Time. Space. Reality. It’s more than a linear path. It’s a prism of endless possibility, where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities creating alternate worlds from the ones you know. I am a watcher of White Sox games. I am your guide through these vast new realities. Follow me, and ponder the question: What If…?
The date is June 9, 2021. The Chicago White Sox are facing the Toronto Blue Jays at Guaranteed Rate Field. Tyler Chatwood is pitching for the Jays in the bottom of the 7th inning. White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal is at the plate on a 2-2 count. Chatwood throws a cutter in the bottom corner of the zone, and Nicky Two Strikes hits a chopper towards the third base side. Toronto’s Joe Panik tries to make a play, but Madrigal is too fast and gets the infield single. Though after a Tim Anderson single moves Madrigal to third, Jake Lamb flies out to left and the inning is over. Aaron Bummer pitches a rocky, but ultimately scoreless, 8th inning and Liam Hendriks pitches the 9th inning to earn his 16th save on the season as the Sox win 2-1. On White Sox Twitter, we are reveling in pitching well against and defeating a tough Toronto Blue Jays team, as opposed to what we were actually doing, which was worrying about the health of Nick Madrigal.
We know what actually happened during that at-bat; Nick Madrigal suffers a season-ending hamstring injury during that play. Leury Garcia and Danny Mendick fill in at second for a time, but neither are particularly good options, so Sox GM Rick Hahn goes out and trades for Cesar Hernandez. Thinking that he now has a professional player as his second baseman and knowing he needs bullpen help for a deep playoff run, the White Sox trade Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer to the Chicago Cubs for Craig Kimbrel. But what happens in a world where Nick Madrigal is healthy? What happens to the 2021 Chicago White Sox?
The first major Sliding Doors moment for the team is the trade deadline. This year, at minimum, the White Sox needed to acquire a second baseman and two relievers – and did so by acquiring Ryan Tepera and Craig Kimbrel from the Chicago Cubs, and Cesar Hernandez from the Cleveland Indians. But with Nick Madrigal healthy, Hahn’s approach changes slightly. He still needs two relievers and a bat, especially with Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, and Yasmani Grandal still on the IL at this time, but the bat he now needs is one for RF and/or DH. Further, he doesn’t even consider trading away a healthy Nick Madrigal.
The first move Hahn makes is that he still reaches out to the Cubs to acquire Tepera, but in this timeline, he acquires Kris Bryant as well. Considering what the San Francisco Giants actually traded away to acquire Bryant, this move is pretty easy for Hahn. RHP Bailey Horn is still sent away, but Hahn also sends LHP Konnor Pilkington, and OF Micker Adolfo to the North Siders in exchange for Tepera and Bryant. Now Hahn needs a back end of the bullpen type guy – a pre-trade Craig Kimbrel type guy. However, Hahn neither has the assets to acquire such a player nor does another player like this exist in the marketplace. As such, Hahn settles for acquiring Joakim Soria from the Diamondbacks for a couple of players to be named later.
Unsurprisingly, Soria is not very good for the Sox. He was a flyer and it didn’t pan out. However, a chain of events does occur. Ryan Tepera becomes nails for the South Siders and ends up becoming the team’s 8th inning shut down reliever. Further, Codi Heuer turns it around in the second half. After being inconsistent for the first portion of the season, he also becomes a lockdown reliever and Tony La Russa mainly uses him in the 7th inning. On the flip side, Aaron Bummer doesn’t become the dominant reliever that he ended up becoming in the second half of this season. He improves slightly, but he still consistently forces ground balls to be hit to second, and with Nick Madrigal mainly playing the position and not being the greatest defender, the second baseman starts to have a nasty habit of misplaying these grounders and ruining Bummer’s season-long numbers. This infuriates White Sox Twitter to no end.
On the flip side, Nicky Two Strikes becomes a hit machine. He hits his groove in June and July, ultimately slashing .313/.351/.430 on the year. His offense, along with Kris Bryant, sparks a fun winning streak which helps bridge the gap to the return of players off of the IL. As the team plays into September and head towards the playoffs, we start seeing this lineup:
SS Tim Anderson
CF Luis Robert
1B Jose Abreu
C Yasmani Grandal
LF Eloy Jimenez
3B Yoan Moncada
RF Kris Bryant
DH Gavin Sheets
2B Nick Madrigal
As Adam Engel starts to get healthy, we see him slotted into RF and Bryant moved to DH. As such, a few things start to happen. The main one that sparks online outrage is the limited playing time of Andrew Vaughn. He’s mainly used solely against left-handers, but still sparingly, and there’s a contingency calling for him to get more at-bats and more playing time to help him develop, or have him sent to the minors to get him consistent at-bats. These complaints fall on deaf ears. The second main ripple effect is that the Leury-aissance doesn’t happen. While Garcia still ends up getting consistent starts and at-bats for some reason, his late-season resurgence doesn’t occur and there are no calls to have him start playoff games.
As the playoffs approach, the Sox get into a fight with the Houston Astros about which team will end up with the second-best record in the AL. The Tampa Bay Rays still finish first, but there’s a weeks-long battle for second. With Madrigal and Bryant in the lineup and no Craig Kimbrel to blow games, the Sox become remarkably competitive, even with major players on the IL. As such, the White Sox finish with a record of 96-66 and win home-field advantage for the ALDS.
Nick Madrigal’s health also affects the National League. Since the Sox end up acquiring Kris Bryant from the Cubs, he never ends up in San Francisco. The Giants, eager to add an additional bat into their lineup, end up with another former North Sider, although this one coming directly from Washington: Kyle Schwarber. The lefty slugger performs well offensively in his new Bay Area home but performs significantly worse defensively. As such, the Giants end up as the Wild Card and the Los Angeles Dodgers win the NL West. Further, since Kyle Schwarber joins the Giants, he never ends up in Boston. While the Red Sox would like to add an additional bat at the deadline, they don’t find anyone they like and end up staying pat. This turns out to be a costly mistake as they end the season tied with the Toronto Blue Jays for the second Wild Card spot. The Jays defeat the Red Sox in Game 163 and end up defeating the Yankees in the Wild Card game only to lose to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS.
Meanwhile, with home-field advantage against the Houston Astros in the ALDS, our #SoxIn5 prediction comes true. Lance Lynn and his fastballs still perform poorly and Lance McCullers, Jr. dominates leading to the Astros taking Game 1. However, feeling the power of the home crowd, Lucas Giolito dominates for 7 innings in Game 2 and the Sox go to Houston with the series tied. Dylan Cease continues with his streak of pitching poorly on the road and the Astros take Game 3, only to see the phoenix Carlos Rodon rise from the ashes in Game 4 to help bring the series back home to Chicago. In Game 5, TLR calls upon Lucas Giolito and while Lance McCullers, Jr. ends up out-pitching him for the game, the offense comes through in a clutch off of a tired Houston bullpen while feeding off of the energy of the crowd, and the Sox win Game 5 and the series.
The Pale Hose next play the Tampa Bay Rays and win that series 4-2. The Sox played the Rays decently well in the regular season. Even though the series was split 3-3, two of those losses came in Tampa behind a ReyLo start and a Dallas Keuchel start- which obviously doesn’t happen in the playoffs. The Rays see the White Sox’ best in the postseason and the South Sider’s combination of pitching and offense is just too much for Tampa Bay and all of their injuries to handle. Further, if the Boston Red Sox can defeat the Tampa Bay Rays in our reality, I think even the real version of the Sox could have defeated them in the ALCS.
Though as much as I would like to live in an alternate universe where the White Sox also win the World Series, I cannot allow my imagination to stretch that far. Even with all of these hypotheticals, I can not say “if Madrigal had stayed healthy, the Sox would have won the World Series.” In this reality, we saw too many coaching errors, not enough extra-base hits, and too much bad pitching in the ALDS to claim the Sox should be world champs. Truthfully, I’m not sure a White Sox team with Nick Madrigal, Kris Bryant, and home-field advantage would have been able to defeat the Houston Astros in the ALDS, but that would make for a pretty bummer blog post, wouldn’t it? So as such, I’ll say the White Sox lose in the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. On the NL side, the Atlanta Braves still defeat the Milwaukee Brewers, and with home-field advantage, the Dodgers defeat the Giants. The Dodgers easily defeat the Braves in the NLCS 3-1 and then go on to defeat the White Sox 4-2 to become back-to-back World Series champions.
Ultimately, I think the Nick Madrigal trade will become a bigger blemish on Rick Hahn’s resume than it deserves to be. There was no reason Hahn shouldn’t have gone all-in on the 2021 Sox and with Madrigal of no use on the field for the team and Kimbrel seemingly being no-brainer back-end bullpen assistance, so many of us would have also made that trade. There was a reason Hahn was generally praised at the time for making it. Ultimately, there were a lot of things that didn’t break the Sox’ way in 2021, and I’m hoping Rick Hahn and company can right the ship this offseason so the Sox become 2022 World Series Champions.
Featured Photo: White Sox Tak (@nbcswhitesox) / Twitter