CLEVELAND — Chicago White Sox fans might be wondering:
Can the White Sox afford to keep playing the slumping César Hernández with their season on the line?
Because that's what the scenario will be in a week and a half, when the American League Central champs start their pursuit of a World Series championship in the AL Division Series.
When he was acquired at the trade deadline, Hernández looked like a solid pickup. He was a reigning Gold Glove winner at second base, a position of need with Nick Madrigal out for the year (and then traded), and his offensive numbers in 96 games with the division-rival Cleveland Indians were fine, if not spectacular, particularly in the power department, with 18 home runs.
But since joining the White Sox, those numbers have fallen off a cliff, Hernández slashing a woeful .222/.299/.283 in his 49 games as a South Sider. Even the defense, which at times has certainly looked worthy of that Gold Glove, has at other times had onlookers scratching their heads.
Tony La Russa has shown little hesitancy to keep sending Hernández out there on a daily basis. Even though Hernández was out of the lineup for Sunday's series finale in Northeast Ohio, that seemed to be nothing more than part of La Russa's plan to rest his regulars, with Luis Robert also on the bench and off days forecasted for Yoán Moncada and Tim Anderson on Monday.
But when the playoffs roll around, things get a lot different, and anyone will tell you that the best nine players — health- and matchup-dependent, of course — will be in the White Sox' lineup in October.
Does that nine include Hernández?
The short answer is that we'll find out real soon. But that question starts a much bigger discussion about the White Sox' playoff lineups and the puzzle that La Russa & Co. will have to put together when the postseason begins.
As the South Side skipper will tell you — heck, he'll threaten you with eternal dislike if you're foolish enough to suggest otherwise — Leury García is viewed as an everyday player, even if his remarkable versatility prevents him from sitting at the top of the depth chart at any one position. García has been hitting very well of late, coming into Sunday with a .706 OPS in the second half and an .861 OPS in the month of September.
That's before he picked up two more hits, drove in a run and scored another in Sunday's 5-2 win.
He seems, to many, the most logical guy to supplant Hernández as the everyday starter at second base. But it's not quite that easy. Because the White Sox might need García in right field.
The White Sox have a lot of outfielders, but a combination of health and hitting splits could very well dictate who plays where and when. Adam Engel would be a great option as a near-everyday fixture in right, but he's again bothered by a physical issue just a few days after coming back from his latest injured-list stay. Brian Goodwin hit the IL on Sunday with back spasms. Meanwhile, Andrew Vaughn has shown tremendous capability in the outfield but has only hit well against lefties. Gavin Sheets packs a powerful punch in right or as the designated hitter, but he has only hit well against righties.
García's splits are not so severe as those of the two rookies — coming into Sunday, a .697 OPS against right-handers and a .710 OPS against left-handers — making him an attractive option against any hand of pitcher, depending on who else fills out the other positions. If García is needed in right, say in a situation where Engel's health woes do not improve enough to allow him to contribute as much as the White Sox would like, then Hernández might have to stick at second base.
These are the tricky decisions that await La Russa and the White Sox in October.
"We've seen César rise to the occasion," La Russa said before Sunday's game. "There's a chance Leury is playing right field (in a playoff game). When we get there, you're going to put your best nine out there. Leury (is a possibility) at second base, yeah. But I think César has enough background to rise to the occasion."
It might not sound ideal to some, that Hernández would take up a lineup spot in must-win games for the White Sox. But it's about the puzzle coming together in the best possible way on a given day. And if that means Hernández starts at second base in a playoff game, it means that the alternative at that position, García, was best utilized elsewhere.