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White Sox What If? Talking through some roster hypotheticals for 2023

Vinnie Duber Avatar
September 28, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS – The White Sox are in the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the first three of six total games against the Twins over the regular season’s final nine contests.

These were supposed to be the games that determined the outcome of the AL Central in 2022. Instead, the Guardians wrapped up the division crown on Sunday, partying in Texas while showing just how much the White Sox influenced their running roughshod over the competition this season.

And so the White Sox and Twins are playing for nothing more than second place, neither team postseason-bound. It’s enough to have the fans tuned out. After an 0-6 home stand from hell that had the White Sox looking tuned out, too, the acting manager is hoping for some signs of life over the season’s final week and a half.

“I want to finish over .500. I don’t think we’re a below-.500 team,” Cairo said, setting a late-season goal that would shock anyone who set championship-level expectations for this team back in spring training. “You’ve got to have pride when you’re playing the game, and that’s the way I look at it. You’ve got to have pride.

“They’re professional baseball players, big leaguers. There’s a reason why they’re here, and they’ve got to show that they want to finish strong.”

Well, so much for Tuesday’s game looking better than the six games that preceded it. The White Sox’ bats were nowhere to be found, silenced by Twins starter Bailey Ober, who pitched into the eighth inning and held the visitors to just two hits and no runs. The White Sox have had plenty of offense-less nights this season, but woof, this was one of the most striking.

“We didn’t have a good approach,” Cairo said after the 4-0 loss. “It’s hard to win games when you don’t score runs.”

The White Sox have been outscored in a big way since their season effectively ended with a loss to the Guardians last Tuesday on the South Side. Since, it’s been ugly. But Cairo’s players echoed what he said before the game, citing the need to finish strong, no matter how difficult it might be right now.

“For sure, it hurt the team,” Elvis Andrus said of that Cleveland loss. “We were in the race till the last series (with the Guardians), pretty much. And it sucks when you’re out of the race. It takes a little of the competitiveness out of you. And it’s not an excuse, you still have to go out there and be a professional and finish up strong. … It’s very hard, but you have to do it. The last thing you want is to go through the motions with all these games left.”

“When it’s all said and done, we get paid to play the game and compete and try to win games. So that’s our job. And we can’t just fold it up and take it home with us,” Lance Lynn said. “We have to figure out how to play the best we can the last eight games. Do everything you can to win the game, because that’s our job.”

Who knows if that attitude will result in any wins. The White Sox have lost seven straight.

As for the fans? Their focus is already fully on next season.

So with the talk of next year already starting to ratchet up, let’s take a look at some “what ifs” that could apply to the team’s roster construction as it embarks on an important offseason.

What if Eloy Jiménez returns to the outfield?

Plenty of fans had seen enough of Jiménez playing left field well before his latest injury, which came while he was running the bases, by the way.

But thanks to that injury, Jiménez has dealt with less-than-100-percent legs since returning from a more than two-month absence, mostly limiting him to DH duties. And though he’s still no fan of assuming that position, he has put up some of the best offensive numbers in baseball in the second half. Jiménez owned a 1.000 post-All-Star break OPS coming into Tuesday night.

So it would seem that Jiménez has been cured of his once-held mindset that he doesn’t hit well when he DHs.

It’s led plenty to assume that he could be ticketed for full-time DH duty from here on out, even once his legs allow him to return to his former level of mobility. There’s a perfectly reasonable argument to be made that removing him from the outfield entirely would help keep him from the kinds of injuries that have sapped so much playing time in his short major league career.

But the White Sox are in a tricky situation when it comes to augmenting their roster this winter. And given the defensive shortcomings of Andrew Vaughn in the corner-outfield spots, the best way to improve the defense for 2023 might be to put Jiménez back in left field and allow Vaughn to DH on a full-time basis. Of course, that’s in the event that free-agent-to-be José Abreu returns to play first base and that position doesn’t open up for Vaughn.

But will Jiménez be able to do that? What kind of situation do the White Sox envision?

Cairo is the acting manager for just a few more days, he was quick to remind Tuesday at Target Field, but surely after being around this team for two years, he’s earned an opinion on the matter.

“He can play (in the outfield) maybe one or two times a week, three times a week, and mix with DH,” Cairo said. “But he’s been doing such a good job as a DH. You want to keep him healthy for the whole season, that’s the best way to put it.”

If Jiménez does return to the outfield, the concerns about his health will still be there. So too will the questions about his defensive ability, questions that have always irked the hard-working Jiménez in the past. It wouldn’t exactly solve the White Sox’ defensive issues, but it might offer some minimal improvement.

However, if Cairo’s assessment ends up being the White Sox’ direction, that foretells more rotation between the DH and corner-outfield spots, not exactly the set-in-stone lineup fans so often clamor for.

What if Jimmy Lambert takes the fifth spot in the rotation?

Pitchers don’t typically come up through the minor leagues striving for a career as a middle reliever. So it should be no surprise that Lambert, who’s been one of the brightest spots in the White Sox’ bullpen this season, isn’t calling off his quest to be a big league starter.

“I’ve been trying for a long time to find a role in the big leagues,” Lambert told CHGO on Tuesday. “I wanted it to be as a starter, I still want to be a starter at some point in my career, but obviously the multi-inning bullpen role opened up and I was able to have some success and it morphed into what it’s morphed into.

“That’s what makes it the most fun, when your name’s getting called in the close games, late in the game, in the big moments. I take a huge sense of pride in that, knowing that the coaches, the organization, my teammates have the confidence in me to go out there in those situations. It was all so new to me, obviously. It was the first time I’d ever done it. I can’t say I didn’t have a blast.”

Certainly Lambert isn’t going to say no to continuing his role in the ‘pen, which he’s performed with aplomb this season, the owner of a 3.22 ERA on the year. He’s evolved into a reliable presence out there, filling out a hefty late-inning group with fellow out-of-nowhere high-leverage arm Reynaldo López to go along with accomplished veterans Liam Hendriks, Kendall Graveman, Joe Kelly, Aaron Bummer and Jake Diekman.

Almost that entire relief group is expected to return for the 2023 season. But meanwhile, there’s an open spot in the rotation with the pending free agency of Johnny Cueto. Dylan Cease, Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech are expected back. But there’s no surefire answer in Spot No. 5. Cueto’s return would be cheered by many. Davis Martin was very good as a season-long fill-in. There are sure to be enticing options outside the organization. And maybe Lambert gets a shot.

According to him, there’s been no talks about his 2023 role yet, which makes sense considering 2022 isn’t technically over. So he’s aiming to spend the offseason preparing for whatever the White Sox are ready to offer.

“I’m going to go about it the same way I’ve gone about every offseason, health being the most important thing and trying to build strength, putting yourself in the best position to have a full seven, eight months of baseball in a row,” he said. “I haven’t had those conversations with them in terms of what (the role) is going to look like for me. But for me, I want to be on the team, so however I’m going to be on the team is OK with me.”

That’s the right attitude to have, of course, and the White Sox’ bullpen would figure to remain a strength of the roster with him a part of it. But should any search for a starter in the winter go sideways – or the front office decides to prioritize other areas – Lambert can’t be counted out of consideration just yet.

What if Elvis Andrus comes back as the second baseman?

Andrus has never played a major league game at second base, which is something considering he’s played only roughly 60 games shy of 2,000 during his 14-year career.

But that didn’t stop fans from assigning him the role of everyday second baseman in the hypothetical world where Tim Anderson returned from his injury before the end of the 2022 season. And it sounded like it might have actually happened there for a while, with Andrus totally down for the infield shift. Of course, it’s all moot now that Anderson has been shut down for the final nine games.

Or is it?

Andrus hit well and provided a noticeable spark for this White Sox team after he was picked up off the scrap heap in the wake of Anderson’s hand injury. The fill-in job was terrific, and his veteran presence was a welcome one in the clubhouse.

“Of course, it would have been nice to have Tim and Elvis (together) in the field. That would have been amazing,” Cairo said. “Elvis did an excellent job bringing leadership, bringing that energy to the field, to the leadoff spot. Something that we’ve been missing since Tim got hurt. It was good to have him.”

So good that some fans are already asking for a full-season go-round with Andrus in 2023. Now, obviously Anderson is the team’s shortstop. No matter to those hankering for Andrus’ return, some of whom are open to trotting Andrus out there as the everyday second baseman in 2023.

Indeed, the White Sox could very well find themselves with a second-base vacancy if they don’t pick up Josh Harrison’s option. It’s one of the only places on the roster that would be easy to make a change.

But, uh, can Andrus play second base?

“Heck yeah,” Cairo, the former major league infielder, said. “He’s a shortstop, he always can go and play second base. I think he will be bored over there, but he can do it.

“He has really good feet, good hands, and he knows the game. No surprise about that.”

It’d be a risky move, for sure, to entrust one of eight non-pitcher positions on the field to someone who’s never played there before, especially when improving defensively should be one of the White Sox’ goals this winter. But it’s not like they haven’t done that before, and the presence of Vaughn and Gavin Sheets in corner-outfield spots on a regular basis is perfect recent evidence. It would also wipe away one of the best chances the White Sox have at making a significant upgrade to its group of position players without making one or more really difficult decisions on their core players.

But it would do the job of keeping Andrus’ positive presence around, something the team could use after a disappointing campaign.

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