First half tested White Sox’s depth in every area but one

BALTIMORE, MD - JULY 11 Chicago White Sox right fielder Brian Goodwin (18) is congratulated by manager Tony La Russa (22) following the Chicago White Sox game versus the Baltimore Orioles on July 11, 2021 at Orioles Park at Camden Yards, in Baltimore, MD. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

The White Sox’s depth — or lack thereof — was supposed to spell doom for them in the AL Central. Yet as they prepare to start the second half, they lead the AL Central by eight games despite being the picture of piss-poor health. No Eloy Jiménez, no Luis Robert, no Nick Madrigal, no Adam Eaton, no Yasmani Grandal? No problem.

Depth should be an problem on the position-player side, right? It’s weird that a team with World Series aspirations have trotted out the kind of outfielders seen during tanking seasons, bottoming out with Leury García, Billy Hamilton and Danny Mendick starting left to right. Jake Lamb, who had played only infield corners before a series of cuts made him available to the Sox, has been a better right fielder than the actual right fielder the White Sox signed for $8 million to man right field, until Brian Goodwin showed up to surpass both. The fears of a Grandal injury have been realized, but the White Sox are 5-0 since Seby Zavala had to take his place. Only one of the three setup men expected to set up Liam Hendriks is healthy, and none has been effective for any reliable stretch of time.

Tony La Russa deserves much of the credit for this resilience, because he has instilled a certain elasticity in the roster. Granted, desperate times have called for desperate measures, but if desperation is a stinky cologne, then it’s up to the manager to act as a deodorant and antiperspirant. I don’t rail against individual lineup cards because there’s some value in occasional odd assignments. Maybe the guy who’s barely played left field shouldn’t start in center, and no optimal lineup includes a guy with a sub-.300 OBP at the top of the order, but kinda like a vaccine, there’s value in exposing your system to something unwelcome in a defined way, just so it won’t be overwhelmed by unexpected, uncontrolled exposure later.

Otherwise, you get Rick Renteria spending the biggest game of his life in the recovery position because an alternate-starter arrangement he never practiced unraveled in spectacular fashion. There’s usually a best way to do things, and part of managing is understanding what that is. Another part is preparing for when Plan A isn’t available. If there’s a reason to worry that La Russa doesn’t know his Plan B, it’s only because he might’ve lost track of it on his way to Plan L.

After all the roster churn and emergency measures, he and the White Sox are like Mr. Burns’ immune system — in surprisingly pristine condition because all the potential plagues are too busy fighting among themselves to decide which one is going to do them in.

One look at the White Sox’s eight-game lead over Cleveland and even worse teams in the AL Central can lead one to believe they’re indestructible. I feel like the Mayo Clinic physician who’s worried about the slightest thing throwing everything out of balance.

And here’s where I’ll point out that all five White Sox starting pitchers are currently qualified for the ERA title.

To find the last time where an entire Sox rotation could make the claim, you have to go back to 2006, when Mark Buehrle, José Contreras, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez averaged 204 innings among them. They left only three starts for anybody else to pick up, with Brandon McCarthy taking two, and Charlie Haeger the other.

The 2021 White Sox aren’t adopting that kind of workload — and the second-half pitching splits from 2006 suggests they shouldn’t — but they’re still on pace for the kind of stability that was only seen once a decade, even in more starter-centric eras.

It hasn’t gone exactly to plan. Lucas Giolito was projected to be the best starter in baseball, and he’s been thoroughly average instead. Dallas Keuchel has too been ordinary, and both of them have taken turns with Dylan Cease as the team’s worst starting pitcher at various points of the season.

But focusing on the wobblier moments would be a Collins-like framing job on a terrific pitch. I’d instead look at it this way: If you’re not sure who your worst starter is, the rotation is a either disaster or a dream, and we can rule out the former.

Here’s where La Russa deserves less credit, because if Renteria had that kind of starting stability, he’d probably still be managing. Instead, he was saddled with the version of Reyanldo López that necessitated the addition of Lance Lynn, the banged-up version of Carlos Rodón, a Dylan Cease who hadn’t yet approached professional crossroads, and a Michael Kopech who opted out of a season. Renteria also never got a chance to work with another pitching coach who might be better equipped to help pitchers evolve.

We don’t yet know how La Russa would handle the circumstances Renteria encountered. He’s only needed two spot starts for non-doubleheaders during the first half, and Kopech handled one of those brilliantly. La Russa also hasn’t dealt with many in-game disasters. White Sox pitchers have thrown at least five innings in 70 of 89 games (79 percent), good for third behind Oakland and the Dodgers. Last year, Renteria’s rotation delivered that in only 34 of 60 games (57 percent). It’s hard to imagine La Russa saving his savvy in that situation, especially with how many games Renteria needed Matt Foster to vulture.

For a lot of the season, “Michael Kopech” was the automatic answer for a basically any pitching-related depth issue. The hamstring injury he recently returned from probably relegates him to relief for the rest of the season, which is fine in a bullpen where he’s more necessity than luxury.

But if Kopech is out of the question as a five-inning guy, then the White Sox’s internal solution for any starter injury relies primarily on finger-crossing. That sounds like a disaster in waiting, but hoping is another area where the Sox have inadvertently amassed depth. First, they can hope that López or Jimmy Lambert can steal a win. If that doesn’t pan out, the Sox can then hope that they’ve built a sufficient cushion in the standings.

In the interim, they can keep praying that their starters keep starting, and do what they can to preserve their top five arms. Rodón avoiding an All-Star Game appearance is a start toward bolstering faith with works. Mixing in López, an opener, or López as a lópener before absolutely necessary might also make more sense than it seems on a given day, in the sense of giving the team one more dose of that next-man-up spirit that has made the other side of the roster so vulnerably indestructible.

(Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

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roke1960

I’m sure this is not a popular sentiment here, but the White Sox have been luckier than a lot of teams on the injury front, including the Indians. Having had just 10 days (1-2 starts) lost from your starting 5 is indeed very, very fortunate. It is better to lose Eloy, Robert and Madrigal for a long length of time, than it would have been to lose Giolito, Lynn and Keuchel. Without your top 3 starters, it is nearly impossible to sustain any winning streaks, or keep your bullpen from being completely overtaxed. Cleveland has absolutely no chance to be competitive unless Bieber, Plesac and Civale come back healthy. So, though the Sox have been hit extremely hard by injuries on the position side, they must be very grateful for the health of their starters. Hopefully, they keep the big lead so Tony can periodically skip starts by each of their starters to keep them fresh for the playoffs.

knoxfire30

I definitely wouldn’t say luckier… I would say if I had my choice lose 4 or 5 position players or lose 4 or 5 starting pitchers I would definitely choose to lose the position players because the gap between your bench players and 4A/AAA fodder compared to your lineup starters is likely far less then the gap between the starting pitchers and minor league fodder they would of had to go to.

yinkadoubledare

I think we kind of got there with the OF injuries. Didn’t just lose Eloy and Robert, they also lost Engel, Eaton got hurt then was awful, and for periods Lamb and Hamilton have been IL’d. They were on backups to backups. That’s not particularly lucky.

Part of Cleveland’s problem isn’t just some injuries to starters, it’s that their other starters were bad and got sent to the minors.

As Cirensica

Part of Cleveland’s problem isn’t just some injuries to starters, it’s that their other starters were bad and got sent to the minors.

Their offense is atrocious. Scoring is a rare event which makes every inning to feel like a “high leverage” situation. They have been no hit how many times this year already? Three? It is an embarrassment. Unless you have Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine Avery type of rotation, the Jose Ramirez provides all the offense approach ain’t gonna work.

Infield Grass

Here is what I have come to recognize about Tony after a big enough sample size to see some patterns. While he may say he’s trying as hard as possible to win every game because that is what you’re supposed to do and what he needs his players to believe so they stay 100% invested it has become pretty clear to me that he manages with the 162 game season and particularly playoffs in mind, which makes sense for a manager used to being in the playoffs almost every year. So he’s going to make some decisions against the people who want to just play the percentages in every single scenario. A few areas where I see Tony thinking long term:

  1. He pretty clear protected Vaughn’s confidence early on against both tough righthanded pitching and difficult fielding conditions where he might make a mistake and lose confidence at his new position. I think that has worked out,
  2. He consistently puts a relief pitcher that has a bad outing right back in the next day. I assume, while being a greater risk helps protect the pitcher’s confidence because they’re not sitting around dwelling on what went wrong, or you find out right away if there is a problem if there is a consecutive bad outing.
  3. He will do things like pitch to Jose Ramirez with a base open because he wants to know if the pitcher can handle the pressure or not come the playoffs.

We can debate the merits of potentially sacrificing wins for potential long term outcomes, but it does tend to be something championship manager and coaches think about. Phil Jackson refusing to call timeouts in regular season games and making his players figure it out being one of the more famous examples.

As Cirensica

Your second sentence might be the longest sentence I have read in this blog ????

Last edited 2 years ago by As Cirensica
lifelongjd

I agree and well said. Seems like LaRussa was the right hire for this team strategically and the injuries have brought that out even more. I can’t believe I just wrote that after the off-season stories and early season hiccups. But your point on Vaughn is spot on and he’s generally done well managing the bullpen. Some of the performances haven’t been as good as expected, but that’s not on TLR.

joewho112

Off topic: Here is Theo Epstein discussing ways to improve the game. What would people think of limiting the number of pitchers a team can carry to 11 or 12?

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2021/07/15/theo-epstein-fixes-baseball/

asinwreck

I love it. Hell, I’d go down to 10 to see how quickly soft-tossing, durable Jamie Moyer-types would become the next market inefficiency.

soxygen

I have been wondering whether a change like that would end up increasing the value of guys who have rubber arms and lack high end velocity…or if it would mean more pitching injuries…hard to say!

soxygen

I’d start with getting rid of the 26th man on the active roster. But from there yeah, maybe placing a limit on pitchers is the way to go. I think if you keep the 26 man roster and limit pitchers you’ll just end up with every team carrying a Matt Davidson type guy who isn’t very good at anything but can at least pitch a little.

joewho112

More Matt Davidsons would be a feature not a bug

jorgefabregas

Adam Eaton signed with the Angels, meaning a partial year’s worth of minimum salary will not have to be covered by the White Sox. This offsets the cost of releasing him (which was only the cost of someone else in the roster spot).

jhomeslice

Does Kopech’s hamstring injury really prevent him from being considered as a 5 inning guy, for the rest of the season? He is almost 3 years removed from TJ surgery, and has thrown just 35 innings this year. Guys routinely come back a year sooner than him with a pretty decent workload, so there should hardly be any concerns about overuse even if they stretch him out and he pitches hopefully more toward the end of the year and playoffs.

We don’t know how the rotation will be looking toward the end of the season, most notably Rodon after pitching more than he has the past 5 years. Kopech might be the team’s 2nd best starting pitcher heading into October. If not, I could see him coming into a playoff game for 3-4 innings in the right situation. He is a guy who could impact a playoff series in a huge way, but not so much if his appearances are limited to 1 inning at a time.

roke1960

I would imagine we’ll see a slow ramp-up with Kopech after the break. I could easily see a 2-inning stint coming very soon. The interesting thing with Kopech is do you want him pitching 3-4 innings every few days, or be the 8th inning lockdown guy, where he could potentially pitch 3 or 4 times per week?

shaggy65

Speaking of depth, the Sox just purchased 25yo AAA catcher Deivy Grullon from the Rays. Looks like just another, younger Sevy Zavala in case we have another injury. His bat isn´t special and I can´t find anything that discusses his catching talent.

Still, this is a prudent move and I´m glad it didn´t cost us anything.

soxygen

Deivy is our big mid-season acquisition!

texag10

It’s amazing to me that an article about how well this Sox team has passed the depth test has not a single mention of Rick Hahn. All off season and after every injury there were complaints and railings against Hahn for building a “one ply roster” but when everything actually works out, “Tony La Russa deserves much of the credit”. I’m not saying TLR should get no credit but he didn’t build this team or this surprising depth, he’s just doing a good job of using the pieces given to him.

roke1960

The problem with that argument is that all of these guys who are performing well are guys nobody else really wanted, and who were criticized by almost everyone when they were brought up. Billy Hamilton, Brian Goodwin, Jake Lamb were all acquistions that were met with indifference at best, and downright scorn at worst. Leury, Mendick, Zach Collins, and even Rodon were considered by many to be pretty useless to the Sox. That was why the Sox were considered to have a 1-ply roster. So was it Hahn’s genius in seeing something no one else saw, or is it Tony’s managing and the coaches work that brought out the best in them?

texag10

So the counter argument to “Hahn built a deeper team than people gave him credit for” is “It doesnt matter who wears a Sox jersey because TLR is such a good manager he’ll make anyone into a good ballplayer”?

roke1960

I agree that Hahn built a deeper team than people gave him credit for. But these same guys who are responsible for this depth were mocked on this site and elsewhere as being bad signings. The perfect example of this is Rodon. Almost every single person on here criticized Hahn for resigning him. Maybe Hahn knows a little more than we do.

soxygen

Or is it luck and small sample sizes?