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Liam Hendriks, Come on Down!

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The fireballer soon may shift from the Southern Hemisphere to the South Side, to join the White Sox

Wild Card Round - Chicago White Sox v Oakland Athletics - Game Three
From hunted to hunter, the White Sox are trying to turn AL Wild Card nemesis Liam Hendriks into a new bullpen asset.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Patience could end up being a virtue for White Sox fans to start 2021. New Year’s resolutions have been cast and the natives are getting restless. Waiting for something (please anything!) to happen without becoming unnecessarily frustrated is tough for folks in the 21st Century, however. It was easy for William Langland to say and mean it in the 1300s, but it’s been hard for White Sox fans to sit back idly and remain patient while the second-best team in the National League West continues to make waves.

The White Sox added outfielder Adam Eaton and traded for right-handed pitcher Lance Lynn to kick off the slow-moving virtual Winter Meetings in early December. It’s been pretty quiet since, outside of some positive international signing news and radio broadcaster Len Kasper jumping to the suddenly more optimistic side of this baseball city. Action around the league has been sparse, and the Hot Stove has been cold as can be heading into the new year.

The good news is that the market is flooded with players, and they all must sign at some point. The White Sox have one of the best rosters in the American League, and they’ve already improved themselves more than the other AL Central contenders. They don’t appear to be done adding to the 2021 roster at this point, either.

GM Rick Hahn emphatically encouraged the fan base while using the local media as an active conduit and recommending that everyone “stay tuned.” Hahn doesn’t generally speak that liberally unless he means it, which indicates that more moves are in fact coming. It was reported that the Eaton decision was ultimately made to save some of the franchise’s arbitrarily-set budget and re-allocate available resources elsewhere.

South Side Sox has learned that more pitching reinforcements are on the way.

Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com listed the Pale Hose as the seventh-best starting rotation in the sport currently. Only the Cleveland Whatevers come in ahead of them in the American League. The South Side’s starting rotation posted the sixth-best ERA+ in baseball and they were sixth in the AL with 6.0 fWAR as a staff. The staff posted a 3.81 ERA and 4.32 FIP, while the rotation alone posted a 3.85 ERA with a 3.6 fWAR while only averaging 8.63 K/9.

That rotation featured much uncertainty, given injuries to Reynaldo López and Carlos Rodón, ineffectiveness from Dylan Cease, the opt-out of Michael Kopech and heavily-restricted innings for Dane Dunning. New pitching coach Ethan Katz will be tasked with getting the most out of López, Cease and Kopech, but the acquisition of Lynn is just what the doctor ordered. With the Texas Rangers over the past two seasons, the veteran righty was first in the majors in innings with 292 13 pitched while compiling 8.3 fWAR, which comes in at fifth in baseball in that span.

Another starter will likely be added, and there are a plethora of people available to fill a spot via free agency or trade. The bullpen appears to be the next area of focus for the White Sox, though, and that that market is littered with options as well.

In 2020, the White Sox bullpen ranked 8th in baseball with a 2.5 fWAR. The group posted a 3.76 ERA with a 3.98 FIP. Alex Colomé was a contributing member of that bullpen, and while the free agent is currently an option to return to the team, the White Sox have their eyes on a bigger prize.

Help From Down Under

Liam Hendriks is the best relief pitcher on the free agent market, and he’s firmly in the sights of the White Sox. Tony La Russa wants a closer, and the Hall of Fame manager has gotten what he’s asked for so far this offseason. Hendriks has a relationship with the 76-year-old via La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation charity, but that affiliation likely won’t be outweigh money and the righty needs to cash in.

The 31-year-old righthander hails from Perth in Western Australia, and while he loved Australian Rules Football as a child, baseball was his chosen profession. The 6´0´´, 225-pounder signed with the Minnesota Twins as an 18-year-old and bounced around in numerous roles, floundering as a starting pitcher and getting roughed up in middle relief.

Hendriks’ career record of 19-27 with an ERA of 4.10 doesn’t pass the initial eye test. Sometimes roles take a bit to define, though, and the Aussie has become one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball over the last two seasons. He was an All-Star in 2019 after posting 3.9 fWAR with the Oakland Athletics. Hendriks was also named American League Reliever of the Year for the abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Over the course of 85 innings in 2019, the righthander posted a 1.80 ERA with a 1.87 FIP and also averaged 13.13 K/9 with 2.22 BB/9. The increase in strikeout rate was staggering, and his stuff was elite in the closer role. In 2020, Hendriks threw in 24 games, compiling 25 innings with a strikeout rate of 40% and a walk rate just more than 3%. He posted a 1.78 ERA with a 1.14 FIP, which was good for 1.4 fWAR (in just 24 games/25 innings!).

These are the elite numbers that the club would be paying for.

While Hendriks is the biggest fish in the pond, other back-end relievers are available on the market as well. The 32-year-old Colomé has received interest from four clubs, and the White Sox have also kept tabs on their former closer. The franchise seems destined to move in a different direction, though. The decision-makers seem to ultimately prefer someone at the back end who is more versatile, misses more bats consistently and possesses more velocity.

Kirby Yates, Trevor Rosenthal and Blake Treinen are seen as backup options to Hendriks on the free agent market. Yates possesses the premium stuff that clubs look for, but he missed the majority of 2020 with an elbow injury. The 33-year-old threw 60 23 innings in 2019 and posted a 3.4 fWAR while averaging 14.98 K/9 and 1.93 BB/9. The 5´10´´, 210-pounder posted a 1.19 ERA with a FIP of 1.30.

Rosenthal bounced back with the Kansas City Royals, prior to a midseason trade to San Diego. The 30-year-old threw 23 23 innings with a 1.90 ERA. The 6´2´´, 235 pound righthander averaged nearly 15 K/9 while only walking just more than three batters per nine. He posted a 2.22 FIP, as well. Rosenthal missed the 2018 season after Tommy John surgery, and he then proceeded to struggle in 2019.

Treinen threw just more than 25 innings in 2020, but his strikeout rate was down significantly. The 6´5´´, 225 pound righty averaged 7.71 K/9 and only 2.81 BB/9. The 32-year-old sinkerballer posted a 3.86 ERA with a 3.15 FIP. The member of the World Series champion Dodgers will likely be looking for his fourth team this winter.

Brad Hand and Archie Bradley are two more names that joined the free agent reliever class. Hand, a 6´3´´, 220 pound southpaw was available to the league on outright waivers from Cleveland earlier this offseason and nobody claimed Hand for mere money. The 30-year-old reliever pitched in 23 games last year encompassing 22 innings. The lefty averaged 11.86 K/9 with 1.64 BB/9 and compiled 1.1 fWAR with a 2.05 ERA and 1.37 FIP.

The 28-year-old Bradley was traded from the Diamondbacks to Cincinnati at the deadline and he pitched 18 13 innings total, with a 2.93 ERA and 2.59 FIP. The 6´4´´, 225-pounder didn’t strike out as many hitters in 2020, averaging ony 8.84 K/9 last year after 10.93 K/9 in 2019, but he did increase the walk rate.

Overall, this market has been slow-moving so far, but it’s ripe with talent that can help teams.

Call to the Pen

The White Sox have done a pretty solid job overall of cobbling together bullpen assets and displaying a representative level group of arms. La Russa is often credited with inventing the modern bullpen. He likes using a designated closer, setup men from the right and left sides, and having the rest fall in line. New rules could change the way he operates, but bullpen management should be a strength in the new-look dugout.

With the eighth-best bullpen in the sport last year, this isn’t an area of weakness for the White Sox — but strengthening a strength is likely necessary in a wide-open American League. The majority of their above-average group will return in 2021. Aaron Bummer, a 27-year-old southpaw, ran into some injury issues last year after signing a contract extension but he still managed to average 13.5 K/9 with a 0.96 ERA. In 2019, Bummer threw 67 23 innings and posted a 2.13 ERA.

Evan Marshall just signed a $2 million deal to remain with the club and the 30-year-old has been stellar. The right-handed changeup specialist posted a 2.04 FIP and 2.38 ERA over 22 23 innings. Marshall struck out almost 12 hitters per nine innings and walked just 2.78.

In addition to those stable veterans, some young hurlers burst onto the scene in 2020 as well.

Codi Heuer, 24, posted a 1.52 ERA in 23 23 innings. The 6´5´´, 195-pounder averaged 9.5 K/9 with a 2.77 FIP. Matt Foster is a 25-year-old righty who displayed a plus changeup with increased fastball velocity. Over 28 23 innings, the former 20th-rounder averaged 9.73 K/9 with a 2.20 ERA and 2.88 FIP. Garrett Crochet’s role is yet to be defined, but he could be an option in the 2021 bullpen before too long as well.

Lefty Jace Fry and rubber-armed righty Jimmy Cordero are still on the roster as well. The 27-year-old Fry posted a 1.83 FIP vs lefties and averaged more than 12 K/9 against righthanders. Cordero pitched in seemingly every game for the 2020 club and he dealt with some overuse. He would strand lots of runners, and his FIP (3.87) was much better than an ERA that came in higher than six.

One look at the 40-man roster indicates a plethora of younger options, as well. Zack Burdi’s stuff looked all the way back while harboring similar command issues to the past. Bernardo Flores Jr. is a starter, but could be used in a relief role. Jimmy Lambert looked solid in a brief stint, and he’s a bullpen candidate if he gets healthy once again. Tyler Johnson was added to the 40-man roster this offseason, Emilio Vargas was acquired via waivers and José Ruiz is hanging by a thread.

The argument can be made that the White Sox have enough in the current bullpen to compete in the American League. Bummer, Heuer and others could handle the ninth inning. Deadline trades are common for contenders, and 2021 likely won’t be any different. Should the White Sox spend a considerable piece of their arbitrarily set budget on a closer? It’s a valid question.

Fans and observers in many cases would prefer that money be spent on another starting pitcher, or a better option in right field or designated hitter. The club hasn’t shown a willingness or propensity to play at the very top of the free agent market in the majority of cases. They did it last year with catcher Yasmani Grandal — a rarity. But they’ve done it in the past with relief pitching, multiple times.

All indications are that they’d be content doing it with Hendriks. He’s the top target, and while it shouldn’t be beyond criticism, at least it’s the right player for the closer role. The White Sox feel comfortable when the financial ceiling is lower, and the bidding for the 31-year-old shouldn’t get too uncomfortable.

Hendriks would make an already-great White Sox bullpen one of the very best in the sport. La Russa likes shortening games, and having the Aussie fireballer at the back end does just that. The conjecture over the appropriate use of resources will and should continue, but nobody can deny that the club would be setting themselves up to be one of the favorites in the American League by adding Hendriks. And that’s kind of the point of this whole operation.