Teams can never have enough pitching. Baseball executives have never uttered the phrase “too much starting pitching” — and it won’t happen anytime soon.
The Chicago White Sox posted solid overall pitching numbers during the abbreviated 2020 campaign, but the organization’s failures to line up a reliable No. 3 starter for the playoffs helped derail their postseason bid in Oakland.
That shouldn’t be the case in 2021, but reinforcements are still a necessity. The White Sox acquired veteran righthander Lance Lynn in early December, and while the prospect cost was steep, the 33-year-old should be exactly what the doctor ordered for the South Side 9. The former Rangers righty posted a 1.3 fWAR in 84 innings last year, after throwing 208 innings with a 6.7 fWAR in 2019.
Dallas Keuchel is basically Old Reliable at this point in his career as well. After signing a free agent contract with the Pale Hose last offseason, the 6´3´´ southpaw posted a 1.99 ERA with a 3.08 FIP while compiling 1.8 fWAR over 63 innings in 2020. Both of the veterans will be tasked with backing up burgeoning ace Lucas Giolito in the rotation. The 26-year-old is the anchor of the staff after reimagining his arsenal to match his once-lofty prospect pedigree. Giolito is expected to put up stellar numbers in his first arbitration year, and the ZIPS projections at FanGraphs indicate that Giolito could be the Cy Young favorite.
The makeup of the rest of the starting rotation for the South Siders is tenuous at the moment. Dylan Cease is trying to work out the kinks and get his uneven career on track. Reynaldo López is undergoing an overhaul that should bring the curveball back into his arsenal. Michael Kopech is healthy, and the pitching development staff is excited about his growth.
The White Sox have numerous options. None of them are proven, though, and it’s a potential issue for a club with championship aspirations.
Prospects like Bernardo Flores Jr., Kade McClure, Jonathan Stiever and Jimmy Lambert could factor in eventually and fill a spot as depth during the grind of a big league season. There are questions regarding Lambert regaining the ability to start, while Flores was used in a bullpen role in 2020. Stiever needs more minor league time to hone his stuff and command, and while McClure was outstanding in fall instructional league he’s never pitched beyond High-A ball.
The San Diego Padres have acquired Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove already this winter. In the trades, AJ Preller flexed his prospect depth by sending 14 players to the Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates. Musgrove wasn’t the only Pirate to move, as the New York Yankees acquired former #2 overall pick Jameson Taillon from Pittsburgh last week as well. Cleveland also moved veteran righty Carlos Carrasco to the New York Mets in the blockbuster deal involving Francisco Lindor.
Fans and observers were perplexed and often dismayed after seeing the prospect returns in and wondering whether it was realistic for the White Sox to be involved instead. The primary tenets of every trade was the abundance of fungible teenagers available on the market, as the Yankees, Padres and Mets all parted with recent draft picks and international signings who were originally signed as teenagers.
High-upside preps and international teenagers are the current currency of the game. The White Sox likely could have swung a trade for anyone available, but they don’t have the prospect capital to consummate trades of this magnitude without moving one or more of their highly-regarded Top 50 prospects.
The organization has changed course in the draft recently by starting to prioritize an influx of prep pitching into the system. They don’t have teenage position players who play shortstop and center field, however, and that dearth makes trades unlikely. Similarly, the franchise hasn’t prioritized the addition of big-bonus teenagers from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela on the international market. Without an emphasis being placed in these areas, trades for controllable pitching become even more difficult for the front office to pull off.
Lynn was acquired and many others have been discussed in some fashion. Cincinnati’s Sonny Gray has been available all offseason. German Marquez of the Rockies and Corbin Burnes of the Brewers always have been favorites of the White Sox front office. Jon Gray from Colorado could be available at an affordable price, while Marco Gonzales of the Mariners could be had as well. Luis Castillo and Kyle Hendricks have been mentioned as potential movers, too, but either would require a pretty staggering prospect haul.
The organization is very confident in Kopech and Cease. In an ideal world, both pitchers carve out rotation spots by mid-June and never leave. Idealism isn’t reality, though, and it would behoove the decision-makers at 35th and Shields to find a fourth starter prior to the season. Going the trade route doesn’t seem realistic at this point, and it’s not the best use of the organization’s resources. When ownership doesn’t play at the top of the free agent market and fails to finish the job on a regular basis, prospect depth can’t be discarded for upgrades that could prove to be unnecessary.
The Free Market
There are plenty of pitchers available on the free agent market, and the White Sox could go in a multitude of ways to fill out their starting staff.
Trevor Bauer is the top name on the market, and he’s looking to cash in after winning the Cy Young in 2020. The 30-year-old threw 73 innings for the Cincinnati Reds and posted a 2.5 fWAR. But a team that has recently proclaimed itself tapped out on spending, Bauer is likely beyond what the White Sox are looking to spend on another pitching addition.
The next names still on the market are Jake Odorizzi, James Paxton and Tijuan Walker, with former Yankee Masahiro Tanaka officially returning to Japan.
Odorizzi, the 30-year-old former Minnesota righty, only threw 13 2⁄3 innings in 2020 but compiled 4.0 fWAR in 2019. Odorizzi is likely looking to secure a multi-year deal.
Paxton has a complex past, littered with a history of injuries. The 6´4´´ southpaw only tossed 20 innings in 2020 but has accumulated over 17 fWAR in his career. Still on the market at this juncture, it’s likely that the 32-year-old is also looking for more than a one-year commitment.
Walker pitched for two teams in 2020. In 11 starts, the 28-year-old righthander posted a 2.70 ERA but displayed really poor peripherals, leading to a much lower FIP that could be contributing to his slow market.
There are some lesser options on the market as well that could have some ties to the White Sox in various ways. Rick Porcello and Trevor Cahill could serve as the bridge to Kopech, who is almost certain to begin 2021 at Triple-A.
Porcello spent the abbreviated 2020 season in New York with the Mets after years in Boston and Detroit. The 32-year-old righty posted a 3.33 FIP in 59 innings last year. The award was controversial, but the former first round selection has a Cy Young on his resume. Manager Tony La Russa spent some time in Boston while Porcello was a member of the starting rotation in Bean Town.
Cahill has had an up and down career. The 32-year-old pitched in 11 games for the San Francisco Giants in 2020. He posted a 3.24 ERA with a 4.19 FIP, but his stuff really ticked up. Cahill relied on his improved curveball to average 11 K/9, but he walked way too many hitters. His curveball spin rates fall in the 96th percentile, however, and he worked closely with new White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz in the Bay Area.
Chris Archer, Jake Arrieta and Mike Foltynewicz are some interesting rebound candidates, but they are more likely to resurface with a club not expecting to win like the White Sox.
The bridge to Cease and Kopech is currently as flimsy as can be. Everything could work out, or a surprise could show in Spring Training. The White Sox may feel like they have enough pitching, but unfortunately, injury history has a way of repeating itself.