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The White Sox are not who we thought they were.
Not two months into a season that started with World Series expectations they’re not.
There’s time to turn things around, of course, plenty of it. The Atlanta Braves, the reigning champs, weren’t only below .500 at the All-Star break last season, they were below .500 on August 1.
But it’s not math that’s made the 23-26, third-place White Sox look bad.
In 2021, they won the AL Central in a runaway. They had more than their fair share of significant injuries, with Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert and Yasmani Grandal all on the shelf for months at a time. But Tony La Russa got much needed fill-in performances from unexpected sources to go along with what was the American League’s top starting rotation.
Well, at least the pitching’s still good.
Injuries have come even more furiously than they did last year, few of the team’s stars blessed with health through the first third of the season. Jiménez is still on his way back from another significant malady. Robert missed time with a COVID infection. Grandal has apparently not yet fully recovered from offseason knee surgery. Tim Anderson is currently on the IL and will stay there for weeks. Yoán Moncada started the campaign there and missed a month, unrelated to the current quad issue that’s kept him from starting five of the team’s last six games. Lance Lynn hasn’t thrown a pitch in a major league game yet this season.
Daunting, to say the least. And the hope is that full health, whenever it comes, will have this team looking like itself.
But in the meantime, it has looked anything but.
The White Sox figured to have one of baseball’s finer lineups, stacked with young talent that was supposed to power not just a deep October run this year but for years to come, thanks to long-term deals for some of the lineup’s centerpieces and most exciting hitters.
But only the uber-consistent Anderson and second-year slugger Andrew Vaughn have delivered regularly in the first two months. Everyone else has ranged from inconsistent to consistently miserable at the plate. José Abreu has finally awoken after a lengthy early-season slump. But some of those early-season slumps are still going, even though we’ve passed Memorial Day.
Grandal has been the biggest offender, and it was no surprise to learn he’s just as bothered by it as anyone watching from afar. But with a .160/.270/.213 slash line, he ranks as one of baseball’s worst hitters.
Moncada has been even worse, spared from the status Grandal owns simply because he hasn’t played much. But his .138/.176/.246 line is as ugly as they come.
The guy brought in during the spring to be the primary second baseman for this team? Also putting up some impossibly sour numbers. Josh Harrison has a .167/.248/.255 slash line. Turning to Leury García – who is forced to man shortstop while Anderson is hurt – wouldn’t help much. He’s slashing .194/.203/.274.
At .203/.271/.328, at least Gavin Sheets can say he’s above the Mendoza Line.
Unsurprisingly, with performances like that, the White Sox’ offense is one of the least productive in the game. Only the Pirates and Tigers have scored fewer runs. Only the Tigers and A’s are reaching base less frequently and have a lower OPS. A team that was supposed to thump with the best of them is averaging 3.6 runs a game.
It’s not enough. It hasn’t been enough. It won’t be enough.
The White Sox’ pitching staff has been generally great. In addition to a bullpen that’s done good work, the rotation boasts three of the better arms in the American League in Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech, recent outings of lesser quality be damned. Johnny Cueto has been a surprisingly good find. And Lynn’s return will give them a four-headed starting-pitching monster that would be perfect for a playoff series.
But while it was a preseason expectation that the regular season, while perhaps more difficult than last year, would be merely a warm up for a team talking about ending October with a trophy, at the moment the only acceptable reaction to talking about how these White Sox would fare in the playoffs is a Jim Mora impression.
Playoffs? This team?
The AL Central is not impressive. And capturing the crown in a weak division does something that can’t be undervalued in punching a ticket to the postseason. Get in the dance, see what happens. It’s a popular line, and not without reason. Those aforementioned Braves made the most of their opportunity last fall despite winning only 88 games, the 12th most in baseball in 2021 – or five fewer than the 93-win White Sox, who were quickly dispatched by the Astros in their first-round series.
But the White Sox have higher hopes than simply making the playoff field, now expanded to include a dozen of baseball’s 30 teams. They have talked about winning a championship. And you can’t do that without being the best team in baseball. This, to put it mildly, does not look like the best team in baseball.
Still, these White Sox are far from done. Not only are they getting closer to full strength, but the continued faith La Russa, Rick Hahn and others are putting in the “back of the baseball card” for all their struggling hitters is not entirely misplaced. Fans are quick to judge, but saying that it’s time to move on from Grandal and Moncada is far more ludicrous than the expectation that they’ll flip an offensive switch any day now.
Patience, though, wears thin for a reason.
And you do wonder how long this wait can last.
As Anderson told me last weekend, “it’s not like we’re trying to go out there and strike out or do bad.” Very true. These White Sox are famously hard workers.
But the results are the results. And the losses will keep coming as long as they keep striking out and doing bad, no matter how hard they’re trying to do the opposite.
Trying hard has actually been an attempted diagnosis at times this year. That favored baseball word “pressing” has popped up from time to time, and clearly trying to hit a 10-run homer to break this dam is not a sensible approach. At other times, La Russa has posited the White Sox are living in a Goldilocks-style hell, where neither their patience nor their aggression has been rewarded with “just right” results.
After getting swept out of Toronto on Thursday, the South Side skipper’s latest suggestion was straight out of the Bruce Banner playbook.
Fans who have been worked into a frothing rage by La Russa’s mere presence as the team has failed to get off the ground this year didn’t like that comment. But they don’t really like anything he says. Truthfully, it’s as good a suggestion as any at this point, because nothing else has worked. You can believe that La Russa and hitting coach Frank Menechino are trying to turn this thing around. But no answer has been the right one for far too many of these hitters.
Does that cast a glare on Hahn and his front office? Is it on them to break the team out of this funk? Much like the manager and the coaching staff, no one wearing a branded White Sox polo is up there taking at-bats and failing to get a hit or drive in a run. Certainly, though, their hands are not tied, and there are improvements that can be made.
But is replacing the struggling Harrison at second base the key to unlocking everything? Even if Hahn makes the same decision he just made with Dallas Keuchel when it comes to second base and finds a hot bat to plug in, whether in the minor leagues or elsewhere, what does that do for Moncada? Or Grandal? Or Sheets?
Yes, the problem is that big at the moment. And Hahn can’t wave a magic wand and replace half the lineup with All Stars. Heck, he thought he had filled it with All Stars to begin with. But on top of that, the magic act would require having some assets to trade away. A farm system ranked during the offseason as one of the game’s worst is short on the kind of prospects that pull off a massive deadline deal.
There are plenty of fans looking for a head to roll, and La Russa’s has been a popular recommendation from White Sox Twitter. But what about a departure from the coaching staff or the manager’s office will allow Grandal to rediscover his mastery of the strike zone? What about it will return Moncada to his healthy, productive 2019 form? Is there some correlation between La Russa’s presence and runs per game that some of the organization’s number-crunchers have missed?
And so it’s no surprise that waiting for these guys to snap out of it is the most realistic strategy right now. Continuing to work at it, as Anderson and Abreu will tell you is the solution, is perhaps the only solution.
But it’s undoubtedly a solution that hasn’t come yet. And should it wait much longer to arrive, these White Sox will be so far from where we expected them to be that it will be downright laughable.
Right now, the White Sox are not who we thought they were.
The only saving grace for the team and its fans? The obvious truth that the season does not end in June.
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