Through the 2023 season’s first 10 games, the White Sox’ defense was good enough to make the endless mistakes of 2022 a somewhat distant memory.
But three miscue-plagued games this week in Minnesota were enough to make 2023 start to look like a sequel to what Rick Hahn called the most disappointing campaign of his career.
That feeling – however brief it might end up being; it’s been only 13 games, after all – is helped along by the fact that the White Sox were without three star players for almost the entirety of the series, Tim Anderson suffering a sprained knee in the opening game, Yoán Moncada missing all three contests with back soreness and Eloy Jiménez coming to the apparent end of his early-season stay on the injured list.
Injuries and fundamental problems were the defining elements of last year’s .500 finish, and they were the screaming headlines in three ugly days in the Twin Cities. The White Sox are still without a series win this season after dropping Wednesday afternoon’s tilt by a 3-1 score, though even Monday’s winning effort was little more than a bright spot on a day to forget.
Wednesday, defensive issues struck in the fourth inning, Gavin Sheets’ first start in right field this season producing a tangled-up, turned-around fall to the grass on a fly ball that had an expected batting average of .060 but went as a leadoff triple. Lucas Giolito put two more guys on base after – scarily hitting one in the face and walking the following batter – before Andrew Vaughn bobbled a potential double-play ball at first base, getting only one out on the play and getting the Twins their first run.
With the lineup missing all three of Anderson, Moncada and Jiménez for the second straight day, the hits were again hard to come by. After mustering just four in Tuesday’s loss, the White Sox had only six Wednesday, two coming in the ninth after the Twins grew their lead to three runs an inning prior.
The offensive shortcomings might have played a bigger role in the defeats, but the defensive struggles were harder to miss, Wednesday serving as a continuation of the White Sox’ glove troubles from the previous two days.
Hanser Alberto, pressed into frequent third-base duty with Moncada unavailable, made a run-scoring error early in Monday’s game and later made a poor decision on a ground ball that led to a collision between Anderson and a base runner, which landed the All-Star shortstop on the IL the next day. In that same game, Elvis Andrus and Sheets (this time playing first base) made errors in the same inning, Sheets worsening the ground ball that went through his legs by cutting off a nice throw from Oscar Colás in right field that could have generated a play at the plate.
At least the White Sox won that game. Tuesday night, the defense was mostly good – with some highlight-reel plays, even – until Alberto struck again, his wide throw on a 10th-inning bunt allowing the Twins to walk off with a win.
This kind of play was supposed to be history, something left behind when the White Sox brought Pedro Grifol and a new coaching staff aboard this winter. Though the front office, hoping for a dramatic turnaround, placed its faith in mostly the same collection of players who made all those mistakes in 2022, the new staff was supposed to make enough of a difference to lead to significantly cleaner baseball.
If the first 10 games were any indication, Grifol & Co. did seem to make that difference. Of course, what a coaching staff can’t control is health, and the other frustrating feature of 2022 that has replicated itself in mid April this year is injuries. Check that list of defensive blunders again, and you’ll see reserves were frequent culprits. Of course, there were bad plays from starters like Vaughn and Andrus, too, but it’s safe to say some of the defensive mistakes from the White Sox this week in Minnesota were the direct result of injuries. The two went hand in hand throughout 2022 and did so again the last three days.
Moncada and Jiménez could return this weekend, when the White Sox return home for a series with the Orioles. Anderson’s stay away is expected to be significantly longer, his absence estimated Tuesday to last two to four weeks. That one of the fielding blunders was the cause of Anderson’s absence – and Anderson is the most important player on the team – casts an even more glaring light on the avalanche of miscues.
This could very well be a passing storm, and greater health could bring a swift change in the defensive winds. Moncada, after all, is a wizard of sorts at third base, and it doesn’t take much imagination to assume he would have turned all the plays Alberto couldn’t. Colás has looked mostly impressive in his first taste of playing the outfield in the major leagues, and Sheets’ appearances there shouldn’t be terribly frequent, even if he keeps hitting well.
The fact that the White Sox are a mere two weeks into their season should serve as plenty of evidence that this might not be a season-long trend, though the quick-reaction world of fandom in 2023 is unlikely to allow for any patience or “it’s early” explanations.
Regardless, as the White Sox spent the spring saying, it’s on them to prove it.
While injuries can often be explained away as the result of bad luck, two recent ones for these White Sox have come from unforced errors, Anderson spraining his knee on Alberto’s bad play Monday and Joe Kelly tweaking his groin while running to join in on the benches-clearing Sunday in Pittsburgh. They need to prove they can play smart enough to stay healthy.
On the defensive side, they need to prove the mistake-heavy play is a thing of the past, that this week in Minnesota isn’t definitive of what kind of team they are. Offensively, the hits came in bunches over the first 10 games. The White Sox need to prove the last couple games were anomalies, not the new normal, as the schedule stays really difficult the remainder of the season’s opening month.
It’s still early. Just check a calendar. But will things be different once it’s no longer early? The White Sox need to do what they said they would and prove it.