Preseason expectations were high for the Chicago White Sox, who were projected to be one of the top teams in the American League.
Instead, the Sox have hovered around .500 for most of the season. That’s where they stand — 46-46 — at the All-Star break, good for third place in the AL Central.
Shortstop Tim Anderson described the first half as a “challenge.”
“But it’s also part of the process of learning and growing,” Anderson said Monday during All-Star media day at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. “Now that the first half is over, we can go back to the drawing board and understand what we did wrong and now we can continue to get better for the second half.
“Go out and compete and have fun.”
That approach was on display when the Sox won five of their last six leading into the break against the two teams ahead of them in the Central: the second-place Cleveland Guardians and the division-leading Minnesota Twins.
The Sox return to action Friday with the first of four games in three days against the Guardians at Guaranteed Rate Field.
“I think we can tap back into what we’re capable of,” Anderson said. “If everybody can max out and everybody can go out and be the best they can be. If everybody’s at their best, then I think we’ll be in a good spot.”
Here are three questions facing the Sox as the season resumes.
1. Will they find more success at Guaranteed Rate Field?
The Houston Astros entered Thursday as the only team in the AL with more road wins (31) than the Sox, who are 27-21 away from home.
Oddly, the Sox have not duplicated that success at Guaranteed Rate Field, where they are 19-25.
“The record speaks for itself,” Sox manager Tony La Russa said July 8 during the team’s last homestand. “So you identify the problem and you attack it. We’ve noticed for a while, especially compared to last year. This is a brand new year.
“The guys like to play here, the fans are very vocal and supportive. So it really is not an easy answer. You’ve got to have goals. The goal is to start winning series at home.”
The Sox are slashing .239/.300/.362 in their 44 home games and .272/.321/.404 in their 48 road games. They’ve scored 222 runs on the road and 184 at home.
But it’s not just the offensive totals. The Sox have a 3.57 ERA on the road and 4.35 at home. They have allowed 59 homers at Guaranteed Rate Field and 41 away from home.
The Sox had the best home record in the AL last season (53-28) on the way to winning the Central. They’ll have to turn it around if they are going to win the division again. The Sox will have plenty of opportunities chance immediately after the break, with 10 of their next 12 games at Guaranteed Rate.
2. What would the Sox look like at close to full strength?
Injuries have been a major hurdle all season, dating to spring training when reliever Garrett Crochet underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery.
Heading into the break, the Sox were without catcher Yasmani Grandal, who has been on a rehab assignment while working his way back from lower back spasms. Reliever Aaron Bummer has been on the injured list since June 9 with a left lat strain. He would give the team some much needed left-handed depth in the bullpen.
The Sox did not place Eloy Jiménez on the IL after the left fielder exited a July 13 game against the Guardians with tightness in his right leg. He missed the final four games before the break. The Sox spent most of the Twins series without center fielder Luis Robert. He left after the first inning July 15 with lightheadedness.
Robert provided the power boost with a grand slam in 12-2 win against the Twins a night earlier. The Sox are 24th in the majors with 80 homers, and having Grandal and Jiménez for extended periods will help in that department.
How the Sox utilize Jiménez, as far as how often he’s in left field and how often he is the designated hitter, will be worth monitoring.
“Last time it (the injury) happened, he was running the bases,” La Russa said July 14. Jiménez was out from April 24-July 6 after suffering a torn hamstring tendon behind his right knee while running to first base. He left the July 13 game after making a running catch.
“He’s got to use his legs,” La Russa said. “Especially when we get (Grandal) back, you look at the composition of our roster, it’s pretty tough to lock up the DH spot.”
The Sox also will continue to monitor Michael Kopech’s innings, as they’ve said since spring training. The right-hander has a 3.36 ERA in 17 starts. He has pitched 83 innings while making the transition back to the rotation after spending most of last season as a reliever. He threw 69⅓ innings in 44 appearances (four starts) last season.
“We’re watching him and it’s one of the measures,” La Russa said July 13. “You’re watching him and you’re also seeing how he feels, how his knee feels (after exiting in the first on a July 12 start), what his stuff looks like.”
Kopech liked the “stuff” in his most recent outing, earning the win July 15 against the Twins.
“I typically don’t like to watch the radar gun, but I have been looking at it a lot lately just to see if it’s back,” Kopech said after the start. “It felt like it was back (July 15). Threw harder than I have been, my slider was up a tick too. Felt good with the stuff I had.”
3. Will the Sox catch the Twins and Guardians?
Even with an expanded playoff format in place, the likely best route for the Sox to return to the postseason for a third consecutive year appears to be winning the division.
They are one game behind the Guardians and trail the Twins by three. The Sox entered Thursday 3½ games behind the Toronto Blue Jays for the final of three wild-card spots. The Sox are tied with the surprising Baltimore Orioles and are behind the Boston Red Sox and the Guardians.
The Sox have losing records against the Guardians (3-6) and Twins (4-6), but time will tell if last week serves as a turning point. After dropping the first two in a series in Cleveland, the Sox won the final two behind strong pitching of Dylan Cease and Lucas Giolito. The Sox then went to Target Field and won three of four against the Twins while outscoring them 32-10.
“Huge to finish out that way,” Anderson said of the Twins series.
The Sox have 10 games remaining against the Guardians: four Friday-Sunday, three August 19-21 in Cleveland and three Sept. 20-22 at Guaranteed Rate Field.
The Sox see plenty of the Twins down the stretch. They meet for three games Sept. 2-4 at Guaranteed Rate Field and play six of the last nine games of the season: Sept. 27-29 at Target Field and Oct. 3-5 at Guaranteed Rate Field.
“Everyone has seen that we haven’t quite lived up to our own potential, and that’s something we are very well aware of in that clubhouse,” All-Star closer Liam Hendriks said Monday in Los Angeles. “It’s also something, we control our own destiny. We have not played our best baseball, especially against the Central (18-19), and that’s something we really need to pick up in the second half.
“But something we showed … being able to win the last two against Cleveland and take three of four in Minnesota, that’s something we can take into the break and now come back fully rested and ready to go.”