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Avoiding the injury bug? Impossible.
Getting really, really irritated by the injury bug? Reasonable.
The White Sox can’t seem to get away from baseball’s most frustrating pest, and for a second consecutive spring, on the eve of a season with championship expectations, a major piece of the team’s puzzle has been yanked away.
Lance Lynn has a slight tear in a tendon in his knee and won’t be throwing off a mound for a month while he recovers from surgery. That was the grim update from Rick Hahn on Sunday, and the White Sox now must figure out how to reach their sky-high goals without arguably their best starting pitcher, a guy who finished third in the AL Cy Young vote last year.
Can Andrew Vaughn pitch?
The solution to last spring’s seemingly devastating injury – Eloy Jiménez rupturing his pectoral tendon with an ill-advised leap at the outfield wall – was unexpected, a DH moving to left field and doing a more than serviceable job in helping keep the team afloat without its biggest bopper. The solution, the attempted one anyway, to losing Lynn, the self-proclaimed “Big Bastard,” won’t be nearly as difficult to forecast. But the success level is a mystery on par with how Vaughn was going to fare as an outfielder.
“Next man up” will be a popular phrase from White Sox players in the next few days and as the regular season gets going this weekend in Detroit. That next man up figures to be either Reynaldo López or Vince Velasquez, two arms who were already going to play big roles with starting pitchers anticipated to be affected by a shortened spring. Lynn was one of a few White Sox starters who seemed ramped up to somewhat regular levels, along with Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, but the workload-management strategy that will be a part of Michael Kopech’s first full season in the starting rotation, and a slightly behind schedule Dylan Cease, mean there was already going to be a reliance on those inning-eaters out of the bullpen.
Now, one will be expected to be an every-fifth-day guy for at least the next month and a half.
As for which one gets elevated to the rotation, that remains to be seen over the final few days of camp. López would be the fans’ choice, of course, after a bounce-back season of sorts in 2021, though he might be more valuable as a bullpen arm after finding success there last year. Velasquez, the starting-depth addition this offseason, has posted ugly numbers for much of his major league career, though the White Sox are high on him and hope a spring working with Ethan Katz, however brief, can unlock something that yields much better results.
As much as Tony La Russa has expressed his distaste for the term “piggybacking,” it’s possible one of those two was ticketed to be available on days Kopech started. Velasquez seemed the most likely candidate, working on a five-day schedule this spring and only occasionally having done anything but start regularly in the big leagues. If Kopech – who’s still under workload-management protocols thanks to back-to-back missed seasons in 2019 and 2020 and fewer than 70 innings as a reliever last year – can only muster a few innings per start in the early going, it would be nice to have someone who can soak up two or three behind him on hand. That way, the other “long man” could be available any of the other four days of the rotation when necessary.
But that luxury might have just flown out the window with Lynn’s injury.
The offseason still isn’t over, and Rick Hahn always mentions the one move left to make. Fans have been clamoring for a starting-pitching shake up since October, and apparently Hahn was trying to make one happen even before Lynn’s knee became the latest big story at White Sox camp.
The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported the White Sox were trying to acquire Sean Manaea from the A’s before he was dealt to the Padres in the latest move of Oakland’s once-every-few-years fire sale. There’s one more shiny object sitting on a folding table in the A’s front yard, but Frankie Montas, the former South Side farmhand who finished sixth in the Cy Young vote last year, surely comes with a high price tag considering he’s not ticketed for free agency until after the 2023 season.
Who knows if the White Sox are able to swim in those waters. Even after the acquisition of A.J. Pollock, young boppers Vaughn and Gavin Sheets are expected to be big parts of any championship quest in 2022. Those two bats are probably the team’s most alluring trade chips, especially now that another, 2020 first-rounder Garrett Crochet, is heading for Tommy John surgery. But as just shown in the Manaea talks, according to Rosenthal’s report, other teams had more to offer.
It all puts a lot of pressure on López and/or Velasquez to deliver in the season’s opening months. Obviously, injuries of some fashion were going to come around, and though the White Sox saw Lynn, Giolito and Carlos Rodón all hit the IL in the second half last year, the relative health the rotation enjoyed allowed it to be the AL’s best during the regular season. That good fortune, even as the position-player side of things saw no fewer than four significant injuries, could be described as an anomaly, though, and López and Velasquez should have been expected to ride in on fill-in duty at some point, even before Lynn went down.
But the rotation carried some of the biggest question marks on the roster, and now those have grown from the back 40 percent to everything past the top two guys, Giolito and Cease until Lynn makes his return, in May at the earliest. The top three in the rotation were as close to sure things as you can get in this game. Now the majority of the rotation carries some big “ifs.”
Kopech remains the biggest among them, his transition from the bullpen to the starting staff coming with a heaping helping of burnout watch. The White Sox want him strong enough to pitch in the season’s biggest games come September and October, and that could mean short outings in the early months. The other question mark the White Sox were carrying into 2022 was Keuchel, who’s confident in a bounce back but will bluntly cop to the fact that last season was an ugly one, statistically the worst of his career.
Keuchel returning to his usual self – something he’s done repeatedly throughout his accomplished career – would go a long way, especially now, in easing any concern about the rotation’s ability to carry this team to the postseason, as it did last year. Lynn’s recovery would do the job, as well, though he’ll be unable to contribute for at least the first month and a half of the regular season. Even if Kopech performs well, his usage will limit what he can provide.
And so López and/or Velasquez – the organization’s starting depth past those two turns to the minors in a hurry, and Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever would be two candidates to be called upon, if needed – will have to do what Vaughn & Co. did a year ago. I add the “& Co.” just because Vaughn was not alone in filling in for injured White Sox stars, and the Brian Goodwins, Yermín Mercedeses, Jake Lambs and Billy Hamiltons of the world deserve recognition for helping the team to an easy AL Central title without, for significant time, four of their everyday guys.
Once again the White Sox will need to get those sorts of contributions, this time on the pitching side. While a deep bullpen should hide the loss of Crochet fairly well, as important an arm as he was, there’s nowhere to hide from the impact of Lynn’s injury, not as the roster is currently constructed, anyway. The White Sox surely hoped they didn’t need to call on this depth so soon, but here they are.
Come on down, López and Velasquez, you’re the next contestants.
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