From the start of spring training, it was "World Series or bust."
Welcome to bust.
The Chicago White Sox were eliminated from the postseason Tuesday afternoon, their stay there this fall just one game longer than it was a year ago. The Houston Astros continued their streak of reaching the American League Championship Series, while the White Sox looked the part of a team still trying to catch up with the big boys in a 10-1 blowout defeat in Game 4 of the AL Division Series.
It was a sour ending to an otherwise successful season, though how the White Sox and their fans judge success will drive the conversation for the next several months.
"The goal is to win a World Series championship," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said in February. "So if we fall short of that, it would be a disappointment."
That was a pretty definitive setting of expectations from the architect of a rebuilding project that has now yielded its first championship, an AL Central crown that was won in a runaway, division challengers nowhere to be found as the White Sox cruised to their first title in more than a dozen years.
The other first since 2008, a home playoff game, went smashingly, as well, Guaranteed Rate Field rocking as the White Sox grabbed a 12-6 win from an Astros team that dominated each of the first two contests played in Houston.
But it's easy to see those accomplishments — even at the end of a season full of memorable moments — as small potatoes.
The White Sox swapped managers in the offseason, bringing in one of the game's all-time great skippers, a Hall of Famer, to steer the ship toward a World Series trophy. Instead, the move that earned so much attention from last October on earned all of one playoff victory, the White Sox matching their regular-season tendency to struggle against other contenders and away from home.
An offense chock full of young and veteran stars went quiet too frequently during the regular season, when empty nights could be excused by significant injuries that knocked three middle-of-the-order bats our for months at a time. In the ALDS, the White Sox scored 12 runs in one game, showing the capabilities of this group. Two of the other games, though, featured just one White Sox run, showing the frustrating inconsistency.
The starting rotation was the AL's best during the regular season. The White Sox count a pair of legitimate Cy Young candidates among their starting pitchers, and that's not including the ace of the staff who elevated his game in the second half and against the best competition. Once the postseason arrived, though, not one could make it five innings, and even entering the fifth was a rarity. All told, Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodón gave up 14 runs in just 12.1 innings.
From manager, to lineup, to rotation, the White Sox failed to reach their championship goals.
The 2021 campaign had its successes, but grading on that springtime scale, the season was a disappointment.
Of course, there might not have been much more these White Sox could have done to win this series. The Astros looked the far better team for the majority of the four games, and they're the new World Series favorites because of it. They've been down this road so many times before, and now they can add weathering a vicious South Side crowd to their postseason tool box. They might just win the World Series again, which would come much to the chagrin of the booing, insult-hurling folks who packed Guaranteed Rate Field in Games 3 and 4 and wouldn't let the Astros forget about their cheating scandal.
The White Sox, meanwhile, will have to figure out how to be better than the best when they get another crack in 2022.
They could very well face more threats from within the division but will be heavily favored to repeat as Central champs, barring some sort of dramatic offseason makeover in Minneapolis, Cleveland, Detroit or Kansas City. That would put them right back here a year from now, when they'll need their own upgrades to mount a greater challenge against baseball's best teams.
Any gripes about managerial moves and umpires' strike zones compare little to the sheer fact that these White Sox were looking up at the Astros all series long. The Astros displayed immaculate defense and exceptional situational hitting. The White Sox had just one night where they looked like the contending team they were supposed to be at season's start. The rest of the time, the better team was not hard to discern.
The good news is this is only the end of a chapter, not the book that is the White Sox' rebuilding project.
The team is set up for extended success, whether it ended 2021 with a championship or not. There are sure to be complaints about a year of the franchise's championship window ending so swiftly. But that window still exists as long as the young stars remain in the team's employ. Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert and Yoán Moncada remain under team-friendly long-term deals. Tim Anderson and José Abreu will stay in their leadership positions on the infield for 2022. And next year's rotation is already set, at least four of this year's starters returning and Michael Kopech figuring to get a promotion from the bullpen.
The White Sox are still contenders, even if they weren't the best team in baseball this season.
But an offseason without a parade is always a long one. And fans and team alike will be searching for ways to make sure disappointment is not a recurring feeling.