Coming into the season the White Sox were the favorites of many pundits to win the Central division and make the World Series after taking a serious step forward and making the playoffs in 2020. They added Lance Lynn, Liam Hendriks and Adam Eaton coming into the season and were looking like they are on the upward climb. I do believe Lucas Giolito is one of the few true aces in baseball and one of the top pitchers in the AL and the White Sox are certainly a great club in talent, but I am not sold they will pass the Twins this year like most have picked them to do. Only time will tell but the Sox have gotten off to a pretty lukewarm average start on the season at 4-4 as I write this. Here is what makes me skeptical:
- The Injuries: I do not like losing Eloy Jimenez the entire season. Yes, the replacement left fielder will be a better defender but his bat is arguably the most impactful behind Jose Abreu in the line-up. Last year he had a 1.6 WAR in just 60 games after a 1.8 WAR his rookie year in which he raked after the calendar flipped to June besides a hiccup in July. He is only improving as a hitter and he has the best power in that line-up. Losing him is a huge deal for the White Sox and likely cost them 2-3 wins at minimum on the season off the bat. Now Tim Anderson is dealing with injury issues on his hamstring which isn’t good for a player who relies on his speed and has had a high BABIP in recent season. Even when he comes back this could linger with him a bit. All seasons have injuries though, maybe not a serious as the Jimenez injury but when that happened to the Cubs with Schwarber in 2016 they had Ben Zobrist, Willson Contreras and Jorge Soler that could share time out there and went and got Chris Coghlan, the White Sox solution was Billy Hamilton, Nick Williams and out of position Andrew Vaughn (which I’ll get to in a minute). Also Adam Engel, probably the best fit for that position is hurt. The injuries already adding up and lack of immediate depth is not helping the White Sox. It’s something to keep an eye on.
- Misuse of Andrew Vaughn: Vaughn is a really elite hitting prospect, but he has only played in 5 of the 8 games. He needs consistent playing time. I don’t think he will hit 50 homers but he’s the type of bat that could have the impact of Pete Alonso, Aaron Judge or Cody Bellinger have had in years past. He’s that good. Also, ideally he is not a left fielder. He might be a 30 grade fielder out in left. He has some potential to be a solid first baseman and him and Abreu should be splitting 1B/DH for the best defensive results. I get that Yermin Mercedes is hot right now, but that won’t last most likely as he’s a 28 year old rookie who likely profiles as a back-up catcher/first baseman. When he cools that would be the ideal outcome with Nick Williams for now in left and Engel when he comes back. The bottom line is that Vaughn needs to be in the line-up right now even if he’s being forced to play left field the bat should outweigh the glove in the same way it did for Eloy. Playing him sporadically likely won’t give him enough chance to make an impact and could stunt his development. Andrew Vaughn needs to play.
- Misuse of Bullpen: My case study here is this. April 7, 2021. Dallas Keuchel pitches 5 innings of average baseball, nothing great but enough to give the White Sox a chance which they take advantage of leading 4-1. Keuchel loses his command and Tony La Russa comes out and brings in Matt Foster who promptly allows not only his inherited runners to score but gives up 5 runs of his own. Nothing against Matt Foster but he is one of the least talented pitchers in that bullpen. He’s a solid reliever but in a tight spot even if you believe Hendriks is only the closer to be used in the ninth you have Aaron Bummer, Michael Kopech, and Garrett Crotchet who are either proven good relievers or feature good velocity with an off-speed mix that aren’t quite as east to adjust to and hit, especially after facing a pitch to contact Keuchel. The leverage index (average leverage is 1) is 2.39 when Foster comes in and gets all the way up 4.43 and 4.40 for two plate appearances as La Russa lets a less good reliever pitch through the game deciding plays just because they happen in the sixth inning versus the seventh or eighth. Liam Hendriks later pitches with a leverage index at .49 to .10 in the ninth long after the game has been decided, so almost 9 times less important than when Foster pitched. Aaron Bummer also pitches in the eighth inning after the game has been decided and has the same indecies. It wasn’t just a mistake on Foster either, the Mariners win expectancy rose 13% as Keuchel put hitters on so La Russa should’ve been itching to go to one of his best relievers to put out the fire. Managers should put the team and their players in the best position to succeed. Foster right now is probably best in mop up roles to get his confidence going and at least Aaron Bummer or Kopech should be coming in to get the pivotal outs. Managers can blow a few games a year like this and every little run counts.
- The offense is not as good: I don’t like the offense as much as the 2020 version. They lost James McCann, Edwin Encarnacion and Nomar Mazara. Granted Mazara and Encarnacion didn’t do much in the 60 game season they are still hurt by this. McCann leaving increases Grandal’s playing time a bit, but when Grandal is resting around 40-45 games a year the Sox definitely sacrificed that offense. I am also not a huge fan of the Adam Eaton signing. He’s a solid player but I’m not sure he’s what the Sox needed as he’s just an average player at best all-around on the base paths and defense and they didn’t need a top of the order hitter with Anderson, Moncada, Grandal and Abreu all hitting up there. I don’t expect a huge season out of Eaton as he is declining and I could see the Sox needing to go out and get an outfield bat in July because the offense this year just doesn’t have as much bite to me. Last year in 60 games the offense had 5.1 Wins Above Average, which was fourth in baseball. This is just the same stat as WAR but instead of the player being a replacement player they a league average player at the position. Tim Anderson and Jose Abreu were a huge part of this number and they will both likely regress a bit, so Yoan Moncada is becoming the x-factor for this offense to retain its status as one of the elite line-ups in the AL. Moncada will have to repeat his 2019 success and the Sox will likely have to go out and get a bat without Eloy and bot having that good depth along with some regression from 2020 for hitters like Eaton, Anderson and Abreu for age and/or BABIP concerns.
- Behind the big 3, the Sox need consistency: Lance Lynn has been a workhorse and one of the rare pitchers that really thrives even late in games. I’m not sure about his consistency as his career as been full of ups and downs but for now I think he will be very good. Giolito is the ace of the staff and does it all, he will compete for Cy Young’s soon and Keuchel relies on defense a lot which is mainly above average going by FanGraphs runs and considering the positive reports on Madirgal, Robert, Moncada and Grandal mainly up the middle and he has consistently been a very good pitcher since 2015 even in his worse seasons. After that they have Dylan Cease who has a ton of potential and a combination of injured and inconsistent pitching that includes the coming off of injury Michael Kopech and Carlos Rodon and inconsistent and well below average Reynaldo Lopez. They really need Cease or someone to become more consistent. Cease is fun to watch at times but he has yet to really put it all together yet. If he can the Sox rotation is very strong, but if not it’s hard getting through the season relying on three starters to do pretty much of the lifting. With Cease (or if Kopech or Rodon break out) the rotation does carry them into the elite conversation. I remember the 2011 Tigers won with Brad Penny simply eating innings every fifth day and not being awfully helpful, but the Tigers had to go out and Doug Fister to create a strong 4 man hold. It may seem like between the 3 the Sox rotation is right there but Cease could really make a huge difference if he starts to put it altogether.
So to recap here, I think there will be some regression in the line-up, I like the rotation but I don’t think it’s top tier quite yet and overall the Sox need some more consistency and to play above their potential to really be true AL favorites to me right now. I also think Tony La Russa was a good manager and even innovative for his time but he started managing in the 1970s and a lot has changed since even 2011 so I’m not sure how much he will help or hurt this club which creates too many question marks for me to be more confident in them than the Twins let alone Rays, Astros and Yankees yet.