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The year in injuries: Relatively poor health exposed thin White Sox roster

Season-ending surgeries put stress on weaknesses team failed to address during offseason

Washington Nationals v Chicago White Sox Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Like every team, the White Sox suffer injuries. Unlike most teams, the White Sox are seldom defined by them.

Did poor health write the story for the Sox in 2016?

Well, Austin Jackson and Brett Lawrie couldn’t even get to the 100-game mark, ruining the Sox’ up-the-middle stability. Roger Bossard forgot to sweep the field for land mines before rookies made their debuts. Jake Petricka and Daniel Webb missed just about the the entire season after going under the knife, and Zach Putnam joined them halfway through. Alex Avila was Alex Avila. They even signed Justin Morneau and inherited a portion of his season-starting DL stint, and added a rare September injury to Tyler Saladino to the total for good measure.

So, yeah, this felt like a disastrous year for the White Sox in terms of injuries, and the visceral response is at least somewhat reflected in Jeff Zimmermann’s data. He posted his annual review at The Hardball Times, and sure enough, the White Sox set a franchise-high in days lost to the disabled list during the recorded era.

All those season-ending injuries added up. The White Sox lost 1,097 days to the disabled list, smashing their previous high of 756.

And yet ... that wasn’t even enough to get them into the top half of injury-ravaged teams. By days lost, they were the 12th-healthiest team in baseball. They were tied for eighth with 15 disabled-list stints, but six of those 15 injuries required season-ending surgeries.

There was carnage all over the league. Major League Baseball set records for DL stints (571) and days lost (36,893). The latter shattered the previous record by more than 6,000 days, or more than 200 days per team. You could say the White Sox merely brought their share to the potluck.

The injuries certainly damaged the White Sox’ chances. They also diminished the team’s historical standing in health a little since last season.

  • Three-year average: Slipped from second to fourth.
  • Five-year average: Slipped from first to second.
  • 15-year average: Still first by a huge margin, baby.

But those are mere blemishes relative to the rest of the league. Moreover, it goes back to what I said in last year’s edition of this post. The White Sox won only 76 games in 2015 and never shed the “mediocre” label at any point despite being the league’s healthiest team by a significant margin. In fact, not only did the miss fewer games than any other team, but a big chunk of those games were inconsequential injuries. If they couldn’t even threaten .500 with that kind of health, then they really needed to load up over the offseason in order to ensure escape velocity, which never happened.

Contrast them to a team like the Indians, who have been the healthiest team on average over the last three years. They finished over .500 in each of those years and finally won the AL Central despite the division’s smallest payroll in 2016. That’s how you take advantage of availability. The White Sox weren’t stacked or resourceful enough to make necessary strides under even the best of circumstances, so injury-related arguments win little sympathy this time around. They were undertalented first and undermanaged second, and setbacks in health have a way of exacerbating those factors.

Nevertheless, let’s rank the top 10 injuries in terms of impact, because it’s tradition around these parts to itemize them somehow.

No. 1: Austin Jackson (medial meniscus tear, 115 days starting June 10).

Jackson only hit .254/.318/.343 over the 54 games he was healthy, but his numbers were rising after early bad luck, with a .356 OBP over his last month-plus. He wasn’t as good in center as Hawk Harrelson would have you believe, but he was good enough to make Adam Eaton extremely valuable in right.

The Sox had already wasted all of their hot start by the time he went down, but his injury helped pin them to the mat the rest of the season. Another way to frame the impact of his injury is by looking at J.B. Shuck plate appearances:

  • Before Jackson’s injury: 30
  • After Jackson’s injury: 211

No. 2: Jake Petricka (hip impingement, 154 days starting May 2).

Petricka’s extreme platoon splits kept him from being a true high-leverage type, but his experience in pitching above his pay grade in 2014 and 2015 made him a trustworthy righty-oriented seventh-inning guy. He wasn’t on his game at any point this season, though, and the Sox eventually pinpointed the source, then surgically addressed it. The Sox worked around his ugly April by leaning heavily on a surprisingly great Matt Albers, but they paid the price the rest of the season. Albers eventually regressed, and they had no backup plan for their backup plan.

No. 3: Zach Putnam (ulnar neuritis, 104 days starting June 21).

OK, they had one. Alas, Robin Ventura took his sweet time shifting important situations from Albers to Putnam. By the time he started making it a habit, Putnam hit the disabled list with an elbow ailment that ended up requiring surgery. And that’s how Albers ended up pitching in 58 games despite an 8.17 ERA after April.

No. 4: Alex Avila (strained hamstring, 51 days starting July 6).

The Sox were still two games over .500 when Avila departed the July 5 against the Yankees in the sixth inning. The Sox could not get away from Dioner Navarro, and Navarro couldn’t use regular playing time as a way to shake his season-long slump. He hit .187/.248/.252 over 34 games during Avila’s absence.

No. 5: Matt Davidson (broken foot, 94 days starting July 1).

This is when we started resigning ourselves to Avisail Garcia no matter what. After two disastrous seasons in Charlotte, Davidson finally snapped out of his multi-year slump to warrant a deserved promotion to Chicago for a team that could use some thump at DH, especially against left-handed pitching. Storybook stuff, right?

Then, in the second plate appearance in his first game, he delivered an RBI single against Minnesota southpaw Tommy Milone ... only to break his foot running the bases. He scored thanks to a bases-loaded HBP, and we never saw him again.

No. 6: Charlie Tilson (torn hamstring, 61 days starting Aug. 3).

Like Davidson, Tilson singled in his second at-bat in his White Sox debut (which was also his first MLB game). Like Davidson, Tilson didn’t last much longer. He tore his hamstring trying to run down a ball in center field, and the description of the injury sounded as ugly as it looked. Had Tilson proved himself to be an adequate starting option in center field over the final two months, I wonder whether it would have changed the Sox’ 2017 plans any.

No. 7: Carlos Rodon (sprained wrist, 25 days starting July 6).

Rodon hadn’t found his stride by the point in the season he slipped on the dugout steps, but the Sox could ill afford to lose a starting pitcher while their postseason hopes were on life support. The Sox lost all games started by his substitutes — Jacob Turner twice, Anthony Ranaudo once — although you can’t blame Ranaudo for the “L” in his start, because he provided the only run they scored that night.

No. 8: Brett Lawrie (strained hamstring, 73 days starting July 22).

Lawrie’s injury was perhaps the second-most significant in terms of talent lost, but it’s hard to say his injury made an impact since it originally looked like a mid-game trade. The Sox sank to sellers by that point, and although Lawrie’s mysterious leg ailment cost him the rest of what had been a decent season, Saladino played well in his absence.

No. 9: Alex Avila (strained hamstring, 15 days starting April 24).

While Avila’s initial injury only required the minimal amount of time missed, it wreaked havoc on the team’s catching depth. First, Kevan Smith’s back locked up before his MLB debut, which forced the Sox to add Hector Sanchez to the roster. When Avila came back, the Sox tried to sneak Sanchez back to Charlotte, but the Padres claimed him off waivers. Omar Narvaez played better than his billing to salvage the situation somewhat.

No. 10: Avisail Garcia (sprained knee, 16 days starting Aug. 7).

Garcia had just started hitting, posting a .306/.381/.722 line over the 14 games leading up to his knee injury. Of course a guy like Garcia would get hurt during a hot streak, giving the faithful something to point to and bemoan if Garcia came back looking like his old self. Garcia showed no ill effects immediately upon return, but he followed up that outsized August with a .656 OPS in September, spoiling a chance to string together two strong months for the first time in his White Sox career. They still tendered him.