The last three years have been pretty tough for Chicago baseball fans. Cubs fans saw their team’s best chance at a World Series title this decade end rather anticlimactically with a Mets sweep in the NLCS. White Sox fans have faced disappointment, too, but under much different circumstances. The Sox haven’t finished less than seventeen games back in any of the past three seasons and haven’t made the playoffs since both Chicago teams did so in 2008. While Sox fans have seen the rise of the Cubs farm system and the development of sluggers like Anthony Rizzo over the last few years, they haven’t had too much to cheer about on the South Side of Chicago.
That is, until now.
The White Sox have started out hot, claiming first place in the American League Central, a position that has eluded them for the majority of the decade. Thank to two separate winning streaks of six games and five games in April, the White Sox have jumped out to that division lead and maintained it through a mid-May cooldown.
However, it’s clear that the White Sox will need more than just a hot start to make the playoffs. The Tigers have the pieces to turn around their sluggish start and a strong Indians squad could pose a threat as well. And of course there’s the reigning World Series champs, the Kansas City Royals, who are absolutely capable of competing at the top of the division.
The Sox are going to have to keep up their winning ways, and no, they can only start Chris Sale every five games.
So here’s what they need to do if they want to make their playoff dreams a reality:
1. Adjust the outfield
Currently, two-thirds of the White Sox outfield is reliable. Melky Cabrera in left field is going to be one of their most productive offensive forces this season and Adam Eaton will also play a vital role defensively, as well as at the top of the lineup. But the weakest link is in in Chicago’s center field. Austin Jackson cannot be the White Sox everyday center fielder if they are serious about making the playoffs.
The Sox could easily move Adam Eaton back to center field, where he started 144 games for Chicago last season, and play Avisail Garcia in right field. The Sox would then have to place a new designated hitter in their lineup, which may take some experimentation. Jerry Sands may be a guy who will emerge to take that spot if he can prove himself. Maybe Alex Avila will return to his old Silver Slugger-winning self. If one of those guys gets on a little hot streak, it may be their spot to keep for the rest of the year.
2. Make an acquisition
The White Sox bench is a little thin. To remain contenders, the Sox have to make a trade to either add depth at a specific position, or simply to add a utility guy. Often times we see teams making a surprising playoff run acquire a player at the trade deadline who helps them in the second half of the year (most recently Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets). I think the White Sox could do the same thing, except maybe not with a star like Cespedes. Perhaps the Sox bring in a guy who has a “win now” mindset or is approaching the end of his career and hopes to make one last playoff run. I’d be interested to see if the White Sox pursue a guy like Carlos Beltran for their aforementioned outfield, or if they try to add utility by adding someone like Chris Coghlan.
Chicago may also go the route of acquiring a player on a one-year deal in hopes of getting a bargain. They may be able to go after a guy like Josh Reddick, who is eligible for free agency following the season, if they can get him cheap enough. If they don’t have to give up that much on the front end, a player like Reddick may be valuable, even if it is for just a portion of the season.
3. Have a strong third starter emerge
Right now, Chicago has the hottest pitcher in the American League with Chris Sale, followed in the rotation by one of the most underrated pitchers in the AL with Jose Quintana. While both may not be able to maintain their sub-2.00 ERAs, it’s likely that they will still remain as the strongest starters in the rotation. Unfortunately, there are three other starting pitchers that need to be on the roster, and out of the ones currently in the rotation, not one has an ERA under 4.00.
While it’s easier said than done, a third starter needs to emerge from the jumble at the bottom of the rotation. Playoff caliber teams now have number four and number five starters who are capable of pitching near the top of the rotation. Organizations like the Cubs and Mets have four or five starters that they can throw and still feel good about their chances of winning.
With John Danks out of the picture, the White Sox will most likely look towards Mat Latos or Carlos Rodon to fill that number three role. Statistically, Rodon has played thus far, and has more upside than Latos moving forward. Latos is just two years removed from a 3.25 ERA in sixteen starts with the Reds, but has struggled mightily with three other ballclubs before joining the White Sox. As a last resort, Chicago may try to make a trade for a starter at the deadline, but it’s unclear as of now what big name hurlers would be available.
I think the White Sox need to make these adjustments because this may be their best chance at the playoffs for a while. Their farm system has been below average for the last couple of seasons and they don’t have guys waiting to be called up in the minors. Chris Sale is untouchable right now, probably on pace for the Cy Young, while Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier are forming a killer one-two punch. It would be a shame not to have those guys in the postseason. If they tweak a few things, the playoffs are definitely in reach, and maybe even more than that. I’m certain that no batter wants to see Chris Sale throwing in October.