Somewhere in there, the White Sox might have a good baseball team. The question for well over a year has been what exactly is getting in the way. Injuries might be one answer.
The story on that front is the same each time, it’s just the names that change. The same day Yoán Moncada returns from a back injury, Elvis Andrus strains his oblique. The former was reinstated from the injured list on Friday, and the latter took his place on the IL Saturday.
Adding on, Eloy Jiménez is recovering from an appendectomy, Tim Anderson has not been back long from a left knee sprain, Jake Burger is working his way back from an oblique strain of his own, Yasmani Grandal has been out for two games since leaving in the fourth inning of Thursday’s game with a balky hamstring, and the Sox have been without their star closer, Liam Hendriks, all season. Hendriks looks like he is near a return, but the Sox injury-related transactions log has been busy.
A lot of things have to go wrong for a team to start 13-27 through their first 40 games, but count this among them.
“That’s part of it. I think the whole league is going through something like that,” manager Pedro Grifol said. “We just gotta adjust and move on and continue to work. Just give an opportunity to somebody else to come in and do the job.”
It’s true that every team deals with injuries. The White Sox are definitely not uniquely troubled here. But the difference might be coming from who gets injured, how frequently, and how well they are able to do what Grifol described and have someone come in and do the job.
Take the core of Moncada, Anderson, Jiménez, Luis Robert, Jr., and Yasmani Grandal. Since the start of the 2021 season, they have all been in the lineup together for just 20 games. Twenty. Last year, then manager Tony LaRussa was able to put all five of those names in a lineup only two times all season. When this group does play together – surprise, surprise – the Sox have a winning record. In the 46 total games they have spent on the field at the same time since 2020, the Sox are 31-15.
Every team does indeed deal with injuries, but it’s one thing to have to rely on backup players here and there, but it’s another for that to be your modus operandi.
“I think it’s not a secret that we haven’t been playing at the level that we all know we can do, for many reasons,” Moncada said Friday via team translator Billy Russo. “One of those factors is injuries, but it’s not an excuse.”
Speaking from the other side of the diamond for the first time in his career, former Sox first baseman José Abreu offered the same assessment for what went south for the team in 2022 in particular.
“I think the health was the biggest thing last year,” he said through Astros translator Jenloy Herrera. “We just weren’t healthy enough last year and I think for a team like this, it’s very hard to win games when you’re not healthy.”
It’s all enough to overshadow the times when the Sox look like a proper baseball team. The potential is always there, usually tamped down by the revolving door to the IL, but a handful of times this season, they have shown the possibility that they could be real American League contenders.
Like Saturday night against the Astros. On all fronts, the Sox performed, and they got a 3-1 win to show for it. Dylan Cease threw his first scoreless start since September 25 of last year, going six innings and spreading out four hits and two walks. The bullpen of Reynaldo Lopez, Joe Kelly, and Kendall Graveman followed with three (mostly) shutdown innings. The lone run allowed was on a tough-read chopper single by Jake Meyers in the seventh inning. The lineup had 13 hits, including Robert’s second home run in as many games, and they came through with go-ahead and insurance runs in the eighth after the Astros tied the game the previous inning.
Truly, on all fronts, this was a pretty aesthetically pleasing Sox win. There were flaws – the aforementioned tricky defensive play in the seventh and nine stranded runners – but overall, Saturday was the kind of game that should be possible for the Sox every time out.
“If we play like that consistently we’re going to be pretty deadly,” Cease said. “We’re showing what we’re capable of, now it’s just consistency with it.”
That last part has been the challenge last season and this one. Injuries are certainly one factor getting in the way, and arguably one of the biggest. And though his OPS with the Astros is well below .500 so far this year, not having Abreu around changes the mentality in the clubhouse.
“He taught us to never put your head down,” Moncada said of his former teammate. “No matter what, the good moments, the bad moments, just keep working hard. Try to go out and do your best. That’s how he did it, right?”
With Abreu gone, the guys in the Sox clubhouse will have to look to other examples. Anderson, who was reinstated from the IL less than two weeks ago, collected three hits on Saturday, but at times he looked like he was still running gingerly. He spent three weeks on the shelf with a knee sprain.
“Timmy’s giving us the best he’s got right now,” Grifol said. “Obviously he had that injury, and he came back quickly. He heals quickly, but again, it takes time with an injury like that. It takes time to feel 100 percent. He’s just grinding through it, he’s giving us everything he’s got.”
The Sox will need a lot more games like Saturday’s to climb out of the hole they dug themselves in April, and they’ll have to hope they can get and stay healthy enough to give themselves a chance to do it.