Lance Lynn’s shutout on Thursday was so powerful that it gave the bullpen three full days off.
Or maybe Chicago’s just getting a lot of rain right now.
However it happened, the White Sox essentially get to start the season over. They’re 4-4, just a half-game behind Cleveland and one game behind Minnesota. More to the point, after a heavy workload for the relief corps and a multitude of injuries systematically eliminating the desirable options at two positions, Tony La Russa and his coaching staff get a chance to take a step back and consider the best courses ahead, whatever thsoe may be.
The bullpen issue is pretty clear — if the natural flow of games isn’t leading to Liam Hendriks getting the ball in the ninth, it might be wise to involve him in the proceedings earlier, because the Sox are already nearing an overage when it comes to leads lost late. Rick Hahn suggested such was possible before the homestand:
“He’s an ‘out-getter,’ is the way he’s described himself throughout,” Hahn said of Hendriks. “Obviously, there’s no need to have him strictly dedicated to save situations. So I suspect Tony (La Russa) and Ethan (Katz) are going to deploy him in the most effective way over the course of the summer when those opportunities arise. And if they don’t, it’s a strategic decision the staff is making based on the long-term view, perhaps, and not just based on an individual game. That said, I know he’s available for whatever. That’s part of what makes him a great teammate.”
The blown leads of the first week weren’t because of some long-term plan for Hendriks. It was a mix of stale conventional wisdom — “if we’re home, it’s different” — as well as failures of relievers who earned some benefit of the doubt over the last year or two. Matt Foster, Evan Marshall and Codi Heuer have combined to give up 18 hits over 9⅔ innings, which is the kind of cluster failure that leads fans to stump for using the closer in the seventh inning during the first week of the season. The absence of Hendriks is both its own issue and the symptom of a larger problem.
With the White Sox home through Thursday, perhaps La Russa will be a little bit more flexible when it comes to deploying Hendriks. But it’s also incumbent on Marshall or Heuer to step up to provide some right-handed company in the high-leverage department, as was the plan before the season. Michael Kopech might be an option if they can’t, but La Russa’s usage of Kopech thus far — a pair of scintillating two-inning outings three days apart — is reflective of the long-term planning Hahn referenced, and that’d be unwise to abandon as long as the starting depth remains perilous.
Beyond the bullpen, there are a couple of other positions where La Russa’s playing time decisions could cause controversy, albeit the options are far less credible.
Andrew Vaughn is off to the most difficult kind of start to assess. He’s batting .154, but his OBP is .353. He’s seeing the most pitches per plate appearance of anybody who’s played more than two games (4.88), but partially because he’s striking out 35 percent of the time. His chase rate is league average, but his ability to make any sort of contact outside the zone is well below adequate right now. One of you could say he’s holding his own, another of you could say he’s on the verge of falling apart, and you might both be right.
La Russa’s choice to play Nick Williams over Vaughn in left field for the home opener caused some consternation because Williams is readily and rightfully identified as a placeholder. The question is whether anybody deserves a loftier status, Vaughn included. I don’t think there’s an answer at the moment, at least as long as Adam Engel is out.
Let’s say La Russa is suspicious of Vaughn’s ability to hang at a time where there are no better options. Assuming he doesn’t want to embarrass Vaughn in order to pressure the front office to make a move, La Russa’s job then turns to buying time until reinforcement arrives, which means playing Vaughn when the situation is favorable, and being the fall guy for when he’s out of the lineup. If Vaughn delivers when he plays, then future assignments will be adjusted accordingly. If he doesn’t, days are being crossed off the calendar until the cavalry comes.
It’s not necessarily La Russa’s job to develop Vaughn, at least if it starts coming at the expense of wins. It is La Russa’s job to avoid sinking him no matter the circumstances.
When Tim Anderson missed a week-plus of games last year with a groin injury last year, Leury García stepped in and hit .306/.352/.417 in the nine games Anderson was absent. This year, Garçia is 2-for-20 with seven strikeouts, and he’s showing bunt at every possible opportunity.
Fortunately, Danny Mendick is doing what he did last year while the presumed regular wasn’t available by turning in some of the team’s best plate appearances. He’s 4-for-6 with two walks in his first two games back, including a perfect day at the plate in the home opener.
Last year’s body of work suggests Mendick is best played sparingly. The strikeouts started piling up as Nick Madrigal‘s absence wore on, and he was eventually usurped by Yolmer Sánchez for good reason. That said, Mendick’s career is only about 50 games old, and the first half of them were pleasantly productive. It’s not a bad idea to see whether he learned anything from his first pronounced failure at the major-league level, especially at a time where nobody likes seeing García swing the bat, García included. Should both players fail to inspire, at least Anderson’s injury sounds like the least severe of the bunch.
(Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)