If I had told you before the season that nobody in the AL Central would be much above .500 by the end of July, you might not have been too surprised. You probably would have assumed, though, that the collective failure to break away from the pack would result in a cluster of teams near the division lead. The Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Guardians, and Chicago White Sox for sure, and maybe even the Detroit Tigers.
As it turned out, the Tigers aren’t really at that level, yet. They will probably improve quite a bit from last year’s 66-96 record, and, more importantly, seem to have identified a couple of pitchers who will be part of the next contender in Detroit. So, even if their final record isn’t great, the Tigers after this season will feel like progress has been made.
There will be no such feeling in Chicago. Instead, the White Sox front office will be asking what the heck happened. It wasn’t that long ago that we all thought the White Sox were set up to dominate this division for most of this decade. Now they find themselves looking up in the standings at three teams who appear to be more talented despite having lower payrolls and younger rosters.
On the surface, things should be going better for the Chicago White Sox
Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez, and Jake Burger have been great, and Andrew Vaughn, Andrew Benintendi, and Yasmani Grandal have been decent. But the White Sox are 22nd in MLB in runs scored, mostly because they are last in walks and lacking in team speed. One weird stat that symbolizes the dysfunction of this offense is that Robert, despite being second in the league in home runs and posting an OPS of .880, is on pace to drive in fewer than 100 runs. That’s because he hits behind Tim Anderson, who has an on-base percentage of .285.
The pitching is an even bigger disappointment. The original five-man rotation of Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech, and Mike Clevinger has made 95 of the 104 starts so far this season. Compare that to Cleveland, where the original five starters have made a total of 51 starts, and you would think the White Sox would doing better than 24th in team ERA. Alas, that is where they find themselves. Cease’s ERA is nearly two runs higher than last year. They have already traded Giolito, who has been their best starter, and Lynn, and there aren’t a lot of prospects ready to fill those holes.
Is there a path back to contention for this iteration of the White Sox, as soon as next year? If you still believe that guys like Vaughn, Yoan Moncada, and Gavin Sheets can reach the level we originally expected them to reach, then maybe. Among the core offensive players, only Anderson and catcher Yasmani Grandal are over 30, so tearing the roster down might mean selling low on guys who still have growth potential.
Therein lies the key decision. If this is the extent of the selloff, Chicago could replace the pitchers they have traded by signing free agents in the offseason and try again next year with the same core. After all, as bad as they have been, they are still only 12.0 games out in the mediocre AL Central. But they now have two years of evidence that this core just doesn’t win games. At least, they need to find some guys who can get on base consistently — they are currently 29th in on-base percentage.
The reality, though, is that the White Sox thought that guys like Sheets, Moncada and Vaughn would be stars by now, and there’s little evidence to suggest that is still likely. If they continue to perform as they have the past year-plus, there isn’t really a path for this team to improve. If that’s the case, a complete teardown might be the only path to contention.