For the first time in a month, the White Sox are in danger of dropping into second place at the end of the day.
The Sox last held a half-game lead on April 24. It topped out at six games after an 8-4 victory over Texas on May 9, but a 4-11 stretch since has them back where they started, more or less. Normally, it'd feel good to be in first place approaching Memorial Day weekend, but losing 11 of 15 always highlights the undercurrent of dread. The Sox now have a fight on their hands. The years of advertisements focusing on endless grinding, toil and drudgery should have conditioned the self-described blue-collar fans for this.
It's still better to have a slim lead this way, because the White Sox were always going to need improvements from outside the 25-man roster. That's been abundantly clear from the way fans and media have discussed how Rick Hahn could possibly go about supplementing the talent on hand.
When they were winning every one-run game? "They need another starter."
When they were blowing leads? "What would it take to get Andrew Miller?"
Now that they're struggling to get leads? "They have to get another bat."
Given the target has shifted that much, it's a wonder they've been in first place this whole time. Fortunately, other AL Central teams are fighting themselves (or the injury bug) just as much.
Unfortunately, the trade market is still a few weeks away from heating up. So unless the White Sox are interested in signing Jose Miguel Fernandez -- left-handed bat with OBP! MLB ready after a spring training period! -- they're going to have to dance with who they brought, and figure out ways to wring out extra runs.
Robin Ventura seems to be doing this with the designated hitter spot. Avisail Garcia hiked his OPS over .800 with a hot 11 games, but he's cooled down since. Ventura seemed to anticipate that reality, sitting him in four of five games after he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in two consecutive starts. For those worried that Garcia could buy himself too long a leash with a good stretch, that concern does not appear to be warranted.
Rather, Ventura is making efforts to mask the problem. Garcia has batted mostly seventh this month, even dropping down to eighth in two of his last three starts.
It'd be nice if Ventura did the same thing with his shortstops. The Jimmy Rollins/Tyler Saladino combination had and has all the markings of a stopgap solution, a place where they hoped they could cut a corner while Tim Anderson prepares himself for his MLB introduction.
The way that position was addressed, Hahn seemed to be saying, "Let's see if we can get away with this as our shortstop."
Ventura's lineup card says, "Hey everybody! Get a load of our shortstops!"
The dissonance is jarring, especially against right-handed pitching. Rollins' OBP against them does not even qualify as one of the 10 best among White Sox (semi-)regulars:
- Melky Cabrera: .370
- Adam Eaton: .344
- Alex Avila: .339
- Brett Lawrie: .338
- Jose Abreu: .331
- Austin Jackson: .328
- Avisail Garcia: .322
- Todd Frazier: .320
- Dioner Navarro: .267
- Tyler Saladino: .263
- Jimmy Rollins: .222
It's bad enough that the guy with the worst OBP against righties is batting second against them. It's worse because his recent history says he isn't likely to improve. He hit just .204/.270/.340 against righties last year because shifts killed him on that side. It's even more pronounced this year because he's hitting far more balls on the ground as a lefty:
- 2015: 52.2 percent pulled, 38 percent grounders
- 2016: 51.7 percent pulled, 55 percent grounders
Over his last eight baseball months, Rollins is hitting .200/.262/.322 over 516 at-bats against right-handed pitchers. Whatever correction takes place on his current isn't likely to be dramatic. This looks irreversible.
Rollins has batted second in all but one of his 31 starts at short (and once as a DH, corrected), and the more time he spends in this spotlight for a dismal White Sox offense, the louder the drumbeat will grow for Anderson.
It's fair to be excited about Anderson, who's hitting .313/.342/.407 at Charlotte. He erased an awful April by hitting .376/.422/.515 through his first 23 games of May. He has an eight-game hitting streak, seven of them multi-hit games. He's making more plays at short than ever before, with 14 consecutive errorless games.
If Anderson carries this performance into early June, he's probably a player worth trying. He just wouldn't be a player worth expecting much from in the early going. He has a history of swinging at everything in his first month at a new level. It worked for him in Birmingham, but that tendency was exploited by Triple-A pitchers in April. MLB pitchers aren't going to take it any easier on him, so the Sox wouldn't want to promote him with the idea that Anderson is the guy to give the offense a shot in the arm.
Whenever Anderson does come up, it'd be ideal to put him in the bottom third of the order during this period. He'd require a commitment, so you'd rather have him in a spot where any OBP shortage won't be acutely felt. This being the case, I'd be reluctant to put the situation in the hands of somebody for whom OBP shortages don't always register, even obliquely.