Eloy Jiménez might be back from the injured list, but his return Friday against the Orioles doesn’t change the fact that the White Sox have once more been bombarded by injuries.
Plagued by injuries throughout his young career, Jiménez followed up an offseason that featured hard enough work to shave 25 pounds off his frame by pulling his hamstring running the bases in his fifth game of the year. Not long after, the late-spring bout of back soreness returned to bother Yoán Moncada, whose hot start was interrupted by a three-game absence this week in Minnesota that turned into an IL trip Friday. Tim Anderson actually played in that series against the Twins, though only for a few innings, his sprained knee on the worst end of a collision on the base paths caused by some poor decision-making by teammate (and Moncada fill-in) Hanser Alberto.
Somehow, then, Joe Kelly tweaking his groin while jogging in from the bullpen to join the benches-clearing incident last weekend in Pittsburgh has not been the greatest source of frustration, as ridiculous as it might have been.
So is this the sequel to 2022 fans feared?
Certainly last season’s massive disappointment was in no small part the result of another wave of significant injuries, one that mirrored the season prior, though the White Sox overcame that rash of months-long absences to win the AL Central crown in 2021. Not so much last year, when a bunch of fundamental ugliness and a season-long power outage joined forces with the health woes to produce a miserable .500 finish to a season that started with championship-level expectations.
The White Sox embarked on this campaign with a new manager and a “prove it” mindset, not to mention plenty of offseason changes to help improve player availability. So far, they’ve proven very little, with injuries again taking center stage as a dominant storyline.
The White Sox know this, not blind to what’s happened in the season’s first two weeks. They entered play Friday at 5-8 on the precipice of a brutal stretch of the schedule that features meetings with the Orioles, Phillies, Blue Jays and Twins, all those the undercard to seven games against the best-in-baseball, 13-0 Rays.
That hasn’t been enough to dampen the enthusiasm at 35th and Shields, however, and what buoys the spirits of those in the White Sox’ employ — however “sky is falling” the mood might be outside the walls of Guaranteed Rate Field — is that the season is merely eight percent complete.
Two weeks does not a season make.
“I understand the pessimism,” Rick Hahn said Friday. “We talked about that going back to spring training or the offseason, that there’s going to be a level of ‘prove it’ over the course of this summer, not simply from a health standpoint but from a performance standpoint, a competitiveness standpoint, approach on the field, attitude, preparation.
“The injuries thus far have certainly been frustrating. I think if you get a little too myopically focused on the White Sox, it’s certainly easy to say, ‘Woe is us.’ But if you take a little broader view and you look around the league, it’s everywhere. This is what tends to happen in April and March, unfortunately, as guys ramp up and get ready for the year.
“The silver lining, if there is one, is that so far — knock on wood — most of these have been relatively minor setbacks. Eloy was back on Day 11 (after suffering his hamstring injury) due to his hard work. We expect Joe Kelly to not be too far off (from returning after) that 15 (days he’s required to spend on the IL), in the end. TA, while unfortunate, isn’t going to be, hopefully, too long of a stay. And we’re optimistic on (Moncada).
“Not ideal, by any stretch, but it is part of what every team has to weather.”
Fans aren’t likely to respond well to that level-headed explanation, but since when has being a sports fan been a level-headed endeavor?
Hahn is correct in pointing out that it’s early, as much as that in and of itself is driving South Side supporters toward their torches and pitchforks these days, thanks to fresh memories of early-season woes a year ago being greeted with those same explanations, only to balloon into season-long concerns. But if teams couldn’t recover from what they were dealt in the season’s first two weeks, they wouldn’t play the remaining 140-plus games.
It hasn’t been good for the White Sox through 13 games. But it’s impossible to hand out a grade before the test has truly been taken.
“I think it’s really dangerous to take broad conclusions from one game or three games at any stretch of the year, whether it’s April, when things tend to get magnified, or even mid June,” Hahn said. “Any three-game stretch — frankly, any 13-game stretch — is not necessarily indicative of the other 149 games.
“That said, every team wants to get off to a good start. We’re disappointed in how the start has gone thus far. … We know we have something to prove, and we know we haven’t proven it yet.”
Of course, injuries were one of the things Hahn and the White Sox’ brain trust wanted to make a hallmark of the past, not the future. There were changes made this offseason, from personnel additions to the way the team approaches everything about player availability, to make sure their core players didn’t spend so much time away from the lineup.
Jiménez averaged only 69 games over the 2021 and 2022 seasons, Luis Robert Jr. only 83, Grandal only 96, Anderson only 101. Moncada topped the group with 124 games averaged between the previous two seasons, but he notably played while banged up with numerous baseball-related maladies, all that in the wake of his 2020 season being heavily impacted by the after effects of a COVID infection.
Thus, the changes.
Hahn, though, refuses to believe that this year’s early-season IL trips — for several of those same players — are a continuation of what plagued the White Sox in 2021 and 2022 and emphatically reiterated his confidence in the methods that were established this winter.
“Am I going to let 13 days dictate our feelings on the changes we’ve made? Absolutely not,” he said. “The level of preparation, analysis, professionalism, everything that has gone into player performance has been impressive and remains strong.
“It’s professional sports. It happens. As you look around the game, there are guys getting hurt left and right, just from the normal course of competing this much early in the season.
“You want to do better. We’re far, far, far from satisfied. But are we confident we’re doing the right thing, we’re on the right path? Yes.”
Hahn’s right to point out that it’s early, right to point out that the injuries that have affected the White Sox so far are not the same kinds that delivered such huge blows to their ability to compete the last two years.
But he’s also right about that whole “prove it” thing. And little the White Sox have done in just a handful of games in 2023 has proven that they’ve truly shaken what dragged them down in 2022.
Jiménez is back. Moncada and Anderson, the White Sox hope, won’t be too far behind.
This isn’t a sequel to last year?