The Chicago White Sox ended their first half with a cliffhanger. Not only did they win nine of 12 to give off the faintest whiff of hope, but they also promoted Tyler Saladino and gave him all three starts at third base during the crosstown series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
The All-Star break allowed Robin Ventura to give a bullpen spot to Saladino, and the arrangement was ostensibly temporary in one form or another. We can count on the White Sox returning to a 12-man pitching staff, but the specifics remain murky.
Originally, the best bet looked like Matt Albers reclaiming his bullpen spot after finishing his rehab stint, pushing Saladino back down to the minors. But now here's Frankie Montas, bringing his 102-mph fastball to Chicago as the 26th man for today's doubleheader. That roster spot is short-term by definition, but if the Sox put him on the Bobby Jenks Birmingham-to-Chicago Memorial Expressway, it wouldn't register as a surprise. That scenario pushes Albers out of the circle, but he's less crucial ever since Daniel Webb rediscovered his control.
And then whether it's Montas or Albers or a reliever to be named later, who does he replace? Saladino, again, is the obvious candidate based on LIFO, but Emilio Bonifacio ran out of reasons to hang around at some point last month, and the Sox might have very well forged a plan without him during the All-Star break.
Whether Saladino stays, Ventura seemed to use the Cubs series to express his dissatisfaction with the Gordon Beckham/Conor Gillaspie platoon through his lineup card, setting the stage for a roster sea change. That's two positions -- and one starting role -- that are apparently unsettled on purpose as the second half gets underway.
At least one of those questions should be answered when the post-doubleheader roster crunch necessitates a change, but there are a number of other issues that will take longer to resolve between now and October (or maybe November). In order of urgency:
What happens to Jeff Samardzija?
The White Sox are in a pretty sweet position with Smarch. It's fine if they keep him with the intent of re-signing him, since their rotation looks much better with him in it, and a qualifying offer will automatically remove some teams from the Shark market over the winter.
But with about half the league scouting his starts, the Sox might benefit from a bidding war and get a return above and beyond what a rental starter usually commands (and they could always try re-signing Samardzija after, even if for a higher price). Unlike the Jake Peavy deal a couple summers ago, Rick Hahn can tell teams he's standing pat with a straight face.
What happens to John Danks?
If the Sox trade Samardzija, then Erik Johnson will get to take his "2014 Never Happened" summer tour to U.S. Cellular Field in a clean swap. But if Samardzija stays put, then it becomes far more awkward.
Johnson's knocking down the door with his performance at Charlotte (2.73 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 99 strikeouts and just three homers over 89 innings), and it'd sure be great to have two or more months to figure out just how good he really is.
Danks is the only candidate for a bullpen demotion thanks to his 5.30 ERA and a game log to match, but that's a move the Sox have been reluctant to make, for reasons professional (he's never pitched in relief, and previous replacement starters weren't promising) and personal (they've been through a lot together). But with each subsequent short outing, the status quo gets increasingly difficult to justify.
Will Avisail Garcia pull some homers?
Garcia's OPS dropped below .700 on the final day of the first half, which should set off alarms. The chief problem 'twas ever thus: He can't pull the ball in the air. Except ... it's getting worse (click to embiggen).
This wasn't such a critical point when he was knocking line-drive singles to right and center early in the year, because you could see why he could succeed as a player who was more average-dependent than slugging-dependent.
But then he stopped hitting the ball hard around the start of June, especially against righties, and when looking at the pitch data, opponents aren't throwing him as many fastballs, especially in fastball counts:
Basically, he's seeing twice as many first-pitch breaking balls from righties, and three times as many when he's ahead in the count. And it's probably easy to do this to him when he doesn't seem to be able to crush the get-me-over hangers out to left.
Throw in the problematic range, and Garcia has quite the battle ahead of him over the last 2½ months. I still think there's talent in there, but the high-quality contact has to start appearing early and often, regardless of which direction he hits it.
Who will win second base?
There are no such revelations here. Carlos Sanchez has received every opportunity to right himself, and he's finally showing signs of life in July. That's only relative (.250/.270/.333), but he seemed to figure out a working approach from the left side against the Cubs, and hitting righties is a good place to start.
Micah Johnson remains an option, at least offensively. Credit him for taking the demotion well in terms of his hitting line (.318/.371/.467), although you have to imagine his defense must still look pretty rough if the Sox have remained steadfast with Sanchez despite the severe lack of production.
Will Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche look like good ideas?
Fortune finally favored Cabrera's line-drive approach over the last month or so. He closed out the first half hitting . 330/.374/.505 over the last 30 days of it, with a BABIP about 100 points higher than he received the first two months (.254). That kind of bad luck seemed borderline impossible with the kind of contact he made, but the worst appears to finally be behind him. Throw in his not-fatal defense in left and his production in the top-third of the order, and he's almost in the "safe" zone.
His success is more crucial than that of LaRoche, which is probably good, as Cabrera's contract runs a year longer. LaRoche seems to be fighting a few different battles beyond luck. Herm Schneider told us LaRoche's hand has been bothering him, which would explain the lack of thump. But he's also not getting any better against left-handed pitching, and the bench lacks a right-handed caddy for him (Geovany Soto is the closest thing).
This is the best argument for a Trayce Thompson promotion, as his traditional splits are well-suited to this team's gaps. He could take over in right field with Garcia sliding to the DH spot, and maybe the Sox stand a better shot of reversing their 6-11 record against lefty starters.
The argument against Thompson: The Sox face lefty starters less often than any other team in the American League. LaRoche's production against righties is down nearly 150 points year over year, so the underachievement is more broad than acute. (Hell, he has a .588 OPS at home.)
Will Chris Sale make more history?
He already put his name in the books by tying Pedro Martinez with eight consecutive starts featuring 10 or more strikeouts, so asking for more seems a little greedy. But all those strikeouts put him on a pace for 295, which would easily surpass the White Sox single-season strikeout record of 269, set by Ed Walsh all the way back in 1908.
Will Robin Ventura survive?
The temperature underneath Ventura's seat has cooled some, as the Sox position players are no longer screwing up all over the place. They're also only 5½ games out of the second wild card spot, which is rather remarkable considering there are still six teams ahead of them. The team's effort hasn't been the question, but the problems are more of the lines of "working harder, not smarter."
The Sox still have the worst offense in baseball, and Todd Steverson is Ventura's second hitting coach. With a 177-233 record over the last 2½ years, managers typically don't keep getting chances to rearrange their staffs when the wins aren't there.
He might want to be a little more judicious with Sale, who has thrown at least 109 pitches in each of his last 13 starts. Ventura had the opportunity to lighten the Condor's load in his last start against the Cubs, but Sale ended up hitting for himself with a 5-0 lead in the top of the seventh, then taking the mound with 100 pitches and throwing 15 more.
Sale didn't pitch in the All-Star Game, and he still isn't announced as the Sunday starter, so the Sox are aware of the workload. But given how maddening they've been outside of the starting pitching, the Sox can't afford to play fast and loose with the few things that are working well for them.
What will happen with the White Sox broadcast booths?
The Sox officially announced that they're moving their radio broadcasts from WSCR-AM to WLS-AM, and that might not be the only change:
And it's not just Ed Farmer and Darrin Jackson. Chris Rongey's status is also uncertain, as he could remain with The Score.
Meanwhile, 2015 was supposed to be the last option year of Steve Stone's contract, and nothing to the contrary has been reported since Stone made waves about leaving in 2012. The partnership with Hawk Harrelson remains awkward and mostly taciturn, although given how much Stone talked when Chuck Swirsky sat in for Harrelson, the scientific method suggests that the problem stems from Harrelson's ... idiosyncrasies. It's hard to imagine that Harrelson will be the one to go, but I also don't know who the current setup actually benefits.