a staff standpoint; the monitoring of the offseason workouts, which we obviously weren’t able to do last year; the stronger communication; the adjustment to programs on the fly; and using perhaps a little better use of technology over the course of the offseason. And that’s just continuing (during the spring). We continue to have meetings, and players and staff have meetings to craft programs and adjust where needed. Obviously, making use of our lab here (in Arizona), as well as other new technology in season that will be available to us, to put us in a better position.
“I want to be extremely clear: Unfortunately, you’re never going to eliminate injuries. What we’re trying to do is trying to increase the odds of keeping guys as available as possible.”
And then there’s what the players themselves did during the offseason. Whether motivated by evading the injury bug or simply avoiding a repeat of the failures of last year, the talk was, unsurprisingly, about offseason workouts and how the guys are attempting to plot both productive and healthy courses in 2023.
Jiménez and Lucas Giolito showed up in the wake of dramatic weight losses, both hopeful that a return to body types of old could replicate the successes of old. Moncada and Robert talked about changing the way they prepared for spring, Moncada saying that he changed everything about how he worked out this winter. Yasmani Grandal’s “work out till you pass out” methods were well discussed before camp even started. And of course, there’s what Hahn mentioned, that the White Sox were actually able to communicate with their players for the entirety of the offseason after the lockout gummed up communication a year before.
And it all seemed to be setting up quite nicely as of a few days ago.
But now we’re doing the whole injury-update thing as spring training heads into its final week before the season opens next Thursday.
Grifol has downplayed Vaughn’s sore back and Moncada’s bruised rib – word of a concussion was clarified to explain that the third baseman was merely checked for a concussion – to beat reporters on the scene in Arizona. Cramping for Jiménez is just, well, cramping. With that information and that attitude from the manager, it seems none of this is too big a deal. Day-to-day evaluations mean just that: Check in tomorrow.
It also means there’s no reason to panic, to think these are things that could dramatically hamper the White Sox at the season’s outset, until there is. Updates will continue to come, obviously. And don’t fret, either, if a Cactus League lineup is without one of these players or another, because the Cactus League is, after all, just glorified practice.
The White Sox are hoping this is just a smattering of March maladies and nothing that has any effect on their fortunes in April and beyond. They’re hoping the changes they put into place this winter have the desired effect of keeping guys off the injured list, as much as luck will allow, anyway.
So take a deep breath. That beautiful Arizona sky isn’t really falling.
Not yet, anyway.