The Chicago White Sox will be the most interesting team in baseball in 2021. Will they be the best team? Maybe. But most interesting? Absolutely.
They have the reigning American League Most Valuable Player in Jose Abreu. Shortstop Tim Anderson was seventh in the MVP voting after another stellar season.
Left fielder Eloy Jimenez, third baseman Yoan Moncada, and center fielder Luis Robert are among the better young players in the game.
They also have the makings of a strong rotation with Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, and Reynaldo Lopez.
It’s a team on the rise that unexpectedly went back in time by hiring 76-year-old Hall of Famer Tony La Russa as manager. La Russa hasn’t managed since 2011 but came back at the insistence of 84-year-old owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
To what degree La Russa can connect with players who are 50 years younger will be fascinating to follow.
The team’s resurgence also comes at a time when the Cubs are trimming payroll and resetting their roster following the departure of Theo Epstein.
The White Sox even have two of the best announcers in the game with Jason Benetti on television and Len Kasper coming over from the Cubs to do radio.
Add it up and it’s an exciting time on the South Side after what was a lengthy rebuilding period that included the trade of Chris Sale to the Red Sox.
“I don’t think we need to hang any signs on the side of 35th Street. But I think it’s pretty clear what our intentions are at this time. We feel the window is open and we’re now going to be aggressive in our efforts to try and put ourselves in the best position to win championships,” general manager Rick Hahn said.
That Hahn refers to multiple championships is sign of his confidence, especially considering the organization has one title in the last 103 years and hasn’t won a playoff series since 2005.
The White Sox made the playoffs as a wild card last season and had a 3-0 lead in the deciding Game 3 before falling to the Athletics. It was a sign of what’s to come.
“At any time, a good young group of players can take the next step and become a playoff team or even a dominant team,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said.
“Obviously the White Sox, by going to get Lynn and making a decision like that, it tells you what they’re in it for. They’re not messing around.”
The White Sox traded two prospects for Lynn, a reliable righthander who is regularly among the league leaders in innings. They also signed Adam Eaton to shore up right field.
Eaton was with the White Sox from 2014-16. He was traded to Washington on Dec. 7, 2016, for three pitching prospects.
Eaton returned four years and one day later. Now, at 32, he’s seen as a player with an edge who can help a young team get over the top.
“Rick and the organization has done a tremendous job at giving this team a really good chance to win,” Eaton said.
There are still some holes. The White Sox need a closer, a DH, and rotation depth.
Michael Kopech, who came over in the Sale trade, could help the rotation. Kopech underwent Tommy John surgery and missed all of 2019 then opted out of last season. He turns 25 in April and has much to prove.
Rookie Andrew Vaughn will get a chance to help the offense, likely as a DH with some games at first. Or Hahn could pluck a free agent off a crowded market of hitters.
“There’s always something else we can do,” he said.
La Russa was hired in late October. It quickly came out that he was facing a drunk driving charge in Arizona stemming from an incident in February.
La Russa pleaded guilty to reckless driving this past week. He was sentenced to one day of home confinement, a $1,383 fine, and 20 hours of community service.
La Russa was found guilty of a similar charge in 2007.
“Tony knows there is no safety net below him,” the team said in a statement. “There cannot be a third strike.”
La Russa, who was an adviser with the Red Sox from 2017-19, acknowledged he has to maintain his credibility.
“My goal now is to prove myself off the field as well,” he said.
On the field, La Russa returns to a sport now driven by analytically based decisions and populated by increasingly younger players less inclined to follow traditional rules of behavior.
There’s also pressure to win immediately.
“I appreciate that question and that’s one our club needs to confront,” La Russa said. “I think we’re serious contenders … it’s really important that we understand nothing is going to happen unless you make it happen.”
Everybody will be watching to see how it works.
“You prepare for how teams play the game and I can pretty much guarantee you that Tony La Russa, regardless of the last time he managed a game, still understands the game of baseball extremely well, like he always has,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said.
“We saw their younger players were starting to find their way in the league and not just survive but thrive. Now you add pitching and they’re going to be a handful.”
Blue Jays will try again with Guerrero
The Blue Jays aren’t giving up on the idea of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. playing third base.
The 21-year-old split time between first base and DH last season but has since lost 30-plus pounds. He worked out regularly at the team’s facility in the Dominican Republic before joining Escogido in the winter league.
“I’m so proud of Vladdy,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He’s working so hard this offseason. That’s why he’s playing winter ball, he wanted to get some reps at third base.”
Montoyo is keeping close tabs on Guerrero, talking to him once a week. It would benefit the Jays long term if Guerrero can return to third base, a much tougher position to find a productive hitter than first base or DH.
“You don’t close the door to a talent like that,” Montoyo said.
▪ It’s hard to imagine the Cardinals without Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Molina made his debut in 2004 and Wainwright in ’05.
But both are free agents, with Molina turning 39 in July and Wainwright 40 in August. The Cardinals value tradition, but everything has a price.
“I’m optimistic,” manager Mike Shildt said. “I don’t think I’m a blind optimist, but I’m optimistic by nature. Clearly I want them back … but everybody understands it’s a business.”
Shildt says he expects a decision soon.
Wainwright is said to be agreeable to a deal that suits both sides, Molina wants what he perceives as his value and is willing to explore the market.
Molina’s WAR has dropped four seasons in a row if you prorate his numbers from last season over a full schedule. He played for $20 million last season, twice as much as James McCann received on a per-year basis from the Mets.
▪ Shohei Ohtani will have made two starts over the previous 19 months by the time next season starts. How much can the Angels expect from him?
“He’s doing really well. I want [his name] to be in pen. It just depends on his health,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m hearing good stuff.”
Maddon suggested he would use a six-man rotation to accommodate Ohtani. The Angels, much like the Red Sox, are knocking on every door for starters.
Red Sox seeking creative moves
Before he agreed on a two-year, $5.25 million contract with the Dodgers, righthander Tommy Kahnle strongly considered the Red Sox.
Kahnle had Tommy John surgery on Aug. 4, so he’s unlikely to pitch in the majors next season. But the Dodgers will pay him $750,000 to rehab then increase his salary to $3.45 million in 2022.
At a cost of $2.63 million on their luxury-tax payroll, the Dodgers are betting Kahnle can get close to the form he showed from 2017-19 when he was one of the better setup men in the American League.
The Sox were willing to make a similar deal. Sources say they’re exploring other creative ways to use their payroll flexibility. With many teams cutting costs, the Sox could take on an onerous contract via trade if prospects are part of the package.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ The Sox replaced Dave Dombrowski with Chaim Bloom to go in a different direction philosophically. Yet both thought highly of Sam Fuld.
Fuld was a leading candidate to manage the Sox before the decision was made to bring back Alex Cora. Fuld remained with the Phillies and on Tuesday was promoted to general manager under Dombrowski.
Fuld (39), new Texas GM Chris Young (41), and new Cubs assistant GM Craig Breslow (40) represent somewhat of a trend of teams hiring former major leaguers in high-profile front office roles.
▪ Center field prospect Jarren Duran was 2 for 23 in his first eight games for Criollos de Caguas in the Puerto Rican Winter League. He was 10 of 18 in his next four games.
The 24-year-old Duran has filled up the stat line. He has 14 runs, 10 walks, 10 RBIs, and 6 stolen bases.
▪ The Sox traded lefthanded reliever Josh Osich to the Cubs on Aug. 31 for a player to be named later. Osich appeared in only four games before being designated for assignment on the last day of the season. He has since signed a minor league deal with the Reds.
The Sox have yet to collect that player to be named from the Cubs. There is a sixth-month window to complete the deal.
▪ Rafael Devers had a rough season defensively, right? But according to Sports Info Solutions, he tied for the major league lead with nine above-average plays on ground balls.
Devers also was charged with 14 errors (nine on throws) and graded out to minus-6 Defensive Runs Saved, tied for worst in the majors at third base.
Devers is capable of being a good third baseman. Having Cora back will go a long way in making that reality.
SIS also had Jackie Bradley Jr. leading the majors with above-average plays resulting in fly ball outs with eight. It remains a mystery why Bradley wasn’t at least a finalist for a Gold Glove.
Cash is living with Game 6
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli believes an entire book could be written about a manager making one decision in a playoff game given how many factors go into those calls.
“The more you dig into them, the more fascinating they become,” Baldelli said.
Rays manager Kevin Cash is still living with his decision to lift Blake Snell in Game 6 of the World Series while he was working on a one-hit shutout.
The Dodgers went on to score two runs in the inning and won the game, 3-1, to take the Series.
“I did grind on it. To some extent I still am,” Cash said. “Look, when you get so close to something that so many people had a hand in getting there and being a game away from getting to Game 7, who knows what would have happened?”
Cash believes it’s healthy that the decision is still something he thinks about.
“If I didn’t, I think there would be something wrong with that,” he said. “We all, in this job and this profession, really care about our decisions and try to learn from them.
“We care about our players more. I think it was important to reach out to Blake and talk as a group throughout the offseason to check on guys and where their head’s at.”
As Baldelli said, everybody involved in the game “has had a conversation or 10” about Cash’s decision.
Tigers manager A.J. Hinch got in touch with Cash, a good friend, after the Series to commiserate.
“I’ve been in that chair before where you have a tough decision,” Hinch said. “Some of them work out and then when it doesn’t, it’s the loneliest feeling in the world, especially on the big stage of the World Series.”
That Cash took Snell out of a World Series game drew a bigger spotlight. But it’s something managers deal with all season.
“They’re all agonizing decisions,” Cash said. “To pinch hit a guy, you’re basically saying to that hitter, ‘We think there’s somebody better on the bench, better equipped, in this moment than you are.’ That’s a tough thing to tell a professional who has worked so hard at his craft to come up in these moments.”
Terry Francona on the state of his health: “I’m doing OK. I’m still working hard and trying to get my weight down a little bit; so that will help. I’m feeling pretty good.” Francona, 61, missed 46 games last season because of gastrointestinal and subsequent blood clotting problems that led to four days in intensive care at the Cleveland Clinic. Francona also offered his thoughts about Cleveland deciding to move on from being the Indians. In his mind, the team couldn’t just cling to tradition. “Shoot, if we did that Jackie Robinson may have never played in the game of baseball,” Francona said. “Nobody was ever trying to be disrespectful. But that wasn’t a good enough answer anymore.” … Minor league baseball in New England took a hit when MLB announced its realignment plans earlier this month. The Lowell Spinners, Norwich (Conn.) Sea Unicorns, and Burlington (Vt.) Lake Monsters lost their affiliations. All four teams were members of the short-season New York-Penn League, which has essentially been dissolved … Howie Kendrick retired this past week after a 15-year career. Not bad for a 10th-round draft pick out of a community college in Florida. Kendrick played for eight playoff teams and drove in 12 runs over 17 games in the 2019 postseason for the Nationals. His grand slam off Joe Kelly won Game 5 of the Division Series against the Dodgers. Kendrick was then MVP of the NLCS before hitting the go-ahead home run in Game 7 of the World Series … Happy 32nd birthday to Rick Porcello. He was 73-55 with a 4.43 ERA for the Red Sox from 2015-19 and had a 3.72 ERA in eight postseason games. Since 2009, his rookie year, Porcello is seventh in the majors in innings (2,096⅓), sixth in wins (150), and fifth in starts (351). David Aardsma is 39. He appeared in 47 games for the Sox in 2008. Aardsma is first in alphabetical order in team history, sneaking in just ahead of Don Aase.