The White Sox have built an American League-best record — 21 games above .500 entering Wednesday — without having Eloy Jimenez for the entire season and without Luis Robert for all but the first month.
When they return, the Sox become that much better with a Silver Slugger left fielder in Jimenez and a Gold Glove center fielder in Robert, who also adds a potent bat.
Remarkably, the components of the roster that were added by the front office or developed by the farm system and used by manager Tony La Russa have blended so well that the unthinkable will happen when Jimenez and Robert return — the front office will be forced to make tough decisions.
Jimenez, tuning up at Triple-A Charlotte, could be back next week. Robert began his minor-league rehab stint Wednesday, starting a 20-day (maximum) countdown. And everyone is wondering who on the Sox’ 26-man roster will be the odd men out.
“If we’re to get to 100% health and get Eloy back, get Robert back, get [catcher Yasmani Grandal] back, we’re going to have a lot of difficult decisions to make on the roster,” left-hander Dallas Keuchel said. “One, we’ve got some guys playing really, really, really good ball. And two, we don’t really know how we’re going to be playing with a full, healthy lineup. I mean, these guys have missed a lot of time, so for them to come back and pick up where they left off is a big ask.”
With Leury Garcia and Danny Mendick capable of playing three or four infield positions, carrying an extra third baseman in Jake Burger is something of a luxury. If Burger wasn’t batting .313/.389/.563 in his first 12 major-league games, it would probably be an easy decision. In the outfield, La Russa has effectively plugged in Andrew Vaughn, Adam Engel, Brian Goodwin, Billy Hamilton and Gavin Sheets, mixing, matching and spreading at-bats around to get the most from each. All have had moments that will make the 2021 Sox highlight reel at season’s end.
A tip of the cap to La Russa for that, said coach Jerry Narron, who managed five seasons in the majors.
“It’s no coincidence we have a nine-game lead despite the injuries we’ve had,” Narron said. “Tony may not get as much credit for it as he should, but he definitely deserves every bit of credit that’s given.”
Lineups, and how they’re constructed, have been second-guessed, although not as much lately, probably because they are working. No one seems to be squawking about Goodwin batting fourth anymore.
“There’s a reason for it,” Narron said. “There are analytics, and there are some observational analytics. It’s pretty impressive what he’s done.”
Within a week or so, when Jimenez is back, and thereafter when a deal or two is likely made before the trade deadline next Friday, probably for relief pitching and a second baseman, La Russa will have more to decipher.
La Russa said two weeks ago that he was already “playing around with lineups” at the thought of having Jimenez, who likely will split time between left field and designated hitter, back.
“It’s part of the fun,” he said.
Fun is the operative word describing these Sox. They’re winning despite a myriad of injuries that goes beyond Jimenez and Robert, and they’ve entertained. Stay tuned for what they’ll look like with Robert and Jimenez.
They’ve looked pretty good without them.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who have been fighting and scrapping and putting in work and the willingness to do the little things to get a win,” Keuchel said. “And that doesn’t go unnoticed, especially for the pitching staff. And I know that doesn’t go unnoticed when October comes because if you’re not doing the little things right, then you’re not going to come out on top. I’ve seen that firsthand. We’ve got a lot of tough decisions.”