On paper, the White Sox have the greatest talent in AL Central.
When they return home Tuesday night, the Sox will be up against the best team in the division.
That would be the Guardians in first place, arriving in guaranteed rate field and holding a 4-game lead over the White Sox with just 15 left to play.
The Sox have a $197 million payroll, the seventh highest in baseball. Led by Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu, Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez, the lineup is impressive when healthy.
Unfortunately for the White Sox, their planned regular starting lineup was only together for a handful of games due to injury, but that’s part of the game.
On the pitching side, the rotation is deep and Liam Hendriks is an elite closer.
Cleveland’s $67 million payroll ranks No. 27 in the MLB, and Jose Ramirez is their only player of notoriety.
Under manager Terry Francona, who has Hall of Fame credentials, the Guardians have been heating up at just the right time, winning 12 of their last 15.
Ramirez leads the offense with 28 homers and 113 RBI, the starting rotation and bullpen are solid, and Cleveland knows how to capitalize on his outstanding speed.
“These kids know how to play the game,” acting Sox manager Miguel Cairo said of the Guardians. “They play good defence, they pitch, they put the run on the ball. They don’t hit as much so they’re going to be a pain in the butt.
“You’re playing the game right. We did. We’ve been doing this for the past few weeks and are looking at the results. So we just have to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Under Cairo, who replaced Tony La Russa on August 30, the White Sox are on the right track themselves.
The Sox are playing their most focused baseball of the season, hitting home runs in droves and have won 13 of their last 18.
While La Russa’s future as White Sox manager remains in doubt due to a heart problem, there is little doubt that Cairo has brought the energy needed to the coaching bench.
Cairo changes from bench coach and is 13-6 as manager. After a 7-9 loss to the Royals in his first game in place of La Russa, he spoke bluntly to his players and his words apparently struck a chord.
“It was a similar message that Tony gave, it was just a different delivery,” Hendriks said of the August 30 lecture in Cairo. “I think it really has to do with a couple of guys, really dictating their mindset. Since that happened, we have more energy.
“We have people that are a little bit more in the dugout, people that are supportive out there, they’re running around. They do all these things a little bit more.”
Unfortunately for the White Sox, it seems again a case of too little too late.
Cleveland leads the season series against the Sox 9-7. If the Guardians win a game in guaranteed rate field, they would claim the tiebreak should they end the year with an identical record as the White Sox.
With the lockout and late start to the season, there isn’t a 163rd crucial game for teams that tie for first place this year.
After Cleveland, the Sox finish with three home games against the Tigers, three games in Minnesota, three in San Diego, and three at home against the Twins.
The Guardians finish with three games in Texas and three at home against Tampa Bay before completing six straight games with Kansas City.
Starting for this week’s three-game streak is White Sox’s Dylan Cease (14-7, 2.16 ERA) against Cleveland’s Aaron Civale (2-6, 5.40) Tuesday’s Lance Lynn (7-5, 3.99) against Triston McKenzie (10-11, 3.08) Wednesday and Johnny Cueto (7-8, 3.09) starts against Shane Bieber (11-8, 2.83) Thursday.