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White Sox focusing on long-term plan with player rest, even as short-term struggles persist

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — José Abreu could not actually bring himself to endorse the game off that he got in the second half of Tuesday’s doubleheader, a 2-1 loss to the Royals. But he gave a positive word to the man behind it.

“How many wins does he have?” Abreu said of Tony La Russa, through team interpreter Billy Russo. “Two thousand something. He knows how to take care of the guys.”

La Russa would offer that he’s just following the input from the training staff and observations from the coaching staff about the level of exertion on players. Or in the case of Tim Anderson, who also rested in the second game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, La Russa is just responding the All-Star shortstop having two injured list stints last year for hamstring issues and his activity on the basepaths that comes with batting .338.

In any instance, La Russa spent Wednesday trying to disabuse anyone of the idea that off days are being asked for by the players — least of all the essential ones. Half of a doubleheader off in Kansas City was a compromise from an original plan to rest Anderson for an entire day before a series at Yankee Stadium. The only Sox player to start all of the first three games of the series in the field was Leury García. Even if García’s raison d’etre is to play whenever and wherever needed, La Russa still acknowledged feeling a little remorseful about that.

“He doesn’t ask for rest, you’ve just got to watch him close,” La Russa said of Anderson specifically, but it weaves into his broad philosophy. “At some point, you just do the best you can. It’s not infallible. But you do err on the side of caution. And one of the reasons is, you want to get to the second half of the season, especially the last two months if you’re in contention, and not be out of gas. That’s position players and pitchers. Because then the games are running out, and you can’t make them up.”

This gives a nod to one of the central issues of last season’s White Sox, which cruised to a record 19 games over. 500 at the All-Star break on the back of dominant start pitching and spent the second half managing their various ailments including Anderson’s. A playoff resurgence after a September spent trying to get right physically never quite fully came to pass.

But obviously, tension exists in the fact that planning for a strong second-half run feels optimistic at the moment, with the team falling back under .500 Wednesday after back-to-back losses to the otherwise struggling and rebuilding Royals. The Sox need to get right, right now, or at least sooner than later. And given the consistently threadbare contributions from the offense on display again in a 6-2 loss Wednesday, sitting Anderson or a recently resurgent Abreu can certainly feel like a decision that dictates whether or not the Sox can put together a viable attack on a given night. The manager’s job is to have a longer perspective than a frustrating 30-game stretch (remember when the White Sox were 6-2?). And even though it’s closing in on a fourth of the season without a vaunted White Sox offsense looking like itself on even an occasional basis, it’s to the players’ benefit to have a similar worldview.

“I wasn’t planning on having that slow start, but those things happen,” Abreu said through Russo. “The only thing we can try just to live in peace with ourselves and enjoy life. This is something that (Luis) Robert is always going to give me shit about. But I truly believe in that. We have the group of guys to have a good run. We have talent, veteran guys, young guys. We all know what we need to do in order to perform the way we want to. It’s just on us to work hard every day and do what we know we can do.”

Hopefully Robert doesn’t give pitching coach Ethan Katz any shit about the starting rotation, because he’s espousing a similarly long view about the influx of new starters he’s receiving. Johnny Cueto is here to stay after his promising start. Lance Lynn will face hitters for the first time on Friday and is eligible to return from the injured list as soon as June 6. But rather than thinking about reassigning some of his less-effective starters, he’s currently couching it as an opportunity to provide off days to the young and fireballing ones with few full seasons under their belts.

“We’ll figure that out when that time comes,” Katz said. “For example last year, the Dodgers had 10 starting pitchers at the start of the season and they finished in the playoffs with having like three. Having starting depth is really important. You can never have enough and how it shakes out at the end of the day, we’ll see how it goes. But right now it’s nice to have the options we have and hopefully it becomes a very tough decision. We will not have a seven-man rotation, but hopefully we have some tough decisions to make.”

“We never know when like something like this could happen, like COVID,” said Lucas Giolito, who indeed returned Wednesday night from the COVID-19 injured list. “It seems like we’ll be getting something going and a new random thing pops up, whether it be an injury or COVID. I think that it’s just kind of ebbs and flows of the season. I think that despite it all, we continue to play hard and the Yankees series was a bit of a tough one but we have another shot here after this one. Just kind of focus on today. Win today and move on and continue to be prepared. It’s what we can do.”

Michael Kopech is scheduled to get at least an extra day before his next start, tentatively on Saturday after an outing where his stuff was down by his own admission and he posted some of the lowest fastball velocities of his career. Dylan Cease’s 5 2/3 innings of scoreless work were vital in propping up another light White Sox offensive output for their most recent victory, but his last two outings have now been high-effort affairs, and he would be the recipient of two extra days of rest if Kopech comes off paternity leave in time. That is the benefit the Sox are currently touting of adding Cueto, or Davis Martin showing himself as capable in a spot start major-league debut, rather than pointing to Dallas Keuchel and Vince Velasquez with ERAs currently sitting over 5.00 and hinting at imminent change.

“When you have a day like he had, he was just off with everything that day, you don’t want to ignore it, for sure,” Katz said of Kopech. “When you go from relieving to starting, it’s something you’re always paying attention to and want to make sure that you’re not taxing him too hard. We’ve been very cognizant of all his pitch counts so far, his ups, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

Right now, La Russa is less comfortable about the 2,000-something career wins he has and more discontent about the 18 his current club is sitting on in an increasingly later portion of May. It’s the reason why he has had to defend the use of his best hitters, and the workload of his best high-leverage relievers, which would be clearly be recognized as very robust if every victory didn’t feel like it needed all hands on deck.

And so La Russa spent much of Wednesday defending why his stalwart shortstop or his durable 35-year-old cleanup hitter need rest like everyone else. But obviously what they really could use is more help.

(Photo of Anderson on Tuesday: Keith Gillett / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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