I decided that this year I would do an immediate review of the Chicago White Sox season rather than waiting and letting things settle down and taking emotion out of the equation. I wanted to allow myself some feelings in the review instead of being so academic about it. So, immediately following the White Sox ALDS Game Four loss to the Astros, I went to work.
Looking at the big picture, it was a reasonably successful season for the White Sox. A 93-69 record and the American League Central Division title was almost expected, but winning the division by 13 games was not. The Sox were the only AL Central team with a record over .500 and the Minnesota Twins, two-time defending champions, bottomed out with a 73-89 record and a last-place finish. On the surface, it was a dominating performance by the Sox.
But if you look a little closer, you see just how much of a down year it was for the division. The Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals are embarking on rebuilds, the Twins just imploded and the Cleveland Indians were unable to overcome injuries to their starting rotation. And the White Sox, in general, feasted on their division rivals. They were not as good against teams over .500 and that was a known issue when the team headed into the playoffs.
Manager Tony La Russa was a surprise, as much as a Hall of Fame manager can surprise, as a lot of fans thought he would be a poor fit with the team. That was not the case and he had an exceptionally good season, and should finish in the top two for AL Manager of the Year. I hope he’ll be back in 2022 because the options to replace him do not instill much confidence.
The lineup was expected to be a juggernaut and fell well short of expectations. Part of this, of course, was due to injury, as RF Eloy Jimenez, C Yasmani Grandal and CF Luis Robert all spent extensive stretches on the injured list. White Grandal and Robert seemed to catch fire after they returned, Jimenez seemed lost after his return from the IL. Shortstop Tim Anderson and OF Adam Engel also spent time on the IL and injuries were a year-long issue for the franchise.
Among the players who were able to remain healthy, 3B Yoan Moncada saw his numbers take a precipitous drop from 2019 (.315 with 25 home runs and 79 RBI in 149 games in 2019 compared to .263 with 14 home runs and 61 RBI in 144 games in 2021). First baseman Jose Abreu put up extremely similar power numbers (33 home runs and 123 RBI in 2019 with 30 home runs and 117 RBI in 2021) but saw his batting average lose more than 20 points.
The pitching staff was supposed to be one of the league’s best and fell far short, both the starting rotation and the bullpen. Lucas Giolito was an early season Cy Young favorite and finished the year with an 11-9 record and a 3.53 ERA, while Dallas Keuchel completely fell off, with a 9-9 record and an unsightly 5.28 ERA. Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodon both had solid seasons but injuries were an issue, leaving Dylan Cease (13 wins and 226 strikeouts in 165 innings) as the de facto ace, with Jimmy Lambert being the only legit minor league option.
The White Sox bullpen carried the team at times, as closer Liam Hendriks lead the American League in saves (38) despite giving up more home runs (11) than walks (7). The trade deadline move for All Star closer Craig Kimbrel was a complete and total bust, as Kimbrel’s splits between the Cubs (0.49 ERA, 64 strikeouts, 13 walks) and White Sox (5.09 ERA, 36 strikeouts, 10 walks) were shocking. Future starters Michael Kopech and Garrett Crochet were solid but their time in the bullpen should end, if not next season by 2023 at the latest.
The future, however, isn’t as bright as the fan boys would have you think.
No, I’m not expecting a Twins-style fall-off. The Sox will still be contenders. But there are problems and they are significant. For starters, the Sox are going to be looking for a right fielder for the third straight season. The White Sox tried a committee in 2019 after letting Avisail Garcia leave, then brought in Nomar Mazara in 2020 and Adam Eaton in 2021, all small-minded moves made on a budget and all failed miserably and the hole still remains.
Second base is also a question mark now with the trade of former first round pick Nick Madrigal to the Cubs in the Kimbrel deal and the deadline acquisition of Cesar Hernandez from the Indians, though Hernandez hit only .232 (compared to his .270 career average) with three home runs in 53 games. Hernandez has a $6 million club option for 2022 and may return anyway despite his lackluster season due to lack of options and his reasonable salary. Which brings me to the biggest issue this offseason: The payroll.
As of this moment, the White Sox 2022 payroll stands at $141 million, an astronomical sum for this club, and not counting potential free agents or any players with club options, like Hernandez and Kimbrel (for the record, Kimbrel’s option is valued at $16 million). Many of the players the club signed in previous years to long-term extensions are due for large raises, not the least of which is Moncada, who will go from making $6 million in 2021 to $13 million in 2022. Jimenez and Robert will both see their salaries double and Tim Anderson is set to get a $2 million raise. Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez should both expect raises as well.
Adding those numbers to the big salaries for Abreu, Lynn, Grandal and the basically-worthless Keuchel (all of whom are scheduled to make more than $18 million in 2022) will absolutely handcuff the White Sox when it comes to potential free agent upgrades.
The fact is, the 2021-22 free agent class isn’t exactly outstanding, other than the shortstop class, which the Sox have no use for. Second base and right field, the spots the White Sox need help the most, are generally weak, minus second baseman Marcus Semien who should easily score $20 million annually in free agency and right fielder Nick Castellanos, who can opt out of the remaining two years and $34 million on his contract with the Cincinnati Reds. There is no way the White Sox can afford to sign top-shelf talent with the current payroll situation, so they’ll likely continue to do bargain bin shopping and hope to catch lightning in a bottle.
It’s also only going to get worse as by 2024 Moncada will be earning $24 million, and Jimenez and Robert will hit the $10 million mark by 2023. The payroll will be completely out of control by 2023 and at that point I expect a tear down and likely anyone on the roster besides Robert and youngsters like Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets and Kopech and Crochet is likely to be traded for prospects and some payroll relief.
There is no doubt in my mind that 2021 was the year for the White Sox to win the World Series. The division was winnable (though I never imagined winning it by 13 games) and there was no clear-cut dominant team in the American League. Instead, the offense fell flat on it’s face for a large portion of the season and the pitching struggled and another first round playoff exit was the end result. So while it feels like it was a reasonably successful season, the finish was basically the same as last season other than the division title. And things will get a lot more difficult in the division next season as the Twins and Indians attempt to rebound and the Tigers and Royals take the next steps in their rebuilds. While the White Sox should still win the division in 2022 I can’t see next year’s playoffs going much better than the 2021 version. And chances are the Wild Card teams will both come from the AL East again, so finishing second in the AL Central won’t be worth anything.
Besides second base and right field, decisions have to be made regarding the backup catcher situation (where I would keep Zack Collins, but that’s just me), the rotation (where Carlos Rodon is a free agent and Dallas Keuchel is an $18 million question mark) and the bullpen (I can’t see Kimbrel’s option being picked up and Ryan Tepera is a free agent). Also, super-sub Leury Garcia is a free agent and he played all over the diamond in 2021 and drove in 54 runs.
There is also very little talent in the minor leagues that is Major League ready, and the system itself ranks next to last in Major League Baseball, just ahead of the Washington Nationals. While Jared Kelley, Norge Vera, Sean Burke and Matthew Thompson all have future potential, none are even close to being Major League-ready and there are few bats that figure to ever make the transition. The fact that Jake Burger is still a highly-ranked prospect at age 26 shows how thin the talent is in the organization. This lack of depth, on both the MLB and MiLB levels, will hurt when injuries strike.
It’s not going to be easy in 2022 but the White Sox should win the AL Central and make the playoffs again, but another first-round exit is likely. I can’t see Tony La Russa managing more than one more season, and I’m anxious to see what direction the franchise goes in 2023, whether they go “outside the family” for a manager or hand the job to bench coach Miguel Cairo for the inevitable rebuild that should begin in 2024, or 2025 at the latest.
In closing, I’ve been a White Sox fan for 30+ years and that’s not going to change. And while it isn’t pleasant knowing the White Sox likely won’t make it to a World Series during the early to mid-2020’s, its still nice to be able to at least have the chance by being a consistent playoff participant. Hopefully next year the team will show some kind of sense of urgency, even though I don’t think it’s going to matter in the long run, I have no doubt 2021 should have been “the year” and it was, without question, the best chance for a World Series win.
Thank you for reading, and forever, GO SOX!