“It doesn’t mean the whole season is going to end up this way.’’ Manager Robin Ventura told reporters on Monday.
Ventura is right. Of course, he was more specifically referring to White Sox first basemen Jose Abreu’s recent struggles at the plate, but this quote can certainly fit into a variety of different contexts for his South siders lately.
After an April that saw the White Sox get off to one of the hottest starts in baseball, finish the month with a .680 winning percentage, and only surrender seven games to their opponents, the Sox and their fan base are facing a little bit of an identity crisis.
Is this team for real? Was April just a fluke? Is the offense simply slumping or is it leveling off to its true talent? Will the back of the rotation be this team’s demise?
There are so many questions, and it’s hard to land on any concrete answers just yet. But the kernel to take away from that is that it’s still only a quarter of the way through the season, there’s a lot of baseball left to play, and this team still looks like much more of a legitimate contender than it has in past years.
When you look at it from that sort of rational standpoint, what White Sox fans must ask themselves now is, realistically, what are the biggest concerns moving forward, and are they genuine concerns or simply bumps in the road that will work themselves out? Let’s take a look at a few topics that have recently surfaced.
The April and May schedule
It’s easy to quickly assume that perhaps the White Sox were just handed the free pass of a schedule in April. Though that’s not exactly true, it’s not exactly false either. The schedule was much lighter in April than the one the White Sox have faced in May. Five of the eight teams that the White Sox played in April are currently playing under .500, making the Sox run differential of +19 a little easier to grasp. However, not all of these teams are cratering below .500, many of them are playing around the .460+ mark. So, it wasn’t all the Minnesota Twins in April.
Looking on to May though, it was a different story. This stretch of games that the White Sox are currently enduring is brutal by any standards, and when you roll out this type of stretch against a team that’s suffering some in-season growing pains, it can look even more grueling.
The White Sox are currently on a stretch in which they face three series in a row against intra-division rivals; the Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, and then the Royals yet again. After those three sets, they will face the defending NL pennant-winning New York Mets and then continue their intra-divisional play in Detroit with the Tigers. All of that with just a single day of rest in between. So, no, this is not an easy portion of the schedule by any means, and it looks even worse for a scuffling team. When looking into the fine details of this team’s recent struggles, the scheduling has certainly been a big red flag.
The offense has cooled off, and at the wrong time
There’s never a good time for the offense to cool off, but when the schedule gets tough and the legitimacy of a team’s starting rotation is in question, it’s probably not the most optimal time for the bats to deaden. The White Sox have seen incredible starts from a few of the bats in this lineup, including Adam Eaton, Todd Fraizer, and Melky Cabrera. Even Brett Lawrie has at least pulled his weight in OBP (currently at .349) by taking his walks at a career high clip of 12 percent, and has given the White Sox their first legitimate ray of light at second base in nearly a decade. It’s not as if the White Sox lineup is completely a black hole of despair, it just still has a few lingering question marks. Avisail Garcia is continuing his struggles, and hasn’t done much to lower his strikeout rate (24.3 percent) while posting a line of .244/.307/.407 which, with the exception of his slugging percentage is in line with his lackluster career numbers. The White Sox are seeing virtually no production out of their shortstop, catcher, and centerfielder position players right now, and are still waiting for a Abreu to officially get going for the season (though he managed to muster up a good series against Cleveland, so perhaps that’s happening sooner rather than later).
Outside of Abreu, it wouldn’t surprise if this is about as much production as we’ll see out of this lineup. Of course there’s still a ton of room for improvement this early on, but the true talent level for many of these hitters doesn’t leave a lot of room for very meaningful improvement.
The White Sox will need to add a solid bat, and improve their bench options. If they’re trying to get ahead of the competition and keep the ground that they’ve gained — which is quickly slipping through their fingers — it’d be best to do this now instead of waiting for an arbitrary checkpoint such as as the trade deadline. Of course, the issue there is what sort of package they’d need to bundle to merit the type of return they’re looking for, and as Nick made note of GM Rick Hahn stating, it’s also dependent on who out there is willing to sell right now. but that’s another discussion. The point blank fact of the matter is that the White Sox need another strong bat to help bolster this lineup’s legitimacy, especially when… well that brings me to my next point.
The back end of the rotation is a growing problem
As James has detailed in his recent piece on the back end of the rotation, the options for starters number four and five look bleak. They’ve been shuffled around since the beginning of the season when they included Jacob Turner and Erik Johnson as legitimate candidates, but it’s more lateral shuffling than anything. Of course, this is an issue for any team, but it becomes more of an issue when that team’s lineup is producing as weakly as the White Sox’s has been as of late. The White Sox don’t just need run support when starters four and five go, they need insurance runs, and that’s something that this lineup is not able to offer consistently right now.
In April, everyone was having a good month. Even Mat Latos was doing things that no one expected him to do when he was signed back in February, which was a big help during the month of April, when the White Sox had the best ERA in the American League at just 2.72.
But now, Latos is beginning to return to the form we expected from him, and possibly the worst case scenario of it. As James noted, his strikeout rate is the worst in baseball, while his ERA has gone up to 4.06 and his FIP is the worst in the White Sox rotation (counting Miguel Gonzalez as fifth starter) at 5.21. The fifth starter role is in question, and as much as we have seen some promising and quality production out of Miguel Gonzalez, as James also pointed out in his piece, he’s extremely inconsistent. Inconsistency is not something a team looking to win their division can afford.
Over the last 14 days, a stretch of time dating back to when the White Sox’s struggles first began in Texas, the starting rotation’s ERA has risen to 3.96, good for just the sixth best in the American League. In April, it was at 3.18, second best in the American League. Of course, this rotation certainly could be worse (the Astros say hello), but the combination of the bats falling silent at the same time as the wheels are coming off the back end of the rotation makes it easy to determine the source of their struggles, and the White Sox are now seeing a run differential of just +6 in May.
Whether the White Sox look to add a pitcher, or another bat (or in a perfect world, both), some more consistent production needs to come out of this team from one side or the other if they wish to continue their attempt at contention.
But bullpen is still a strong asset
Hooray! Something positive to talk about. And quite the positive it is. The White Sox bullpen just a few weeks ago was the best bullpen in baseball. After a few human moments from Matt Albers and the likes, it’s still been very effective, and more recently, we’ve seen that effectiveness bolstered by the additions of Tommy Kahnle and Matt Purke. Closer David Robertson has been exceptional lately as well, and is still posting an ERA of just 0.96 on the season with a strikeout rate of 10.6 per nine innings.
The bullpen as a whole currently owns a 2.60 ERA, second best in the American League just behind the Kansas City Royals, and is the fourth best bullpen in baseball (the first place Mets bullpen has an ERA of just 2.37, so it’s a pretty narrow gap).
There is relief in knowing that once a game has been relegated to the bullpen, the odds of it being locked down efficiently are quite high. Bullpens are volatile and can and will lead to the demise of many teams, so knowing that this group can be relied upon is certainly a valuable asset moving forward.
Overall, this is certainly no time to panic just yet, and it’s not the time to talk about anything rash such as rebuilds or trading Chris Sale for Yoenis Cespedes or whatever outlandish proposals one’s brain may concoct. But this is a crucial time, and it is a time for the White Sox organization to begin thinking about what their next move will be. Hopefully, they’ll work to pursue it sooner rather than later to preserve the legitimate hope for October that was so strongly felt in April.
Photo courtesy of Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports