The Chicago White Sox are atop the American League Central, with the largest division lead in baseball. They are serious World Series contenders, making a win-now statement with a trade-deadline trade for Craig Kimbrel.
And they're not even back to full strength yet.
That's happening now, of course. Eloy Jiménez returned to the team nearly two weeks ago, and despite a bout of groin tightness, he's back in the middle of the lineup, showing signs of shaking off some of his comeback rust with a double in each of his last two games.
Luis Robert is about to follow, perhaps back with the White Sox as soon as Monday, when they open a series against the Minnesota Twins in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. White Sox manager Tony La Russa has not made that specific declaration yet, but it's clear from what he and everyone else has seen from Robert during his rehab assignment at Triple-A Charlotte that big things are about to make their way to the South Side.
"I hear he hit a bomb a thousand feet the other day," La Russa said Saturday. "All indications are that he'll be with us soon. We just needed to find what 'soon' means."
Jiménez's return mostly meant a boost for the White Sox offense, his power bat dropping right into the cleanup spot and capable of jump-starting a lineup that because of the many injuries hasn't lived up to its preseason projections of potency. But Robert, a "six-tool player," according to a couple Hall of Famers, can give the White Sox a jolt in so many different areas, with his bat, with his glove, with his legs.
These guys are key pieces of the White Sox present and future for a reason. And to have them back in the lineup could send the team from contenders to favorites as they chase a championship over the final third of the regular season and into October.
"That will be a big plus for us because we all know the quality of players they are," White Sox first baseman José Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo on Friday. "This has been a really tough season for us as a team, especially in the offensive part. Having everybody healthy and playing the same time should be a very good thing for us, a plus for us, something that should carry us to the finish line.
"I'm proud of them for all the work they've been doing. Eloy, for months, he did a very good job with the help of the trainers. That's something we all need to recognize and respect. Luis, probably less time, but still he's done a very good job, he's getting better. ... We have to recognize their commitment to work hard and to be here as soon as possible. That speaks volumes to their commitment to the team and their commitment to us."
Abreu and company could use the help.
The White Sox woke up Saturday ranked 22nd in baseball in home runs, and while that's certainly not a tell-all stat, it's surprising considering the pop that seemed to litter this lineup back in the spring. Injuries have had a lot to do with that, of course, the White Sox without Jiménez, Robert and Yasmani Grandal for large swaths of the campaign.
And while starting pitching has undoubtedly carried this team, the offense has come through when it's needed to — except when it hasn't, with the White Sox mired in a bit of an offensive slump of late, scoring three runs or fewer in 10 of their last 15 games. Perhaps a date with Cubs pitching this weekend will swing things around, and an eight-run outburst in 10 innings Friday could indeed provide a much needed spark.
But no spark will be bigger and more impactful than the one Jiménez and Robert can provide, not to mention Grandal, who's working at a feverish pace to get back from July knee surgery.
That said, it shouldn't necessarily be expected that the arrival of these two middle-of-the-order bats flips an instant switch. We've seen that already, with Jiménez obviously rusty following a four-month recovery. His extra-base hits the last couple days have been encouraging, but he's still just 4-for-25 since returning.
"It's a difficult thing to control because as a player, as a competitor, everybody wants to do their best and produce," Abreu said. "For them especially, they will feel that necessity and urgency to produce and do good. It's on us to try to guide them and try to help them and just let them know, 'You are going to do good. Just take your time.'
"It's not easy. When you come out here and you try to do your best and produce, hit homers, or whatever, you have to keep your mind in a good place and be focused on the work."
Though it might take them a while to get back to their normal selves, they'll be the reinforcements the White Sox have needed, even while the fill-in players have helped keep the team's World Series hopes alive.
One of those guys, Brian Goodwin, played hero in Friday's opening game of the Crosstown series, smacking a tie-breaking homer in the 10th inning, showing he deserves to stick around and provide needed depth for the title run. The way Adam Engel's been hitting, he deserves plenty of playing time — and figures to get it in right field. Gavin Sheets has impressed in his first taste of the majors. Billy Hamilton has game-changing speed.
In other words, don't envy La Russa, who will be tasked with keeping all those guys fresh over the final two months of the regular season.
"The first series or two (that Robert is back), probably going to have to take it easy and not give him an everyday thing," La Russa said. "And you can only have one DH, so I think the closer he gets to really being in shape, we can grind out every day. Then we’ll see what happens.
"But it's more fun to think about having too many than not enough."