Before the White Sox can worry about dethroning the Minnesota Twins — who despite the mathematically relevant presence of the Cleveland Indians appear to be steaming toward an AL Central title — they’ll have to cross plenty of other items off their rebuilding to-do list.
Rick Hahn’s front office needs to go to work this offseason, adding starting pitching and a left-handed bat of some consequence. Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal need to be promoted to the major leagues. Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease need to go from learning-on-the-job rookies to the impact players their prospect rankings said they could be.
But if the White Sox roster, perhaps as soon as next season, blossoms into one capable of contending for a division title, there’s still the matter of besting the team currently at the hop of the heap.
The White Sox lost for the 12th time in 17 games against the division-rival Twins on Monday night, with a familiar face doing a familiar thing. Jose Berrios entered the night with a 2.40 career ERA against the White Sox, and that number got smaller with his 7.1 innings of two-run ball.
Things looked like they might have gone differently, with the White Sox scratching across a run in the first inning and James McCann hitting a home run to start the second. But that’s when Berrios reverted to All-Star form, and the White Sox offense did just about nothing the rest of the way. (It didn’t help, of course, that the White Sox made some shoddy plays in the field and ran into some outs on the bases, more things that need fixing on the way to contender status.)
Berrios, with his ERA down to 3.58 after Monday’s effort, is on pace to finish with a career best in that category. He hasn’t necessarily been the kind of pitcher that Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have been this season for the Houston Astros, but he’s a bona fide ace of an October-bound staff. And it’s those types of big-time players the White Sox will have to match and beat if they want to climb to the top of the baseball mountain.
It doesn’t look impossible, considering the White Sox already have an All-Star pitcher and an ace of their staff in Lucas Giolito, who was scheduled to pitch Tuesday in the Land of 10,000 Lakes before he was shut down for the rest of the year with a mild lat strain.
But cast your mind back to the last time he threw at Target Field, when he showed how dominant he can be, even against an offense as potent as Minnesota’s. Giolito twirled a complete-game, three-hit, 12-strikeout shutout in that game and welcomed the Twins to the South Side with six innings of two-run ball in the following start.
As the Verlander-Cole Astros are showing, though, it takes more than one ace to make a run at a World Series. The Twins are going to try — and that’s no knock on their pitching staff, just pointing out that they win games and, eventually, a division title by out-slugging their opponents. White Sox fans know it well, having seen Nelson Cruz hit enough feet of home runs at Guaranteed Rate Field this season to get all the way back to Minneapolis.
And so while Giolito might be able to counter a pitcher like Berrios, the White Sox will need an offense that’s able to beat him and his homer-happy teammates. Reynaldo Lopez wasn’t awful Monday night, but five runs against him was plenty to get the Twins past the silenced White Sox.
That’s where Jimenez and Robert and Madrigal and McCann and Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson and Jose Abreu are supposed to come in. Only McCann could muster an RBI hit against Berrios on Monday. Jimenez added his 28th homer of the season off Twins closer Sergio Romo in the ninth inning.
That’s a group of hitters that, while very promising, is still developing. White Sox brass keeps telling us that as good as Moncada and Anderson have been during their breakout seasons, they will keep getting better. Jimenez is on his way to 30 homers as a rookie but has generally had an up-and-down season offensively. Robert and Madrigal have yet to taste the major leagues. There’s room for all of them to get better, to form the core of a lineup that could have even pitchers like Berrios sweating, that could go toe-to-toe with a powerful lineup like the Twins’.
But that all has to fall into place. Until it does, unseating the Twins will remain on the to-do list, behind a few more pressing matters. Until it does, Berrios will keep pitching lights out and the Twins will keep hitting balls out. Those are the kinds of things division champs do.