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White Sox Options: Kimbrel In, Hernández Out

Rick Hahn rolls the dice on a future trade, or better usage, for his “second closer.”

Division Series - Houston Astros v Chicago White Sox - Game Four
Rick Hahn decided that the remaining asset of Craig Kimbrel had too much value, whether on the trade market or in the White Sox bullpen.
Nuccio DiNuzzo/MLB Photos via Getty Images

[The news on the White Sox picking up Craig Kimbrel’s $16 million option and declining César Hernández’s $6 million option for 2022 broke just as we’re on the verge of publishing Luke Smailes’ detailed offseason plan, and his stuff about Craig Kimbrel was so astute it’s just pulled from his plan and presented here.]

Craig Kimbrel was acquired at the 2021 trade deadline with a completely-unsustainable 0.49 ERA, with help from a .203 BABIP. His HR/FB% regressed hard after the trade, and his fastball was down 1.2 mph. He struck out fewer hitters and walked more, yet there was nothing, aside from the drop in fastball velocity, that signaled a major decrease in pitch quality.

Step back and look at Kimbrel’s 2021 season as a whole: He had a 2.26 ERA and 2.43 FIP with a 32.8 K%; all of which closely align with his career numbers. His season was just so drastic on each end that many White Sox fans had a sour taste in their mouth and wanted to buy him out. That would have been a major mistake.

Having Kimbrel on the 2022 White Sox roster can absolutely work. He and Liam Hendriks can still create the borderline-unfair back-end tandem that Rick Hahn envisioned when he acquired him in July. Even when Kimbrel’s acquisition was still in the rumor stage, I wanted to make him the closer and make Liam Hendriks the bullpen’s fireman/stopper, a role that would feature him in the highest-leverage situation from the sixth to the eighth inning.

I don’t know this for a fact, but it seems like Kimbrel is a lot more routine-dependent in preparation for a game as a reliever than Hendriks is, meaning he’s a lot more comfortable knowing exactly the situation he’s going to be deployed in. With the Cubs, that was in the ninth inning with a three-run lead or less — the traditional closer’s role. Aside from his 2020 struggles with the Cubs where he was removed from the role, Kimbrel had been a traditional closer since his first full season in 2011. Hendriks has been a DFA’d starting pitcher, middle reliever, set-up man, and closer in the majors, and openly said that he doesn’t care when he pitches — he just wants to win. The rationale that moving Hendriks from the traditional closer role to the fireman role would be considered a demotion is also part of the problem. It’s not a demotion, it’s just optimally deploying your bullpen, and Hendriks is progressive enough to realize that.

La Russa either didn’t realize that, or didn’t have the courage to make that kind of decision.

Here’s a thought experiment: Can you imagine battling Giolito for five-plus innings and finally stringing together a mini-rally with the heart of order up in the sixth inning as Giolito begins to tire, only to see La Russa walking to the mound to bring in the fire-breathing, profanity-screaming Hendriks to end it by shoving riding 100 mph fastballs down your throat? Sounds kind of demoralizing as the opponent, doesn’t it? This man is getting uncomfortably fired up in the SIXTH INNING. They were expecting a ho-hum middle reliever before having to deal with the back-end bullpen talent. Especially when you still have a Hall of Fame-caliber closer to get the last three outs, this is conceivably a major advantage.

That was my vision of how this would play out. Now, we get a chance to find out if something like this would have worked.