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How Far Can the 2020 Chicago White Sox Go?

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

As things stand as we end the Labor Day weekend, the White Sox are in much better position than I, and likely most people outside of the building at 35th and Shields, would have imagined.  Yes, this team had plenty of optimism surrounding it with a big offseason, but you still had to pair that optimism with the fact that this was a 72 win team last season that was depending on big jumps from several young players.

Well, here we are past Labor Day and the White Sox are a first place team, tied for the second best run differential in baseball, and in position for the second seed in the American League playoffs.  What a wonderful world!

AL Central Standings, 9/7/2020 (via mlb.com)

Of course, it goes without saying that a large part of their ascent has come against teams they are supposed to beat – namely, divisional opponents in the Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals, along with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  When the schedule first came out, this looked to be the weak underbelly of the schedule, and it has lived up to that billing.

They still have one series remaining against both the Twins and the Indians, as well as the Cubs to close the season.  Done now are the Royals, against whom the Sox went 9-1 in an absolutely dominant stretch this season.  In a sign that is certainly concerning until the trend is reversed, the only real tough stretch the Sox saw over the last three-ish weeks was dropping two in a row to close out the series in Minnesota.  While they took one, dropping two of three to the preseason divisional favorite is always a development that induces some semblance of worry for what happens come playoff time.

Still, the stretch the White Sox recently went on cannot be overlooked as purely beating up on lesser opponents.  After sweeping the Royals in Kansas City, the Sox have won 16 of 20 after an ugly doubleheader loss against the Cardinals.  In any season, that type of stretch can push you into playoff position, let alone when that makes up 1/3 of the 60 game season.  Yes, they have looked better against bad teams, but that is what good teams do – they take care of business in games they are supposed to.

So, as we stand right now, it’s fair to ask the question of just who the 2020 White Sox are.  While they are seemingly locked for a playoff spot, with half the league making the playoffs this year that isn’t the accomplishment it usually is.  How this season will ultimately be judged will be based on how the postseason plays out for the White Sox.

As I mentioned on last week’s Shoeless Goat Podcast, I’m not saying World Series or bust.  A World Series is obviously the goal, but with the randomness of October paired with a young team with several questions, that isn’t a realistic baseline.  In that same thought, a first round exit where they look overmatched would also be unacceptable.  So, the fair expectation for a satisfying end to this season has to be somewhere in the middle.

Simply put, this White Sox team is too good to settle for anything else.  Despite the quiet nature of the trade deadline, they are certainly better than a one and done 7-8 seed and should be judged accordingly.  Everyone knows how good they are offensively.  Currently, the Sox rank top 5 in all of baseball in OPS, Slugging Percentage, Batting Average, Runs Scored, and Home Runs.  There is no question of their rank with the bat in their hands.

Pitching, both in the rotation and out of the bullpen, has always seemed to be what will determine if this team is a contender or a fringe playoff squad.  Thus far, that has been the main surprise of this team.  Despite some questions around the depth and reliability of the back end of the bullpen, the starting rotation has outperformed expectation so far.  While it is likely weighted by the dominant seasons of Dallas Keuchel and Lucas Giolito, you don’t rank in the top 10 in MLB in starter average against, home runs allowed, and ERA without good performances in slots 3-5.

Likewise, the bullpen has been extremely productive so far this year, despite the recent fall from flat out dominant over the last few weeks.  The biggest question surrounding both the rotation and bullpen is, and will remain, how does the depth play come October?

For the rotation, how a playoff rotation will look behind Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel is anyone’s guess.  Dane Dunning has been good, but still only has three starts under his belt.  Dylan Cease has some concerning peripherals, Gio Gonzalez is hurt, Carlos Rodon is yet to return to the rotation, and Reynaldo Lopez has been given a (likely) one way ticket to Schaumburg.  Dallas Keuchel’s back, if at all limiting for him, would obviously be a huge hit to the rotation.

In the bullpen, Alex Colome has looked great for the most part, and so have several others.  However, with Aaron Bummer possibly done for the year, the rest of the bullpen will have to play to their max potentials to carry the team through high leverage games one after another come October.  With a shaky rotation behind the top two, how much is left in the tank for the bullpen come playoffs will also be a concern.

Still, even with all that, it needs to be remembered that these White Sox are a bona fide playoff team.  While not obviously as dominant as the Dodgers, this team certainly belongs in October.  Despite all of the questions and concerns, there is no reason this team can’t make a run to at least a down-to-the-wire ALDS in October.  Expecting anything less would be not being realistic about how well this team has played over an extended period of time this season.

If the pitching staff can hold up and find some magic (a la 2005), there really is no limit to where this team can go this year.  The likelihood of that remains to be seen, but hey, just get to the dance and see what happens.  After 12 years of being on the outside looking in, I’ll take what we can get.

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