What a show.
Excuse me, I believe I’m supposed to be writing it as: What a Sho.
The World Baseball Classic, whether your cup of tea or not, ended in remarkably dramatic fashion Tuesday night, with Shohei Ohtani striking out fellow Angel and fellow greatest baseball player on the planet Mike Trout to give Japan a one-run victory over Team USA and a third championship in this now five-times-played event.
The championship bout capped a couple weeks’ worth of really good, really fun baseball, with the emotions the players were feeling wearing their home country on their chest seeping through the TV.
This isn’t a WBC think piece, but I needed to highlight the drama of seeing Ohtani blow triple-digit fastballs by Trout. It’s going to be hard for the sport to replicate that kind of thing come October.
Speaking of October, it’s where the White Sox want to be, a year after missing out on the postseason with a massively disappointing .500 campaign. If they’re going to do it, they’ll need big contributions from the guys who just played in the WBC. Yoán Moncada was named to the all-tournament team for his work leading Team Cuba to the semifinals. Luis Robert Jr. also suited up for the Cubans, while Lance Lynn, Tim Anderson and Kendall Graveman earned silver medals playing for Team USA. Elsewhere, Eloy Jiménez and José Ruiz showed out for the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, respectively.
So other than creating lasting memories and giving these guys a taste of championship-level baseball, what did the World Baseball Classic mean for these White Sox? Getting to play in high-intensity games in March, as opposed to the glorified practice of the Cactus League, provided much greater insight into their upcoming seasons, and in some cases, their play in the tournament completely changed their expectations for 2023.
Let’s go guy by guy and reevaluate where they’re at, post-WBC.
Moncada was excellent in the tournament, and White Sox fans caught glimpses of the player they’ve been waiting for since his breakout season in 2019. Being injury-free is probably the biggest thing for Moncada, who saw his energy sapped by a COVID infection in 2020 before back-to-back seasons bedeviled by an onslaught of baseball’s more regular physical assailants. Playing healthy in the WBC, Moncada slashed .435/.519/.739.
That should be an extremely welcome sight for the White Sox, who watched Moncada slog through a miserable offensive season in 2022, one of the sorest thumbs in a lineup full of underachievers. No one should project him batting .450 or anything like that, but a revitalized Moncada would go a long way toward getting the team back to where it’s supposed to be with the bats.
Of course, the lasting image for fans between now and Opening Day might be Moncada colliding with a teammate in right field and making an early exit from Sunday’s WBC semifinal, another injury scare associated with the third baseman who’s spent so long trying to live up to the rebuilding-era hype. It’s a bruised rib the White Sox don’t seem to be overly concerned with, for what it’s worth. I think it’s safe to focus on the big things he did with the bat instead.
Luis Robert Jr.
Robert was the other White Sox cornerstone sent to Team Cuba this month, and he fared far worse than Moncada did, slashing just .259/.286/.296, an objectively rough showing in six games.
Health, too, is a main storyline for Robert – which White Sox player doesn’t have a health storyline accompanying them into 2023? – and he didn’t have anything pop up on that front during the tournament. But as Moncada lit it up with the bat, Robert struggled mightily and too often looked like he did during the 2022 season, flailing at balls outside the strike zone and bringing to mind one of the team’s biggest bugaboos from last season. It’s up to the new coaching staff to exorcize those demons from Robert and the rest of the lineup in order to redefine the offense.
As for Robert’s expectations, the benefit of the WBC is it was just six games in March, really a no-lose situation for those who participated in terms of setting themselves up for the regular season. Do well, it’s a good sign. Do poorly, oh well, it’s only March. Robert did not look good, for the most part, but the conversation around him is much the same as it was before he left White Sox camp: Can he stay healthy and finally play more than 100 games, and can he emerge as the MVP-level player so many have pegged him as? He’ll have a prime spot in the White Sox’ lineup with which to answer those looming questions.
In perhaps the least shocking development of the WBC, Anderson looked like Anderson. The rest of the baseball world seemed surprised that Anderson is an offensive igniter who can fire up a dugout and be a tone-setter in the clubhouse. The South Side already knew all that. And as the national folks gushed over Anderson being Anderson, the White Sox had to be beaming, because the guy they knew is back.
It’s not that Anderson ever stopped being himself, it’s just that injuries knocked him off his game – and just plain out of games – last season. Without a groin issue or a torn sagittal band in his finger to worry about, he did his thing in the WBC, smacking balls the other way and using his speed to great effect. He slashed .333/.381/.500. If the White Sox get that, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t, that’s another thing bringing normalcy to the offense and to the team, in general.
The one Anderson-related surprise was his moonlighting as a second baseman. Mark DeRosa needed to play Anderson and shortstop-turned-Hank Aaron impersonator Trea Turner at the same time, so Anderson played a position he’s never played before. White Sox fans reacted wildly, wondering what it meant for Anderson’s positional future on the South Side. I’ll help you stop wondering: Anderson is the White Sox’ shortstop, and he will continue to be.
Boy, does Lynn look ready for the regular season. In fact, he looks so ready that it looks like he’s ready for August and September already.
Lynn was screaming “ready” prior to even leaving for Team USA, and his performance in the tournament only reinforced that notion. Only Ohtani logged more innings than Lynn’s nine, alluding not only to Lynn’s status as a workhorse in the White Sox’ rotation but that he was efficient with his pitches under the WBC’s strict pitch-count rules. That anything could force Lynn out of a game, rules or otherwise, is pretty shocking in its own right. Lynn stood alone as the finest pitcher on the American staff, the leader in innings thrown and in WHIP, 0.78 his mark in that category.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one already, but it was health that derailed Lynn’s 2022. He missed the first two months of the season recovering from springtime knee surgery, then took some time to get back into the swing of things. Once he was there, he was the dominant Lynn that White Sox fans fell in love with a season prior. Given full health and an ahead-of-schedule start to the season thanks to the WBC, and he should be back to the guy who finished third in the Cy Young vote in 2021.
In other words, it could be a very big year for the self-proclaimed Big Bastard.
We didn’t hear much about Jiménez’s time in the WBC, and his cramping-related departure from Monday’s spring training game made far more waves than anything he did in the tournament. The Dominicans failing to make it out of this tournament’s “group of death” and not giving him an extended run to shine had plenty to do with that. But Jiménez was quietly excellent in that stacked DR lineup, batting .455, the 16th highest average in the WBC.
Jiménez, too, will be under the microscope when it comes to his health, and that’s why the sky was falling on White Sox Twitter because of some cramping. Jiménez already showed what he can do when healthy, and his status as one of baseball’s finest second-half hitters last year proved he can be something special in the middle of the White Sox’ order. Amassing a near-.500 batting average in brief WBC action is only another positive since he returned from his latest months-long injury in the middle of last year.
It was only three games and 11 at-bats, so a goose egg in the home-run column isn’t much to be concerned with. But of course, Jiménez is one of the guys expected to return the White Sox to the powerful club they were in 2020 and 2021.
Graveman appeared twice and got four outs, not allowing a run for Team USA. Relief outings were few and far between for most bullpen arms in this tournament, so there’s not too much to glean from Graveman facing five batters.
But not giving up runs is better than giving up runs, and finishing with a 0.00 ERA is always nice. Graveman will be expected to serve as perhaps the top arm in the White Sox’ bullpen with Liam Hendriks’ status unknown as he undergoes treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Pedro Grifol seems committed to a closer-by-committee approach, but Graveman will obviously get plenty of high-leverage opportunities. Getting it done in the high-leverage world of the WBC is a nice step toward a season’s worth of it for the White Sox.
No White Sox player redefined their 2023 expectations like Ruiz did, pitching terrifically enough in the WBC to go from “will he make the bullpen?” to “when can White Sox fans see him pitch next?” Even if he might have already been in the eyes of the team’s decision-makers, he’s a lock for the relief corps after twirling 4.1 scoreless innings and striking out five batters while only allowing one hit.
Ruiz has been quietly reliable for a few years now, even if White Sox fans dreaded seeing him come into games, often in mop-up duty or in high-leverage situations where things didn’t go his way. But he’s been called on constantly and came to play every time. He’s surrounded by talented arms in the bullpen now, even while waiting on Hendriks, and it’s possible he could elevate himself into Grifol’s group of late-inning options should he carry his WBC success into the regular season.