Believe it or not, baseball still exists.
This isn’t actually a dystopian future that we’re living in, waiting for Jim Brockmire to take the reins of the sport, but it often feels like it. Many are still trying to ascertain what lasted longer between this baseball lockout and the year 2020, but time heals all wounds and there will be light eventually.
There’s no agreement yet between the owners (and the owners) and the players, but there will be. Once that occurs, the floodgates will burst open and a frenzied free agent and trade period like we’ve never witnessed will suddenly commence.
The Chicago White Sox lost in the American League Division Series in 2021 to the Houston Astros after finishing the regular season with a record of 93-69. Those 93 wins were enough for a division title, as the South Siders ran roughshod over the American League Central. Pitching was stellar for the Pale Hose, with the club finishing first with a 27.1 fWAR overall while posting a 3.73 ERA and 3.74 FIP as a staff. The staff was also No. 1 in strikeout rate (10.18 K/9).
As for the starters, the White Sox rotation finished third in baseball with a 19.3 fWAR and a 3.73 FIP. The oft-maligned relief corps was actually very good as well, finishing second in baseball in fWAR while posting a 3.97 ERA and 3.75 FIP. It helps having Liam Hendriks as the best reliever in the sport, but the rest of the group was solid as well. Hendriks more than earned his money in 2021, posting a 2.7 fWAR with a 2.34 FIP while averaging 14.32 K/9 and 0.89 BB/9 in 71 innings.
Current State of Affairs
The White Sox have one of the best rosters in all of baseball. Pitching carried them in 2021 while the franchise was dealt injuries, blow after blow, on the positional side. While a repeat of the numerous injuries to the positional core would be uncommon, the pitching staff was mostly unscathed from a health standpoint, so reinforcements in the bullpen and rotation are essential.
Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease will return and likely occupy the first three slots in the starting rotation. All three righties combined for solid overall seasons. Lynn threw 157 innings and posted a 4.2 fWAR, with a 2.69 ERA and 3.32 FIP. The 34-year-old averaged 10.0 K/9 and 2.58 BB/9 and was the 17th best pitcher in baseball according to FanGraphs. Giolito threw 178 2⁄3 innings and posted a 3.53 ERA. The No. 21 overall pitcher in baseball last season, the 27-year-old posted a 4.0 fWAR with 10.13 K/9 and 2.62 BB/9.
The best of the trio, however, was 26-year-old hurler Dylan Cease. The righthander compiled 4.4 fWAR while posting a 3.91 ERA and 3.41 FIP and averaged 12.28 K/9 and 3.69 BB/9 in 165 2⁄3 innings. Cease was a Top 15 pitcher in baseball last year, and may have the best stuff on the team.
Carlos Rodón is a free agent, and his future with the White Sox is very much uncertain. Rodón was a Top 10 pitcher in the league in 2021, but he ran out of steam down the stretch and his next contract likely suffers due to the uncertainty. The former third overall pick was stellar in 132 2⁄3 innings, however, and he averaged 12.55 K/9 with 2.44 BB/9. The southpaw posted a 2.37 ERA with a 2.65 FIP, which was good for 4.9 fWAR overall.
In place of Rodón, the front office is currently counting on 25-year-old fireballer Michael Kopech as the replacement in the rotation. An annual member of Top 100 prospect lists, the athletic righty is ready to increase his innings load from the 69 1⁄3 he threw in 2021. Kopech posted a 3.50 ERA with 2.97 FIP while averaging 13.37 K/9, mostly out of the bullpen.
The 34-year-old southpaw Dallas Keuchel had a rough season in 2021, pitching to too much contact for comfort. In 162 innings, the lefty posted a 5.28 ERA with a 5.23 FIP. Keuchel averaged just more than 5.0 K/9 as well. Reynaldo López, once considered a rotation afterthought, also posted a 3.43 ERA with a 4.19 FIP over the course of 57 2⁄3 innings, turning himself into a useful contributor. Jimmy Lambert, Jason Bilous and Jonathan Stiever will all serve as rotation depth at some point in 2021.
In addition to possessing the best reliever in baseball, the rest of the White Sox bullpen was excellent as well. Aaron Bummer and Garrett Crochet were both sensational from the left side. Ryan Burr, Matt Foster, José Ruiz, Bennett Sousa and Anderson Severino are members of the 40-man roster, too.
Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera were both acquired from the Cubs in separate trades at the deadline last July. The Kimbrel move was an aggressive one, and the process behind it made sense. It just didn’t work out, and the 34-year-old will likely be traded again once the lockout ends. Tepera threw 61 1⁄3 innings total and posted a 2.73 FIP after striking out 11 hitters per nine innings.
Kendall Graveman pitched for the Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros last season and was one of the best relievers on the free agent market this offseason. The White Sox inked the righty to a three-year, $24 million deal before the lockout took hold on December 1. The 31-year-old posted a 1.77 ERA with a 3.19 FIP in 56 innings. He will be expected to pitch at the back end of the White Sox bullpen in some fashion over the next few years.
Free Agent Market
World Series contenders probably shouldn’t count on an innings-limited Kopech and rapidly-declining Keuchel to fill out the back of a rotation, however. The free agent pitching market went crazy in November, and the options have been picked clean at this point. There could be some help for the White Sox, however, if Rick Hahn and company are interested in supplementing via the marketplace.
Starting pitching is a significant need for the White Sox. Kopech has an extremely high ceiling but he’ll be on an innings limit again. Keuchel is an experienced veteran looking to improve on a rough season. Both guys could thrive in 2022, but reinforcements must be added to this mix. It’s unclear how much the organization was truly willing to play in the high end of the pitching market prior to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement being implemented.
In the mad dash before the buzzer however, the club was left on the outside looking in whether it was intentional or not. Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Noah Syndergaard, Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman, Eduardo Rodriguez and Jon Gray all consummated deals with teams. The biggest fish remaining on the market is Rodón, and the franchise’s familiarity with him likely keeps them in play for his services. The 29-year-old is likely looking to cash in for the first time, and the organization chose not to control his market with a qualifying offer earlier in the offseason.
If the White Sox choose to let Rodón sign elsewhere, there are some cheaper options available. Two 31-year-old southpaws, Yusei Kikuchi and Martin Perez, could be options at the back end of the rotation. Veterans Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke are still available as well, but don’t seem like options for the 2022 White Sox. One potential option could be 33-year-old right hander Michael Pineda. The 6´7´´, 280-pounder posted a 3.62 ERA in 109 1⁄3 innings with the Twins last year. His strikeout rate went down, but he walked fewer batters as well.
In addition to the White Sox nabbing Graveman, the Angels re-signed closer Raisel Iglesias. But otherwise, the market is flooded with arms that will need new homes soon. Kenley Jansen and Joe Kelly are two names still on the market. Southpaws who could make some sense for the Sox include Andrew Chafin and Jake Diekman. With the impending departure of Kimbrel seeming likely, one more significant addition to the bullpen looks essential.
Tepera is the perfect name to re-add to the mix. In 22 games in Chicago down the stretch last year, the righty posted a 2.50 ERA with a 2.56 FIP while averaging 12 K/9 in 18 innings. Slotting him into the back end of a bullpen along with Graveman, Crochet and Bummer as a bridge to Hendriks seems like a no-brainer for the defending AL Central champions.
The front office hasn’t been afraid to make trades to improve their contending roster. On the pitching side, they’ve been willing to trade potential long-term contributors for impact on shorter terms. Dane Dunning, Codi Heuer and Nick Madrigal were shipped out over the last 18 months in order to bring in Lance Lynn and Craig Kimbrel. Could the organization look to the trade market again to fill their needs in the starting rotation and bullpen?
The franchise has had trade talks in the past with the Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds in regards to their available starting pitching. Germán Márquez has been a frequent target. The 26-year-old signed an extension back in 2019 and thus could be entirely off the table, or at least much tougher for clubs to acquire. The righthander posted a 3.4 fWAR season in 2021. The Rockies are in a strange place, and may not be the right partner to complete a deal.
The Reds could still be ready to deal, however. Their actions have made it clear that cutting payroll is more of a present priority than winning. Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Tyler Mahle are all pitchers who could be available once the transaction period resumes. Castillo isn’t likely to move, and the White Sox don’t have the prospects to swing that sort of deal for him anyway.
Gray and Mahle could both be options, though. The 32-year-old Gray threw 135 1⁄3 innings last season with a 4.19 ERA and 3.66 xFIP while averaging 10.31 K/9 and 3.33 BB/9. He posted a 2.4 fWAR. Mahle had a stellar season on his way to 3.8 fWAR in 2021. In 180 innings, the righty posted a 3.74 xFIP. Another potential name to keep an eye on would be Jake Odorizzi of the Houston Astros. The 32-year-old doesn’t have a starting job currently, and could be on the move.
That brings the discussion to the Oakland Athletics. Looking to cut payroll significantly, David Forst and his crew will be in a deal-making mode once the gates open back up. In addition to franchise cornerstone hitters at the corners who could be on the move, the Athletics have valuable pitching for sale as well. Frankie Montas, Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea could all be on different teams at some point in 2022.
Bassitt is a free agent after the 2022 season, and the 6´5´´, 217-pounder posted a 3.34 FIP and 3.3 fWAR last year. The former White Sox has been one of the better pitchers in the American League, and he should bring back some quality despite being a one-year proposition at age 32. Montas is a hard thrower who also spent some time in Chicago in the past. The 28-year-old has two years left on his deal and posted a 3.37 ERA with 4.1 fWAR over 187 innings in 2021. The 6´2´´, 255 pound righthander could remain in Oakland unless that front office gets a perfect deal. Manaea is the southpaw of the group, and the 30-year-old posted a 3.91 ERA with a 3.66 FIP and 3.3 fWAR in 2021. In 179 1⁄3 innings, the 6´5´´ 245 pound lefty averaged almost 10 strikeouts per nine innings over the course of 32 starts.
Pitchers will be on the move soon, and the White Sox should have some interesting options to improve their club externally.
Jerry Reinsdorf-owned clubs don’t generally pay the luxury tax, but the White Sox have a franchise high payroll that is creeping up close to it. How much they’ll be willing to spend once baseball resumes is a valid question, but there are moves to be made regardless.
The club needs starting pitching, and they have holes in right field and second base as well, with the bullpen and backup catcher probably on the radar too. The White Sox and Athletics match up nicely on a potential trade, and something of that nature could get done whenever baseball resumes.
Clubs that are contending for championships shouldn’t be relying on uncertainties in the back end of their rotation, and it would be a surprise if the 2022 White Sox attempt to do so. With the impending exit of Kimbrel, the bullpen looks to be thin as well.
Tony La Russa didn’t come out of retirement for his friend to pinch pennies on payroll, and fans should expect some additional resources to be added prior to the beginning of the season. How many players will be added and what positions will be prioritized is the biggest question at this point.
Nobody in the history of the sport has ever had enough pitching, though, and that isn’t expected to change any time soon.