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White Sox's last bench spot looms larger than usual

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Emilio Bonifacio's injury, Adam LaRoche's slump create scenarios for an unorthodox roster

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This season has been a cruel one for Emilio Bonifacio. He can't be as bad as his numbers, but the numbers are awful. He entered Tuesday hitting .160/.192/.173 with two walks to 27 strikeouts. Worst yet, he's 1-for-5 on the basepaths, and he should be 0-for-5.

Nothing is going his way, and that point was hammered home on Tuesday. He came through with a big RBI double in his first at-bat, good for only his second extra-base hit and fourth RBI on the year.

In his next at-bat, he hurt his rib.

One can build a case from circumstantial evidence that the injury could be attributable to atrophy. Bonifacio's first start of July came on the 28th. Ventura doesn't really have a natural reason to play him, as he's not a plus defender at any position, and he's not hitting enough to justify the offensive cameos.

The severity of the injury isn't yet known (he'll be reevaluated today), and Bonifacio's low profile means the injury didn't take up a lot of recap space. But should it require a stint on the disabled list, that roster spot could suddenly become rather important for the White Sox.

That's strange to say about the 25th man, but it's different when the Sox are carrying two other players who are scraping bottom:

*Adam LaRoche, who says his struggles are now "a mental thing." His July OPS is .345.

*Gordon Beckham, who is in a 6-for-77 slump that knocked his numbers to career worsts.

Their free-falls mean that the integrity of the infield relies on Tyler Saladino being a playable starting option at third. And considering Saladino is probably 25th-man material based on his track record alone, every roster spot now becomes more important.

So whether Bonifacio goes on the DL, or whether the Sox make a deadline deal for a starting solution, the Sox will have to start forming alternative rosters with their position players to insulate themselves against another disappearing act. They're already walking a tightrope.

The good news? These contingency plans are actually rather intriguing, although they will require an unusual amount of creativity by Sox standards to make them work.

Most Bonifacio-like option: Leury Garcia

When Bonifacio had to go on the bereavement list, the Sox called up Garcia to take his place, presumably because he's as versatile as Bonifacio, which allowed Robin Ventura to manage the other 12 position players like he usually does for a few days. No big deal.

When days become weeks, it's a bigger deal. Last year, Garcia became the only position player in White Sox history to receive 150 plate appearances in a season and post an OBP below .200, so this idea is inherently unpleasant to say the least.

That said, Garcia has tightened up his game in Charlotte. He's hitting better than ever at Triple-A -- .296/.338/.364 -- and cutting his strikeout rate to 16 percent (when it was historically higher than 20) helps. He's running a ton and playing where they ask him to play, and since he's only 24 years old, he'll probably get multiple cracks to carve out his own Bonifacio-like (or Bonifacio-lite) career.

Now is not the time, though, because the White Sox can do better.

Best defensive option: Trayce Thompson

This idea is predicated upon Thompson being 100 percent, and that might not be the case right now. He's hitting just .218/.261/.379 in July, and after playing just about every day over the first three months, he hasn't appeared in a game this week.

Assuming he's fully functional, he brings a couple of useful skills to the table: good outfield defense and an ability to hit lefties, which would give Robin Ventura another way to cover for LaRoche's chief deficiency. Move Avisail Garcia to DH (he's hitting .310 against lefties this year) and put Thompson in right, and that's a potentially productive look.

The argument against: The Sox don't face a lot of lefty starters, and J.B. Shuck tends to have slightly reverse splits, which would make that kind of fourth outfielder redundant. But since Shuck is contact-oriented and not particularly vulnerable against any specific kind of pitcher, I'd rather have him on the bench than getting a ton of starts.

Best offensive option: Third catcher?

No, it's not because George Kottaras or Kevan Smith is going to come up and rake. Kottaras often gives the indication that he can produce. He's hitting .270/.431/.551 line at Charlotte, which is good, even at age 32. But he's done that before -- and as a lefty catcher to boot -- and it hasn't helped him find a steady job in the majors. His legacy is a thousand blog posts wondering why he doesn't play more, and it's probably that he's an AAAA hitter and not good behind the plate.

But just like September, the presence of a third catcher isn't about the catcher himself. It just allows the manager to be more liberal about deploying his second catcher.

Enter Geovany Soto. He's hitting .248/.336/.479 after going 2-for-2 with a windshield-shattering homer and three walks against Boston on Tuesday, and he's pummeled lefties in a smaller sample (.323/.400/.548 over 33 plate appearances). He probably deserves more playing time, but you can't blame starters for liking how Tyler Flowers catches them, as Baseball Prospectus says he's in the top three when it comes to receiving.

Ventura could just use Soto in the DH spot against lefties and let the chips fall where they may, but it would probably lose its charm when Flowers has to hit for himself in a bad late-game matchup for the second time in three days. A third catcher probably wouldn't see much playing time trickle to him this way, but we're probably talking about as many natural opportunities as Bonifacio receives.

Wild card: Micah Johnson

Johnson has raked all season at Charlotte, and he's taken it up a notch since the Triple-A All-Star break (.407/.450/.630 over 13 games). He also didn't look all that bad at the plate with the White Sox before his demotion, so one would think that if his defense were anywhere near playable, he would have replaced Carlos Sanchez during the two months Sanchez couldn't clear the Mendoza Line.

Alas, even Buddy Bell's charitable spin suggests that the defensive gap is that glaring:

"I’m sure at times Micah feels like what does he have to do to get back up here,’’ Bell said. "Based on what Carlos has done defensively and offensively, it’s kind of a good problem to have.’’

While Johnson’s defense looks better at Charlotte, Bell said "he’s going to have to figure out the speed of the game up here.’’

"I think he can do that, but I think it will take some time and there will be some growing pains.’’

With Sanchez raising his average in 11 straight games and Melky Cabrera living up to his billing, the calls for offense-uber-alles have diminished in number. That leaves Johnson's career in a holding pattern until/unless his defense improves, or he finds a position better suited for him.

Yet the Sox offense isn't good enough that it can refuse help from anywhere, so if LaRoche can't escape his fog, Johnson might be the only potential internal upgrade.

Johnson wouldn't make a great primary DH -- but he could be a decent option on certain days, which represents an upgrade on the current situation. Give him some pinch-running duties, some pinch-hitting duties, and the occasional start at second, and maybe the Sox can tap into his talent without allowing the deficiencies to tag along.