White Sox pitchers and catchers report to spring training in exactly four months.
For everyone in the organization and for fans still licking their wounds from the American League Division Series beating by the Astros, who outscored the Sox 26-5 in the three defeats, that reminder could have waited. They all need to decompress after seeing an otherwise entertaining season fueled by ambitious postseason dreams.
But in reality, the Sox can’t get to Glendale, Arizona, soon enough to begin cleaning up the issues that crept up throughout the regular season and were even more glaring during the superior Astros’ three-games-to-one triumph that sent the Sox home well before they could accomplish their goal of a World Series appearance.
There are defensive issues to address, positions to upgrade via free agency or trades, defensive shift positioning to re-evaluate and decisions to be made on the contracts of Craig Kimbrel and Cesar Hernandez.
Starting pitching, second base and right field need attention. The Sox could hang their hat on Andrew Vaughn in right field, a position they tried shoring up on the cheap with Adam Eaton last season. Signed for $7 million when better and more expensive options were out there, Eaton was designated for assignment on July 7.
Spending more to, once and for all, put a power-hitting option in right shouldn’t be an unreasonable ask for a team with a manageable and a nicely cost-controlled payroll (15th in the majors at $126 million in 2021, eighth at $143 committed for 2022) for the long term.
Hernandez, acquired at the trade deadline to fill the void left by traded second baseman Nick Madrigal, was benched in favor of Leury Garcia in the first two games of the ALDS. His $6 million team option with no buyout might easily be left alone. Eduardo Escobar, a better, more versatile choice thought to be coming in a trade when Hernandez arrived instead, is a free agent. So is another former Sox, Marcus Semien, who hit 45 home runs for the Blue Jays in 2021.
Starting pitchers Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodon faded in the second half, fighting injuries. Lucas Giolito improved but, as every other Sox starter including Dylan Cease, failed against the Astros. Dallas Keuchel was left off the postseason roster. Rodon is a free agent. The free-agent market beckons for a rotation that was one of baseball’s best, but didn’t have a clear Lance McCullers-type No. 1.
Then there’s the decision to be made on Kimbrel. Acquired in a trade at the deadline for Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer that looked like a huge score at the time, Kimbrel pitched to a 5.09 ERA for the Sox after a spectacular first half with the Cubs. His option is for 2022 is $16 million. The Sox’ options? Re-sign and bring him back to the bullpen, pick up the big price or sign and explore trade options.
The Sox ranked 26th in defensive runs saved and were anything but airtight in the outfield, infield and behind the plate. Some of the issues are more fixable than others.
The Astros, 27th in the major leagues in stolen bases, swiped four bags in their 10-1 victory in Game 4. It was easy pickings against a team that didn’t hold runners well. Manager Tony La Russa admitted his team’s defense against the steal was “atrocious” and vowed to address it in camp. It needs to be — with results.
The season saw 93 wins despite an avalanche of injuries to key players, a championship in an easily winnable division and steps forward for young talents such as budding superstar Luis Robert, Vaughn and Gavin Sheets. There was no shame in losing in the postseason in a sport that sees the best team lose, but the Sox were clearly not the best team in the ALDS.
The good thing about that? The front office and La Russa can’t be fooled by what they saw, what they have and what they need. Contention windows, already two years in with two quick knockouts, are precious, indeed, and must be capitalized on.