How Worried Should the White Sox Be?

Tony LaRussa
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

On May 1, the Twins beat the Rays while the White Sox saw a late-inning comeback attempt against the Angels foiled. There was nothing particularly newsworthy about these games, but they did have a significant impact in the ZiPS projections: for the first time since early 2021, the White Sox were no longer the favorite to win the division.

Before the season started, ZiPS saw the AL Central as Chicago’s to lose, a calculation that was not going against the conventional wisdom. With a 61.9% projected chance of winning the division, ZiPS had the White Sox with the second-best divisional crown probability of any team in baseball on Opening Day, just below the Astros and their 62.8% chance of winning the AL West. And that projection had been even sunnier a month prior. When the lockout ended and we started Hot Stove League II: The Legend of Manfred’s Gold, ZiPS gave the White Sox a 10-game lead in the division and a 70.7% chance of finishing first in the Central. The ZiPS team was most worried about, from the point of view of the Pale Hose, it wasn’t the Twins, but the Guardians, a team that didn’t even project to reach the .500 mark.

Amid the flurry of moves leading up to the lockout, Minnesota was very quiet, with Dylan Bundy as the club’s “big” signing. But once the lockout lifted, the Twins got into gear, picking up Sonny Gray, Gio Urshela, Gary Sanchez, Chris Paddack, Emilio Paganand Isiah Kiner-Falefa and trade away Josh Donaldson, taylor rogers, various prospects, and… Isiah Kiner-Falefa. The Twins also shocked the baseball world by getting Carlos Correaone of the winter’s prime free agents, to sign a three-year contract worth $105.3 million, with opt-outs.

By the time all the roster shakeups and offseason moves finished, ZiPS had Minnesota’s 13-win shortfall against the White Sox down to just five wins. That’s a respectable cushion, but not one that will provide padding for all butts in all situations. And as I noted above, said cushion was all but gone by the beginning of May, though after two losses by the Twins and a win (and an off-day) for the White Sox, Chicago has narrowly taken back the lead in the projections :

ZiPS Projected Standings – Central AL (5/6)

Team W L UK pct div% WC% Playoff% WSWin%
Chicago White Sox 85 77 .525 44.8% 12.2% 57.0% 4.2%
minnesota twins 85 77 .525 41.1% 12.9% 53.9% 2.8%
Cleveland Guardians 80 82 5 .494 13.1% 8.0% 21.1% 0.7%
Detroit Tigers 71 91 14 .438 0.8% 0.6% 1.4% 0.0%
Kansas City Royals 68 94 17 .420 0.2% 0.2% 0.4% 0.0%

Chicago is the look and slight favorite right now, but that can hardly be taken as a victory considering it basically represents a quarter-of-a-division crown that has evaporated in the last two months.

Some, but not all of the differences can be attributed to injury. Yoan Moncada was injured the day I ran the projections, though it didn’t look significant at that point. Eloy Jimenez is out as well, likely for a couple of months at least, and lance lynn is yet to make a start. Andrew Vaughnone of the team’s few offensive bright spots, is also out with a bruised hand, though that looks far less serious than Jiménez’s hamstring.

But the Twins have their own recent injuries as well, in Gray, Bailey Ober, John Romero, Miguel Sano, and now Correa, who left Thursday’s game with a potentially fractured finger on his right hand. You always expect some injuries in the course of play; everyone being healthy isn’t the baseline expectation for anyone being realistic. The White Sox have good pitching depth that’s helped them survive Lynn’s absence and a brief IL stint by Lucas Giolitobut some of the offensive struggles (13th in the AL in runs scored) have to be chalked up to poor planning by the organization, and that’s not something you can attribute to poor luck.

Entering the season with a major hole at second base was a choice, not something fate thrust upon them. I thought at the time of the Craig Kimbrel trade that giving up Nick Madrigal was reasonable, something that many of you disagreed with at the time (and so far, it’s looking like I’m the loser in that debate). But my feelings about that trade would have been very different if you told me in advance that the White Sox were basically going to shout “Pass!” when it came to finding a replacement and would roll with a Leury Garcia/Josh Harrison combination. No team we projected with a winning record had a worse depth chart projection at second entering the season.

Similarly, in right field, our preseason depth charts had the Sox above only two other squads projected to finish above .500. picking-up A. J. Pollock was a good development, but the rest of the outfield consisted of two young players who missed a lot of time in 2021 with serious injuries (Jiménez and louis robert), Pollock has a lengthy injury history himself, and Vaughn was still a bit of a question mark. It only took a few injuries to stretch the team’s depth in both the infield and outfield.

Baseball’s new playoff system should have the White Sox determined to do more than coast to the divisional crown; with the weakest division winner put into a short wild-card round, ZiPS projected them as being the biggest loser in a 12-team playoff format. The good news is that, despite the problems so far, ZiPS sees Chicago’s decline in rest-of-season roster strength as a small one, from .531 to .527 before the strength of schedule is taken into consideration; the Twins have only improved from .508 to .509. The problem is that the good news is also bad news: ZiPS thinks that the relative strengths of the two teams aren’t drastically different than a month ago and still sees the division as a coin flip. To get the White Sox a comfortable division lead, you now have to think the White Sox are considerably better than their preseason projection.

White Sox Divisional Wins by Roster Strength

White Sox Roster Strength 2022 Division %
.480 17.4%
.490 22.2%
.500 27.7%
.510 33.7%
.520 40.1%
.527 (Current Projection) 44.8%
.530 46.6%
.540 53.2%
.550 59.7%
.560 66.1%
.570 72.2%
.580 77.6%

In short, the White Sox need to be better than they are now to regain the projected ground they lost. Even with a second wild card, that’s not necessarily a simple fallback position; ZiPS sees the average second AL wild card being an 89-win team and the average AL Central victor an 88-win team. What this means is that the Sox ought to be incentivized to be aggressive rather than reactive. Robinson Cano may be toast, but the chance that he isn’t is certainly worth the risk of a minimum salary. Don’t wait for another team to acquire Ramon Laureano in July before making an underwhelming counter-move; be the team that snags him in the first place, as quickly as possible. Get away from the idea that the contributions from any position are “enough” and adopt the mindset of brutally grabbing any opportunity that arises in the coming months. That’s what the Dodgers do.

The White Sox didn’t expect to be in a tight divisional race in 2022. They are now, and it’s time for them to act like it.

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