DETROIT — Adam Engel is coming back from his month-long stay on the injured list.
Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa informed before the start of a three-game series against the Detroit Tigers that the team expects Engel back on the active roster Tuesday. And while that's good news for the remainder of the regular season, of course, it's especially good news for a White Sox team looking to be as deep as possible come October, when they're planning to make a lengthy postseason run.
But while Engel gives the White Sox another piece to work with — his bat has been very effective to go along his always impressive glove in the 33 games he's played in between three trips to the IL in 2021 — his return makes even more interesting how La Russa will put those pieces together in the playoffs.
The South Side skipper will have plenty of options when it comes to filling out the starting nine in any given postseason contest. Of course, most spots will be spoken for by the team's biggest stars: José Abreu is a lock at first base, Tim Anderson at shortstop, Yasmani Grandal at catcher, Yoán Moncada at third base, Luis Robert in center field. Eloy Jiménez is a daily lineup fixture, as well, either left field or at designated hitter.
Jiménez is just the start of where La Russa could start mixing and matching, though. And Engel figures to factor heavily into those decisions, pegged as a potential top choice in right field, though able to play all three outfield positions.
Engel has hit very well against right-handed pitching, with a .932 OPS on the campaign. So have several other of La Russa's outfield options, with Brian Goodwin sporting an .834 OPS and Gavin Sheets with an .889 OPS against righties. Though Goodwin has stepped up time and time again for the White Sox filling in this season, putting Engel's sensational defensive ability in right and putting Sheets' power bat at DH, with Jiménez in left, might be the best option for the South Siders against right-handers in the postseason.
When the White Sox face off against lefties, though, Engel might not be the go-to guy. His OPS is a significantly lower .689.
Meanwhile, Andrew Vaughn would figure to be a no-brainer option against left-handed starters, considering his .972 OPS against them during his rookie season. Vaughn, currently, is on the injured list with inflammation in his lower back, La Russa updating Monday that Vaughn is still feeling something when he runs. But assuming health come October, Vaughn will be in the lineup against southpaws.
How that puzzle gets put together, though, is a mystery more difficult to figure out.
Goodwin and Sheets have lopsided splits in that department, their OPSs against left-handers way down below .340. Leury García has fared better against lefties than he has against righties and has been swinging a hot bat of late. He's got a season OPS vs. lefties of .729, and against all pitchers, he's got a .952 OPS in the month of September. He could be an option in right field, too, though his versatility could find him a start at, say, second base, even though La Russa has not hesitated to play Cèsar Hernández nearly every day since his acquisition at the trade deadline. Hernández, too, has hit lefties better than righties this season.
While García's hot stretch could force Hernández out of the lineup, no matter the hand of pitcher — White Sox general manager Rick Hahn reminded in July that "come October, all bets are off" — Hernández does play Gold Glove defense at second base, no small thing in the every-pitch-matters world of postseason baseball. That could mean García, instead of Engel, in right against lefties, with Vaughn manning left field and Jiménez at DH.
That's all just one way it could shake out, of course, and La Russa's not likely to reveal his strategic approach to the postseason at this stage, before his team has even clinched a spot. But certainly Engel creates even more possibilities with his return. Vaughn coming back from the IL would do the same. And once Ryan Tepera is back from the absence caused by him cutting his finger in a doorway, the same kind of conversations can be had about the bullpen.
Options are never a bad thing, and having someone with experience putting those pieces together in ways that have won championships is a luxury for these White Sox, who will happily take advantage of depth, if blessed with it, when they get their opportunity to chase the championship they've had their eyes on all year.