Rick Hahn and other White Sox front office members can say whatever they want to the media, but it doesn’t take a seasoned detective to understand that there are many things the front office is likely unhappy with.
We all know that the initial hiring of Tony La Russa contradicted Hahn’s original claims about the team’s ideal managerial search process. We also know that the White Sox roster is assembled with very specific uses in mind, and the team is, in my opinion, not being utilized in correspondence with its makeup.
Of course, I don’t blame the relatively slow start to the White Sox season solely on Tony La Russa. The defense has been abysmal, the bullpen has not yet lived up to its reputation, and timely hitting has been mostly non-existent. That said, I think that even the biggest La Russa fan would admit that some of the managerial decisions have been questionable at best.
The most conspicuous point of frustration with La Russa’s decisions is the handling of Andrew Vaughn. The young left fielder has posted a .400 on-base percentage in a very small sample, so the reason for consistently benching him cannot possibly be related to his performance (or, if it is, then the team’s problems are even bigger). Rick Hahn recently mentioned that Vaughn’s sudden position change is a factor in his sporadic playing time, but the White Sox did not start Vaughn on the MLB roster and fail to secure a seventh year of his contractual control so that he could sit on the bench in favor of Nick Williams, Billy Hamilton, and Leury Garcia.
I have seen a few theories on the handling of Vaughn. Could the team be “punishing” him for not signing a contract extension in March as they may have incorrectly presumed he would? This is possible but unlikely. Does Tony La Russa simply not like Vaughn very much? Perhaps, but unless the general public is missing a massive amount of information, this would be puzzling.
No matter what La Russa’s justification is for frequently benching Andrew Vaughn, it’s safe to assume that the front office did not envision their prized prospect spending his rookie year as a glorified platoon bat. It’s also safe to assume that the front office did not envision their big free agent expenditure, Liam Hendriks, spending so much time sitting in the bullpen watching his teammates blow leads. Granted, Hendriks has been shaky in his few outings this season, but it is quite possible that this is due to him being very rusty due to his lack of appearances.
I even wrote a few months ago that the Hendriks signing was a terrific move provided he is used like he was with the Athletics; his immense value as a relief pitcher came from Oakland’s propensity to use him in many high-leverage situations and for multiple innings at a time. He’s a pitcher who does not require as much rest as a typical closer, and while that does not mean that the White Sox should drive him into the ground, it does mean that there is no need to treat him like he is limited to pitching in the ninth inning of games, exclusively in save situations.
Finally, I do not think the front office planned on hiring a manager who would order sacrifice bunts even more frequently than his predecessor. To his credit, Ricky Renteria almost completely abandoned bunting in 2020, perhaps because the extremely powerful lineup made giving away outs an even less optimal strategy. But La Russa has brought the practice back, with limited success. Perhaps it is just a temporary measure while Tim Anderson and Eloy Jimenez are out of the lineup, but given that La Russa cited a desire to “play for one run” (sacrifice bunt) more often in his 2020 introductory press conference, I do not see it going away anytime soon.
I truly hope that Tony La Russa improves as the season goes on. Andrew Vaughn needs to play more, as benching him routinely gives the White Sox a smaller chance to win games given the caliber of players replacing him. The bullpen needs to be used in a way that accentuates its strengths, otherwise the Liam Hendriks signing will have been an unnecessary luxury on a team that, like many, could have used more depth. And while consistently bunting is less frustrating when a lineup features three or four contact-only hitters in a row, it will become even more objectively suboptimal to the team’s chances at winning games once more of the regular starters return to the lineup.
If Tony La Russa can realize some or all of this and make the proper changes, then the White Sox will be in good shape moving forward. If he keeps trying to manage the game based on his idea of what baseball should be, the White Sox will be forced to continue to hope that the roster’s impressive talent will overshadow tactical blunders.
I should end by offering another ray of hope: last year, at an almost identical point in the season, I wrote a similar article about Rick Renteria. It features some good points, and some that aged hilariously poorly, including my annoyance that Jose Abreu was eternally penciled in as the third hitter in the batting order (notice that I didn’t even touch that issue this year, because I am sure Abreu will heat up as the 2021 season progresses). Shortly after I wrote that article, the White Sox took off and started playing some of their best baseball in years. Hopefully, we see a similar outcome this time around.
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