In two weeks when the Mission: Soxtober begins, could we see the phrase "Et Tu, Tony?" being said? Given the performance of Cesar Hernandez since arriving on the South Side, it can't be ruled out as an option. The White Sox acquired the veteran second baseman to man the keystone for a playoff push, believing that he would provide stability to a position that was left in flux following the season-ending injury to Nick Madrigal.
Through the first 7-10 days of Hernandez's tenure, things looked pretty good and it appeared he would be able to provide some additional power to a lineup that was just beginning to overcome the injury bug that had plagued it all season. But in the weeks since his initial arrival, he has been, well, bad. Cumulatively in 180 PAs for the White Sox, Hernandez is slashing a pedestrian .224/.300/.292, good for a 65 wRC+. Folks, that's just not going to get it done, and it's certainly not what the Sox envisioned when they made the deal with division rival Cleveland.
Prior to his arrival at 35th/Shields, Hernandez had slashed a respectable .231/.307/.431 with 18 HR and a 98 wRC+. That's essentially league average production for a guy, that, realistically, would be hitting at the bottom of the lineup once the White Sox were fully reassembled.
Changing of the Guard?
Given the steep decline in Hernandez's production with the White Sox, Tony La Russa will have an interesting decision on his hands when the ALDS kicks off on October 7 against the Houston Astros (most likely). Does he continue to put out the struggling Hernandez, or does he mix and match dependent on his gut with a player like Leury Garcia? This will prove to be an interesting situation to follow in the final two weeks of the season.
Hernandez's offensive struggles have been outlined above. On the flip side, Garcia is in the midst of a hot streak that has garnered praise from his manager in recent weeks. Since August 1, Leury Legend is slashing an astounding .305/.364/.453, good for a 125 wRC+. That is almost double the offensive output that the White Sox have received from their trade deadline acquisition!
It's been discussed ad nauseam this season that Tony La Russa is a manager who still believes in using his gut as part of the decision-making process, rejecting many of the conventional ways the modern-day manager operates. I'm not saying that is wrong; I'm simply making a statement of fact. How La Russa chooses to balance data that is provided to him from the White Sox analytics team with his gut instinct, particularly as it relates to the second base position, will be fascinating.
Offensively, the scales have tipped heavily in favor of Garcia the last month and a half. The defensive side of the equation is a different story, however. We saw firsthand last October against Oakland that defensive miscues can be a team's undoing, and if we are being frank, this White Sox team hasn't shown a great ability to string together quality defensive play for extended periods of time.
Surprisingly, Hernandez has graded out very well defensively since arriving at 35th/Shields. During his time with that second-place team in the division, he accrued (-2) DRS. Since putting on the black and white, his numbers have taken a stunning turn as he is being credited with 5 DRS for our Sox. I will be honest, I was taken aback when I saw this data. To me, Hernandez has been fine at the keystone, but 5 DRS in a short time frame is elite-level defense. Could this be a matter of positioning and accentuating his strengths in a manner that Cleveland simply wasn't?
We've seen Garcia play all over the field in 2021, most notably doing a solid job spelling Tim Anderson while the straw that stirs the Sox drink spent time dealing with a hamstring issue. His play at second base hasn't graded out particularly well this season, as he has accrued (-2) DRS. The bulk of Leury's time and success defensively this season have come while manning right field and shortstop, so will La Russa be willing to utilize him in the middle infield during the most pivotal games of the team's season?
In all likelihood, Garcia's utilization this October will be largely dependent on if the White Sox have a healthy, functional Adam Engel in tow and if rookie Andrew Vaughn is able to shake his late-season malaise. If these options aren't available, Garcia will likely handle right field responsibilities given his defensive prowess at the position.
If Garcia isn't pressed into duty in the middle infield, the team will likely ride things out with Hernandez as I simply don't see La Russa trusting the likes of Danny Mendick or Romy Gonzalez with the season on the line. This is where having Engel and Vaughn healthy allows the longtime manager additional roster flexibility to mix and match dependent on his team's needs any given day. Despite narratives to the contrary, La Russa does appear to have a feel for his clubhouse and we have seen countless instances of him plugging guys in spots where many of us questioned his thought process, only to be proven wrong (I've been guilty of this far too often).
In my eyes, Cesar Hernandez hasn't done enough to warrant starts consistently come October 7. The replacement options of Leury Garcia, Danny Mendick, and Romy Gonzalez all present different question marks, leaving Tony La Russa in a bit of a bind. How he chooses to navigate this situation will be one of the storylines I'll be following in the final weeks of the regular season leading into October.