With MLB's postseason still knocking teams off, Bally Sports is reviewing the performance of each club with a look at what happened in 2021 and what could happen next season.
Our next Exit Interview is with the Chicago White Sox.
What went right
• Finally winning some hardware after pivoting with a rebuild that started almost five years ago, the White Sox won 93 games and finished first in the AL Central for the first time since 2008. They also won their first postseason game since 2008, a raucous comeback against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the ALDS at Guaranteed Rate Field.
• Slugger Luís Robert recovered from a torn hip flexor in early May to bat .338/.378/.567 with 13 homers in 296 plate appearances, and dropped his K% nearly 12 percent to 20.6%.
• Catcher Yasmani Grandal recovered from a relatively slow start and a mid-season knee injury to post the best season at the plate, at age 32, in his 10-year career: .240/.420/.520 with 23 homers and 87 walks in 375 plate appearances. Grandal had the highest isolated power (.280) of his career, the lowest K% in six years, highest walk rate, hardest contact rate and highest win probability of his career. And nobody ran more creatively to first base.
• Left-hander Carlos Rodón threw a no-hitter, made the All-Star team, and was a Cy Young Award contender until a shoulder injury diminished his effectiveness and availability in the second half.
• Right-hander Dylan Cease improved in this third season, posting a 3.91 ERA with 226 strikeouts — finishing fifth in the majors among qualified pitchers in K% (31.9%) — in 165 ⅔ innings.
• Right-hander Lance Lynn made the All-Star team, posted a 2.69 ERA — fifth in the league among pitchers who logged at least 157 innings.
• Closer Liam Hendriks was a huge success in his first season after signing a free-agent contract. An All-Star selection, he finished with 113 strikeouts and just seven walks in 71 innings.
• Hitting depth from the minor leagues in the form of Gavin Sheets, Andrew Vaughn and Jake Burger helped fill in gaps when front-line players went down with injuries.
• They finished fifth in ERA and were seventh in runs scored — despite losing Robert, Grandal, Eloy Jiménez and Nick Madrigal to serious injuries for large chunks of time.
What went wrong
• Questionable health for Rodón, Lynn and Michael Kopech at the end of the season left their pitching staff short against the Astros in the playoffs.
• They won the same number of playoff games as they did in 2020: one.
• Manager Tony La Russa mishandled rookie Yermín Mercédes, who apparently sinned by swinging 3-0 and homering in a blowout with Twins position player Willians Astudillo on the mound. La Russa castigating Mercédes coincided with a slump that led to his demotion to the minor leagues. No better, La Russa didn’t defend his player after the Twins retaliated for Mercédes’ home run by hitting him with a pitch on purpose.
Tim Anderson did this:
Vaughn appeared to be putting things together in July, when he batted .308/.347/.516. But he endured a late-season slump and a back injury that diminished his effectiveness and ruined his numbers. No matter, he showed enough signs that he’ll be a strong hitter in the coming seasons.
Reasons for optimism
• They remain loaded, and aren’t far away from World Series quality. Nobody in the AL Central appears to be on the verge of challenging them, unless the White Sox themselves regress. Robert could be an MVP candidate. The bullpen remains deep, although it wasn’t as close to perfect as they thought before the season started. Not too many teams have the likes of Lynn, Giolito and Cease in the rotation.
• They’re only eighth in MLB payroll, so there’s room to spend there.
What needs work
• The players say, in general, that they like La Russa as a manager, but there’s little evidence that he helped them play better. He always seemed reactive with pitching changes. He didn’t always know the rules. The Mercédes episode showed contradictory leadership. Players made the same kind of fundamental mistakes they were making early in 2020. His most notable characteristic was complaining to umpires and media about players being hit by pitches. Surely, the Sox can do better — and they might have to, if they want to get back to the World Series.
• On defense, MLB’s outs above average puts the White Sox in the middle of the rankings. Fielding Bible puts them 28th in defensive runs saved. The actual quality of their defense is somewhere in between, probably. An outfield of Jiménez (who rated surprisingly well in left), Robert and Adam Engel would be quite effective. Grandal is regressing with pitch framing.
• Jiménez started out on fire at the plate in August after returning from a pectoral injury, but he finished meekly and was just an average hitter overall. He figures to bounce back, but his regression was nearly as disappointing as Robert’s improvement was encouraging.
• Moncada had no more complaints this season about the after effects of COVID-19, but his results at the plate haven’t been as robust as his 2019 breakout season.
• Rodón is a free agent, and when he was healthy gave the Sox true No. 1-quality at the top of the rotation. If he comes back, how is his shoulder? If he’s replaced, is it with a top-tier free agent? Sox spending history, along with being saddled with Dallas Keuchel’s contract, indicates that they probably won’t be landing anyone too expensive.
• The front office did a marvelous job of filling gaps when front-line players got hurt — either with pickups from outside the organization or from their own minor leagues. But look at the trades GM Rick Hahn made to bolster the club: Craig Kimbrel, a colossal failure. César Hernández, a disappointment. Only the Ryan Tepera trade worked.
Watch for more MLB Exit Interviews as the dominoes fall in the playoffs, and check out our earlier MLB Exit Interviews here: