Playing Pepper 2021: Chicago White Sox

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Chicago White Sox
35-25, third in the AL Central, lost in the Wild Card Round
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

The future is now for the White Sox even as they reach into their past for a leader.  An old friend leads an exciting young core that looks to push past their early exit last year and go much deeper in October for years to come.  Can that happen?  Let’s talk all things South Side with some of our own friends!

Blogger Site Twitter
Brett Ballantini South Side Sox BrettBallantini
Jordan Lazowski Sox on 35th SoxOn35th
Samiya Green Southside Showdown miyaxxy

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Brett: Personally I didn’t think it was possible to get through the season at all. Credit MLB and the players for adhering well enough to all guidelines. It didn’t seem as if permanent player handicap or death was out of the realm of possibility, but aside from those serious flareups with Miami and St. Louis, things were pretty clean? Amazing. As far as the season itself, it’s good we had some baseball. But it’s always going to be an asterisked season. Even in 1981, the start and end of the season was played, 110-odd games for every team. 50 games was ludicrous. It’s forever the MLB Tournament season.

The rules changes were positive, all told. Four major ones? NL DH is a no-brainer, and a permanent eventuality. Three-batter minimum? Too bad it was made necessary by overmanaging pens, but in the current game, I like it. Runner on second in extras? Oh heck no. Makes baseball a shootout game. In a pandemic season of 50 games, fine. This year? Utterly offensive. Start the dumb runner on second rule in the 12th inning or something. Or put a runner on first in the 10th, on second in the 11th, on third in the 12th, and call it a tie after that. If you’re going to bastardize baseball this way (in the minors, OK, I get it, protecting arms, don’t want injury in 17-inning games, sure), just start calling ties. Utterly silly. Seven-inning doubleheaders is a wash, I suppose. More doubleheaders = good. Shorter games, I don’t really care for. But to make every Saturday a doubleheader day, seven-inning games, as a new tradition that could either build in more days off or shorten the season overall, I’m all for it.

Jordan: You know the saying: “You never know what you have until it’s gone”? Well, that was the 2020 season in a nutshell for me. Following baseball didn’t change, but the experience itself changed more than I thought it would. Strip away all the conversations about whether stats/awards are legitimate, and there were really two main talking points for me:

A) I’m not looking forward to labor negotiations after this season.
B) I love watching baseball on TV, but it’s not the same as being in the ballpark. There are sights and sounds you just take for granted that you don’t appreciate enough. Opening Day is always exciting, but I think this year will bring a new energy to those lucky enough to be in the seats.

In general, I was pretty neutral on most of the rule changes after seeing them in practice. The extra inning rule annoyed me the most, but I saw it as something I could likely eventually get used to. I actually grew to like the 7 inning doubleheaders. In general, I think these are changes that won’t affect the game too much in the long run. As for the rules they’re proposing for the minors, well, it’s clear MLB is focusing its attention in the wrong places in my opinion.

Samiya: My thoughts on the 2020 season are that it was a small preview of what the Chicago White Sox are capable of. I’m happy they made their postseason appearance but it was bittersweet losing to the Oakland Athletics. It was amazing to see Jose Abreu win American League MVP. He truly deserved and it reminded people who put this franchise back on the map. Personally, the rule changes were a good idea for me. Specifically, I’m a fan of the universal DH. I think that’s the future of baseball. I found following baseball easier to follow during the pandemic because there were not many outside distractions. With that being said, baseball felt the same when watching it.

C70: Cardinal fans are well familiar with Tony La Russa, who returns to his original managerial post with the Sox. How do you think he’ll do after being out of the game for 10 years?

Brett: Hopefully he will handle his team better than his personal habits.

To be fair to Tony, he seems contrite and apparently has come to the White Sox respectful of established culture and leadership. If so, that was the right way to do it. And he seems to have player buy-in, bigtime, so what fans think of the PR debacle that was his hire doesn’t matter in that regard.

Jordan: I’ve thought a lot about this topic, haha. When the White Sox first made the announcements, I was pretty upset. I was ready for the White Sox to embrace the new age of baseball and the new minds that come with it. La Russa felt like a step in the wrong direction – it felt like a “let’s get the gang back together and party like it’s 1983” type move.

The further I get away from it, I think I’ve been able to compartmentalize my anger a bit. My anger isn’t at La Russa as a manager – he’s a sharp baseball mind who will do well in the dugout. I’ve been very happy with what has come out of camp thus far, even if I don’t agree with every tactical move. The real anger is the fact that the front office couldn’t seem to get on the same page – less than three weeks after GM Rick Hahn described his ideal managerial hire as A.J. Hinch-like, hiring La Russa couldn’t be any further from that. But, the Sox proceeded to hire a fantastic staff to support La Russa as well – every move since then has been a very positive one in my eyes. Long story short, he’s a Hall of Famer, he’ll do well in the dugout. As for the rest: winning cures everything.

Samiya: I think the beginning of the baseball season will be a true test for the White Sox because they have to get used to La Russa who is coming in as an old school manager but in a new school of baseball players. I’m a little concerned that personalities will shift which would hurt team chemistry and I would hate to see young talented guys be negatively affected. 

C70: Liam Hendriks was a big signing for the Pale Hose. What did you think of the contract and how will he impact the team in 2021?

Brett: I hate the idea of paying big money for closers. I hate that the only area the White Sox break the bank is for perhaps the most token position in all the game, closer. While I like the relative lack of wear on Hendriks’ arm, his short tenure as a premiere closer makes me nervous. I would not have made this signing, and for those fans who say at least the White Sox spent somewhere, I say there have to be more than these two options. All that said, all goes to plan, there’s no better bullpen in the game.

Jordan: The Liam Hendriks contact was an interesting one for the White Sox. First and foremost, the White Sox got the best reliever available on the market. They certainly paid for it, but with the addition of Hendriks, the White Sox added a proven closer to go along with one of the best bullpens in baseball. Hendriks is the sort of lock down closer many White Sox fans have been looking for – while Alex Colome certainly did his job over the past two years, fans have been waiting for when regression hits for a reliever so dependent on soft contact to be successful and only two pitches to do it with. At the same time, the White Sox didn’t spend a ton of money this offseason, and of the money they did spend, almost half of it was on a closer. When you already have a top bullpen in baseball, is it worth spending that much money on another bullpen arm? That’s been the oft-asked question on White Sox Twitter. Was the $11M spent this season on Hendriks better utilized for someone else – maybe a fifth starter? The White Sox didn’t seem to think so.

At the end of the day, the talk was that La Russa wanted a proven closer, and the White Sox got one of the best. Hendriks adds multi-inning flexibility to the back end of the bullpen to accommodate a variety of high-leverage situations – something Colome was historically unable to do. It’s a great move, and the White Sox are a better team because of it. However, I think it’s fair for fans to question the allocation of resources – even if there might not be too many better alternatives on such a limited budget.

Samiya: My favorite signing for the White Sox is the Liam Hendriks signing because it checks off all of the boxes. It gives them much-needed bullpen star power and a pitcher with tremendous control. After losing Alex Colombe, those two things are important. It also raises their talent ranking in the American League as a whole and puts more eyes on this contending franchise. His contract is not bad to me. A three-year 54 million dollar deal for a guy who had an ERA below 2.00 is well worth it. Also, it gave the White Sox another chance to add more depth if they wanted and they’ll have the same chance next offseason. 

C70: Is there someone that you feel is set for a breakout season?

Brett: Absolutely nuts to put this on a rookie, but man all Andrew Vaughn does is hit. I’m very excited to see him put up nice numbers as a rookie … DH? On the pitching side, most intriguing and most poised for a breakout or breakdown is Dylan Cease. He seems the biggest of all new pitching coach Ethan Katz’s pet projects, and the one-game returns so far are sweet. Electric stuff. If he can find the plate, watch out.

Jordan: Dylan Cease. I confidently say he has the best “stuff” on the team. His problems were two-fold: throwing strikes and fastball spin. For someone throwing 98-100 mph, he wasn’t getting enough swing-and-misses, nor was he consistently in the zone. Those two really go hand-in-hand because they can both be linked back to mechanics. There’s been a lot of talk about the work new Pitching Coach Ethan Katz could do with Dylan Cease, primarily because of his strong track record – along with being a coach for the Giants, he has a long relationship with Lucas Giolito, and he imparted his knowledge on Giolito the offseason before he became the pitcher he now is. Many are hoping that similar advice and pitching techniques Giolito utilized can be passed onto Cease to help him solve some of his issues. His first Spring outing was positive, as he showed fastball command through three scoreless innings while striking out two. I’ve barely even talked about his offspeed stuff, which when located can be absolutely devastating for hitters. He’s got the best stuff in the system, and I believe the highest ceiling. If Cease can command the zone, he could be a Cy Young finalist this season.

Samiya: Me and every White Sox fan, writer, and spectator want nothing more than to see Michael Kopech excel on this team this year. The White Sox have numerous flamethrowers on this team and having Kopech on the mound just improves their pitching dominance. 

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Brett: It seems most projections are a little dour on the White Sox, with PECOTA notably putting them just over .500 and out of the playoffs. The 2020 miniseason could reflect 2021: iffy start, smoking hot middle, howlingly bad end. But even then, the Sox were tracking for 95 wins or so in those first 60 games, so it’s quite a tumble if they’re just .500 in 2021. I’d say split the difference between 95 and 83 wins, so let’s give them 89 and right on the playoff doorstep. The Twins and Cleveland should both play down to that level, so the division race should be very exciting.

Jordan: I think anything short of a playoff appearance is an abject failure for this team. If the White Sox are not playing October baseball in 2021, it can’t be looked at as anything other than a failure. Additionally, I expect this team to compete in October – with a 5 team playoff, I would expect to see the White Sox in the ALDS and, depending on their opponent, in the ALCS as well. I think the starting rotation is being vastly underrated, and the bullpen is among the best in baseball.

All potential success is linked back to continued youth development and health. The sky is quite literally the limit for this team, but the potentially devastating lineup depends on Yoan Moncada bouncing back from his COVID-induced 2020 struggles, Luis Robert continuing to form himself into the player everyone believes he can be, and consistency from Eloy Jimenez and Nick Madrigal. If the veterans can continue to produce, the White Sox, on paper, should have no problem winning 90+ games and making a playoff run. There are some legitimate depth concerns for the White Sox, but this team is absolutely built for short series victories.

Samiya: I’m expecting the White Sox to make a true run in the postseason. With their starting pitching rotation more dangerous than last year, the White Sox can up their amount of strikeouts per pitcher. Therefore, starting ace Lucas Giolito can have more help down the line in the season. The more efficient pitchers on a team increase their chances of clinching their division. Top-tier pitching rotation matters more than ever because of the pandemic. 

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Brett: Tough call. Overall, above average, B range, because after all, rebuilding doesn’t ensure future success, especially with the Sox being out-tanked by other teams and never even getting close to a No. 1 draft pick. A lot of gambles (Eloy Jiménez, Lucas Giolito, Aaron Bummer, Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal, Dallas Keuchel, re-signing José Abreu, Yoán Moncada, etc.) are paying off. More than average, probably. So you can’t dog the club too much.

But this last offseason? Very poor. Hiring La Russa was just ridiculous, particularly given all the highfalutin talk Rick Hahn made about having a true managerial search and listening to voices outside of the organization. Insular as ever; they haven’t had a true managerial search since 2003! Adam Eaton as your splash offensive signing … wait, as your only true offensive signing … is outright embarrassing, both on its face and having RUSHED to make that move on the first day of free agency, as if Eaton held some magic-bean intangibles rather than being a bit of an iconoclast and a jerk. Lance Lynn helps. Liam Hendriks helps. There weren’t many game-breakers in free agency this year, but that then speaks to past whiffs during the rebuild (Zack Wheeler, Manny Machado, and definitely Bryce Harper). Overall, let’s say a B. This past offseason, D.

Jordan: What an interesting – and loaded – question. I think the White Sox do a lot of very good things. I think the fan experience at the ballpark is great, and though it makes me a #HahnBot, I have generally favorable opinions of the GM, Rick Hahn. While the team felt stuck in the past analytically for quite some time, recent moves have made it clear the White Sox are working to catch up to the industry – this is both a positive and a negative (why the heck did it take so long?). Though the rebuilding years were tough, the White Sox have delivered a competitive team in the timeframe promised – though I will also get into this further shortly. It’s a legitimately fun team too – it’s an exciting time to be a White Sox fan.

That being said, where this team falters in my mind is in two main places: willingness to make “the move” to put a team over the top, and communication. The White Sox, for being in a big market like Chicago, have never shown a propensity to spend money, while simultaneously claiming that “the money will be spent.” When the White Sox had the opportunity to metaphorically “step on the throat” of the AL this year and assert their dominance in free agency, they walked away with a generally underwhelming, though passable, offseason. It’s fine, but when you say, “the money will be spent,” you’re making pretty big promises. It is this dichotomy between what is said and what is done that drives most White Sox fans – including myself – absolutely nuts. At least the Rays never pretend they’ll spend like the Yankees. Additionally, incidents like Chris Sale cutting up jerseys, the Adam/Drake LaRoche Saga, and the Manny Machado signing aftermath are frustrating moments where communication clearly got in the way of the organization. Much like with the La Russa hiring, it’s difficult to tell where the power lies in the organization, because it seems to shift depending on what the topic at hand is. Because of that power shift, what’s said one day might have to be walked back weeks later.

Overall, I give this organization a passing grade. I wouldn’t be surprised if some other Sox writers on this article gave less favorable opinions – certainly I can understand. The things that drive both most White Sox fans and myself nuts are here to stay, and they’ve been here for years. Perhaps it’s wrong of me to just accept those facts and move on – perhaps this is exactly what the organization wants me to do anyway. I always try to analyze this team knowing the constraints put on it. Because of this, and because of the product on the field this year, I can give this organization a passing grade. I’m choosing the Pass/Fail option intentionally, however, because I’m not sure what letter grade I would give it – and it would probably head lower down the list. Seriously, what a fascinating question.

Samiya: I would give the Chicago White Sox a B because of the Lance Lynn and Liam Hendriks signings. I’m also thinking about the farm system here. Andrew Vaughn is one to watch and the White Sox still have the same All-Star batting order that refuses to give up easily at the plate. I would be more inclined to give them an A- but the La Russa hiring did not seem like the best move to me. I’ve also would have appreciated one more pitcher for a great price like Taijuan Walker or a hitter with speed and power like Kike Hernandez.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Brewers9567.586 -
Cardinals9072.5565.0
Reds8379.51212.0
Cubs7191.43824.0
Pirates61101.37734.0

Last updated: 10/04/2021

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