Reynaldo López was not the White Sox only problem Wednesday night.
He wasn’t even their worst problem in an ugly loss to the Minnesota Twins, the White Sox ending up with just one win in their most important series of the season to date.
Frank Thomas said it during an in-game break: It brought to mind 2018 and 2019. And indeed, if this was your first exposure to the 2020 edition of the South Side major league club, you’d wonder what all the fuss was about. The White Sox committed four errors. They only got four hits. And they gave up three home runs.
Of course, this was just one game. The team’s still just a game out of first place.
But what wasn’t limited to just one clunker of a night was López, who lasted just 1.2 innings, putting a White Sox bullpen that had to do extra work after Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel lasted just five innings apiece in the first two games of this series in a tough spot. It didn’t go well.
López has lasted just nine total innings in his three starts since returning from a nearly month-long stay on the injured list, and completely independent of the performance — especially now that piggy-backing candidate Gio González is on the IL, too — that type of length isn’t going to fly as the White Sox compete for their first postseason berth in more than a decade over the remaining 23 regular-season games.
But the performance hasn’t been there, either, and it hasn’t, at least not consistently, since the start of last season, a campaign that mostly went poorly for López, who wrapped the year with a nasty 5.38 ERA. Wednesday night, he only gave up one earned run — he’s only given up five of those since coming back from the IL — but there was a reason Rick Renteria lifted him in the second inning: López only faced 11 batters, giving up hits to four of them, including a home run, and walking two others.
Notably, López confessed to not knowing why his manager brought the hook out so early, saying after the game that there was a plan for him to throw 90 pitches and that he was confused as to why it wasn’t followed.
“Honestly, I don't understand the reason why he pulled me out of the game in the second inning,” he said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I guess he has his reason, but I don't understand. I guess it was the best for our team, but I don't really understand why.
“It's baseball. The pitch count in the second inning, sometimes that happens in baseball. Sometimes you have a quick inning and sometimes you get out of trouble with more pitches.”
While it might not have been as much of a mystery to those watching, it might still be unfair to judge López and his long-term prospects with just 9.2 innings thrown in this most unusual of seasons. But the White Sox are in a pennant race right now, intent on making some October noise. And what López hasn’t done is answer the question of whether he can be a dependable member of the starting rotation.
That might not strike some fans as the most difficult of conclusions to reach. What is difficult is figuring out how the White Sox would go about replacing López.
“We’ll probably have a discussion at some point in time to go over how we will continue to proceed and make a decision,” Renteria said Wednesday night, asked what the future holds for López and his status in the rotation. “We’ll have a discussion to see how we can determine how we can proceed. Not going one way or the other. We’ll just have a conversation.
“Five days before that slot comes back up. We'll try to figure out where we're at, talk about it, see what adjustments we can make and move from there.”
So what are the alternatives that Renteria and White Sox brass can discuss?
The list isn’t a long one, especially after Rick Hahn and the front office decided to keep their long-term plans intact and not trade for starting-pitching help at the deadline earlier this week. That seemed and still seems like a perfectly reasonable strategy, as this has always been a long-term endeavor, a rebuilding project designed to give the White Sox a lengthy contention window. Significantly altering that would have gone against everything Hahn & Co. did to put the White Sox in the position they’re in right now.
But simultaneously, there have been questions about the depth of the rotation behind Giolito and Keuchel since before the season began, going all the way back to the offseason. Given the inconsistencies of 2019, what they were going to get out of López, Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodón was a mystery. Only Cease has been healthy enough to even try to answer those questions, though despite his 3.00 ERA, he’s had his own issues this season with homers, walks and worrisome jams.
If you’re trying to map out a playoff rotation for the South Siders, you might not find much in the way of rock-solid confidence past the top two.
But before anyone can do that kind of planning, the White Sox need to get to the playoffs first. In this bizarre season, eight American League teams will make it to October, so there might not be much reason to fret that it won’t happen. But the White Sox will need at least four more starts out of a pitcher not named Giolito, Keuchel, Cease or Dane Dunning, who’s impressed in his first two major league outings.
If it’s not going to be López, who will it be?
Rodón is on the mend from his own month-long bout of shoulder soreness. While Keuchel posited just one night earlier that Rodón might be able to return in some sort of super-reliever role, his services might be needed in the rotation after all. But his return still has no firm date.
How attractive are the options at the alternate training site in Schaumburg? Apart from veteran Clayton Richard, the one-time White Sox pitcher who’s back with the organization on a minor league deal, there’s a lot of inexperience. Jonathan Stiever? Maybe. Bernardo Flores? Maybe. Garrett Crochet? Unlikely. White Sox fans probably don’t want the team to go back to the Drew Anderson well after his lack of success in a bullpen game against Cleveland earlier this season.
And so while it might be easy to proclaim that López isn’t working out. The question becomes: What will?
The trade deadline is over, and there’s no help coming in that regard.
“In any case,” Keuchel said Tuesday night, “guys would like to see a trade come through, especially when there's a lot of trades. But at the same time, do you sacrifice the future of this team, this group of guys, for a win now? Or do you roll with the team we have?
“Honestly, without Rodón (for so much of the season) and with Dunning stepping up, I think we're in a really, really good spot. When Carlos does come back, we're very fortunate to maybe have him be that Andrew Miller type of bridge guy, or come back in the starting rotation.
“So we've got a couple options moving forward, and right now we're in the thick of things for first place. So I think what we have right now, we can definitely win with. We'll see.”
Until the conversations Renteria mentioned take place, “we’ll see” is the best answer that can be given when it comes to where López stands moving forward, too. Because while it’s easy to notice when something’s not working, coming up with an effective fix can be much trickier. The best they can do might be to hope Rodón and González can get healthy and be productive.
What if sticking with López is the best option?
“I have to work to get my rhythm. I think that’s the missing part of this puzzle,” López said. “Once I get that rhythm, once I get to the rhythm that I had during spring training, I think things are going to start going better and work for me and for the team.”
Will he get that chance?
To quote Keuchel: “We’ll see.”