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White Sox playoff chances have rebounded, but championship hopes feel sunk

The ship is slowly righting itself, but the work is far from done.

MLB: New York Yankees at Chicago White Sox
On Thursday night, another win skipped away from the White Sox.
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

At long last, the White Sox gave us a decent week-and-a-half of baseball, with the added sweetener of having the middle two of their six-game win streak come at Wrigley Field at the expense of the Cubs.

Unfortunately, the White Sox have since wasted little time squandering the much-needed momentum generated by such a streak, leaving a foul taste in fans’ mouths by squandering a six-run, ninth-inning lead to the Guardians on Monday and utterly failing to stop Yankees bats to the tune of 15 runs on Thursday. The ship has stabilized to an extent, but they’re still firmly in rocky waters.

Nonetheless, there’s still a lot to suggest that we shouldn’t be freaking out about Chicago’s playoff chances. In spite of the poor play lately, Minnesota’s has been worse, and PECOTA’s 50th percentile projections still have a 3 12-game gulf between the two at the end of the season:

Meanwhile, FanGraphs’ typically conservative projection system gives the White Sox a 67% chance of finding the postseason, with a similar three-game advantage over the Twins, albeit at just 86 wins:

So, in spite of the utterly infuriating nature of these losses, there is indeed still no reason to fully panic. It’s not as high of a postseason chance as we would like right now, especially given the (essentially) 100% playoff chance listed preseason, but not all is lost: As low as FanGraphs’ projection looks, PECOTA gives the White Sox a nearly eight-in-10 chance of going into October. There’s still more than enough hope to go around.

What that doesn’t mean is standing pat. Even in a less competitive division, the 2021 postseason showed us the pitfalls of “just get everyone healthy” as a winning strategy. That’s also on top of midseason additions of a caliber that’s likely won’t be available, given the assets and leverage GM Rick Hahn has to work with. Without a prospect of Nick Madrigal’s caliber to offer in a trade, the White Sox front office will have to get creative in finding the help they need.

Because they do need help. The thing that catches my eye about those FanGraphs standings projections is that in spite of being division favorites, the odds give the White Sox barely a 3% chance to win the World Series. No other projected division winner checks in at less than 9%. Despite the team’s likelihood of simply making it to October, four of the six MLB teams currently in second place are being given a better chance of bringing home a championship.

This brings us to an important reality: The mantra of just getting to the playoffs (because it’s a crapshoot once you get there) doesn’t apply to the White Sox. That kind of attitude is reserved for teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, or Astros, who simply return to their respective LCS year after year until they eventually break through.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox
With or without the under-shirt transponders, Houston is an LCS mainstay.
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The White Sox have yet to reach this level. They have yet to make the real, full-season playoffs twice in a row. They have yet to even sniff an ALCS. We’ve all seen the farm system rankings. We’ve seen how Jerry Reinsdorf’s teams behave financially even in the best of times. This isn’t a scenario where we simply wait for the team to make their October breakthrough; it’s one in which a window barely even opens because they just weren’t prepared enough for the things that went wrong.

Five-and-a-half years after the Chris Sale trade kickstarted this rebuild, it becomes more and more clear that the “sustainable winner” that fans were told was the goal has yet to arrive. An early seven-game losing streak against eminently beatable teams certainly doesn’t mean the end of the season, but it does mean that it took less than a month to evade nearly all hope of finishing as one of the (first round bye-receiving) top two teams in the AL. A team that’s built to putter to the playoffs and serve itself on a platter to a more complete club isn’t the future that was promised throughout seven consecutive losing seasons.

It’s fair to ask for more.

But puttering to the playoffs is exactly what this team was built to do. Michael Kopech has been a revelation, but the 32 starts and 160 innings he’s currently on pace for simply aren’t a realistic expectation. Even if Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito, and Lance Lynn stay fully healthy the rest of the way — and that’s a major if — there are simply too many starts allocated for Dallas Keuchel, Vince Velásquez, or Johnny Cueto to be confident in any kind of run at a Top 2 seed in the league. If anything else goes wrong, even the duct tape holding together the back end of the rotation will fray.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Chicago White Sox
Michael Kopech has been a revelation. But he’s also on pace of an unrealistic 160-innings load — and that’s before the playoffs begin.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The offensive issues that the lineup has encountered aren’t special. Everyone’s playing with the dead ball, in cold weather. Every team is dealing with injuries. The White Sox haven’t been hit with a spate of abnormally bad luck — they simply gave themselves little margin for error. The losses in the margin have already dropped them 10 victories, to a mid-eighties win projection. That’s one more serious slide away from barely breaking .500, and it’s a potential reality that’s much nearer than anybody should be comfortable with.

That being the case, the White Sox can do one of two things. To follow the path frequently recommended (alongside a more-than-healthy dose of condescension) by Steve Stone, they can act like everything is still going according to plan; that the pieces are all there, we just have to be patient and wait for them fall into place. That seems to be the prevailing attitude among those inside the organization.

Alternatively, they can act with urgency and the understanding that the early part of this season has not been a success. There’s only so much they can do in the immediate moment — May trades and major acquisitions are rare for a reason — but assuming the White Sox will never cut to the root of the problem by firing their manager, they’ll eventually need to find a way to make a substantial addition to their core this summer. Not an additional bullpen arm, a journeyman second baseman, fourth outfielder or backup catcher.

I’m not sure who this mystery player is, but it’s not my job to give them ideas. I’m simply here to suggest that we need to come to terms with the fact that unless the core of this roster is supplemented by more than spare parts, the entire rebuild will continue to teeter closer and closer to what can only be called a failure. Believe it or not, it’s possible to enjoy the fun parts of a moderately competitive season while also believing that it’s ultimately doomed without an admission that the White Sox are in a hole of their own making.

Anyhow, I’m off to the game, where I’m going to have a great time, in spite of the pessimism on this page. I hope you do, too.