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Low-Key May Be “the” Key

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Though key injuries make the team feel snake-bitten, the White Sox owe their success largely to being one of the healthiest teams in the league in one aspect

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox Ron Vesely/Getty Images

First, Adam Engel and Eloy Jiménez went down with major injuries in March. Tim Anderson had his own that put him on the 10-day IL not even a week into April. Garrett Crochet hit the IL after one month, and while he would return shortly after, Luis Robert would follow him there for a much longer stay. Adam Eaton looked physically compromised by mid-May and finally hit the IL a month later. Billy Hamilton. Nick Madrigal. It’s felt like an endless parade marching into the trauma ward.

And yet, for all this heartache, the White Sox still reside firmly in first place in the AL Central and have managed to keep pace with the best teams in the league. While some of this is a credit to the performances of those who remain, including great stretches by emergency replacements like Jake Lamb and Yermín Mercedes, the fact is the rest of the teams in the AL have plenty of problems of their own, particularly in terms of starting pitching.

And that is where the White Sox truly separate themselves from the pack, as they have had arguably the healthiest staff in all of baseball this season.

To date, the White Sox have used only seven starting pitchers, one of which was a Jimmy Lambert start in the second game of a doubleheader (i.e., a 27th-man start, not an injury-related one). Michael Kopech opened out of the bullpen three times, but only one of those was to cover for Lance Lynn’s brief IL stay, the other two being doubleheaders like Lambert.

Only Boston has had a demonstrably better run of health for their rotation, though with the way Eduardo Rodriguez has been pitching that’s not entirely a good thing.

And therein lies the other component of their success: The White Sox have been both healthy AND effective. All five of their starting staff to open the season have posted an ERA+ of more than 100 to this point. While Keuchel, Giolito, and Cease all have been more decent than dominant (ERA+s of more than 100, but less than 110), their ability to take their turn every fifth day has saved the White Sox from having to go to a well that is, frankly, pretty dry (true for most teams, but especially on the South Side).

Going to a sixth starter isn’t always a bad thing, but when teams get tested beyond that things tend to get pretty ugly. The Blue Jays have pressed 12 different pitchers into a starting role already this season, and the results have been really good all things considered, but imagine if the White Sox started having to throw every able body available out there like that: Does anybody believe they could hold the line after No. 7 or 8? They couldn’t even get away with it for one start with Lambert. Aand Kopech and Crochet, the guys who were supposed to be there to bolster the rotation out of the bullpen, are not options due to an injury to the former and an appropriate abundance of caution for the latter.

The White Sox injuries to some of their best young position players has been truly disheartening, but they’ve been able to weather that storm rather impressively, and with Eloy seeming to have a timeline to return there at least appears to be some light at the end of that tunnel. The larger issue to their continued success is going to rest more on their ability to keep their rotation healthy, because a perusal of their depth there (especially what we presumed existed in April) does not exactly inspire confidence:

  • Michael Kopech: On the IL, uncertain timetable, still needs to build up innings.
  • Garrett Crochet: Has pitched sparingly, not as dominant as 2020, BB% somewhat concerning, never started a game as a pro.
  • Jonathan Stiever: Currently has a 6.03 ERA in Charlotte and has been unable to string together consecutive effective outings.
  • Jimmy Lambert: Running solid peripherals in Charlotte, but is barely averaging three innings a start.
  • Reynaldo López: If you thought he was bad the last couple years in Chicago, he’s doing even worse in Triple-A right now.
  • Mike Wright: Doing well in Charlotte, but is 31 with a convincingly bad MLB track record dating back to 2015.

There are no options in Double-A that are distinguishing themselves to a degree that suggests a Bobby Jenks-like double-promotion is in the offing, so barring a trade there are some pretty thin hopes if one of the White Sox starters goes down.

So why bring this up? Well, there’s been a lot of hubbub about what the White Sox need to acquire before the trade deadline; whether they need a right-handed reliever more than a outfielder/lefty bat is the common binary choice I see posed. But while I do fall on the side of them needing a relief pitcher or two, I would argue that we should not lose sight of the need to bring in somebody capable of starting.

Ideally, I’d like to see them nab a reliever who, in a pinch, wouldn’t look completely out of place in the rotation for a spell. Ian Kennedy is a good example of somebody who is a currently effective reliever (he’s been excellent closing for the Rangers), should be available (free agent in 2022, Rangers aren’t winning anything this year), and has plenty of experience starting (290 career starts across 11 seasons). While he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher, he’s been holding up well and won’t cost a mint in a trade.

But don’t take this as a “the White Sox should trade for Ian Kennedy” article. While he meets these criteria at a glance, there are others who also potentially fit that mold. Detroit’s Michael Fulmer looks like another potential target, though with another full season remaining before he hits free agency he’ll likely command a somewhat steeper prospect cost, particularly in light of his youth and early career success.

The Royals might not consider making Mike Minor available considering their (for them) massive two-year investment (two years/$18 million, 2023 option), but he’s been serviceable as a starter and had one excellent season out of the KC bullpen in 2017 after missing two seasons due to injuries, so he’s also pitched in both roles with success.

Looking outside of the AL Central, Kendall Graveman (Mariners), old friends Hector Santiago (Mariners) and Junior Guerra (Angels), Caleb Smith (Diamondbacks), and other old friend Ross Detwiler (Marlins, and on a personal note, I don’t think he should be a multi-inning starter again) all offer some combination of starter/reliever versatility, near-term availability, current effectiveness, and relative affordability. (If there are others you think fit the bill, please mention them in the comments!

While we all love to see the blockbuster deals that bring in big names with elite talent, there may be very little that GM Rick Hahn can do with the resources available to him. Trades for big-time talents are unlikely, as the White Sox lack the available trade capital to be competitive with other teams and do not seem to be willing to add significantly to payroll to take on a good player with a big contract at a lower prospect cost (say, Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon).

Thus, when they’re throwing out the example of Geoff Blum as an unexceptional but versatile trade acquisition who contributed to their last World Series winner, perhaps we should be considering White Sox options for a similar sort of player on the pitching side this time around. The name they reach out to get might generate little but yawns and disdain, but if acquiring a player who is able to be a band-aid here and there and provides a big moment in the postseason, few would question it in hindsight.