First Pitch: Is Tony La Russa a problem or asset for the Chicago White Sox?

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After some early-season mistakes, Tony La Russa has led the Chicago White Sox to the top of the AL Central. Yet, is the aging manager still causing problems on the South Side?

Tony La Russa is like your grandpa at Thanksgiving — he tries to understand your problems, but in reality he’s likely just going through the motions, and you’re lucky if he doesn’t say something offensive.

La Russa’s managerial acumen cannot be questioned. He’s been manning the dugout for more than three decades, including ten full years with the Chicago White Sox — first in the 1980’s, and now 40 years later. It’s an astonishing feat and speaks to his ability to motivate professional baseball players of all ages, as stubborn as he may be at times.

The 76-year-old was called out this season by the media for his treatment of Yermin Mercedes, after the designated hitter swung on a 3-0 count in a blowout with a position player on the mound. It was an astonishing attempt to shift the blame to his own player, and potentially even escalated the conflict altogether with the Minnesota Twins.

“With that kind of a lead, that’s just sportsmanship, or respect for the game or respect for your opponent,” La Russa told reporters the next day. “He made a mistake. There will be a consequence that he’s going to have to endure within our family. It won’t happen again.”

He went on to call Mercedes “clueless” as to the unwritten rules of the game.

That was in mid-May, this is now.

The White Sox have dealt with a rash of injuries, and aren’t far removed from having the best record in baseball without two of their best players in Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. Add in injuries to Adam Engel and Nick Madrigal, and the Sox are down to their B squad at multiple key positions.

As flawed as La Russa is at communicating with the modern-day player at his veteran status (and who could blame him), it’s that same steadfast mentality and experience that benefits the White Sox at this point in the year. Some could even make the case that he’s an AL Manager of the Year candidate so far, and it’d be tough to argue with them.

La Russa has seemingly pushed the right buttons when the Sox needed him most. Despite his blow-ups, bullpen mismanagement and at times downright insulting attitude towards his own players, La Russa remains one of the best in-game skippers in baseball. Should he make it to the postseason — which the White Sox seem well on their way to doing — he is no doubt an asset worth holding close when times get tough.

This is what ChiSox general manager Rick Hahn and owner Jerry Reinsdorf knew all along. Come October, they may have every right to say “We told you so”.

Where do Tony La Russa and the Chicago White Sox go from here?

The young Sox have been a great story through mid-June, but there’s plenty of season left. With the trade deadline a little more than a month away, and Chicago down at a few positions, where should they look for reinforcements? And how does La Russa fit into this equation?

To get a better idea of how White Sox fans feel about the team moving forward, we asked Da Windy City and Southside Showdown’s Vinny Parise.

1. A concern before the season was how Tony La Russa would mesh with a young group of emerging MLB stars. How has that relationship developed as the season progresses?

Vinny Parise: “It was a little bumpy before the year began and early into the season but things seem to have come around. He has made his mistakes but the team responds well to some of the ways he does things lately.”

2. We know what Yermin Mercedes learned from his exchange with TLR. What about La Russa? Or is he too set in his ways to change, at this point?

VP: “It seems like he is pretty set in his ways at this point. He has had so much success doing things his way so he isn’t going to change now. The team is too talented not to be very good on the field.”

3. A rash of injuries to important players in some ways makes the Sox rise in the standings even more impressive. Is that run sustainable long-term? And if not, are there any internal options (prospects, etc.) that might help? 

VP: “They do seem to need some help offensively until they begin to get a little bit healthier. Danny Mendick can help at second base from time to time. As far as prospects, we may see Gavin Sheets or Jake Burger over the next few weeks as both have been great in AAA.”

4. As the trade deadline approaches, what’s the biggest concern the White Sox should address? Is standing pat an option?

VP: They have plenty of proven replacement level outfielders to hold it down until Robert and Jimenez return so acquiring a second baseman would be the best option at this point in time.

Chicago White Sox trade rumors: Potential targets for Rich Hahn

Per Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the White Sox are already in talks to add a bat. Eduardo Escobar of the putrid Arizona Diamondbacks is the target.

“The Chicago White Sox, looking for a replacement for Nick Madrigal, are engaged in trade talks with the Diamondbacks for Eduardo Escobar, who’s being shopped,” Nightengale tweeted. “Escobar, who’s earning $7.5M in the final year of his contract, is hitting .240 with 15 homers, 45 RBI with a .743 OPS.”

In terms of other obvious trade partners, the White Sox should look no further than their mid-week opponent in the Pittsburgh Pirates. If Adam Frazier is made available, he fills an obvious need. Frazier is slashing .322/.388/.451 on the year for lowly Pittsburgh. A move to the AL Central would do him some good ahead of an arbitration year.

If the White Sox still need an outfield bat, the Rockies Charlie Blackmon is for sale at the right price. Colorado needs to add to their prospect base after botching the Nolan Arenado trade, and Chicago is down Luis Robert for the time being. Adam Engel was also placed on the injured list on Tuesday.

All teams are looking for bullpen help this time of year, too. One name to look for this coming series in Pittsburgh is Richard Rodriguez, perhaps the Pirates best trade chip come late July. Rodriguez as a 1.91 ERA and .741 WHIP in 27 appearances if the White Sox want more padding in front of Liam Hendriks.

Expect Hahn to be active by July, as the White Sox look to add veteran talent to a young roster ready to contend for a World Series right now.

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