Column: Are the Chicago White Sox back in business in baseball’s most forgiving division?
Major League Baseball expanded its postseason from 10 to 12 teams last year with the addition of a third wild-card entrant in each league, then adopted a 2023 schedule in which every team plays at least one series against all 29 other teams.
The early results of the new schedule have confirmed what most everyone knew: The American League East is far and away the best division in baseball, while the AL Central is the worst.
The Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, tied for the worst record in the AL East through Tuesday, were one game ahead of the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins.
But if the playoffs had begun Wednesday, the Twins would’ve gotten in as a division champion while the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels would’ve missed out on a wild-card spot in spite of better records. It’s hard not to root for a scenario like that, if only to hear the outcry from New Englanders if the Red Sox somehow miss the postseason despite being a much better team than the AL Central winner.
Things change quickly in baseball, so don’t hold your breath. But as we near Memorial Day weekend, there’s reason to believe some AL East team will feel robbed come October while one of the mediocre AL Central teams gets in.
It looks doubtful anyone from the AL Central can finish more than a few games over .500, and the possibility of a sub-.500 team winning the division isn’t as implausible as it sounds.
And lo and behold, that team could be the Chicago White Sox, who remain nine games under .500 at 21-30 but are on a roll after Wednesday’s 6-0 win over the Cleveland Guardians.
The semi-surging Sox headed to Detroit afterward for a big four-game series against the second-place Tigers, who are three games under .500 after Wednesday night’s victory against the Kansas City Royals.
Perhaps “big” is an overstatement?
Please excuse the irrational exuberance. An improved performance by the rotation, the complete dominance of Michael Kopech, the emergence of Jake Burger and the imminent returns of Eloy Jiménez and Liam Hendriks do crazy things to your brain.
After their next 10 games against the Tigers and Angels, the Sox travel to Yankee Stadium to play the New York Yankees on June 6-8. That could qualify as a “big” series too. Or maybe we’re getting a sugar rush from a diet of AL Central cupcakes.
It’s too soon to tell, but considering where the Sox were only 11 days ago, it’s nice to imagine any series as being semi-important. After losing to the Houston Astros on May 14, the Sox were 14-28 and 9½ games out of first. Coincidentally, that was the weekend Astros manager Dusty Baker stated, with all seriousness, that the Sox had enough talent to be in first place in the weak AL Central by July.
A break in the schedule appeared after the Astros series, giving the Sox 16 of 19 games against AL Central foes. They’ve gone 7-2 so far against the Guardians and Royals, making up four games in the standings on the Twins.
Playoff fever on the South Side?
Well, sure, they would’ve been 15 games behind if they played in the AL East, where the Tampa Bay Rays have dominated. No one would be talking about anything but a summer fire sale by now.
And, OK, the Sox still had only a 1.9% chance to make the postseason through Tuesday’s games, according to Baseball Reference, and less than an 0.1% chance to win the World Series. That’s not too encouraging.
But in a city starving for a contender in any sport, 0.1% might have to do. Beggars can’t be choosers.
The last of the “big five” professional teams from Chicago to have a winning record one-quarter of the way into its season was the 2021-22 Bulls. The ‘22-23 Bulls started out 5-4, lost to the Boston Celtics in the next game and never got back over .500. Their play-in berth, with a 40-42 record, created little buzz in Chicago.
The 2022 Bears and ‘22-23 Blackhawks were in rebuild mode and were so awful, each nailed down the top position in its draft. The ‘23 Cubs looked like they were possibly on their way to a winning season before a May slump has pushed them back under .500.
Like the Sox, however, the Cubs play in a weak division that could give them a postseason chance in spite of their disappointing start. They’re 22-26 after Wednesday’s 4-2 victory against the New York Mets and began the day with a 33.9% chance to make the playoffs, according to Baseball Reference, and a 1.2% chance to win the World Series.
That makes them Goliath on the current Chicago sports scene.
What are the odds both the Sox and Cubs finish under .500 and still make the playoffs? Probably the same as an NCAA Final Four with UConn, San Diego State, Florida Atlantic and Miami.
If the Sox continue to creep up in the AL Central but remain a .500ish team by mid-July, you still might see general manager Rick Hahn trade some of his pitching assets — starters Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito and relievers Joe Kelly and Kendall Graveman — to restock the system for 2024.
The 2016 Yankees were a star-studded team playing .500 ball in late July when they dealt closer Aroldis Chapman, setup man Andrew Miller, outfielder Carlos Beltran and starter Ivan Nova at the deadline for a ton of prospects. They’ve been a playoff team ever since.
It might tick off a segment of Sox fans if Hahn decided to restock with a contending team. But at this point there are few remaining fans Hahn hasn’t upset, so he doesn’t have to worry about his image.
It has been a strange season so far for the Sox.
Why should anyone expect things to change?