Eloy Jiménez walked down the stairs in the visitors dugout at Target Field on Wednesday as Luis Robert discussed the 2022 season and looked ahead to 2023 with reporters.
“Next year is the year,” Jiménez yelled. “Let’s go.”
All the Sox can do is look ahead following a 2022 season filled with disappointment. After making the playoffs in 2020 and ‘21, the Sox will be spending this postseason at home.
“It just seemed like everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong,” catcher Yasmani Grandal said before Friday’s game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. “When you thought it was kind of coming back, it just never went back. It just kept going wrong.
“But I guess to put it plain and simple, we just sucked. Anything else would be an excuse, and the last thing you want to make as a team, as an individual, is an excuse.”
Here’s a look at what went right, what didn’t and what’s next for the Sox.
What went right
Dylan Cease put it all together and put himself in the running for the American League Cy Young Award while headlining the rotation.
Cease entered what might be his final start of the season Saturday near the top of several pitching categories, including ranking second in the majors with a 2.06 ERA.
He came within one out of a no-hitter Sept. 3 against the Minnesota Twins. Earlier in the season, he had 14 consecutive start in which he allowed no more than one earned run, becoming the first starter (non-opener) since 1913 to accomplish the feat.
“(The consistency is) huge,” Cease told the Tribune on Thursday. “To be able to be fairly consistent throughout the year is very important.”
The Sox signed pitcher Johnny Cueto to a minor-league deal shortly after Lance Lynn suffered a right knee injury during a Cactus League game that sidelined him until June. Cueto helped stabilize the rotation after joining the big-league team in May.
Cueto and Michael Kopech shined in one of the more impressive days of the season when the Sox swept a doubleheader against the Yankees on May 22 in New York. Kopech — who moved back into the rotation after spending most of last year as a reliever — retired the first 17 batters in Game 2 with Rob Brantly breaking up the perfect game with a two-out double in the sixth.
Closer Liam Hendriks ranked among the league leaders in saves (38) and made his third All-Star team.
He was joined at the All-Star Game by shortstop Tim Anderson, who was voted a starter for the first time. Anderson was eighth in the AL in batting average at the time he suffered what turned out to be a season-ending sagittal band tear in his left middle finger in early August.
While the power numbers were down, first baseman José Abreu found ways to make an impact. He ranked second in the AL in hits (180) and fifth in batting average (.304) entering Saturday.
Jiménez has been among the best hitters in baseball since the All-Star break, slashing .330/.398/.572 with 14 homers and 40 RBIs.
The Sox played up to their potential in early September, winning 13 of their first 19 after Miguel Cairo stepped in as acting manager.
What went wrong
The Sox lost the opener of a big series against the Cleveland Guardians 10-7 in 11 innings on Sept. 20 and never recovered.
That defeat started an eight-game losing streak. The Sox saw the Guardians pull away to win the AL Central. Six of those losses came at home, where the Sox are a puzzling 35-43.
The Sox entered Saturday one game under .500, with injuries being a major factor.
Core position players such as Anderson, Robert, Jiménez, Grandal and third baseman Yoán Moncada were among those to spend time on the IL. The rotation and bullpen also were hit with injuries.
“We weren’t as consistent as we wanted to be,” Robert said through an interpreter Wednesday in Minneapolis. “Too many ups and downs, more downs than ups, and that affected the way that we played. When you have injuries, that’s something you cannot avoid. You can have your players playing, but if you have your players dealing with different injuries, you know the guys out there are not 100%. That’s going to affect your performance too.
“You can’t control that. I really believe that’s one of the main reasons why we underperformed this year.”
The Sox are wrapping up the season with Anderson and Robert on the IL while Moncada (.218/.282/.364) and Grandal (.200/.301/.269) struggled to find a rhythm offensively.
Beyond the injuries, the play on the field was surprisingly sloppy at times. The team’s 100 errors are the most in the AL. And baserunning miscues, whether it led to a triple play July 4 against the Twins or getting caught off third base following a walk July 27 at Colorado, squashed momentum.
It’s those fundamentals one would expect to be cleaned up under Tony La Russa, who returned as Sox manager after the 2020 season with the hopes of taking the team to the next level.
They made the playoffs again in 2021, but this season was filled with inconsistent play. And decisions such as intentionally walking Trea Turner with a 1-2 count in a June 9 game against the Los Angeles Dodgers gained national criticism.
Fans voiced their displeasure with the ups and downs, including chants of “Fire Tony” during an extra-inning loss to the Texas Rangers on June 11. The team’s inability to be a larger player at the trade deadline also left many scratching their heads.
Less than an hour before an Aug. 30 game against the Kansas City Royals, the Sox announced that La Russa would not manage that night at the direction of his doctors. The next day the Sox said La Russa was out indefinitely and would undergo further testing with doctors in Arizona.
On Sept. 24, the Sox announced La Russa would not return for the 2022 season at the direction of his doctors. Asked later that day if he had a sense if La Russa, 77, still wants to manage, Sox general manager Rick Hahn said, “Right now the focus is on his health.”
Hahn said the team would address the managerial situation when “it’s appropriate to turn the page at the end of this year.”
That’s the most immediate question facing the Sox.
These could also be the last few games for Abreu with the Sox. He’s a free agent after the season.
Time will tell if the Sox look to add a left-handed bat, whether they search for a long-term solution at second base and the rotation plans with Cueto set for free agency.
Largely, the offseason will be about trying to find ways to get back on track after the squandered opportunities this season.
“It’s a frustrating year and we know what we need to work on and we know what we don’t want to fall into next year,” outfielder/first baseman Gavin Sheets told the Tribune on Tuesday in Minneapolis. “We know what went well and we know what didn’t work. For us next year, this season was a big learning curve. We don’t want to go back down this hole.
“We know the talent we have and we know what it takes because last year we did what it took and this year we didn’t. We take that and we run with it and I think we’ve got some good motivation going into next year.”