Pedro Grifol is a baseball player, not a magician. His arrival to the White Sox will change the feel of the team, but how much can a different management dynamic affect the team’s performance?
Hall of Famer Tony La Russa failed to deliver in a return to the coaching bench that lasted less than two seasons, thanks to ill health, PR issues related to multiple drunk driving arrests, arrested development of young hitters and a four-game Losing to Houston in the 2021 Division Series. Grifol, a 53-year-old former catcher who was highly regarded for his work as a coach in the Kansas City organization, believes he connects with players in a way La Russa does couldn’t, but will enable him to succeed as a coach First-time big league manager?
He welcomes 66 players to spring training in Glendale, Arizona this week. The group is made up of veterans who returned from last year’s 81-81 season but is notable for at least two players who will not be on the field: Jose Abreu, who signed a three-year deal with Houston after nine seasons on the South side, and closer Liam Hendriks, who is being treated for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The White Sox spent $176 million on payroll to win a postseason series for the first time since winning the 2005 World Series. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf and the front office he’s run for most of his two decades are again hoping this will be their year, but are stepping into the middle of an American League Central camp with two-team likely 90-win teams in Cleveland and Minnesota.
Here are the five biggest questions Grifol faces as he tries to lead his team to the playoffs:
- Does the line-up have enough clout to be successful without regrets? Except for the abbreviated 2020 season when Abreu was AL MVP, the Sox have ranked ninth, fifth, 13th and 12th in runs in the AL since 2018. They had Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada for all four disappointing seasons; Eloy Jimenez since ’19; Luis Robert and Yasmani Grandal since ’20 and Andrew Vaughn since ’21. The only consistency has been inconsistency, and that must end.
- Will rotation be the predicted strength without a contribution from Michael Clevinger? An investigation into allegations of domestic violence has tarnished the Sox’s decision to sign him, while Johnny Cueto was allowed to leave after a surprisingly strong season. That shifts greater responsibility onto Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Lance Lynn to join 22’s Cy Young contestant Dylan Cease in delivering quality starts.
- Can a bullpen full of veterans buy time for Hendriks? It’s unclear how long the Sox will be without Hendriks, who has 75 saves and 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings over his two seasons in Chicago, but with Kendall Graveman, Joe Kelly, Jose Ruiz and lefties Aaron Bummer and Jake they have the building blocks for success Diekmann. Grifol will be paying close attention to Reynaldo Lopez in spring training as he has shown the ability to make a key contribution when not needed as a depth piece in the rotation.
- Can an outdated defense be turned from a weakness into a strength? The White Sox were changed last season with -35 defensive runs saved, the second-worst number in the AL, but signaled their commitment to run prevention by moving Vaughn from outfield to first base, his natural position. Grifol hired defensive guru Eddie Rodriguez as his third base coach. Fielding will certainly be a focus of spring, both in individual practice and in teamwork. The addition of free agent left fielder Andrew Benintendi will be a plus, but otherwise the improvement isn’t a given.
- Are the internal options in right field and second base sufficient? Oscar Colas is considered a complete player, but the Cuban right fielder has only played seven games over double-A. Jimenez would love a chance to move from left field to right field, but it’s his bat, the Sox value, not his glove, so Grifol has a move made up of Gavin Sheets, Victor Reyes, Leury Garcia, Yoelqui Cespedes, Billy Hamilton and Jake could build Marisnick and Adam Haseley. The best hope at second base is 26-year-old Romy Gonzalez, who can be solid in the field and score enough goals to contribute. Jose Rodriguez offers a higher cap early in his season at 22, but like Colas, he could be a fixture at Triple-A Charlotte, not Guaranteed Rate Field.