This wasn’t the finish the White Sox had in mind.
Eliminated from the 2021 postseason with a 10-1 loss in the fourth game of the division series against the Astros, the Sox have now failed to win every playoff series they’ve been in since 2005.
This year was supposed to be different though. On paper, the roster going into the season was one of the strongest in the American League, and the Sox front office made savvy moves at the trade deadline to get better. In theory, they did everything right.
The Sox led the American League Central for almost the entire season and clinched early, giving them a chance to rest players and prepare to face Houston in the first round. But when the division series came, the results weren’t there.
Despite the right roster moves and a seemingly ideal situation heading into the playoffs, the Sox fell almost completely flat against the Astros. They slugged a measly .376 on offense and their starting pitching staff posted a 10.22 ERA.
Sometimes teams fail in the playoffs despite having nearly all the right pieces in place.
In the Sox’ case, they are now shifting to 2022 — manager Tony La Russa has already said he wants to manage the team again next year — and there are a few spots on the roster where they still have some room to improve for next season.
At the trade deadline, the Sox picked up Cesar Hernandez from Cleveland in a move meant to try and fill the void left at second base when Nick Madrigal went down with a season-ending injury. Hernandez was expected to add some pop to the lineup — he had 18 home runs on the season before the trade — but instead he slugged .299 in the second half of 2021. There’s a $6 million club option for 2022 if the Sox decide to keep Hernandez.
Otherwise, second base is a glaring position of need. Hernandez was meant to address that, but he did not perform to expectations. The Sox no longer have Madrigal as an option because he was traded to the Cubs for Craig Kimbrel on July 30.
If the Sox choose to fill this spot via free agency, there will be viable options. Josh Harrison is 34 but coming off of a strong season split between the Nationals and A’s. He could be had for cheap and would fill the void at second base at least temporarily.
Jurickson Profar is coming off of a down year with the Padres, but if he chooses not to exercise his player option, the Sox could pursue the 28-year-old. Otherwise, the Dodgers’ Chris Taylor is set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2022.
Moving past second base into right field, the Sox have another spot in their lineup that needs consistency. Leury Garcia has filled in admirably as a utilityman, but the Sox need an everyday right fielder.
The most intriguing option here would be if the Reds’ Nick Castellanos chooses to use his player option to opt out of the rest of his contract. Castellanos had a phenomenal 2021 campaign — .939 OPS and a career-high 34 home runs — so this winter might be the best time for him to see what he can make in free agency. The Sox had a $140 million payroll in 2021, already well below the luxury tax threshold, so they will have more than enough room to offer the kind of contract Castellanos would be looking for.
If Castellanos chooses to stay in Cincinnati, the Sox could turn to Michael Conforto. The Mets’ right fielder is going to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but he is not coming off of a strong season. Conforto had his lowest OPS since 2016 this year, but he has spent his entire career in New York thus far, so a change of scenery might do him good.
The Sox do have some intriguing internal options at both positions. Andrew Vaughn played a little bit of everywhere in 2021, including 118 1/3 innings in right field and a handful at second base. Gavin Sheets played quite a bit of right field during the regular season too, and he was one of the only Sox batters to hit for any power during the division series.
Beyond those two, Romy Gonzalez made his major league debut in 2021 and spent some time at both second base and in right field. Guys like Micker Adolfo and Blake Rutherford reached Triple-A this year and would both be alluring choices if the Sox decided to fill the right field spot from within the organization.
Reports have already circulated that the Sox plan to pick up Kimbrel’s 2022 option of $16 million and then shop him around this winter, but given how much Kimbrel struggled after being traded from the Cubs, that might be a hard sell. The experiment of carrying two top-tier closers in Kimbrel and Liam Hendriks did not work out, and despite Kimbrel being the all-time active saves leader they seem intent on keeping Hendriks as the team’s closer.
Finally, though La Russa has said he wants to stick around and manage the team again in 2022, it is tough for him to make the case that he deserves consideration. The team won 93 games, the most for them since the 2005 championship club, but the Sox more or less coasted through the second half. They may not have sunk into full complacency, but no team looked more lackluster in the first round of the playoffs than Chicago.
This might not be entirely La Russa’s fault, but it does not appear as if he helped his team to play with purpose even while leading the division in July, August, and September, and that caught up to them in October.
All of these questions come marked with the caveat of impending labor negotiations, but the Sox are well-positioned to be good again in 2022, but if they want to start winning playoff series again, it’s time to bolster the roster even further.