One more time for the people in the back: Are we enjoying the ride?
This is where blind optimism leads. Who needs someone like Trevor Story, when we have Josh Harrison at home?
The White Sox front office had a chance to build a team that would have been a lock for 90 wins and a legitimate shot at 100 and a top seed. Instead, in spite of multiple years of evidence indicating that it’s a fool's errand to rely on Yoán Moncada, Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez, and Yasmani Grandal to remain healthy for a full season, they did exactly that. Now, instead of having a legitimate fallback plan to keep the team’s head above water, the combination of poor play and tough injuries has projection systems telling us they’re no longer the division favorites — and in fact will be fortunate to break 90 wins:
The unfortunate fact is that this shouldn’t be surprising: This is simply the bed that Jerry Reinsdorf and Rick Hahn made when the former installed Tony La Russa and the latter spent the winter refusing to elaborate on what wound up being an entirely incoherent team-building strategy.
The other unfortunate fact is that this bed is no different than the one they made last season. In the moment, it was easy to view the 2021 White Sox as a team that might have challenged for 100 wins had injuries not struck the majority of their starting lineup for weeks and months at time. In retrospect, it was probably a team that won roughly the number of games they originally deserved, in spite of the injuries that turn out to have not been unique to 2021.
What’s changed? Putting aside slow starts for some of the team’s sluggers — José Abreu having a tough April isn’t exactly unprecedented — the main difference between 2021 and 2022 is that the contributions on the margins have disappeared. It’s not because the front office suddenly changed the way they put the team together.
It’s because they stopped getting lucky.
Perhaps the two biggest reasons that last April didn’t resemble this April were unexpected breakthroughs from Yermín Mercedes and Carlos Rodón. Neither of those elements were a product of front office ingenuity; the former would have started the season in Triple-A were it not for Eloy Jiménez’s late-spring injury, and the latter’s reinvention (in what seems to be a trend) happened more or less on his own accord, having been non-tendered by the team after the season.
Reese McGuire has to this point been a valuable addition, but the host of shooting stars that boosted them through last summer probably isn’t appearing in 2022. The 179 wRC+ provided by Jake Lamb last May to help them weather the aftermath of injuries to Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal is not something that can typically be expected of a player released by one team and signed by another on the last day of spring training.
It’s pretty rare for a player to be released by the worst team in baseball, only to go on a hot streak and post an .875 OPS over his first 19 games with a new team, as Brian Goodwin did. That’s not even speaking of his other late-game heroics.
If the White Sox call somebody up from Charlotte who’s never set foot in the big leagues, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll drive in eight runs over their first five games and go on to deliver more game-winning hits in the subsequent weeks, as Gavin Sheets did in 2021.
This season, just as last season, Dallas Keuchel probably isn’t worth a rotation spot. This time, there’s no Rodón to come out of the woodwork and pick up the wins and innings that teams and fans were expecting out of Keuchel.
Last season, if one of Lance Lynn or Lucas Giolito had missed time, we would have seen a frankly distressing number of starts from Mike Wright Jr., a struggling Jimmy Lambert or Jonathan Stiever, and a clearly-better-in-the-bullpen Reynaldo López. But the White Sox had the healthiest pitching staff in baseball over the first half of the season. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, and instead of any number of the reasonably-priced veteran starters who were available in the offseason, the result is more than a quarter of the team’s April games being started by Lambert (who may yet be good, but has been a mixed bag) and Vince Velásquez (who, on the doorstep of age 30, now has a not a replacement player basement, but ceiling).
Mercedes, Lamb, Goodwin, and Billy Hamilton ultimately combined for 28 home runs, 22 doubles, 74 walks, and 90 runs batted in 707 plate appearances. None of that quartet was a part of the front office’s initial game plan for 2021. They were emergency replacements picked up from other teams’ scrap heaps who wound up combining into a legitimate, starting-caliber MLB hitter. Getting that kind of production yet again with waiver pickups and career minor leaguers isn’t and was never going to be an option in 2022.
If the front office genuinely believed the team would remain healthy enough to de-prioritize all but the most basic levels of depth, Lucy would have had a field day watching them try to kick a football. And ultimately, the injuries aren’t the point. The fact that Velásquez was signed to be a long man or seventh starter isn’t an excuse. Competitive teams around the league are dealing with plenty of pitching injuries, but a look at the sixth or seventh depth starters on those teams brings up names like David Peterson, Ross Stripling, Cristian Javier, Aaron Ashby, and Tyler Anderson. Not world-beaters by any means, but they’re legitimate MLB starting pitchers. It’s hard to say whether that’s true for Velásquez and Keuchel at this juncture — and that is 40% of the starting rotation at the moment.
This is a better roster than 7-11. I said before the season that the advantage the White Sox had in the division was that they were the only team that could afford to have a lot of things go wrong and still have a shot at 90 wins. That remains true. But the team’s offseason roster construction and lack of upgrading means the floor has become dangerously low. The fact that there’s even a feasible world in which the 2022 White Sox barely scratch 80 wins is a problem in and of itself.
It’s early, but time is running out to avoid a further imitation of the 2021 Twins. The White Sox will have nobody to blame but themselves if that turns out to be the course of history.