It's a week shy of three months since I wrote an article wondering whether fans could believe in the shock-high of the White Sox' 16-6 record, Chris Sale's 1.66 ERA, and Mat Latos's rediscovery of the form that had made him a valuable starting pitcher in Cincinnati. Since then, everyone involved has sobered up, painfully. Chicago is 46-47, Chris Sale is two weeks removed from one of the worst starts of his career, and Reds Mat Latos has pulled off the rubber mask to reveal that he was Marlins Mat Latos all along; the Sox cut him loose in mid-June. And then there's the disaster of the lineup.
So what happened, and what can the White Sox do about it? There are a lot of answers to the first part of that question. Every great, unexpected early-season performance that South Side fans hoped was a sign of a player turning a corner or unlocking his game turned out to just be…a great, unexpected early season performance. Opposing batters had a .480 OPS against Matt Albers in April, and he was a revelation; then they put up a 1.100 OPS against him in May, an .884 OPS against him in June, and a 1.778 (!) OPS against him in the very limited exposure he's had in July, and he was revealed as Matt Albers again. At least he'll always have June 1st.
But the White Sox didn't have very many great, unexpected early-season performances. They had a lot of solid but unremarkable production out of their hitters, expected greatness from the top of their rotation in Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, a shutdown late-inning guy in David Robertson, and the hope that the lineup would find its groove in time to dominate the AL Central.
To say the lineup has not followed through on the promise of April is to weaponize understatement. Todd Frazier's slightly above-average bat and acceptable defense make him the ninth or tenth best third baseman in the American League this year; Adam Eaton continues to hit like a centerfielder despite starting in RF everyday; Melky Cabrera is far and away the team's best producer at the plate with a 122 OPS+. Jose Abreu only gives fans occasional glimpses of the high-average, high-power game he brought to Chicago in 2014. Abreu's .747 OPS (103 OPS+) so far this year is entirely uninspiring from a first baseman who on merits should be the designated hitter. The actual DH, Avisail Garcia, has been hitting more like a shortstop; the catchers have been hitting more like pitchers; Brett Lawrie has been hitting like Brett Lawrie, and the best news White Sox fans have had in awhile is that Justin Morneau is finally healthy and in uniform, mainly because he reminds them that at least they're not Twins fans.
Tim Anderson, the 23-year-old shortstop that the Sox took in the first round of the 2013 draft, has at least held his own. Sort of. His OBP is under .300, but so far his slugging has made up for it. And he's a damn sight less depressing than the White Sox running 37-year-old Jimmy Rollins out there everyday, which is what was going on before Anderson was called up.
Meanwhile, lefthanded starter Carlos Rodon continues to struggle, former Oriole Miguel Gonzalez continues to pitch like he's still in Baltimore—it's not a compliment—and the aforementioned Latos has taken his freefall to the Nationals organization. Given the dispiriting baseball the White Sox have played over the past month, it's a testament to how well they started that they're only a game below .500. But what really stings is that the White Sox knew they'd started hot, knew they still needed another piece or two to keep paying it forward, and made a move to strike while the iron was hot—and all they got for their prescience was 2016 James Shields.
By all rights, James Shields should still be a decent pitcher. He's 34 years old, yes, but he never gets hurt, pitches smart, and never relied on overwhelming velocity to get outs—in short, seemingly the model of a guy who should find success, with adjustment, deep into his thirties. Instead, he turned into that guy's dark mirror: the aging pitcher who discovers to his mounting horror that the fastball that was acceptable at 92 miles per hour gets annihilated at 91, and it no longer matters how savvy he is or how well his breaking stuff works.
There are glimmers of hope on the margins, of course. Shields, for instance, has been horrid on the season, but over his last three starts he has a 2.08 ERA in 21.2 innings. Perhaps he's figured something out, or perhaps the Yankees, Braves, and Angels don't have great offenses this year. Reliever Nate Jones is still having a great year, and is locked into a long-term, team-friendly contract with lots of club options on the back end. Michael Ynoa, the 6-foot-7 24-year-old who came over from Oakland in a trade for Marcus Semien, has made it to the bigs and still has the stuff to be a dominant reliever, if not much in the way of command just yet. Jose Quintana has been his quiet, dependable, top-of-the-rotation self.
But that's not enough to save them this year. The Cleveland Indians are buzz-sawing through the Central, and Chicago needs to add at least two good everyday players and another starting pitcher to credibly challenge them. That's not going to happen this year.
It's tough for the White Sox to position themselves as sellers, too. Their most attractive rental is Frazier, given that Cabrera still has another year left on his contract. Sale, Quintana, Jones, Eaton, and Abreu are all locked in for three more years, at least, and given their years so far neither Eaton nor Abreu is likely to garner much enthusiasm from teams looking for a bat. And as disappointing as the year has been, it's honestly not a roster that needs to be blown up. There's a core that makes sense already in place. It's just not enough.
It might make sense, then, for the White Sox to both buy and sell, in extreme moderation. Dangle their relief arms on the market, say, from David Robertson on down, and see if there's a young hitter some team finds expendable—Texas's Jurickson Profar is the dream, here, but there are others. See if anyone needs a third team to make a trade work; three-team trading is how the White Sox got Eaton and Frazier in the first place. Add some guys just on the cusp of contributing, even if they don't have the most glamorous upside in the world. Chicago already has its stars.
The White Sox can still be a good team. It just might take them a bit longer to get there than it seemed in April.