We don’t know when the season is going to start.
We don’t know whether the National League will have the designated hitter.
We don’t know how many teams will make the playoffs.
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We don’t know where all these unsigned free agents are going to end up.
What we do know is that after inking Liam Hendriks to a reported three-year contract, the White Sox are the best team in the American League.
Few teams have done much of anything this winter, yet the White Sox have been aggressive in plugging the holes they needed to plug after throwing open their contention window last season. Now they move toward a 2021 campaign with World Series aspirations, and they look perfectly warranted in shooting for the stars.
Even before adding one of baseball’s best closers in Hendriks, they added one of baseball’s finest starting pitchers in Lance Lynn. As splashy an add as Trevor Bauer? Maybe not. But Lynn has put up some of the best numbers around over the last two years with the Texas Rangers. Now he’ll team with Lucas Giolito, he of no-hitter fame, and Dallas Keuchel, he of sub-2.00 ERA fame, to form one hell of a 1-2-3 punch, solving the team’s most glaring offseason need and the issue that knocked it out of the playoffs in 2020.
With Keuchel, Lynn, Giolito and Hendriks, the White Sox have four of the top 10 finishers in last year's AL Cy Young vote.
But even before adding Lynn, this was still a team to be reckoned with. The White Sox proved as much in 2020, when their offense emerged as perhaps the game’s most potent. Certainly it was the AL’s most powerful, leading the Junior Circuit in home runs and slugging percentage. The players are fond of lauding their lineup as dangerous from top to bottom, but that’s not biased bravado. It’s true.
Tim Anderson is a batting champion in the leadoff spot. Yoán Moncada was heralded as a potential future MVP candidate prior to him having to fight through the aftereffects of COVID-19 during the 2020 season. José Abreu just won the AL MVP. Eloy Jiménez quietly had one of the best offensive seasons around and got a Silver Slugger for his efforts. Luis Robert showed off an exhilarating array of abilities in his first taste of the majors. Yasmani Grandal disappointed himself in his first season on the South Side yet still did many of the things his impressive track record said he would. Nick Madrigal was exactly as advertised upon his arrival to the majors. And Adam Eaton returns as a consistent producer — assuming he can stay healthy — and now a proven playoff performer.
No AL lineup — perhaps not even the New York Yankees’ with Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge — can match the potential of that White Sox group, and that lengthy description is missing a member, with uncertainty about how the South Siders will proceed at DH.
And there might be no AL squad that can match what the White Sox now have brewing in the bullpen, either, where Hendriks gives them an elite closer. But not only does his presence make the White Sox confident in the ninth inning, it allows them to stay confident in the innings prior. Hendriks’ arrival means the White Sox can leave their cadre of talented relief arms — Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall, Codi Heuer, Matt Foster and perhaps even Garrett Crochet — in the roles they flourished in last season.
Who can match all that?
The Yankees seem the biggest competition, though they’re in a supposed “standoff” with their best player, infielder DJ LeMahieu still a free agent after finishing third in the MVP vote last year. Hendriks’ old team and the team that bounced the White Sox from the 2020 postseason, the Oakland Athletics, seems the team to beat in the AL West. But that offense can’t compare with the one on the South Side, and now they’re closer can’t, either.
The two teams that played for the pennant last year have taken steps back, the Tampa Bay Rays trading their ace, Blake Snell, and the Houston Astros losing their entire outfield to free agency while staring at a season without ace Justin Verlander due to Tommy John. The Toronto Blue Jays have little to show for their aggressive approach to the offseason. The Los Angeles Angels still have Mike Trout and still have no pitching. The Minnesota Twins remain the kings of the Central until formally deposed, but they don’t know if they’ll have the heart and soul of their lineup, Nelson Cruz, back for 2021. The Cleveland Indians seemingly bowed out of contention by dealing away Francisco Lindor.
That leaves the White Sox as the kings of the hill. On paper, at least.
Of course there are questions. The uncertainty surrounding Dylan Cease, who struggled in 2020, and Michael Kopech, who hasn’t pitched in anything more than one inning of Cactus League action since having Tommy John surgery in 2018, has some fans clamoring for more additions to the rotation. The DH spot remains up in the air, and though top prospect Andrew Vaughn swings one heck of a bat, relying on someone with zero big league experience while chasing a championship would not exactly be in line with the team’s theme of acquiring dependability this winter. And the fan base remains hesitant on the White Sox decision to bring Tony La Russa back to the manager’s chair.
But while those questions are certainly valid, most other teams are dealing with many more. Most teams haven’t even started their big offseason work, just a month out from the usual time when they report from spring training.
These times are anything but usual, of course, and the commissioner’s reported suggestion that teams prepare for a 162-game season doesn’t mean that’s where baseball will end up, not with the pandemic still gripping the country.
But amid the uncertainty, the White Sox have not let what everyone else is doing (or isn’t doing, in this case) dictate their offseason. With new, reliable pieces added to an impressive group that was already bursting with potential, the White Sox have staked their claim to a certain kind of status in the AL.
There’s a lot to be figured out between now and Opening Day. But right now, it’s the White Sox who are the team to beat.