CLEVELAND — The Chicago White Sox are just about down to a week before the start of what they hope is a lengthy playoff run.
But while there's not much time remaining in the regular season, before the games gain their greatest importance with the season on the line, there's still some stuff the White Sox need to figure out before they start playing October baseball.
"The important thing is to compete as hard as you can, can't lose that edge," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said before Saturday's game in Ohio. "Can't back off and get soft and try to turn it on a week from now. Got to compete."
That will be the team's top task — and an obviously important one after the way its 2020 season ended. But specifically, when it comes to deciding which players they'll take into the postseason and how they'll set their rotation, lineup and bullpen, it's about making sure everyone's as healthy as possible.
The big injuries have seemingly been put in the rear-view mirror, with Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez and Yasmani Grandal back from their months-long absences and Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn and Andrew Vaughn back from September injured-list stays. But even minor injuries can be significant on the doorstep of the playoffs, the timing of it all having outsized effects on what La Russa and the White Sox can do in the season's most meaningful games.
So with that in mind, here's a look at four injury questions the White Sox will try to answer over the regular season's final week.
1. Will Carlos Rodón be ready for the playoffs?
There's no more important injury-related question than this one right now, with the status of one of the White Sox' most effective starting pitchers a mystery at the moment.
Rodón's dealt with persistent shoulder soreness during the second half, which has forced him to the injured list and extended his already ample time between outings. Earlier this week in Detroit, Rodón lasted just three innings, departing after telling La Russa he didn't feel right. The manager voiced his concern in the hours and days that followed and suggested that the only way to know whether Rodón will be able to pitch in October was to have him make one more regular-season start and see how he responds.
Of course, it's still not a guarantee the White Sox will be able to do that, with the process of working Rodón back from his last outing still ongoing. They're shooting for Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds.
"(We'll) wait to see (how he feels Sunday)," La Russa said Saturday. "I think he throws his bullpen, so that's probably (when we'll have a better idea). He's been playing catch. I think (Sunday) is an important day. ... Hope it goes well. We'll see."
Rodón figured to be a part of a dominant starting rotation that could power the White Sox on the kind of long playoff run they've been eyeing since the spring. When he's been on the mound, he's delivered Cy Young-caliber stuff. But the lingering soreness could throw a wrench into things, blowing a sizable hole in the starting staff. That makes the next few days mighty important.
2. Will Dylan Cease's arm be all healed up?
The White Sox dodged a bullet Friday night in Cleveland, when Cease, cruising in the sixth inning, took a batted ball off his arm. It initially looked like it might have hit his elbow, but instead it hit his triceps, leaving a bruise and nothing worse.
That's good news, of course, especially considering the mystery surrounding Rodón. But the White Sox need to make sure Cease is available to do his thing come October, as he's looked excellent at times, like someone who could play a savior-type role in backing up Giolito and Lynn at the top of the rotation, particularly if Rodón is limited in any way.
Saturday, Cease reported that his arm felt better, echoing his anticipation from a night earlier in saying he expected to make one more start before the end of the regular season.
"I feel great, much better than I thought it was going to be, honestly," Cease told NBC Sports Chicago on Saturday. "It was a little sore last night, but right now, it feels mildly bruised. I'm definitely planning on pitching before the postseason, so should be good to go."
3. Will a healthy Adam Engel be able to regularly play right field?
Engel's return from his own lengthy stay on the IL figured to provide La Russa and the White Sox with their full complement of outfielders to use in the postseason, especially now that Vaughn's IL stint is over and done with. And Engel, effective with both the bat and the glove when healthy this season, figured to be an important part of that outfield equation come playoff time, perhaps as the team's everyday right fielder or at least the top choice against right-handed pitching.
But almost immediately after coming back, as has happened to him multiple times prior this season, he's once again bugged by an injury issue, his legs troubling him after making a turn on the base paths Thursday. Engel was unavailable to play Friday night, and at the time La Russa spoke pregame Saturday, the manager didn't know whether that would extend to a second night.
Certainly the White Sox could use Engel, who has a .977 OPS against righties this season, in their postseason lineup, not to mention in their outfield, where he plays sensational defense at all three positions. Without him, La Russa doesn't have as many weapons at his disposal and would have to turn, perhaps, to a second choice in right.
Brian Goodwin, who has also thrived against righties this season, is also bedeviled by a physical ailment at the moment, bothered by his back.
While Engel and Goodwin aren't the superstar hitters Robert and Jiménez are, they've contributed in big ways this season, and being without them, should their maladies stretch into October, would mean a less-than-complete outfield puzzle for La Russa to work with.
4. Will Evan Marshall and Ryan Tepera make it back in time to be a part of the playoff 'pen?
Marshall is hopeful he can get his elbow in enough of a working order to be a part of the White Sox' relief corps in the postseason.
We'll see if that's what happens, with La Russa suggesting Saturday that if Marshall is to be part of the playoff 'pen, he'll need some sort of work before the end of the regular season, considering he hasn't pitched in a major league game since late June.
"I know that he would need to get in a couple, three games to have some sharpness, and he's declaring that he can do that," La Russa said. "I don't know, don't want to hurt him, but if he's healthy, we can use him. But have to wait and see.
"The way it looks now, he may get an opportunity sometime in the last six games, starting Monday."
If Marshall can get back Monday, he'll have a week's worth of chances to throw to big league batters before the postseason. While plenty of White Sox fans might look at his 5.60 ERA with worry, Marshall has a track record over the last few years as a reliable relief arm, which a team trying to win the World Series can never have enough of.
Meanwhile, Tepera is on his way back from a cut index finger. He's been throwing consistently on the team's road trip and is eyeing a return during the regular season's final week.
"I know it's been feeling better," La Russa said Saturday, "and he's getting very close."
Tepera has been quite good since joining the White Sox relief corps in a deadline deal with the Chicago Cubs, with a 2.81 ERA in 20 appearances. If healthy, he'd figure to be a featured part of the team's late-inning mix in the postseason, which showed what it's capable of Friday night.
But health comes first, for both relievers, and the White Sox will find out this week if they'll have them at their disposal in October, when bullpen usage gets cranked to 11.