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If the White Sox are going to truly be a different team than the one that staggered to a massively disappointing .500 finish a year ago, it’s going to be thanks in no small part to Yoán Moncada getting back to being the kind of elite hitter the team has always believed he can be, the MVP-type player who sent expectations through the roof in 2019.
It’s only been four games. There are 158 games left to play. But in those four games, Moncada has looked like that MVP-type player.
It was an offensive barrage for the White Sox’ third baseman in the season-opening series against the reigning-champion Astros, Moncada picking up where he left off in the World Baseball Classic, where a stellar performance in six games earned him a spot on the all-tournament team. In Houston, Moncada went 8-for-18 with three doubles, a pair of home runs and a walk, heading back to the South Side for Monday’s home opener the owner of an eye-popping 1.418 OPS.
The White Sox have an engine in Tim Anderson and a middle-of-the-order monster in Eloy Jiménez, but it wouldn’t be out of line to call Moncada – along with Yasmani Grandal – the most important hitter for the team this season. After all, from a production standpoint, Moncada and Grandal basically no-showed the 2022 campaign, a year in which plenty of White Sox hitters struggled. But those two struggled the most, the worst offenders in a lineup sapped of its power and much of its run-scoring ability from start to finish. Get those two cooking again, and it goes a long way to getting this offense back to what it was supposed to be: one of the more menacing ones in the game.
So far, so good for Moncada, who lit up Astros pitching – no small feat – this weekend.
Moncada, obviously, can point to one thing at the outset of this season that he couldn’t in recent years: full health. After a breakout 2019 campaign that earned him future-MVP hype, he was significantly hampered by the aftereffects of a COVID-19 infection during the shortened 2020 season. In 2021 and 2022, he was bothered by more typical baseball ailments but still consistently banged up throughout both seasons. His production in 2021 was good, if not the sort of elite stuff plenty of fans were expecting. Last year, it wasn’t good by any measure.
But Moncada is healthy now and showing it, by drilling opposing pitchers’ offerings, by moving well around the bases and by playing his usual excellent defense at third base.
That’s about as good of news as the White Sox could have received during the season’s opening weekend, that one of their rebuilding cornerstones is playing like this.
Here are some other takeaways from the White Sox’ four-game split deep in the heart of Texas.
Tim Anderson is TA’ing it up – plus a little more
Tim Anderson makes the White Sox go, there’s no doubt about that, and he played his role as igniter perfectly this weekend. He had two hits in each of the first three games of the series and made it a four-game hit streak to open the weekend with an RBI double Sunday. He also looked determined to use the new rules to his advantage, dancing on the base paths, pulling off a pair of steals and generally making life miserable for pitchers, catchers and defenders.
But Anderson has so many tools in his toolbox, including some we didn’t even expect, like the patience he showed in drawing a walk in each of the first two games against the Astros. That 162-walk pace is down to 81, but it’s still a different kind of damage than what we’re used to seeing from Anderson. Add in the power he flashed with that Sunday double – which would have been a homer in 21 big league ballparks – and he’s come up with a host of ways to beat the opposition in just the season’s first four games.
Oscar Colás’ first taste of the bigs
All eyes have been on Colás, who debuted as a pinch-hitter in Thursday’s opener. He started the three games that followed and simultaneously showed why the White Sox basically crowned him their regular right fielder back in November and reminded that he’s still a rookie getting his first taste of the majors.
Offensively, Colas was both fooled by really good Astros pitchers and managed five hits, including an RBI knock on Sunday. Defensively, he made a really nice diving catch in right and also had shaky moments like searching around for a ball at his feet. In the end, though, his newness has seemed refreshing for the White Sox, and the emotion he showed both in the field and after coming up with a pair of hits Sunday – he let out a yell after that diving catch as if he’d saved a no-hitter – rekindled memories of the 2020 team that was having the most fun in baseball. After the misery of last year, that energy is obviously a plus.
What’s the deal with the bullpen?
The White Sox are understandably still figuring out what their bullpen deployment looks like without Liam Hendriks manning the ninth inning. But the relief corps was a talking point throughout the weekend, from Aaron Bummer’s wild pitch that brought the game’s first run home Thursday to the two-out walks Kendall Graveman issued Friday to the two-out damage the Astros did against Joe Kelly and José Ruiz on Saturday to Reynaldo López’s ugly ninth inning while finishing off Sunday’s win.
Some of it was bad fortune and pitching in really tough situations. Some of it was a total failure to get the job done. Pedro Grifol has said he’s planning on using pitchers based on matchups and what portion of the opposing lineup is due up, and it looked like that was the plan throughout the opening series. That might mean a tough adjustment for fans who expect defined roles and defined inning assignments. The bullpen is almost always the top target for complaints, so it might just be a no-win situation. But it bears watching as the season progresses.
Luis Robert Jr.’s roller-coaster weekend
Luis Robert Jr. spent the majority of the weekend looking lost at the plate, looking a lot like the 2022 version of himself that spent much of the summer flailing away at breaking balls outside the strike zone. By the end of Sunday’s game, he was a hero once more, having delivered a first-inning double, a fifth-inning homer and a jaw-dropping catch in the ninth inning. Robert’s offensive woes weren’t entirely erased by his extra-base knocks Sunday, but they provided a helpful reminder of A. why exactly he’s batting in the No. 2 spot in the order and B. just how quickly a slump can come to an end.
No matter what his bat holds the remainder of the year, however, his glove appears returned to 2020 form. He won a Gold Glove as a rookie because of an unending stream of plays like the ones he made this weekend, making you question how someone can cover so much ground in the outfield and hauling in deep fly balls that could have changed the complexion of the game. His sensational leaping effort at the wall Saturday was one-upped only by the marathon he ran to track down a deep fly ball in left-center Sunday, a sliding catch the quality of the jaw-dropping diving snag he made in Kansas City back in 2020. After looking off in the outfield throughout 2022, it seems Robert has returned to form defensively.
Mike Clevinger impresses in White Sox debut
Considering the springtime conversation surrounding Mike Clevinger dealt with off-the-field matters, there was really no baseline of what to expect from him on the field this season. Would he resemble the one-time Cleveland ace of several years ago, or would he be more like the injured and only somewhat effective pitcher who threw in San Diego the last couple seasons?
Clevinger will need the entire season to answer that question, but his White Sox tenure got off to a strong start Sunday, with five scoreless innings and eight strikeouts. There were shaky moments, particularly early on, when he walked guys and hit batters. He didn’t seem in rhythm and seemed to even have some issues adjusting to the pitch clock. But as the game went on, those problems disappeared, and it could be argued that he had the second most impressive starting-pitching effort for the White Sox this weekend, behind the Cy Young caliber effort of Dylan Cease on Thursday. Again, it’s just one game, but a mighty positive result for the guy who is expected to be, statistically, the team’s No. 5 starter.
Taking the extra base
If White Sox fans are looking for evidence that last year’s woes are truthfully a thing of the past, there were some glimpses of a new style of play under new manager Grifol. After watching the Guardians out-effort everybody in 2022, it was the White Sox doing some Guardians-y things against the Astros, chiefly hustling and taking the extra base on numerous occasions.
Sometimes it worked, like Andrew Benintendi and Robert legging out hustle doubles. Anderson, too, beat out a possible double-play ball at one point. Sometimes it didn’t, like when Moncada unsuccessfully attempted to turn a ball into the right-field corner into three bases on Thursday night. But the White Sox were roundly criticized for not doing that kind of thing last season, and Grifol mentioned such effort as a would-be team trademark when he took over as skipper in November.
Seen this movie before
The more things might change, however, the more they stay the same. And while the White Sox were far from just a singles machine in Houston – they left Texas as baseball’s doubles leaders, with 13 of them in four games – a couple old issues came back to life. The bats struggled to come through with men on base and ended the series 11-for-47 (.234) with runners in scoring position, stranding a total of 42 runners. Jiménez left the bases loaded twice all by himself Thursday, and Sunday the team wasted a pair of bases-loaded, nobody-out chances.
The silver lining is the sheer number of those opportunities, and when you take 47 at-bats with men in scoring position, that means you’re doing something right in getting guys there. But for all those base-runners, the White Sox averaged just four runs a game through the first four games, a number jacked up thanks to six runs Sunday. The Astros, of course, are an elite team with a pitching staff capable of hunkering down and escaping those kinds of jams. But the White Sox had a ton of opportunities to run up the score and most of the time could not.
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