That the White Sox are stuck hovering around the .500 mark shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the last week or so – or let’s be honest, the two and a half months that have been played during this 2022 season.
“We are not where we thought we would be. We are not where we think we are capable of going,” Rick Hahn said Monday. “I’m glad we’ve got ourselves a 162-game season and not a 60-game season like we did two years ago. We are going to have the opportunity to let this talent play out over an extended period.
“We could be in worse shape. It’s absolutely true. Given the injuries, given the way we performed at times for stretches this year, we could be buried worse than whatever we are at right now (in the AL Central standings).
“I sort of look at this in two parts. I first look at getting this team playing at the level consistently we think it’s capable of, and the second part being how much work we have ahead of us to chase down this division. We aren’t quite where we want to be in that first part yet.”
The GM is not the only one waiting for things to get better, of course.
Disappointment still reigns on the South Side, as it should, given the team’s own preseason expectations of being a World Series contender. That said, we’ve yet to reach the point in the calendar where the disappointing play precludes the White Sox from still achieving that goal.
But time marches on, more sand runs through the hourglass, and they continue to accompany each step forward with a step back.
None of that is to instruct anyone to turn off their TV quite yet, as a recently completed 4-2 road trip featured plenty of positive signs in addition to twice as many wins as losses. A sweep in Detroit starred a seemingly resurrected offense, and when the bats kept clicking against Justin Verlander on Saturday afternoon in Houston, there was reason to believe that a tide might be turning for a team that’s struggled to score runs all season.
At the same time, though, the pitching staff has stumbled as the lineup has surged, and with Liam Hendriks still on the injured list, a closer-less bullpen is forced to clean up after a rotation that has floundered a little after some early dominance. Lucas Giolito’s ERA in his last four outings is up near 9.00 after getting roughed up Friday, and Michael Kopech was far from his sharpest Sunday, the two power arms sandwiching another brilliant Johnny Cueto effort.
But nowhere has the up-and-down nature of this White Sox season – enough to send even the strongest stomached among us reaching for the dramamine – been more apparent than on the injury front.
For every missed superstar put back into the lineup, another gets yanked out.
Hahn explained that the White Sox are not alone in sustaining all these injuries. He defended the work of the training staff and the organization’s strength-and-conditioning “reimagining.” But he can’t ignore – no one can – the defining storyline it continues to be for this team.
Yes, there were a lot of injuries last year, too. But the White Sox won anyway. That’s what the team hopes happens in 2022. But so far, it hasn’t been the case. It’s going to have to change if the White Sox are going to make good on their insistence that there’s plenty of time for things to turn around.
“We were able to fight through this last year. We were able to patch on the fly and have success,” Hahn said. “I think having that ‘next man up’ mentality – even though it’s a bit of a cliche – of trusting the guys that come up from the minors, of knowing that these guys are coming back and fighting each day the best we can.
“I think right now we are trending in the right way. At the end of the day, it’s hard not to lose sight of the fact that there’s a pretty talented group in that room, even if we’re missing a few guys. … There’s going to be others coming back, and in the meantime, we’ve just got to fight each day and do the best we can to not only stay afloat but start making up ground.”
That’s hard to do when each IL activation ends up as a trade.
It happened again as the White Sox came home Monday, Tim Anderson making a much heralded return from a strained groin, only for Yoán Moncada to hit the IL again, this time with a strained hamstring.
The South Siders could trumpet the return of their shortstop, their “igniter” at the top of the lineup, and certainly when Anderson is batting leadoff, the lineup looks a whole lot better, capable of so much more. It was undeniably good news. A step forward, if you will.
“I want to be careful of putting too much pressure on him, but he thrives on it,” Tony La Russa said of Anderson’s meaning to this team. “So I think it’s important that he knows how important he is. That’s what he’s earned. We’re better because he’s here.
“There’s a different mindset when you’re trying to survive than when you’re thinking, ‘Hey, maybe we can thrive.’”
But simultaneously, a step back. They’re down another cornerstone of this core, Moncada landing on the injured list in the immediate wake of a seeming breakthrough at the plate. He raised his batting average .040 points with a five-hit game last Wednesday in Detroit. Two days later, he left Friday’s game in Houston. Three days after that, he was back on the IL.
La Russa agreed it was that offensive outburst that might have had the White Sox looking for any alternative to Moncada sitting out for 10 days. But indeed they’ll wait till next week for him to get his next plate appearance, and we’ll see what sort of effect a layoff will have on his already sub-.200 batting average.
“Part of it is getting him to where his legs are a plus and not sore and hampering his defense, his base running, his hitting, and at the same time, not getting hurt more,” La Russa said of his third baseman, who spent last season playing through various maladies while his teammates spent months on the IL. “And the other side is, if he’s (not) on the list and unavailable, … there’s a point where it becomes not smart for our team.
“The way he can help us the most is to be healthy when he gets back, not play at less than his best.”
There’s plenty more standing in the way of full health than just Moncada’s latest ailment. The third baseman missed the season’s first month with an oblique injury. Then, a more recent quad issue. But at least he was out there.
The same can’t be said for Eloy Jiménez, who went 12 days between the team ending his rehab assignment and starting a new one. Jiménez, after time getting used to some discomfort in his post-surgery leg, will be back in game action Tuesday, Hahn informed, DH’ing in Charlotte.
Yasmani Grandal is on the IL. So is Aaron Bummer. And the aforementioned Hendriks.
It’s a lot. And it’s a storyline that won’t go away, not as long as the injury bug refuses to let go of these White Sox.
The bright side is the same as it’s been, that it’s not too late yet, that there are plenty of examples – recent and otherwise – of teams that found their footing after a middling start to reach a championship level. This roster is, as its constructor continues to point out, chock full of talent. The guys who are currently injured are expected to return.
If the White Sox take all that and turn it into a mid- and late-season surge toward October, it wouldn’t be a major league first.
“Every year you study the teams that get into October,” La Russa, a veteran of 15 of those months, said. “And every year, there will be a handful of teams that during some important parts of the season had some significant adversity: losing streaks, playing injured where your record suffered.
“The playoff teams I’ve been involved with, I know exactly how many had a run where you weren’t sweating it out, and that was very small. Most of the time, you go through stuff. … Look at the Nationals (in 2019), Atlanta last year. That to me is part of the real challenges and charms – for a team, for a coaching staff, for a front office – every season has its own script.
“If you’re good enough and you stay strong in your heart, your guts and your mind, you can be in contention. And that’s what we believe.”
La Russa’s got the experience of getting through every type of season, often getting through them with postseason play on the other side. He was hired to bring that expertise, to bring the sort of difference that a three-time championship manager can make in the season’s most important month. Though legions of White Sox fans have made him Public Enemy No. 1 amid the team’s disappointing start – and rained boos on him the last time the team was at home – he’s received plenty of votes of confidence in the clubhouse, including an important one from team leader José Abreu over the weekend.
But La Russa’s belief in his team’s heart, guts and minds aside, the White Sox are going to need some more tangible results to get to contention, to get to the top of their division. They’re going to need some injury luck. They’re going to need some wins.
The whole one step forward, one step back thing? That’ll get them exactly where they are right now: hanging around .500.
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