Last offseason, there was a healthy dose of White Sox fans whose offseason plans did not pick up Reynaldo López’s paltry $2.1 million in arbitration. Sure, he had seen two seasons of severely-diminishing returns after his solid debut with the team in 2018, but it was nonetheless surprising. On a team that counted very few certainties in its starting pitching depth, López represented a form of bad that at least provided a bulwark against something worse, and at his price, it would be difficult to find a much better answer.
Perhaps an underappreciated aspect of López’s situation was that the White Sox were able to stash him in the minors for most of the season. Rather than burn a spot on the 26-man roster for him to operate sporadically out of the bullpen, they were able to option him to Charlotte to rejuvenate his career, armed with reworked mechanics, a return to his once vaunted curveball, and newly corrected eyesight.
In the end, the results were...mixed. In 10 starts with the Knights, López managed a whopping 39 innings and a stratospheric 7.62 ERA; quite the precipitous fall for a pitcher who once logged a 3.91 ERA in 188 innings in the majors. By the time he was called up to the team in July, he looked more like a candidate to be put on waivers than a midseason reinforcement. To his credit, López did put together two quality starts in his last three outings before the promotion, and his fastball velocity had finally rebounded to the mid-90s after losing a few ticks early on. Regardless, there was little confidence he was anything other than a garbage-time arm.
As it turned out, López brought some much-needed stability to both the bullpen and the rotation. Splitting his time between roles (nine starts, 10 relief appearances), he filled in 57 2⁄3 innings with competency the team would have been hard-pressed to find elsewhere. As a starter, López averaged just more than four innings per start, his last one being a solid six-inning/one-earned run performance that brought his season ERA down to 2.98. Sadly, he would close the season with a relief appearance giving up three runs against one out, raising it back to a still-respectable, but considerably less impressive, 3.43.
One factor which helped drive Lopez’s success was a sudden spike in ground ball rate. Normally an extreme fly ball pitcher, and still rather so, López’s four-seam fastball suddenly generated a larger percentage of ground outs than ever before. This, coupled with a strikeout rate that finally looked the part of a power pitcher (24.8%) and a walk rate that helped limit some of the damage against him (5.9%), made López exactly the sort of swingman the team desperately needed to be able to turn to as Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodón, and Michael Kopech nursed various injuries.
Given these results, Lopez’s place as one of the original centerpieces of the rebuild, the team’s familiarity with him, and his status as one of the few pitchers who has not had serious arm issues in the last few years, it makes sense for the White Sox to pick up his 2022 option. Currently projected by MLB Trade Rumors at $2.8 million, that’s a bargain for a guy who can flip back and forth in roles as needed and eat a few innings.
Looking at how difficult it was to manage Kopech’s workload, I think the team will have an appreciation for Lopez’s anytime/anywhere attitude. His presence as a long man in the bullpen and occasional sixth starter will allow the team some leeway with Kopech’s transition to the rotation and allow them precious time to develop more depth from their talent in the upper minors. Further, if they have any designs on making Garrett Crochet a starter in the future, I don’t think it is an aspiration that can be achieved by keeping him on the 26-man roster.
Another consideration is, with two years of control and very little money committed, López could be an interesting trade piece. While he isn’t bound to headline any trades for a significant return, he could be a valuable second player behind a guy like Andrew Vaughn or Colson Montgomery. However, at his salary, given the scarcity of reliable arms in the organization, the White Sox are best served keeping López around and leaning on his arm whenever necessary. If he flops again, the financial commitment is not crippling, and if he holds steady or has a breakthrough year, his value shoots through the roof.
Whether you’re on on board the ReyLo Express or not, he’s earned at least one more year on the South Side Line.