White Sox’ MLB-worst defense has nowhere to go but up — and it must

“I’m confident that we’re a good enough defensive club, and we’ll get better,” manager Tony La Russa said.

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The White Sox’ Gavin Sheets drops a fly ball from Cleveland Guardians’ Owen Miller during the first inning of Monday’s game.

The White Sox’ Gavin Sheets drops a fly ball from Cleveland Guardians’ Owen Miller during the first inning of Monday’s game.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

It’s not like the White Sox defensive problems have arrived from nowhere to drop a cruel reality on a team that entered the season with World Series aspirations.

They were apparent last season when the Sox won 93 games en route to the American League Central Division title. They were evident when a good defensive team, the Astros, beat them decisively in the ALDS.

Perhaps the Sox’ tiring starting rotation was the bigger reason for that. Something can be done about that this season — monitoring pitchers’ usage, giving more rest between starts or signing up outside sources like Johnny Cueto to help carry the load.

But doing something about improving defensive play on the fly is another thing. Hitters can be hot and cold, making adjustments as they grind through a 162-game schedule. When healthy, the lineup core of Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Jose Abreu, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal, Eloy Jimenez and Andrew Vaughn should produce runs — although doing something about a .282 on-base percentage that ranks 29th will be necessary. But aside from Robert in center field, it’s not an elite defensive group, and it’s hard to see that changing between now and October, when every play is magnified and the margin for error is so slim.

The Sox were tied with the Pirates for the major-league lead with 26 errors in 29 games Wednesday, including an MLB-high nine by Anderson, their shortstop. Their next two opponents — the Yankees and Royals — had seven and 10, respectively, to lead baseball. Per FanGraphs’ defensive runs above average, the Sox are last among 30 teams at minus-11.8. And the last-place ranking isn’t going anywhere soon with the 29th-ranked Pirates at 3.7 runs better.

It’s significant that Anderson, who plays the most important position on the infield, leads the majors in errors after he made 10 last season. He has admirably stood up to questions about his defense and doing only what he knows to do about it.

“Keep working,” he said.

Manager Tony La Russa believes Anderson, a former batting champion with a .337 average in 2022, can be better. He was superb with the glove Tuesday after making two errors the night before.

“You don’t ignore the errors but everything he’s doing that’s not right can be fixed,” La Russa said.

After the Sox lost 12-9 in 11 innings Monday night to the Guardians, making four errors in the game and blowing a six-run lead in the ninth inning, La Russa refused to say defense was to blame. He always defends his players, and he wouldn’t even acknowledge that eight unearned runs beat his team.

Knowing La Russa, he was probably saying the Sox should have won despite the display of drops, muffs and bad throws. They had prime chances to drive in runs to win it after they coughed up the lead.

“If you watch the games that were close or we’ve won, we made a lot of defensive plays,” La Russa said Tuesday. “We’ve had some breakdowns for whatever the reasons . . . I’m confident that we’re a good enough defensive club and we’ll get better.

“Several places where a play was not made, I can see why and I know it can be fixed.”

The starting rotation with Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech forming a powerful big three and Lance Lynn arriving next month can win a championship. The bullpen can be one of the best if healthy. And run production should increase with Moncada back after an injury and Vaughn and Jimenez coming back from injuries.

But few teams over history have overcome bad defense to win a championship.

It’s in their hands.

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