Here lie the 2021 Chicago White Sox. A team that was saddled with World Series aspirations by their front office before they even took the field. It was a team that battled adversity and controversy for six months and gave fans some moments we will never forget. In the end, however, we are left with an empty feeling as the team's season ended with a whimper at the hands of the Houston Astros in the ALDS.
This team was a lightning rod on social media for a variety of different reasons, so there was no shortage of storylines that followed this group. It's hard to go back through all of this without expending a tremendous amount of energy, and I'm sure you probably don't have the willpower to sit through 3-4K words to dissect it all. There were some key themes that were relatively constant during the course of this year, though. So let's take a look back through it.
Going back to last October when Ricky Renteria was dismissed as the team's manager and the decision was made by Jerry Reinsdorf to install his pal, Tony La Russa as manager to "right a wrong" from almost four decades prior, the Hall-of-Fame manager faced an ultra-high level of scrutiny. The fact remains that there were very few people within the fan base that were able to remain even-keeled and objective in their evaluation of La Russa. The vast majority of the fan base sat on one extreme either blaming him for every misfortune that the team encountered or crediting him almost exclusively for any positive outcome.
Like most things in life, there is a ton of gray area when evaluating La Russa in 2021. I had my fair share of questions tactically when it came to things like lineup construction, sacrifice bunting, and bullpen utilization. There was adaptation and evolution on La Russa's end in several of these areas (utilizing players such as Moncada and Robert in the two-hole, occasionally going to Liam Hendriks in high-leverage situations outside of the ninth inning), however, his staunch stubbornness reared its ugly head in a number of areas (lack of shifting, baseball morality police).
Overall, La Russa was fine as manager and I think he does deserve credit for piecing things together in the face of the high-profile injuries the White Sox faced during the course of the season. Much of the concern about his ability to relate to players of the current generation were overblown as we saw team leaders Tim Anderson and Jose Abreu repeatedly praise the manager as being the right man for the job. Even in the face of the Yermin Mercedes incident, in which many people who were out-of-town stupid chose to blame La Russa for Mercedes' eventual downfall, the team never fractured and continued pulling toward their common goal.
However, the measuring stick for La Russa was higher than that of his predecessor given his pedigree. We were told that La Russa's championship experience would pay dividends for this team in October and several decisions made during the ALDS against Houston left us questioning that very idea. Granted, execution on the end of the players wasn't what it needed to be in the series, as TLR's supporters will be quick to point out, but at the same time there were a number of instances where he didn't put players in the best position to succeed and he should be held accountable for that.
As long as he continues to occupy a seat in the dugout and fill out the lineup card, Tony La Russa will be a lightning rod that surrounds this team. Every decision will be over-analyzed dependent upon your personal viewpoint of him either positively or negatively. I'm hopeful that in his second year with a better understanding of his personnel, that he will take full advantage of all information that is available to him as the most successful organizations do today, while not trying to steer too far in the other direction toward trusting his gut. There's a key counterbalance at play here, and I'm hopeful that we see more of that in 2022.
Staring Adversity In The Face
10 days before the season started, things took a turn to negative town when Eloy Jimenez tore his pectoral muscle needlessly attempting to rob a home run ball in a Cactus League game. Unfortunately, this would serve as a harbinger of things to come as the team faced significant injuries that caused key contributors such as Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal, Yasmani Grandal, Tim Anderson, Carlos Rodon, and Michael Kopech to all miss varying amounts of time. These were the types of injuries that would've torpedoed White Sox teams of the past. However, this group never flinched and adopted the "next man up" mentality.
It would've been easy for this team to roll over and die as we've seen from so many Sox teams of yesteryear, but this group was having none of that. Positive contributions from unheralded sources such as the aforementioned Yermin Mercedes, whose contribution during the season's first month cannot and should not be discounted. On an almost monthly basis during the season's first half, we saw a starter go down with a significant injury that forced the team to plug and play to overcome the absence. This is one area where Tony La Russa deserves tremendous credit as he did a masterful job of incorporating new faces into the lineup when players that were counted on could no longer be.
While the team wasn't really challenged in the division by the time we got to July, they had to battle themselves down to the end of the season as they worked to reassemble their full squad. Many thought this personnel adversity at almost every corner of the season would help prepare the White Sox for the daunting task of October baseball, however, that proved to not be the case. Despite the fact that the season ended abruptly, I believe this team should be commended for not folding in the face of the constant injury issues they had to overcome.
Many of us believed this team had enough star power to be a serious threat in the American League. However, that star power was greatly diminished over the course of the season. The White Sox were kept afloat by names you weren't expecting on April 1.
Yermin Mercedes kept this team going for a month. When he faltered, the likes of Andrew Vaughn, Gavin Sheets, Brian Goodwin, Leury Garcia, and Billy Hamilton all made positive contributions at varying points to keep this team on a division-winning course. These are the types of contributions that teams of the past wouldn't have received. We all remember Austin Jackson's injury in 2016 derailing a team that started 23-10 because they didn't have competent backup plans to account for injuries.
I think this is a circumstance where Sox social media whipping boy, Rick Hahn, deserves credit. He made some savvy decisions to bring in veterans that were cast off by other teams while also trusting the development of internal options to play a key role. Without these unheralded players making their contributions to this team in the face of the mounting injuries, there wouldn't have been a celebration in Cleveland in late September.
This was a season that was filled with countless moments that we will remember for years to come. It started with the return of fans to 35th/Shields for the home opener and Yermin Mercedes launching a ball into orbit off Brad Keller. Later in April, the Carlos Rodon Revenge Tour announced its presence with his no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians. The team dominated at Guaranteed Rate Field, posting the best home record in the American League and giving returning fans no shortage of things to cheer.
As the weather warmed, we saw this group hit their stride with exhilarating walk-offs by Yasmani Grandal against the Rays, Gavin Sheets against the Twins (you love to see that), and Brian Goodwin against the Indians -- which included him flipping his bat to the moon to cap a series win in dramatic fashion.
Perhaps the season's defining moment came in Dyersville, Iowa on August 12 in the inaugural Field of Dreams game against the Yankees. In what was a seesaw battle of emotions, Tim Anderson had the defining moment of his career to this point launching a Zach Britton pitch into the corn and sending all 8,000 of us in attendance into a frenzy that you simply had to be there to understand. This moment coming on the national stage served to announce the White Sox presence to the baseball world and it happened in true Hollywood fashion.
Everything culminated on a Thursday afternoon in Cleveland as Liam Hendriks locked down the White Sox first division title in 13 years at the expense of their hated division rivals. It warms my heart to no end to know that my final memory of the Indians baseball team will be the Sox clinching a division title on their home field. While the celebration was subdued, those of us that took in the moment were not short on emotion.
How Will The Season Be Defined?
Much has been written and talked about in the last few days as to whether the 2021 White Sox season was a successful one. You may think this is a cop-out, but I think this is a complex question with an equally complex answer. Did the team meet the organizationally stated objective of winning a World Series? No, so you can certainly take the position that it was a failure. However, I think one has to look at the totality of what we experienced this year.
The injuries that could've derailed this team's season didn't. They fought as a collective unit in the face of constant adversity to win a division title and that is no small feat, even in a year where the AL Central was, well, not great. A 93-win season in which so many significant contributors missed substantial time is not something to take lightly.
I think we all agree that the season's ending was a gut punch that still hurts a week later. However, we saw development from young players like Michael Kopech, Andrew Vaughn, and Gavin Sheets, all of whom are in line to be key contributors to this team going forward. We saw a collective pitching staff that surpassed the expectations many had coming into the season, and it gives a ray of hope for what can be in the group's future.
There were a lot of positives from the 2021 White Sox. We got a glimpse of what this team could be at its best. We can all agree there is still work to be done for this team to take the next step in their ascension to a viable World Series contender. But at all things considered, I can only think of one season in the all or part of four decades I've been watching this team that I had more fun than this one. I'm truly going to miss this group and dissecting it all as we are now faced with the long, cold offseason for five-plus months.
All I know is, I can't wait for this team, in whatever shape the roster may take, to report to Glendale and get to work in February.