White Sox Face Tough Decisions Crucial to their Postseason Hopes

For the first time since 2012, the Chicago White Sox are in the thick of a playoff race in the month of September, entering Thursday with a 22-15 record, trailing the Cleveland Indians by just one game for first place in the American League Central. After losing two-of-three to the Minnesota Twins this week, the White Sox are just a half-game ahead of their division rivals from the Twin Cities.

After an exciting 8-5 victory over Minnesota in Monday night’s series opener, the White Sox were all alone at the top of the mountain, with a game over Cleveland and two-and-a-half games over the Twins in the standings.

Then came something concerning.

The White Sox dropped a pair of games to Minnesota and looked pretty bad in doing so. After Dallas Keuchel battled a stomach bug through five laborious innings, all other facets failed the club. The offense stranded 11 baserunners, the defense was sloppy, and the oft-overworked bullpen — namely Jimmy Cordero — allowed the Twins to take a late lead and top the Pale Hose by a narrow 3-2 mark, evening the series up.

On Wednesday night, with a series victory a must, the White Sox sent Reynaldo Lopez to the mound to oppose Minnesota ace, Jose Berrios. Before the game, former White Sox skipper and current pre-post game host, Ozzie Guillen said that Lopez was the last person he’d like to see take the ball in that contest, and the struggling right-hander proved why early in the ballgame.

Lopez surrendered back-to-back hits to Max Kepler and Josh Donaldson, both hard-hit balls back up the middle, and then walked Jorge Polanco to load the bases for Nelson Cruz. Lopez got a favorable called strike two and then eventually a swing-and-miss to retire Cruz, and then escaped the inning by way of a 4-6-3 double play off the bat of Eddie Rosario. Lopez would only last 1.2 innings on Wednesday night, allowing three runs (one earned) on four hits, two walks, and two strikeouts.

Twins' trio of homers knocks White Sox from first place | INFORUM
Photo: Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

Despite his Harry Houdini act in the opening frame, Lopez was once again just not good enough, and worse yet a set up his bullpen to absorb 6.1 innings of work in a big game. Folks, I was one of the biggest fans of Reynaldo Lopez’s “stuff” when he was acquired in the Adam Eaton trade, but it’s time to pull the plug on this project.

Taking Inventory

The White Sox are in uncharted waters for everyone on this roster, this is winning time, this is what a pennant race feels like. Suffocating night-to-night pressure, an overwhelming pressure that will force the cream to rise to the top, and rise quickly. It’s time for the White Sox to realize that they can’t spend seasons at a time experimenting with things and coddling people’s egos anymore. Those days are gone, and it’s time for them to take inventory of what they have right now, and if something isn’t working, change it.

Reynaldo Lopez and the Starting Rotation

We’ll start with Reynaldo Lopez, who should have seen his final game in the White Sox rotation come in Wednesday night’s loss to Minnesota.

Lopez just isn’t cutting it. His 8.38 ERA is just the beginning of the dreadful numbers. He’s sporting a troubling 23.1 percent home runs per fastball rate to go along with a 2.79 HR/9 mark according to Fangraphs. His walk rate is through the roof (7.45 BB/9) and he’s yet to make it beyond four innings of work in any one start. He’s walking hitters at an alarming rate, giving up the long ball, and taxing the bullpen mercilessly.

But to say that Lopez isn’t the answer isn’t the hard part, the hard part is naming a potential solution to the problem that can step in and contribute today.

I’ve seen a lot of, “they should stretch Matt Foster out,” talk on the internet. That’s not a viable solution. Foster has never made a start at any point in his professional career until this season when he made a pair for the White Sox with both of the two starts being in an opener capacity. Additionally, the bullpen is taxed, and it’s showing lately. Leave Foster in the ‘pen, they’re going to need all the help they can get down the stretch.

In a perfect world, Carlos Rodon and Gio Gonzalez come off of the Injured List soon, and Rodon assumes Lopez’s spot in the rotation, while Gio Gonzalez works long relief out of the bullpen, even piggy-backing Rodon like he did for Lopez. But, as 2020 has so painfully reminded us all, we don’t live in a perfect world so the White Sox need to take a look at what other internal options they have this season.

With no minor league season in 2020, the White Sox are relegated to what they have at their alternate site in Schaumburg. Bernardo Flores Jr. isn’t going to get anyone overly excited like Dane Dunning did a few weeks back, but he’s a left-hander with the age and experience who has a history of being a big-time strike-thrower.

Outside of Flores, you’re really going out on a limb in expecting that anyone else in Schaumburg is capable of jumping into a rotation spot at this point.

Battered Bullpen

To the surprise of many, the bullpen has been a major strength for the White Sox for the better part of the first 30-ish games, but continued abbreviated performances by the starting rotation have taken its toll on the relief corps. Jimmy Cordero showed us that with no uncertainty this week.

As Xavier Sanchez pointed out on Twitter on Wednesday night, Cordero’s recent stretch has shown signs of fatigue.

With the appearances piling up, the strikeouts are down, the long ball and the runs are up.

With Aaron Bummer out, and the bullpen being forced into long outings on a frequent basis, the White Sox will have to hope for one of two things (or both, preferably) to happen;

  • Carlos Rodon can take Reynaldo Lopez’s spot in the rotation and give the team six-to-seven innings every fifth day. He doesn’t have to mow the opponent down by trying to be too cute, but he needs to keep his offense in the game and give the bullpen a break. If he can’t, then Gio Gonzalez will need to be healthy enough to act as a bridge between Rodon and the bullpen.
  • Take a look at what Schaumburg has to offer in the way of relief arms. The aforementioned Bernardo Flores Jr. Ian Hamilton and Jose Ruiz are each in Schaumburg and on the 40-man roster. Beyond the 40-man the White Sox can take a look at Tyler Johnson, Kodi Medeiros, or even first-rounder Garrett Crochet. Crochet’s stuff and ability to contribute at the next level immediately was the talk of the June MLB Draft, and I personally spoke with Tennessee Head Coach Tony Vitello, and he emphatically confirmed that Crochet could handle a late-season bullpen role in 2020.

I don’t know what the answer is right now, but I know that there’s an answer that needs to be found for this bullpen if the club expects it to perform down the stretch. The rotation as a whole has to do a better job of protecting them, and the White Sox should look for some fresh arms to supplement the growing level of fatigue at the major league level.

Offensive Struggles

As a whole, the offense has been nothing short of breathtaking for the majority of the season, and their standing among the top of nearly every offensive metric in the game is evidence of such.

That being said, watching Nomar Mazara and Edwin Encarnacion serve as automatic outs for the majority of their plate appearances is rapidly ascending from the “give them time,” stage to the, “they need to go,” stage. Nomar Mazara came to Chicago as a guy that had a ton of home run potential but struggled with sometimes pounding the ball into the ground too frequently, and left-handed pitching as a whole.

Well, now he does just about nothing but hit the ball on the ground, and has been bad against left-handed and right-handed pitching. Through 24 games Mazara is yet to leave the yard, has just 17 hits (14 singles) in 83 plate appearances, and is striking out at an alarming 31.3 percent clip. He’s looked worse than advertised (and that wasn’t much) as a defender in right field, and he’s a ground ball candidate 50 percent of the time according to Fangraphs.

Edwin Encarnacion, whom the White Sox hoped would add to their barrage of power bats this season, has been only slightly better than Mazara. Despite somehow running into six home runs this season, Encarnacion has done nothing else well. He’s striking out at a 31 percent clip, he’s slugging just a tick over .400, and he’s been good for -0.2 fWAR through 106 plate appearances.

So, what’s the solution?

Let’s start with Encarnacion’s DH spot in the lineup. 2019 first-round draft pick Andrew Vaughn is just a drive away in Schaumburg, and I find it nearly impossible to believe that Vaughn isn’t capable of doing better than what we’ve seen out of Encarnacion thus far.

Bringing Vaughn into the mix gives the White Sox a better hitter at each of their respective stages in their career, and he can hit lower in the lineup instead of being handcuffed to the 5-6 spots as Encarnacion has. He can assume the bulk of the DH at-bats while sharing some with catcher James McCann who needs more at-bats. Also unlike Encarnacion, Vaughn can spell Abreu at first base defensively without taking Abreu’s bat out of the lineup.

This is the simpler fix of the two without question, and adding Vaughn to the fold in Encarnacion’s place gives the White Sox substantially more flexibility with their lineup.

As far as right field is concerned, at this point you can give all the at-bats to Adam Engel, hit him ninth, and still get equal or better offensive production compared to Mazara while receiving a substantial upgrade defensively.

Pulling the Trigger

Rick Renteria takes a lot of heat for the game-day decisions, and rightfully so to an extent. He’s the manager, and he puts the lineup card together and makes the in-game decisions. But, he doesn’t decide — at least in whole — what personnel he has to work with, so the onus is on the front office to recognize that there are a few glaring issues right now that could very well sink any hope of a playoff run in 2020.

The front office needs to make some tough decisions, and they need to make them sooner than later, or 2020 might soon start to feel a whole lot more like September of 2012 than anyone would like to see.

Featured Photo: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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