Injuries running rampant, strange lineups, abysmal defense, and questionable bullpen management is not the way anyone predicted the 2021 White Sox season would begin. The White Sox have completed their first eight games in 2021 (or perhaps nine by the time you’re reading this). Is it time to panic about Tony La Russa? Let’s pull out the grade book and discuss from the comfort of your couch instead of a tiny desk at school.
A rough start against the Angels, a split with the Mariners and a winning start against the Royals has left me feeling a little concerned. Not the hair on fire/fire everyone type of concern, but a little panic about how La Russa is handling the team.
On paper (and a plaque in Cooperstown), La Russa is an accomplished Hall of Fame baseball manager and bullpen wizard, but this is not the 1983 White Sox and La Russa seems to have a bit of a learning curve after a decade away. This is 2021, and the White Sox were considered a contender for the World Series. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but his early returns are a little lackadaisical.
2021 White Sox vs. Angels Series
Let’s start with the series against the Angels. I think the downfall of this series began with not knowing that he was able to challenge in the seventh inning or that he only had 20 seconds to do so. A play with Nick Madrigal clearly safe resulted as an out and a pan to the dugout displayed a confused La Russa and no action. It led to a shift in momentum and the slow decline of Zack Collins bunting as a DH.
The second game, while exciting to watch with Yermin Mercedes going 5-5 in his first start for the 2021 White Sox, Jose Abreu’s first grand slam of the season and plenty of insurance runs, was still at times execrable.
In the year 2021 (not to be confused with 2011), La Russa decided to walk Albert Pujols, a decision that had everyone watching scratching their heads. He then pulled Matt Foster and put Liam Hendriks in for the eighth inning. Perhaps he was testing his bullpen to see what they would do in high-stakes situations, but as Shohei Ohtani hit a two-run home run, I realized his plan would’ve cost the White Sox the game if it wasn’t for the insurance runs tacked on earlier.
By game three I realized the defense was lackluster and the team dynamic from 2020 and even towards the end of Spring Training this year had exited through the gift shop at Angels Stadium. The cherry on top was not putting the very expensive bullpen arm or a trusted arm in the game just in case he needs to save the game IF the White Sox actually took the lead. Instead of Hendriks, Jose Ruiz was warming up. Even if you ignore how much Hendriks got paid, he’s still the best relief arm in the pen and should have been the one to at least attempt a save.
2021 White Sox vs. Mariners Series
The Mariners series was thankfully not as excruciating to watch, though the bags under my eyes from being on Eastern time would paint a different picture. The defense continued to fall apart and despite plenty of runs and a promising performance by Carlos Rodon, it was apparent that La Russa had lost control. As the saying goes "Ricky’s boys don’t quit," but now Tony"s boys can’t even seem to get going.
I resonated with Dallas Keuchel dropping the F word on the mound during game three against the Mariners. Errors became inexcusable between Nick Madrigal and Adam Eaton, showing that the young kid is in over his head and La Russa’s trusted veteran is going after balls that Luis Robert should catch instead.
La Russa allowed Matt Foster to stay in and face Kyle Seager with bases loaded after he passed the 25 pitch mark. As Foster hit 34 pitches, it became more obvious that he is starting to regress and needs to repeat a few classes at the Ethan Katz Academy, though that was not entirely on him. Why La Russa thought keeping him in that long still has me wondering.
As I watched the Mariners tie and eventually take the lead, scoring seven earned runs I wondered why Rick Renteria was let go for his "poor" bullpen management but this sixth inning meltdown would be ignored by the man that writes the checks. After that frustration, confusion and chagrin took over and I wondered why a team that drew 10 walks still lost the game.
Could Hendriks have saved that if he was just put in a little earlier? (Yes, I know how relief pitchers work.) But was this high stakes enough to bring Hendriks or even Aaron Bummer in to save the game and let someone like Garrett Crochet finish the game? I think so. It’s time to normalize bringing in your top relief pitcher when things get out of control. Thankfully, La Russa agreed with my sentiment. Extra credit points for the accountability.
2021 White Sox vs. Royals Series
I had my doubts about the lineup and La Russa claiming Andrew Vaughn was not a core player while adding Nick Williams. However, the pitching was laudable (and Lance Lynn was the first to make it to six innings and beyond), the defense did not appear to be on fire and the White Sox were happy to be home in front of a sell-out crowd, my half-empty outlook shifted. While I can"t properly grade the bullpen due to Lynn pitching through eight innings because of a complete game shutout(!!), La Russa hopefully learned his lesson from the road games.
2021 White Sox: Tony La Russa"s Early Grade
La Russa might be a well respected Hall of Fame manager, but as I’ve previously stated, he was not the best pick for the White Sox. A playoff caliber team needed someone that has managed in this decade. While I will remain cautiously optimistic about this team and ultimately hope that I’m forced to eat my words this fall, La Russa’s grade for the first few games, a sample size if you will, is a C. Not the worst, but certainly has room for improvement. Perhaps my review will change once certain players are back on the field and off the IL.
If he struggles to manage what was once called a mighty bullpen just weeks ago, perhaps remind players to stretch their hamstrings prior to game time or put out the defensive fires, I fear the promising season for this talented team will be for naught. As much as injuries have plagued this team (notably Eloy Jiminez, Adam Engel, Tim Anderson and now Billy Hamilton), La Russa’s job is also to build the team morale and create sensible lineups. Here"s hoping it’s just opening week jitters and the 2021 White Sox end up on top.
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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images