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White Sox prioritized defense this winter, raved about it in camp, but mistakes aplenty in early spring games

Vinnie Duber Avatar
February 26, 2024
Pedro Grifol

PHOENIX – Two games do not a season make.

And that’s magnitudes truer when those two games don’t even count and don’t even feature big league players for their entirety.

But after an offseason spent overhauling one of the worst defenses in baseball, the White Sox have looked like the same old mistake-prone team through a couple Cactus League games.

It’s obviously making too much of things to be putting a pair of exhibition games under the microscope, but it’s what jumped out in our first glimpse of the 2024 team. This version of the squad maybe wasn’t supposed to win dramatically more games than its 2023 predecessor, but it is expected to at least look far more capable from a fundamental standpoint.

Chris Getz, in his first offseason as general manager, made improving the defense his top priority, doing so, at times, at the expense of improving what was also one of the sport’s least productive offenses. Wintertime additions like Paul DeJong, Nicky Lopez, Martín Maldonado and Dominic Fletcher didn’t arrive with obvious track records of recent offensive success, but they carried positive reputations as defenders.

And yet, there was Fletcher on Sunday, getting bamboozled by an oddly hit ball to center field and making an unsuccessful diving try that led to a triple.

Earlier in the same game, DeJong fielded a bounced throw on a double steal and stood and waited for the umpire’s call on his unsuccessful tag attempt, standing with his back to home plate as a runner scored.

The latter play, it turns out, could be explained away, with Pedro Grifol describing that his team was working on a certain defensive element with the catchers, in this case Maldonado. In a game that counted, there wouldn’t have even been a throw to second on a double steal, the throw instead going to third or the catcher faking toward third in the same situation. The exhibition nature of the contest allowed the White Sox to work on something in-game, as plenty of pitchers spend their springtime outings doing.

But that can’t be said for all of the defensive issues that populated the team’s second and third Cactus League tilts.

Saturday’s wild win over the Mariners featured four errors. None were made by guys expected to be regulars for the big league team. But Lenyn Sosa’s bad throw, as well as Braden Shewmake’s bobble at shortstop and ensuing throw to third while a runner scampered home, stood out. There were two errors on the same play, when a Brett Phillips throw from left field hit a scoring runner and bounced away, only for the minor league pitcher backing up the play to make a wild throw to second that went into center field, allowing another free base.

None of that, though, bothered Grifol too much.

“The four errors were errors by guys that are pretty secure with the ball,” the South Side skipper said a day after the game. “Sosa’s pretty secure with the ball. He’s an accurate thrower. He made a bad throw. Shewmake bobbled that ball in the middle. He’s a pretty accurate fielder. That just happens. I’m OK with that.

“The mental mistakes, those are the ones we’ve got to really attack. Shewmake not throwing the ball to home plate, that’s a mental mistake. … The throw (into) center field, that’s a mental mistake.

“That’s our objective, to identify those (things that need improvement) and take care of it immediately and watch that list of (things) just dwindle down to a point where either the mistakes are few or whatever is left on that list has been addressed already and the guys know.”

And Sunday, in addition to the DeJong and Fletcher plays, minor league catcher Adam Hackenberg dropped a throw to the plate by Kevin Pillar, while top-ranked prospect Colson Montgomery – whose defense at shortstop is a consistent talking point among fans – had a throw from the outfield clank off his glove.

Again, even a lengthy list like this is mostly meaningless at this time of the spring. But Grifol’s message to his team to play FAST includes being “technically sound,” and these White Sox haven’t looked it very often in the very early going.

It’s been a stark contrast to what we heard all winter, with Getz’s prioritizing of defensive improvement predicted to be one of the few areas these White Sox could claim as upgraded from what we saw during last year’s disaster. Getz spoke this spring on how free-agent pitchers expressed hesitation in signing up to play on the South Side over concerns about the defense behind them. The new additions were supposed to turn things around, and White Sox pitchers have talked this spring about having reliable defenders on the field while they were throwing.

“If you’re trying to play fundamental baseball and win close games, obviously the defense is super important,” Dylan Cease said at the outset of camp. “I think it’s smart to try to improve your defense, and we have a lot of guys now who have really good defensive reputations. I think it’s going to be a lot cleaner baseball.”

“It makes you even more confident as a pitcher going after people in the zone,” Erick Fedde said in an interview with CHGO last week. “Obviously, there’s quality hitters, but if you give them too much credit or you’re worried about the guys behind you, it makes it even tougher. Knowing that even if I give up a hard-hit ball, there’s a chance to get an out and there’s lots of quality guys behind you, it just makes pitching so much easier. And I know they did a good job going out and getting really defensive-quality catchers, and I think that’s huge.”

None of those starting pitchers have even made their way into spring games yet, so they haven’t been able to take this defense for a test drive. But in the early going, with mostly relievers on the bump, things have not looked like what the White Sox hoped, even if they know there’s plenty of time this spring to get it all straightened out.

And it’s not exclusively the defense. Grifol’s emphasis on playing FAST – fearless, aggressive, selfless and technically sound, for the uninitiated – was juxtaposed with what happened on the field as Maldonado, a respected veteran, felt the need to stand up in front of the team after not running hard on a soft grounder back to the pitcher in Friday’s spring opener against the Cubs.

“I didn’t come out of the box the way I should have come out of the box,” Maldonado said Sunday. “I want to lead by example. I feel like as a team or as a person, we should have exactly the same mentality. If I want to get somebody accountable on their own, I have to be accountable to myself first.”

The 37-year-old backstop is obviously not here for his running ability, so much that he’s been the butt of jokes when it comes to Grifol explaining that his FAST directive is not about literal speed. But this was a situation where there was apparently a lack of effort to go along with Maldonado’s to-be-expected pace down the baseline, enough so that it fired the manager up a bit.

“It’s not about (always going) 100 percent. It’s about effort,” Grifol said. “Is he going to go any faster than he did the other day? I’m not sure. But the optics of it, they weren’t good. And it doesn’t take a baseball purist to see that. If the optics aren’t good, it’s not good. That’s not who we are.

“I’m not expecting these guys to go a hundred million miles an hour to first base on a ground ball (where) the pitcher’s secured the ball and the ball is already in flight to chest high. That’s ridiculous, right? But I’ll be damned if we’re going to watch lack of effort. That’s not who we are.”

It’s obviously way too early to call this kind of thing a trend, a feature or a harbinger of a third straight mistake-filled season on the South Side. But it’s noticeable, we’ll call it that, as the White Sox get their organizational overhaul underway.

As ever, it’s on these players to make this nothing, to make it merely a snapshot of an atypical 48 hours in Arizona, rather than a defining characteristic of the summer.

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