I have been Thunderstruck by how well so many guys who were never meant to get at-bats or never meant to pitch any innings have stepped up and contributed to the success of the 2021 White Sox season.
For the longest time, a running joke amongst the Sox fanbase was that part of the organization’s game plan seemed to be just “stay healthy”. This “strategy” seemed to have gone out the window in a hurry with Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert, Adam Engel, and Yasmani Grandal all spending large chunks of time on the IL, as well as Opening Day second baseman Nick Madrigal missing the vast majority of the season due to a hamstring injury sustained in early June. Towards the beginning of the year, it did not seem as if the White Sox organization had sufficient replacements for their seemingly never-ending list of injured players that spent time in White Sox Heaven. Of course, no organization has players that would be able to replicate what a Luis Robert can do or the expected power production of an Eloy Jiménez, but organizations with Championship aspirations should be able to have competent, low-level production replacement players, and it initially did not seem as if the White Sox had those. The 2021 season seemed over before it really began.
As the 2021 season comes to a close, the White Sox are atop the AL Central and are making their first back-to-back postseason trip in their franchise history. The team could not have completed this incredible feat without the production of their role players. Whether this production came from players within the Sox farm system or from players signed in the middle of the season, the White Sox won a lot of games thanks to guys who were not supposed to start – especially from a team that was not supposed to have organizational depth.
Before I give my rankings, I want to clarify what this list is and is not. This is not a list for backup players forced into larger roles. That means no Danny Mendick, no Billy Hamilton, and most notably, no Leury García. While these players certainly had more playing time than expected thanks to long-term injuries to core starters, these guys were always intended to be backups and role players, and with that comes the expectation to get more starts when necessary/deserved. Romy González is also ineligible because he’s a September call-up. Rather, this is a list of players who almost certainly never expected to see consistent at-bats or innings pitched, yet did so anyway; players not even expected to be on the 26-man roster but not for a major injury. When called to duty, some men floundered, but some men rose to the occasion.
This list honors the men who contributed, whether positively or negatively, to the Sox becoming AL Central champs.
13) OF Nick Williams
Nick Williams was the Chicago White Sox home opening left fielder, and seemingly Exhibit A of our evidence that the organization did not have depth. I will always remember his contributions to the team by grounding into a game-winning error against Cleveland in mid-April.
12) RHP Jonathan Stiever
Remember when Stiever had to make some spot starts during the 2020 COVID season and looked like solid starting pitching depth? Well, not so much in 2021. During his one appearance back on April 25th, after a dazzling 5 inning, 1 ER, 10 K performance by Michael Kopech, Stiever relieved him and promptly gave up three earned runs without giving up an out. He was never heard from again.
11) LHP Jace Fry, RHP Alex McRae, RHP Zack Burdi, RHP Mike Wright Jr.
Every team needs bullpen help, and the White Sox certainly have had their share of arms come out of the pen throughout this season. This spot is dedicated to the men who, to put it generously, were not and/or currently are not able to perform well under the bright lights of the Big Leagues.
10) OF Luis González
González was excellent during his 11 plate appearances for the team slashing .250/.455/.500, good for a 169 wRC+. He’s only so low, because of, you know, only 11 plate appearances – and the fact that he no longer plays for the White Sox.
9) 3B Jake Burger
How can you not love Jake Burger? Sidelined from baseball for years due to injury and the COVID season, he came roaring back in 2021, crushing it in AAA. Despite all of the team’s injuries though, there was not really a spot on the major league roster for Jake Burger. Thanks to a stretch in July where Yoán Moncada had some lingering injuries, Burger was able to get 42 plate appearances. During that time, he posted a triple-slash line of .263/.333/.474 with a wRC+ of 121.
8) RHP Jimmy Lambert
Lambert was 2021’s version of Jonathan Stiever, called upon to make a spot start every now and again. Lambert has made four appearances for the White Sox this year. In his first two, he went a total of 5 innings and gave up 7 runs. In his latter two, he went a total of 8 innings and gave up only 2 runs. On September 7th, during a time where the Sox had three of their starting pitchers on the IL, Lambert went 5 innings and gave up only 1 run in Oakland against the A’s and earned his first career Win.
7) 3B/OF Jake Lamb
In 2020, when their 3B Matt Chapman went down with an injury, Billy Beane called on a dude who can take some walks and hit some home runs to help save their season. So at the very beginning of the regular season this year, when the White Sox needed a bat, someone who can draw a walk and hit a home run, who did Rick Hahn call upon? That’s right, Rake Lamb. Before his injury (and during a time where the Sox were pretty desperate for bats), Lamb slashed .224/.333/.424 with 5 home runs, good for a 112 wRC+. It certainly wasn’t anything flashy, but he was literally an above-average bat when the team needed it.
6) RHP Ryan Burr
Despite his initial role on the team to duel Billy Hamilton, Ryan Burr‘s production out of the bullpen has been quietly pretty good. Currently, Burr has a 2.73 ERA and has only given up a run in 6 of his 30 relief appearances. While he is not the dominant pitcher like many thought he was when he went his first 11 appearances (14.1 IP) without giving up a run, he was a stabilizing force at a time when our back end bullpen guys like Aaron Bummer, Codi Heuer, and Evan Marshall were struggling and inconsistent.
5) RF/DH Gavin Sheets
Gavin Sheets is good and probably deserves a playoff roster spot considering he’s an excellent left-handed power bat that crushes righties. The only reason he’s not higher is because of how the team used him as a stop-gap. Sheets was not originally called up when guys like Eloy and Robert went down; only towards the tail end of that period and was immediately sent back to Charlotte when players completed their rehab assignments. As of this writing, Sheets has 9 home runs in 156 PA, and a 133 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers.
4) C Seby Zavala
Seby was called upon when Yasmani Grandal spent an extended period of time on the IL due to a knee injury. Zavala was more than serviceable in my humble opinion by providing a much-needed defensive presence behind the plate (especially when Zack Collins was, again to put it generously, still learning how to properly frame and block pitches) and by providing some gravy on offense. Seby was not a particularly good hitter in Charlotte, so any bit of offense he provided in the Majors on top of his defense was gravy. Despite the overall poor offensive numbers Zavala ultimately had during his cup of coffee, he did provide the fans with some memorable moments like when he hit his first three major league home runs in the same game, one of which being a Grand Slam. Even though the Sox lost that game, they did win the game where Zavala hit his 4th home run – the Field of Dreams game – and the Sox won that game in part due to Seby drawing a walk in the ninth inning right before Tim Anderson hit his “stalk off” dinger.
3) DH/C Yermín Mercedes
I know this is a wee bit of cheating adding The Yerminator to the rankings since he ultimately made the Opening Day roster, but I’m dubious he would have done so without Eloy’s injury, and this post is all about giving respect to guys who shouldn’t have sniffed the roster otherwise. Also, my list, my rules. Tough luck haters.
While ultimately, you understand why the Sox ended up sending down Mercedes at the beginning of July (though it feels like it was decades ago, doesn’t it?), we all reveled in his success and enjoyed the time we had with him. Whether it was the 8 straight hits to start his 2021 season, his walk-off single against the Tigers to break out of an 0-25 slump, his 3-0 bomb off of Twins utility player Willians Astudillo, or just the pure happiness and joy he brought to the Sox, Yermín Mercedes was a bright spot on this team and a much-needed one when things appeared to be glum before the season even began. He’s also partially responsible for a delicious hamburger.
2) RHP Reynaldo López
During the first half of the season, it was the Sox offense that was injury-bitten and needed help. Meanwhile, the starting pitching was a strong asset with all five starters being relatively healthy and performing with varying levels of excellence. This seemingly flipped in the second half of the season. While position players like Eloy, Robert, and Grandal got healthy, the starting pitching started to struggle under the grind of a 162 game season. At one point, I truly believed that the Sox did not have anyone in their organization that could consistently pitch 3-5 innings and temporarily remain in the rotation. And like what the Sox have done over and over again this season, they proved me wrong.
Whether or not it was because of his Lasik surgery, ReyLo has far exceeded expectations. In July and August, López was 3-1 with a 1.59 ERA, 2.75 FIP, and a 9.79 K/9 in 34.0 innings pitched. Certainly, ReyLo hasn’t had as strong of a September (giving up 6 runs in 4 innings to the Angels will do that), but he’s still a pitcher the White Sox can comfortably start every six days to help their other starters rest before the playoffs and has easily made a case why he deserves to be on the Sox’s playoff roster.
1) OF Brian Goodwin
During a tenure when Eloy, Robert, and the two Adams (Eaton and Engel) were either all injured or just struggling, it was Brian Goodwin that came in and provided a much-needed stabilizing force in the outfield. After being released by the Pittsburgh Pirates in May, Rick Hahn signed Goodwin to a minor league contract, and on June 12th, Brian Goodwin made his major league debut with the team. In his first game with the Pale Hose, Goodwin went 3 for 5 with a home run and 5 RBIs, helping the Sox to a 15-2 rout of the Detroit Tigers. During the first half of the season, Goodwin slashed .267/.353/.511 with 4 home runs, good for a wRC+ of 136.
Goodwin certainly has his faults (he’s been pretty bad against lefties and isn’t the greatest defender), but he has a wRC+ of 125 against righties on the year for the Sox, and most importantly, he’s performed well considering he was not supposed to get regular at-bats for this team at all. If the Sox are at full health, Brian Goodwin is a 4th outfielder at best, yet he was getting consistent at-bats and starts because this team was not at full health. For a player cut by probably the worst team in the majors, Brian Goodwin has provided dividends and then some for the White Sox and did so during a time where the organization desperately needed him. For a player that had the best bat flip of the season (and did so after a humorous insult to a fan on Twitter), he’s easily my pick for the top spot on this list.
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