How much tangible difference a manager makes on a baseball team over 162 games has never been quite nailed down. It’s generally thought the best ones might only add a couple wins, and a truly bad one might only take away a couple wins. Most are just there, which is kind of why front offices stopped really caring about hiring names. But what we might be answering for the first time this season is what happens to a team when you replace a manager who was asleep most of the time? It worked in A League of Their Own! Though that was just that manager waking up and paying attention.
That wasn’t an option for the Chicago White Sox and Tony La Russa, given that he’s 143 years old. So the Sox replaced him completely with Pedro Grifol, formerly the bench coach of the Kansas City Royals. What Grifol will be is anyone’s guess, but Sox fans will be relieved that he should know the rules and won’t do anything harebrained to prove his genius. At least they hope.
While intentionally walking guys with two strikes or not being clear how extra innings worked or having trouble remaining conscious (both in the dugout and behind the wheel) were the most poignant annoyances under La Russa’s reign of “huh?” his biggest transgression was that the Sox, night-in, night-out were just a structural mess. They didn’t do any of the stuff correctly that winning teams do. They couldn’t catch the ball, they didn’t take the extra base while teams were happy to run rampant on them, they didn’t always (or regularly) play hard, they took shitty at-bats in crucial situations, and they just made the same mistakes game after game.
And no one seemed to take responsibility for it. It was startling to see the same manager — whose ship in St. Louis was run so tightly that we all mocked it — preside over, or at least around, a team that was essentially one long grade school recess. He just let it happen. And no player seemed to take the reins either. While José Abreu was generally lauded for what he meant to his teammates, he was found wanting when it came time to cash in some checks on his teammates’ antics. It’s part of the reason the Sox were not too fussed about letting him walk to Houston in free agency.
Grifol might not run a military base or anything, but holding anyone up to any kind of standard would be a great improvement for the Southside club. Because even with a pretty ho-hum winter (and that’s being kind), the Sox remain the most talented team in the AL Central.
That won’t stop a lot of teeth-gnashing at Comiskey, because the Sox didn’t do much to fill in a giant hole at second, or in the outfield, or support their rotation should Lucas Giolito go wandering off to the zoo again and Michael Kopech exhibit Tom Glavine-like velocity without the Glavine-like control. Reports on that from Arizona aren’t encouraging. Or whatever support they did add in the rotation comes in the form of a possible bog monster.
Grifol won’t make the Sox a great defensive team because whatever innings they take the field with Eloy Jiménez in right field will be the definition of having a gasoline fight. Oscar Colas will probably be in the lineup before too long, until Eloy burns the whole park down. The infield isn’t as bad as advertised, with Elvis Andrus shifting over to second after subbing in for an injured Tim Anderson late in the year. Anderson has been a very good defensive shortstop as recently as 2021, and an average one as recently as last year. What you’ll get this year, spin the wheel!
At the plate, somehow, that’s even harder to decipher, given the reputation of most of these players. Anderson went from one of the league’s best contact hitters to being unable to hit the ball more than a foot and a half off the ground. They can’t keep Jimenez or Luis Robert on the field, and Jiménez is already having issues in spring training. No one’s sure what they’ll get from Yoán Moncada from year to year. Yasmani Grandal died. So adding merely Andrew Benintendi’s single-heavy attack or bringing back Andrus’ discovery of launch angle at age 33 isn’t exactly the most solid insurance for all those questions. Sure, there could be an absolutely lethal offense here if Anderson returns to form and the others stay healthy… but there could also not be if even some of those things don’t happen. This is a team that finished 19th in runs last year, after all. There’s only so much Grifol can do there other than pray for health.
As for the pitching, Dylan Cease might see a small flattening of his BABIP or left-on-base numbers, but will still be one of the best in the second-tier of top starters at worst, and a Cy Young candidate again at best. On the flip side, Giolito should see a bounce in the other way in those categories, and giving up more groundballs as he did last year should actually result in more outs than it did with more competence in the field, if the Sox find it. As far as Clevinger goes, he’s already provided far too much bullshit for a guy who pretty much sucks now and is four years removed from being any good.
It is simply unfortunate that Liam Hendriks has non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and what that means on the field means the absolute least as far as that. But the Sox should be ok, if not gangbusters, through a combo of Kendall Graveman, Aaron Bummer, and Reynaldo López before a move at the deadline, while Joe Kelly continues to chase every microphone and camera south of Roosevelt Rd.
Is that enough? If Grifol improves the Sox five games by merely being an actual presence as manager, that’s still not enough to match Cleveland’s 92 wins last year. And yet having an actual manager and getting most of everyone to perform to their career norms is probably enough to at least be in the discussion for the Central. With what the top three in the AL East look to be and the top two in the West look to be, wildcard spots may be hard to come by for the remedial class in the Central. We know the Tigers and Royals will be dog ass. The Guardians are depending on the development of a few young players for any improvement, or merely repeating last season. The Twins are running it back again with a sub-par rotation and far too much hinging on whether Byron Buxton can remain upright for more than a week at a time.
The Sox need more than just a manager boost and being told to act like a real live MLB team. Luckily for them, there’s enough there to provide that.