Before the season started, the White Sox looked capable of competing right alongside the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians for the AL Central crown — if certain things went right, if certain questions were answered in positive fashion.
Believe it or not, just a little more than two weeks since Opening Day, the White Sox season is already a quarter over. Unfortunately for folks who want to know whether they should keep their October clear or not, there’s a lot of uncertainty facing this White Sox team as they continue on this two-month sprint to the postseason. A 1-4 start followed by a six-game winning streak followed now by three losses in the last four games heading into Sunday night's nationally televised bout against the Indians has shown how rapidly things can change — and how often — in this shortened season.
The good news is the playoff field is big. If the White Sox manage to finish in second place in the Central, they’re guaranteed their first postseason berth in a dozen years. Even if they don’t, they’ll still have a shot at one of the pair of wild-card spots that round out the eight-team field in the American League.
But achieving those goals — and meeting the high preseason expectations this team set for itself dating all the way back to a time before the COVID-19 pandemic — won’t be easy considering all the curveballs that have been thrown the White Sox way in the first couple weeks of this most unusual campaign. Thankfully, they’re not the Miami Marlins or the St. Louis Cardinals, teams whose entire seasons have been thrown into question by COVID-19 outbreaks. Instead, the White Sox concerns are more of the standard baseball variety. But again, nothing is standard this year.
The biggest question marks a quarter of the way through the season are the same ones we were talking about back in March. Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel have been solid at the top of the White Sox starting rotation, and Dylan Cease has bounced back nicely after a rough go of things in his 2020 debut. Of course, he won’t be able to win too many more games by issuing four leadoff walks like he did Friday. Still, he’s not the biggest issue right now.
Injuries have ravaged what was seen as a preseason strength, the team’s starting-pitching depth. And with Reynaldo López and Carlos Rodón both on the injured list, that depth has been called upon far earlier and far more often than the White Sox would have liked. Michael Kopech’s decision not to play this season due to personal reasons is entirely understandable, but it hasn't helped the White Sox weather the injuries. They were in the unenviable spot of going with a bullpen day to cap just the third turn through the rotation Saturday. Gio González hasn’t been able to deliver much in the way of length while filling in for López, and no one specific is filling in for Rodón at the moment other than an assemblage of bullpen arms. That worked fine Saturday until it didn't, and a nightmarish fourth inning for Drew Anderson put things out of reach early. Anderson was designated for assignment not 24 hours after getting crushed by the Indians.
The injury news delivered by general manager Rick Hahn earlier this week seemed relatively positive, with López and Rodón both pegged to return to the rotation in the next couple of weeks. But even if they dodge the bullet of significant injuries that knock them out for the rest of the season, they still have questions to answer about how effective they can be. Certain fans might have decided they’ve seen enough. Certainly the White Sox haven’t. López recorded all of two outs while fighting through the shoulder soreness that knocked him out of the game before the end of the first inning of his first start of 2020. Rodón’s first outing didn’t go well, and he was out after only a couple innings with shoulder soreness in his second go. So if you’re looking to make a determination on what kind of quality either guy can deliver for the rest of 2020, you can’t yet. Neither has been healthy enough to show anything.
But whether fighting their way back to full strength or fighting their way through the inconsistencies both have battled in the past, there’s not a lot of time to figure things out on the fly. We’re already making in-season evaluations and watching the standings on a daily basis, and there have only been two weeks’ worth of games, which should tell you everything about how much sway López and Rodón, 40 percent of the rotation, can have on this season.
Until they return, there will be big question marks, too. González has logged just 11.2 innings in three outings, the first coming in relief of López two weeks ago, and has given up 20 hits and walked seven guys. A 2.314 WHIP is not going to get the job done, obviously, nor will throwing 252 pitches to get 35 outs. Fans will jump up and down pointing toward Schaumburg, where the White Sox have yet to call on highly touted prospect Dane Dunning. But Hahn said Dunning’s not yet worked his way far enough back from Tommy John where he can give the team the king of length it needs from a starting pitcher. During the rebuild, the team has never operated under the idea that a need at the big league level is more important than the specific plan they’ve outlined for a prospect, and that's not going to change now.
A potent lineup that’s gone quiet
The White Sox have bats. They can score runs. That’s less a prediction and more of a fact considering the kinds of hitters now populating this lineup. We saw against the Twins and in a sweep of the Kansas City Royals that this team is capable of exploding.
But a heavy dose of Cleveland pitching and a wave of injuries can cause even the game’s finest swingers to go silent. And that’s what’s happened to the White Sox of late.
The starting middle infield is on the injured list, Tim Anderson expected back shortly from a groin strain and Nick Madrigal perhaps lucky to only have separated his shoulder on a slide in just his fifth game as a major leaguer. Madrigal could be back in a couple weeks, but it’s been a waiting game for the lineup that was remade over the winter to actually come together. It’s yet to be run out as envisioned.
Nomar Mazara spent some time on the injured list to start the season, and Edwin Encarnación sat out of his fifth straight game Sunday while battling SC joint inflammation. Eloy Jiménez was knocked out for a couple games after he ran into the outfield wall while tracking a grand-slam ball. Yasmani Grandal is apparently dealing with a nagging foot irritation of some sort, and he sat out of Friday’s game because of it.
The White Sox are far from the only team dealing with a rash of injuries, of course, and they won’t use it as an excuse. Without Mazara and Madrigal, they hung a 10-spot on the Twins in the season’s second game. Without Anderson, they scored a combined 20 runs on 35 hits in back-to-back wins in Kansas City.
Luis Robert, though he’s among the league leaders in strikeouts, was sparking MVP discussion just a few days ago while leading the American League in WAR. And some unexpected sources — such as Leury García and Adam Engel — have gotten off to hot starts, too.
But even cold snaps just a few games long have the ability to dramatically shift things in such a short season, and the White Sox have totaled just nine runs in their last five games. They could have done worse than a 2-3 record during that time, of course, and they’ve been helped out by quality pitching on some of those nights.
This was a team, though, that spent much of “Summer Camp” talking about how capable their lineup was, about how it could rely on the bats each and every night. Over the course of the season, that could surely prove to be the case. Remember that things can swing in the opposite direction in a hurry. But everything gets magnified when every game is worth twice or thrice as much as usual. Without a full complement of hitters due to injuries and without the ones who are healthy coming through — the White Sox rank 27th out of 30 major league teams with a .211 batting average with runners in scoring position — the team’s ability to lean so heavily on its lineup is taken away.
A beauty of a bullpen
One thing the White Sox have excelled at in the early going is relief pitching.
The late-inning crew returned from the 2019 season — Alex Colomé, Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero — is off to a terrific start. Question marks surrounding whether Marshall and Cordero, who were low-risk, high-reward acquisitions a season ago, could repeat their performances have been so far answered in the affirmative, with Marshall in particular looking fantastic.
Ross Detwiler, who swung between long relief and spot starting in 2019, has also shone in a more defined bullpen role. Rookies Codi Heuer and Matt Foster have been darn near untouchable in four appearances apiece.
And so that’s an extensive list of positives. Of course, Bummer is now among the sizable White Sox contingent on the injured list, and replacing the most important relief arm on the team will be no small task in the coming days. The White Sox have seen enough good work from their relief corps so far that they could fill in the gaps and get a positive result. But we’ll see what happens, as Bummer was frequently deployed in the highest leverage situations.
Chasing the class of the Central
The White Sox have seen a lot of the class of the Central division in the first quarter of this season, playing eight games against the Twins and Indians. They've only won three of them. And when you’re trying to leapfrog those squads for the division crown, dropping series against them is an obvious problem.
The Twins and Indians both have their strengths, the Twins with their bats and the Indians with their arms, and both of those units have beaten up on the White Sox. The Twins scored 27 runs in three games and even tagged Giolito for a huge number. The Indians, meanwhile, have seen their starting pitching dominate just about everyone, but considering they’ve faced the White Sox so often, they’ve particularly taken it to them, allowing just five runs in five games, with AL Cy Young front-runner Shane Bieber still to come Sunday night.
No one said it would be easy vying for the top spot in the division standings, and it certainly hasn’t been for the White Sox, who now have just one option: start getting Twins hitters out and start getting to Indians starters. If they can’t, they won’t be in the race. It’s as simple as that.
As mentioned, it won’t necessitate a division championship to reach October, not this season, and the White Sox can still make huge strides in their rebuilding project by doing something current middle schoolers have never seen them do: play in a playoff game.
But they have 12 more games against these two teams, and even chasing down a wild card spot will involve doing something against them.
The long-term view
While all the activity that happened this offseason and all the playoff talk that followed got everyone on the South Side riled up for a return to win-at-all-costs baseball, that’s not necessarily how it’s going to work in 2020.
Yes, an expanded playoff field gives the White Sox even more incentive to crank all the way into win-now mode. In this most unpredictable of seasons, a World Series championship isn’t out of the realm of possibility for the vast majority of the league’s teams, not yet.
But Hahn has always presented his rebuilding project as a long-term endeavor, and just because the roster is finally capable of competing doesn’t mean it won’t be even more so in the years to come. And so there’s still a pretty huge focus on the future at the corner of 35th and Shields.
Robert has yet to play 20 big league games. Madrigal has only played five. Even Jiménez is still under 150 in his career. Cease still needs three more starts to get to 20. Dunning and Andrew Vaughn are waiting for their big league debuts. And a rash of injuries sweeping across baseball has made going about things with caution less a questionable approach and more a mandatory one.
In other words, as the long-term deals handed out to young core pieces should have made quite clear, it’s not just about 2020. And so further development, further experience, learning how to win: It’s all still quite valuable for these White Sox this season as they eye hopefully normal campaigns in which they’ll be even better suited to compete for championships.
If they don’t reach the playoffs this season, would it be a big disappointment? Absolutely. Heck, Giolito was saying so back before the end of the 2019 season. Then came the constant preseason talk about playoff expectations. And then the league opened up three more playoff spots for the White Sox to go after.
But it’s not everything in the long-term view of this rebuilding project. That’s all.
Indeed, the White Sox still have a talented roster capable of competing alongside the Twins and Indians. But some big things need to go right, and so far, in a very short sample size, not everything has gone right. Guys are hurt. The offense has cooled. The starting-pitching depth has been soaked up far too quickly. And there are a lot of question marks remaining.
This isn’t to say the sky is falling. It’s been 15 games, for goodness sake. But the sky is foggy, cloudy. And it’s making it hard to see where this already unpredictable season will end up heading for the South Siders.
"Our starting pitching was one of the things we believed was a key to our potential success," manager Rick Renteria said before Sunday's game. "I know we've had a little hiccup with those, but the bullpen has done a nice job, certainly, to try to keep us in there. And hopefully that will start to change here as we move along. ... As we move forward, we expect that our starting rotation will be some of the key elements of our future success as a club.
"I think everyone has seen some of the offensive capabilities that we have. I know the last few days have been a little light, but I've seen the capabilities and I think people can now see a little bit, envision a little bit of what that might look like when it's running nice and smooth.
"I think in general, everybody should be pretty pleased with the direction the organization is going in and how these players have started to come along and are here now for them to see, and to appreciate some of the skills that they bring to the table."