Many thought the 2021 White Sox would be a strong contender for the AL Central title. This thinking was based on a deep, talented offense that would be among the very best in all baseball. With three Silver Slugger Award winners (Eloy Jimenez, Tim Anderson, and Jose Abreu) and the reigning AL MVP (Abreu) leading the way, the Sox figured to be an elite offense.
When one adds Luis Robert, a healthy Yoan Moncada, and Yasmani Grandal, the 2021 White Sox figured to have six lineup pieces that would anchor the potent offense. This was a reasonable thought process, and Sox fans anticipated big things for their team. They were going to put up so many runs that they might even run away with the Central. Yes, things were definitely looking up for the South Siders.
2021 White Sox: Down Goes Eloy
Then, on the eve of the beginning of the regular season, Eloy Jimenez suffered a horrific injury. Immediately, the Sox began to scramble to replace their second-best run-producer. This would not be an easy task, and in fact, Jimenez is irreplaceable in the Sox lineup. However, the show must go on, and somehow the Sox have to play somebody in left field and fill a big hole in the middle of the lineup.
A Multi-Tiered Dilemma for Tony LaRussa
The biggest issue created by Jimenez’s absence is obviously the run production he offered. His defensive struggles have been well-documented, and there will not be any problem replacing him in the field. Still, his absence leaves a void that LaRussa, GM Rick Hahn, and the Sox brain trust must find a way to fill. Big shoes to fill, indeed.
So, the first tier of the Sox dilemma is how to fill the hole in the lineup. During spring training, it was expected that rookie Andrew Vaughn would fill the DH role while Jimenez played left field. While some Sox fans were not thrilled with this idea, Vaughn’s performance in Arizona had convinced Sox brass that he was ready for the bright lights. Now, though, Vaughn has been penciled in as a left fielder.
Other DH options included young catcher Zack Collins, a lefty bat. Collins could serve a dual role, alternating between DH and backup catcher. Before the Eloy Jimenez injury, these seemed like the top DH options. So, when Jimenez went down, it created an opportunity for somebody to step up and contribute. Still, whoever replaced him would not come close to duplicating his production.
Additionally, the hole in left-field could have been filled by some combination of Leury Garcia, Adam Engel, and the new addition Billy Hamilton. However, Engel suffered a hamstring injury in spring training, and Hamilton also injured a hamstring last week and is on the DL as well. Add to that the fact that Anderson also pulled a hamstring in the first series of the season, and has been on the DL since April 5th. So, Garcia has been pressed into infield duty in the short run. So, the injuries have caused multi-layer problems for LaRussa in putting together a lineup for the 2021 White Sox.
The Next Layer: Youth and Inexperience
On top of the issues detailed above, LaRussa must deal with a fair amount of youth and inexperience. The 2021 White Sox features a mix of veterans and rookies, and this makes LaRussa’s job much more challenging. Vaughn has not played above High A ball, and spend last season in Schaumburg. Collins had a cup of coffee last year but had very limited at-bats. Second baseman Nick Madrigal has the most experience of the young players but has struggled mightily so far, particularly on defense. Don’t forget about Yermin Mercedes either. Though he is 28, he had a total of 1 MLB at-bat coming into spring training.
Of these four players, only Madrigal has assured a spot on the 26-man roster when spring training began. He was expected to be the everyday second baseman, and bat ninth for the 2021 White Sox. However, he has played poorly at times in the field and has made some mistakes on the basepaths as well. To this point, he has not demonstrated the baseball IQ many felt he had developed over the years. Many Sox fans are concerned, and some even believe that he is better served in Schaumburg or Charlotte.
While Madrigal’s challenges highlight the issues of youth and inexperience, Vaughn, Collins, and Mercedes compound the issues facing the 2021 White Sox. They are serious contenders not only in the Central but in the AL overall. Yet, they are also counting on younger, inexperienced players to make major contributions. LaRussa’s juggling of the lineup reflects the challenges involved in such a balancing act. For example, tonight, as the White Sox face reigning CY Young winner Shane Bieber, batting fifth in the lineup is none other than Nick Williams. Yes that Nick Williams, a nondescript player whose only apparent asset is that he is a lefty bat. This is just the most recent brutal lineup LaRussa has trotted out this season.
Williams’ presence in the lineup signifies the conflict facing Sox management. Many would argue that young players need to play to develop. Tonight both Vaughn and Collins are on the bench. It is hard for younger players to develop when they don’t get playing time. Reasonable fans could well believe that both Vaughn and Collins would be better off in Schaumburg of Charlotte. Yet, Charlotte will not begin to play for another three weeks, so that is not an option. So the Sox face the dilemma of trying to win now while also developing young players.
No Easy Solutions
To this point, Vaughn is averaging two plate appearances per game, while Collins is averaging 2.2 Plate appearances per game. Madrigal is at 2.9 plate appearances per game. Meanwhile, Mercedes will continue to get at-bats until he stops hitting. In any event, it is difficult to imagine any of these players developing without significant playing time. The brutal lineups the Sox have posted are not helping them to adjust to the major leagues. In one sense, though, they are a reflection of the reality facing the team at this point.
There is no doubt that the 2021 White Sox were built to win. Failure to at least win the Central will be a major disappointment for the team and its fans alike. However, what is the right way to play all of the rookies? Can the team wait for them to develop this year, or do the Sox need to add a veteran presence? More importantly, can LaRussa navigate this dilemma successfully and lead the Sox to a division title? Only time will tell, but the 2021 White Sox must at least acknowledge the issues they face, and be prepared to do what is necessary to get the team back to the playoffs.
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