While it was fun to pretend that the forced “Odd Coupling” of a drunk old codger Tony La Russa and one of the flashiest, dynamic young teams in baseball would boil over simply due to culture clashes, that was always a touch unlikely. Certainly, atmospheres within a clubhouse have led to poisonous results on the field before. If everyone’s miserable at work, they tend to produce garbage. But at the end of the day, there was a common interest. Both La Russa and the White Sox want to win, and they would more likely find just enough common ground to not lose out on an opportunity to do just that. The hoped-for sight by ghouls like me of La Russa waddling out there to yank Tim Anderson out of the middle of a home run trot was always fantasy.
No, the real fear for White Sox fans was that the actual job, the actual mechanisms of managing a baseball team in 2021 would be beyond La Russa, given his age, leanings, and time away from the dugout. La Russa was already showing signs of cracking even in the 2011 World Series when the technology of a bullpen phone seemed to evade him.
And that’s what apparently is already developing on the Southside, with Jeff Passan and others reporting that patience is already wearing for players and front office types with La Russa and his tendency to nap during games.
We’re only a month into the season, but when you have multiple instances to point to as an example that your manager just isn’t all that tuned in or thinks it’s 1997 does not bode well. The items mentioned at the top are the 114-pitch outing on April 27 from Lucas Giolito where he was inexplicably sent back out for the 7th and La Russa saying he didn’t realize Giolito was tired, or the lack of pinch-hitting for known pool-noodle-toters Billy Hamilton and Leury Garcia late in a game where the Sox were trailing and Luis Robert was on the bench. La Russa’s explanation of “needing a single” would be an indication that A. he has no idea what the skill set of his players actually are, and B. doesn’t realize how the game is played and won these days.
It goes a little deeper than that. The Sox lost Eloy Jiménez likely for the year on the eve of the season, which cost them what they had hoped would be a vital bat (though Eloy’s career so far has been very up-and-down). Some thought it would be a perfect chance to give Andrew Vaughn an opportunity in left. Vaughn is perhaps the most anticipated prospect for the Sox after all of them made it to Comiskey (it’ll never be The Rate, even to this Northsider). Eloy was a true ox in left, so there wasn’t really any way Vaughn could be any worse with the glove even though he had never really played there before. He could have even worn it on his head and provided the same DRS as Jimenez
Vaughn has gotten part-time ABs, sharing time with the more sure-handed but offensively inept Garcia (34 wRC+, which is about the same mark you’d get if you handed a koala a bat). But offense hasn’t really been a problem for the Sox, as they’re third in the AL in runs. But it might be about to be a problem, as yesterday Robert was diagnosed with a hip flexor tear that will keep him out a minimum of four months and likely end his season. The Sox will be without two-thirds of their projected starting outfield for basically five months of the season.
The other third of that outfield, Adam Eaton, isn’t making Sox fans feel all that rosy either. He was signed ahead of the more alluring George Springer because La Russa reportedly pushed for him and his hustle-theatric ways, and he’s been what Adam Eaton is. Distinctly average. Now with Robert down, Springer would look a lot more attractive sliding over to center from right than whatever band-aid the Sox come up with.
Still, on the bright side (at least for La Russa and his one friend in the front office, who just happens to be the owner), the Sox have some time and cushion. The heat would be more turned up if the Twins had gotten off to even an average start, instead of falling down the entrance ramp. They’re a full four games behind the Sox. The Pale Hose are one game behind the surprising Royals, but you’d have to still figure Chicago doesn’t have to do much more than wait around for the Royals to get a nosebleed from these dizzying heights and return to their expected, lower environs.
Robert’s injury is certainly going to take some juggling from whoever is managing, though if they continue to get exemplary work from Carlos Rodon and Dylan Cease in the rotation — two mountain-sized ifs — it won’t be as hard to navigate.
There’s an easy out for both La Russa and the Sox, assuming Jerry Reinsdorf allows either of them to take it. They could just paint it as an experiment that didn’t work, La Russa didn’t realize how big the transition would be, had the best of intentions, yadda yadda. While Miguel Cairo, the bench coach, doesn’t have that much experience, he’s been billed as a manager in waiting since his playing days. Look around and you’ll see a number of players who never really served an “apprenticeship” before becoming managers (Boone, Roberts, Ross, Counsell, etc.). Cairo is as prepared as any of them.
The Sox will need some cajoling and maneuvering to work around Robert’s injury, at least until GM Rick Hahn makes a move. The scary thing for Sox fans is that La Russa has proven he can be a hindrance when he makes moves or doesn’t.