The Chicago White Sox' quest for a championship started all the way back in the spring. It will start in earnest, with no safety net, beginning Thursday.
The playoffs are here, the South Siders making consecutive postseason appearances for the first time in franchise history. What they hope is a lengthy October run starts this week against the Houston Astros in the American League Division Series.
Projecting a first-round roster isn't terribly difficult considering the stars scattered throughout the lineup, rotation and bullpen. But there are questions about how Tony La Russa will put his playoff puzzle together, and the White Sox are going to use all the time available to them to try to answer those questions, the roster not due until the day of their first postseason bout Thursday.
Here's our best crack at guessing which 26 guys the White Sox will take into their matchup with the Astros.
Starting pitchers (4)
Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodón
Giolito, Lynn and Cease are playoff-rotation locks, with the first two set to pitch the first two games in Houston, though La Russa said the White Sox were still working on the order as of Sunday afternoon. Cease could go in Game 3 or an if-necessary Game 4, and he'd be a confidence-inspiring option considering the way he's evolved into a reliable presence this season.
The mystery is Rodón. La Russa said Sunday that the White Sox are still assessing whether he'll be able to go in the series, his persistent shoulder soreness lingering after his five shutout innings last week against the Cincinnati Reds. La Russa said it would be a "tough call" whether Rodón would make the ALDS roster, but considering he said the week prior that the White Sox would take whatever the lefty can give them, it seems likely they'd stick to that stance, even if it means a handful of innings in Game 3 or 4. Playoff starts rarely last that long these days, anyway, perhaps making an even hampered Rodón the most effective option.
Relief pitchers (9)
Aaron Bummer, Garrett Crochet, Liam Hendriks, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Michael Kopech, Reynaldo López, José Ruiz, Ryan Tepera
Keuchel's inclusion among the bullpen mix was a late-season surprise, but even after his rocky relief appearance Saturday, La Russa seemed set on including the veteran lefty as part of the ALDS roster, citing his ample experience as a benefit to the group. Rodón's health issues mean someone like Keuchel could come in very handy if there are more innings to eat than expected. López, who was a more effective starter than Keuchel this season, would figure to play a similar role. Then there's a back-end group that's chock full of talent, with Hendriks, pitching at an All-Star level at season's end, leading the way. La Russa didn't shy away from assigning more than three outs to Hendriks throughout the regular season, and if he's still chucking better than anyone else, we could see that strategy again in the playoffs. Bummer, too, has been strong at season's end, reemerging after a bumpy first half and providing some confidence in the setup unit through Kimbrel's struggles and Tepera's late-season finger injury. Crochet earned more high-leverage assignments as the season moved toward its conclusion. Meanwhile, Kopech was stretched out for multi-inning outings, and he could play a huge role in October as the kind of playoff weapon that's popped up in postseasons past. Ruiz might not be a fan favorite, but he's been called on time and again, beating out Ryan Burr for the final spot in the relief corps in this exercise.
Catchers and infielders (7)
José Abreu, Tim Anderson, Zack Collins, Leury García, Yasmani Grandal, César Hernández, Yoán Moncada
Most of the White Sox infield is set. Expect to see Abreu, Anderson and Moncada penciled into the lineup every day, barring injury.
Things get a little more interesting at second base. The White Sox traded for Hernández at the trade deadline with the playoff push in mind. But the Gold Glover batted just .232 after arriving on the South Side. In comparison, García finished the regular season on an offensive tear, slashing .337/.371/.490 in September. García has played just about everywhere in the field this season and could factor into the right field conversation, but at second base he gives the White Sox a clear offensive boost.
Grandal is the White Sox' starting catcher and has been electric since returning from the IL in late August. There was some question as to who his backup would be come playoff time: Collins or Seby Zavala. But Collins (.210 batting average) has the edge on Zavala (.183) offensively. And with Grandal behind the dish, an extra bat off the bench is more valuable than extra defense.
Adam Engel, Billy Hamilton, Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert, Gavin Sheets, Andrew Vaughn
Robert and Jiménez are everyday outfielders. Though some might argue that Jiménez is better suited as a DH, he prefers playing left field, and since coming back from the IL, he hasn't done anything to lose his spot in the field.
Ideally, Engel would be the regular right fielder. But he has battled injuries throughout the season. So, Vaughn is another option, along with García, as mentioned.
Sheets also provides depth in the outfield and at first base. But more importantly, Sheets and Vaughn can serve as a DH platoon, bolstering the bottom third of the batting order. Hamilton, with his speed, is valuable as a defensive replacement and pinch runner.