When the season began, the worries of the average Cleveland Indians fan went something like this: Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, injuries, under-performance of the offense, maybe the Minnesota Twins, and the Golden State Warriors. Somewhere deep in the bowels of worry lurked the Chicago White Sox, a team that had been not much more than a blip on the radar for the last several years. But now, save for the Warriors and injury, the script has been flipped, and suddenly it’s the South-Siders that stand atop the division, 12 games above .500. It's mid-May, and it might be time to start worrying about the White Sox.
To be clear, the other worries are still there too. The Indians are 6-0 against the Tigers, but they haven’t faced Jordan Zimmermann yet, and those bats are sure to heat up in Detroit. Injuries have already struck the Tribe, and Yan Gomes is terrible right now (even if he’s having spectacularly bad luck). In Kansas City, Eric Hosmer is swiftly becoming great, Lorenzo Cain is clutch as it gets, and their bullpen makes games six innings long. The Royals worry me the least though, because there comes a point where all that defense can’t make up for every starting pitcher either walking the world or falling towards the disabled list. The Twins are the Twins, but these White Sox... man.
It starts with the rotation. Coming into the year I expected the Tribe to outstrip them, and they likely do in depth. But Chris Sale is having that year. When you crossbreed a willow tree with a whip and an angry pit bull, Chris Sale is what you get. He's now this undefeated beast, like a devilish version of those Wacky Wild Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tube Men who can throw a slider. He's evidently fulfilled some dark ritual and has leaped into demon mode.
Jose Quintana has been even better than Sale so far, with a 2.13 FIP (compared to Sale’s 2.78) and 1.38 ERA (compared to Sale’s 1.79). Which one is better? Who cares? It’s a madhouse starting tandem. The real problem for the Indians though is that it's not just those two, there's also Carlos Rodon, and they finally got rid of John Danks. The Tribe killed Danks the last couple years after his shoulder disintegrated.
All these lefties, they give some of the better Indians hitters fits. Notably Jason Kipnis, and to some extent Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana, who is much worse when batting right-handed. These guys are keys for the Tribe, and having them cut down to half as good makes the lineup a lot worse.
Will Mat Latos continue to be good, though? The Indians haven’t had to deal with this hot streak of his. Peripherals say he’ll get worse, but Chicago pitching coach Don Cooper might say otherwise. Latos has been playing in front of bad defenses for a few years now and now the Sox have a not-bad defense, but he allows more batted balls into the air than on the ground, and that will eventually kill him in U.S. Cellular. His performance so far has been lucky, but he had talent once, and Cooper is a good pitching coach, so maybe he continues to succeed.
You know who’s another problem, when facing the White Sox? David Robertson. I’d half-forgotten he was on the White Sox or even existed. But that guy can shut a team down for an inning. He’s no Wade Davis, but he still strikes out 30% of batters, forces 46% of batted balls into the ground and is really good. (And he has dope socks. Sock game is important, look at Lindor.) Rick Hahn built a very solid bullpen of reclamation projects so they aren’t as susceptible to a late-inning failure as they once were.
I do think, if Carlos Carrasco comes back to full strength, the Indians have the Sox beat in terms of the rotation, especially if what we saw out of Trevor Bauer last time out wasn't a dirty ruse. There are too many if's there to make anyone comfortable.
The White Sox hitters don’t worry me horribly, but the simple competence for two-thirds of their lineup at this point is troubling. Adam Eaton is the mini-mite version of Paul Konerko and will keep doing clutch things all over the field, Jose Abreu can hit like a god for stretches, and now they’ve got these hot stretches to start the season by Brett Lawrie (136 wRC+), Avisail Garcia (116 wRC+) and even Melky Cabrera (121 wRC+). I fully expect these guys to regress, but they’ve gotten the team to a great spot, Abreu is only just heating up, and Todd Frazier could get going too. He’s not going to hit 30 home runs like he did last year, but 25-ish isn’t out of the realm of possibility. We haven’t seen production like that from a Sox third baseman since maybe Joe Crede in 2006. If he and Abreu are both in good form, that pair of corner infielders could do damage like we haven't seen on the South Side for a decade.
The White Sox ability to defend causes consternation as well. I’d gotten used to a few balls that should be caught leaking through the infield in recent years, but that’s getting tightened up now that Frazier and Lawrie are getting reps at third and second, and with Jimmy Rollins not having mummified yet. With a bunch of pitchers that can generate grounders, you are going to have low scoring games. Even when those guys who are hitting above their heads slow down, Chicago still catch the ball.
The fact that Chicago is so far over .500 already is the real issue. They were projected to win about 82 games to start the season, and even if they regress to playing .500 ball the rest of the way, their hot start means they’d approach 90 wins. The Houston Astros used a 30-17 run pretty early last as a springboard, then muddled through the rest of the season and made the postseason. The White Sox are on a run like that, and have the pitching to do serious damage in October.
If the Indians want to win the division -- which is still a possibility if regression shows up and some things break their way -- it’s the White Sox that are the barrier they need to overcome. It's a strange new world we live in.