The White Sox are playing in their first playoff game in a dozen years Tuesday. And of course, the hottest topic going into Game 1 of the AL Wild Card Series is the lineup.
Manager Rick Renteria's been peppered with lineup critiques all season long, something that comes with being the skipper of a team in contention. And so all eyes will be on his starting nine for the first game of a best-of-three series against the Oakland Athletics.
There are plenty of unknowns, obviously. But given some of the things the manager has said over the past couple days, we can take a crack at projecting what his starting lineup might look like for Game 1.
When a team is good, there are more obvious parts to a lineup. And so it's a no-brainer that Renteria will start José Abreu at first base, Nick Madrigal at second base, Tim Anderson at shortstop, Yoán Moncada at third base and Luis Robert in center field. Lucas Giolito was announced as the White Sox starting pitcher for Game 1 on Sunday.
Abreu is the AL MVP front-runner. Anderson has had another excellent season and should place in that MVP vote, too. Madrigal had a very nice rookie season. And while Robert and Moncada both went through deep September slumps, they've shown signs of snapping out of their respective funks and could provide a huge boost to the lineup if they are indeed turning things around.
The White Sox have a pair of All-Star catchers, and it's been a balancing act — and a good problem to have — for Renteria all season long to get both Yasmani Grandal and James McCann playing time behind home plate.
As for which of them gets the nod in Game 1, look to the starting pitcher. Though Giolito was throwing to Grandal early in the season, he soon reteamed with McCann, who caught him during his All-Star campaign in 2019. Giolito has had good games with both catchers behind the plate. But he threw his no-hitter with McCann, and the two have been paired up ever since. It certainly seems McCann catching Giolito gives the White Sox the best chance to dominate an A's lineup that struggled to produce during the regular season.
As the postseason moves along, don't be surprised to see both Grandal and McCann in lineups at the same time.
"Right now, where we are at, if there is the availability of being able to use both those bats, am I looking to try to find a way to use them both? Absolutely," Renteria said. "That’s kind of an easy answer for me to give you."
The biggest unknown heading into Tuesday is the status of Eloy Jiménez. The left fielder sprained his foot while running the bases last Thursday in Cleveland and then missed the final series of the regular season against the Crosstown-rival Cubs. Talking Friday, he was down, saying, "Let's hope I can play."
Monday, Jiménez reported feeling much better and up to the task of playing in Game 1. The White Sox will evaluate him once more Tuesday morning in Oakland and make the final determination. But he was hopeful Monday.
"In my mind, I'm going to play," he said.
Outfield or DH?
Of course, being well enough to swing a bat doesn't necessarily mean Jiménez would be deemed well enough to run around the expansive outfield at the Oakland Coliseum, and that could have a big impact on Renteria's lineup. If that ends up being the case, would Jiménez be the White Sox designated hitter? It sounded likely, with Jiménez going as far as saying, "I think I’m going to be DH for the first game, but I don’t know."
Renteria was asked about that possibility, and pointed to it being very much an option.
"In any situation, the reality is I want to take and assess how much of a load I can relieve from him if he's still feeling some of the effects of that bruising or whatever it is that is causing that sensation in his foot, anything that would maximize our ability to use him. Is DH'ing out of the question? Absolutely not," Renteria said. "Everything is on the table. Everything that we can possibly do to put ourselves in the best position possible, we will do."
That could mean the slumping Edwin Encarnación would be out of the starting lineup, with Jiménez assuming DH duties, at least for Game 1.
"I would not be precluded from making some adjustments in that slot," Renteria said, asked about Encarnación and if he'd be sticking with the veteran. "Obviously we have a gentleman who is extremely experienced, has had an illustrious career as a designated hitter. And I think all of us want to continue to put our best foot forward.
"He's been a tremendous addition to us both in the clubhouse, obviously he's impacted us on the field, as well. And I know we're looking to try to put our best foot forward. There are a couple options available to us, and we will proceed knowing we will make whatever adjustments we need to in order to continue to put us in the best position possible."
It also could mean no place to put Grandal. With McCann catching, Abreu at first and Jiménez at DH, Grandal, who received the richest free-agent contract in franchise history over the winter, could be forced to the bench for the team's first playoff game since 2008.
Engel in the outfield
If Jiménez does end up DH'ing in Game 1, then Adam Engel is the obvious choice to fill in as the left fielder. Engel's had a nice year as a part-time player, and fans have been clamoring for him to receive more playing time, particularly as everyday right fielder Nomar Mazara has struggled all season long. Well, if Jiménez is limited to DH'ing, they'll get their wish.
Of course, that would improve the outfield defense, considering Engel's excellent skills with the glove. What it could also mean, though, is that Mazara would remain in the starting lineup.
Yes, there's one more wrinkle to this whole thing, and it's that Leury García could find his way back from injury just in time for the playoffs to begin.
García's been out since mid August, when he severed a ligament in his thumb after sliding into first base. But Renteria has provided some interesting updates in recent days, and perhaps there's a way García makes his way onto the playoff roster and is the best choice in the other corner-outfield spot. Before he went down, he was slashing .271/.317/.441 with three homers, better numbers in 16 games than Mazara put up in 42.
"As long as he’s progressing positively, physically speaking, it’s always a possibility," Renteria said over the weekend. "Nothing surprises me about Leury. This kid can sit for a month, fall out of bed and hit like he’s playing every single day and do a lot of special things between the lines.
"He’s been working in Schaumburg, everything looks good. ... Nothing would surprise me how Leury continues to progress."
Does that mean García's a slam dunk to be healthy, ready to rock and start Game 1? Not necessarily. But it's possible, which wasn't necessarily a common thought even a few days ago.
OK, so here's what I think it will be for Game 1:
1. Tim Anderson, SS 2. Yoán Moncada, 3B 3. José Abreu, 1B 4. Eloy Jiménez, DH (if healthy, otherwise Yasmani Grandal at DH) 5. James McCann, C 6. Luis Robert, CF 7. Adam Engel, LF 8. Leury García, RF (if healthy, otherwise Nomar Mazara in RF) 9. Nick Madrigal, 2B
One last thing
As mentioned, Renteria's faced plenty of criticism over his lineups, and that really shouldn't be a surprise, a side effect of a team playing meaningful baseball. But for those who think Renteria might be resigned to keeping guys like Encarnación and Mazara in his lineup, even in the postseason, just because that's what they saw him do during the regular season, you haven't seen Playoff Ricky.
None of us have. But here's a comment from Monday that might be decently important.
"The most important thing is that I think everybody in that clubhouse is willing and able and desirous of to do whatever it takes to continue to move forward," Renteria said. "I think a lot of instances, you have to try to put your ego aside for the better of the team. They do that."
We'll see how it all shakes out Tuesday.