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La Russa Needs to Step Up — or Step Out

But remember, this is what Jerry Reinsdorf wanted

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Chicago White Sox v Cincinnati Reds
Actual footage of umpire Sam Holbrook handing a “cliffs notes” MLB rulebook to Tony La Russa for he and his coaching staff to pass around and study on the flight from Cincy to Kansas City.
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

This is what Jerry Reinsdorf wanted.

The Chicago White Sox are his baseball team, and he writes the checks. The front office convinced the chairman to rebuild after the 2016 season, and it was refreshing to finally see the franchise go through a much-needed cleanse. While there have been some missteps, the baseball operations department built a team capable of legitimate contention.

The abbreviated 2020 campaign brought optimism and hope, as the club reached the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. After going 35-25 in the 60-game jaunt, the team’s struggles down the stretch and playoff series defeat exposed some issuesReinforcements were necessary; the pitching staff was too thin, and the dugout was lacking as well.

The organization decided to dismiss manager Ricky Renteria and stalwart pitching Don Cooper at the conclusion of the season, and upgrades were sought in both areas. A list of potential candidates to manage the 2021 White Sox was assembled and former Astros manager AJ Hinch was floated as a likely successor to Renteria. On the surface, it appeared that the front office would have the opportunity to pair their chosen leader with the World Series contender that was slowly built.

The process was then hijacked by an 85-year-old team owner not exactly known for constant meddling in baseball operations. Tony La Russa was foisted onto the club, and the rest is history. Righting a wrong from 30 years ago isn’t the correct way to run a franchise, and undermining your chosen lieutenants is even worse. The 76-year-old, Hall of Fame manager hasn’t run the show in the dugout since 2011, and that’s showing in real time far too often this season.

Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert are two of the best players representing Chicago’s American League club, and injury have now cost them the majority of the season. Standout fourth outfielder Adam Engel has yet to play in a game as well, with a lingering muscle issue in his leg. There isn’t a team in the American League more equipped to deal with injuries of this magnitude, and La Russa was hired to weather these types of storms.

Despite a multitude of early-season issues, the White Sox are second place in the AL Central with a record of 16-13, a half-game behind Cleveland. The Pale Hose have the No. 1 offense in baseball according to FanGraphs, compiling 6.3 fWAR already. The club is second in the sport in batting average (.255) and on-base percentage (.339). The White Sox are tied for second in wRC+ with a mark of 112 as well.

The club hasn’t hit for enough power to this point, but getting on base matters a lot and that’s been quite evident. Having the top offense in the American League without two of their best players would be hard enough, but veteran stalwarts have struggled at the dish as well. Reigning MVP José Abreu is hitting .208/.304/.396 with a league average 102 wRC+. Yasmani Grandal has a strikeout rate under 20% with a career-high walk rate of 27.2%, but he’s only slashing .121/.363/.259 with a 101 wRC+.

Picking up the slack for most of the deficiencies is a stellar pitching staff, sixth in baseball with 3.6 fWAR while having the fifth best FIP as well. White Sox starters have been the best in the American League, while averaging 10.17 K/9. a 2.87 ERA and 3.26 FIP.

Perhaps most importantly, the White Sox have been stellar in run differential all season. At plus-36, they are the best team in the American League and just one run behind baseball’s best, the Los Angeles Dodgers. No one-month stat guarantees future success, but a run differential this wide, this early, is a heartening harbinger of winning streaks to come.

The White Sox are a very good team. The numbers on the periphery suggest that they should be even better than their 16-13 mark so far, however. Managers are overrated in the grand scheme of things, as players decide the outcomes of games. But on the South Side, the manager is under intense scrutiny, and the hire came with immense expectations.

Tony La Russa has always been arrogant, and he believes that his way of doing things is a proven method to achieve success. Through the first 30 games of the season, however, it’s clear that the 76-year-old has lost his fastball. Thankfully, there is a coaching staff in place, and the instructors should act as a buffer while helping La Russa push the correct buttons on a nightly basis.

That didn’t happen on Wednesday in Cincinnati. Either the failsafe methods weren’t in place, or La Russa isn’t listening to those trying to help guide him throughout his return to the bench. The manager told James Fegan of The Athletic that he wasn’t aware of a rule change that would’ve enabled him to use Abreu as a pinch-runner in the 10th inning instead of risking the health of Liam Hendriks, the club’s high-priced closer.

Not knowing the rules is bad enough, but compounding the problem by admitting it might be a bigger issue. That gaffe wasn’t the only problem in the inning, either. With runners on first and third with one out and Billy Hamilton at the plate, Leury García was instructed to attempt a steal of second base. García was thrown out at second, and Hamilton struck out at the plate to end the threat.

As has been mentioned ad nauseam by now, there’s no reason for García to be running in the situation. The club’s closer was the runner at third, the infield was in, and Hamilton isn’t a double play threat. It was a bone-headed decision in a season where similar stumbles have occurred too often. Allowing Hamilton to hit for himself in the inning when a fly ball was needed was just another example of a man doing a job that he quite frankly doesn’t deserve at this point.

Managers have bad days, but Wednesday is far from the only issue. Early in the 2021 season, the tenured professor didn’t understand the replay rules and he didn’t challenge a call at second base that should have been an automatic challenge. La Russa has also frequently left pitchers in too long during the season’s first month. Lineup decisions have also been puzzling at times, with an over-reliance on overmatched veterans that have been easily exposed.

Choosing to bunt when math and logic says otherwise is one thing, but not knowing the rules of the game after publicly campaigning about the way it’s played these days is a fireable offense. National reporters can’t wait to pile on, as Ken Rosenthal and Jeff Passan have written about this spectacle in recent weeks and noting that everything isn’t particularly rosy in the clubhouse. Jon Greenberg chimed in with a scathing and accurate take locally as well.

The White Sox are in their winning window and have a very talented group of players. Especially given the injury woes, the front office will likely look into acquiring upgrades for the stretch run as well. The Minnesota Twins were perceived to be the primary competition for the American League Central crown, but their poor play has thrown La Russa’s bunch an early-season lifeline with their horrid start, spotting the Sox five games in the standings already.

Sixteen wins isn’t enough at this point, and the talent on the roster in addition to some of the numbers show that the win total should be higher. La Russa hasn’t definitively lost games with his managerial decisions, but he isn’t putting his players in the best positions to succeed, either.

The club is the talk of the American League — but not for the right reasons. La Russa’s presence has provided a spotlight, and every blunder will be rightly exacerbated because the hire was so unnecessary in the first place.

The White Sox should be running away with the Central and speeding onto a path of destruction throughout the American League by now, but Reinsdorf is more concerned with righting a wrong from the 1980s. The chairman is lucky that his hand-selected employees reeled in enough talent to overcome deficient processes permeating in the dugout, but talent will only take the 2021 club so far.

Luckily for all involved, there is plenty of time for the team to hit its stride. There are 130-plus baseball games to play, and what else could possibly go wrong? The club will be led by a famous Hall-of-Famer baseball person, after all. If you don’t believe me, just ask him.