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Options for when $50 million isn’t enough to build a functioning bullpen

Relievers whose names you probably don’t want to hear

MLB: Game One-Chicago White Sox at New York Yankees
Even the gratuitous addition of Joe Kelly to Rick Hahn’s pricey pen hasn’t fortified it fully.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Sox aren’t quite dead yet, which means they’ll more than likely be ready to add to the roster come the trade deadline. However, the Sox are also close enough to being dead that trading players of significant future value for players with 2022 value and 2022 value only would be, quite simply, an awful idea.

It’s time to go bargain-bin hunting — if they want any hope of emulating the 2021 Atlanta Braves, they need to start making moves like the 2021 Atlanta Braves. A week ago, I took a stab at identifying some bounce-back candidate hitters who the Sox may be advised to take a flier on this month. Now, I’ll take my complete and utter dearth of insider sources and information and do the same with a few pitchers.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Oakland Athletics Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Lou Trivino

24 13 IP, 6.66 ERA , 3.95 xERA, 28.5% K, 10.6% BB

Pitching 2022 on a $3 million salary in his second year of arbitration eligibility, Trivino is currently the fourth-highest paid player on the Athletics. One typically doesn’t remain among the more highly-paid players on the A’s, in one way or another. Trivino is mired in easily the worst season of his career, seeing his ERA balloon to nearly 7.00 despite striking out more than 13 hitters per nine, easily a career high. Whatever his probability of bouncing back is, the nature of the Oakland organization means that Trivino is trending towards non-tender territory once the season is complete.

Trivino’s 2.94 FIP is probably being too generous, based on how badly his fastball (both kinds) have gotten smacked around this season. Still, that fastball hasn’t lost any zip, and even if the FIP is overly generous, this doesn’t seem to be a case of a pitcher’s stuff or talent suddenly running dry. Given the opportunity for a fresh start against hitters who have seen him a few fewer times than the AL West has, Trivino may be one of the higher-upside change-of-scenery candidates shuffling around later this month. With all of those preceding circumstances, it shouldn’t take much more than a lottery ticket to free him from Oakland.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Stephenson

26 23 IP, 6.08 ERA, 4.46 xERA, 17.7% K, 9.2% BB

A first round draft pick more than a decade ago and long-time mainstay on prospect lists, Stephenson’s 96.9 mph fastball plays a bit below its velocity because of its subpar shape. The Rockies being one of the only organizations to surpass the White Sox in terms of sheer ineptitude, one of the nastiest sliders in the game is now going to waste, as a 6.06 ERA is quickly making it another lost season for the righthander who put up a 3.13 ERA in 28 appearances this season. It’s mostly because he pitches in Coors Field and can’t stop throwing his fastball right down the middle, but the Sox have the power to fix at least one of those things! The slider really is something else, though — in terms of movement, velocity, and release point, it’s almost a dead ringer for Michael Kopech’s.

The Sox have had plenty of recent success with pitchers like Stephenson, but a poorly thought out hypothetical acquisition like this presupposes that the Sox are even trying to do the Clay-Holmes-to-the-Yankees thing where they help an underperforming pitcher with elite traits reach their full season. Finding the next Tommy Kahnle or Aaron Bummer isn’t the MO of the La Russa White Sox, however, so this is a reclamation project still lives in the realm of my dreams.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Jake McGee

21 13 IP, 7.17 ERA, 8.27 xERA, 11.5% K, 6.3% BB

McGee was designated for assignment by the Giants as I was about halfway through this blurb, so uh, go get your man, Rick! McGee’s ERA and strikeout rate have both fallen off a cliff this season after spending 2021 headlining San Francisco’s closer committee. However, his velocity is more or less unchanged, which is sometimes unimportant but is pretty important for a pitcher who throws roughly 90% fastballs, as McGee has been doing since we were collectively worrying over the end of the Mayan calendar. He’s clearly less effective at age 35 than he’s been in recent years, but much of McGee’s inflated ERA stems from a stretch of allowing 10 earned runs in 5 23 between April 25 and May 10. That’s not a great excuse per sé, but it also indicates that there may still be a quality pitcher here who needs space to work through a hiccup that he’s not likely to get on a team like the Giants.

It’s not a great sign that the team with the pitcher “cheating lab” doesn’t think they have room to roster him any longer, but the White Sox want their 2022 bullpen to house more than one lefty with legitimate big league success under his belt, taking a flyer on McGee might be their best chance to make it happen.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Elieser Hernández

49 IP, 6.61 ERA, 5.16 xERA, 21.1% K, 7.2% BB

Three things were true in the offseason that remain equally true today: First, Michael Kopech is virtually certain to not exceed 130 to 140 innings pitched this year. Second, Dallas Keuchel is not a MLB-caliber pitcher. Because of those two things ringing so true, the third continues to ring even more exponentially true: letting Carlos Rodón walk without so much as a qualifying offer is one of the most inexcusably baffling baseball decisions the league has seen in recent years. (Save your comments, that horse will be beaten until it’s long past dead, as it should be.)

All that is to say that the Sox need starting pitching — especially with Jimmy Lambert, Starting Pitcher now a thing of the past — and there aren’t very many good starting pitchers available. There are a few things that make Hernández the most interesting buy-low option among pitchers who aren’t completely washed and who Rick Hahn might actually be able to swing a deal for. First, in spite of subpar low-90s velocity, Hernández’s fastball has one of the flattest approach angles in baseball, which means he has the opposite of a “steep” fastball, if you can picture what that looks like. It’s the same thing that makes/made Edwin Díaz, Craig Kimbrel, and Luis Castillo’s velocity so lethal, and what makes Paul Sewald and Freddy Peralta’s fastballs almost unhittable despite throwing relatively slowly. I don’t have space to dig into his slider and changeup or why they’re interesting, but in spite of increasingly poor results over the past two seasons, there’s little doubt that Hernández still has stuff that should play in an MLB rotation.

For all of those reasons, most teams would probably opt to hang on to Hernández and attempt to reap the benefits should he hit his upside. The Marlins, however, are not most teams. Not only are they exceedingly cheap, they have a lot of excellent young pitching. Pablo López and Sandy Alcántara are leaving Miami about as soon as I’m arriving (not soon), Trevor Rogers has a season of ace-caliber production under his belt on top of first-round pedigree and solid minor league numbers; Braxton Garrett at least has the latter two of those. Jesús Luzardo and Sixto Sánchez will be healthy sooner or later, and Top 100 prospects Edward Cabrera and Max Meyer have already reached Triple-A. Simply put, there won’t be space for Hernández in Miami’s rotation for much longer unless his performance dramatically improves. If there’s a world in which the Sox can find a deal without offering one of their top five prospects, it might behoove them to consider him as an option even beyond 2022.

Luke Weaver

11 13 IP, 10.32 ERA, 5.70 xERA, 20% K, 6.7% BB

Weaver seems to have run out of yarn on opportunities to start for the Diamondbacks, moving to the bullpen after failing to stay healthy enough for the rotation in three out of four seasons since being acquired in the Paul Goldschmidt trade in 2019. He seems to be acclimating well, seeing his fastball once again run into the mid-90s amid three scoreless appearances in four tries since a nine-run stinker in his only start of the season, and with an outstanding righty changeup and passable breaking stuff, Weaver has shown enough flashes recently enough that the Snakes will likely see how he plays in the bullpen before making a call on whether to pay him for his final trip through arbitration eligibility or hand him a non-tender. Still, there’s enough upside left that it would probably be worth at least a phone call. If this feels like an unusually random long shot to stick in even a completely unsourced article like this one, take a look at the “depth” the Sox have waiting for them in Charlotte:

Remember how clutch it was during the second half last season when Lasik López emerged from the depths of the minors to allow no more than three runs in eight of nine spot starts down the stretch? Nobody’s doing that for them in 2022. The 3.82 ERA at the very bottom there belongs to Wes Benjamin, who must have looked like Randy Johnson compared to the rest of that staff, because he has a new job in Suwon, South Korea now. “Pining for Luke Weaver” is a level of dire that would have seemed far-fetched four months ago, but here we are.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Cincinnati Reds Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Luis Cessa

31 IP, 6.68 ERA, 5.42 xERA, 18.1% K, 8.7% BB

Cessa began throwing his slider as his primary pitch upon moving to the Yankees bullpen in 2019 and responded with 167 13 innings (112 appearances) of 3.39 ERA pitching through the end of last season, which he finished in Cincinnati after being sent there in order to facilitate bullpen-wealthy New York’s dumping of Justin Wilson’s salary. Currently on the 15-day IL, Cessa shelved his mediocre four-seamer in favor of his sinker this season, and unfortunately, the sinker has proven to be even more mediocre than his four-seamer, combining with a drop-off in slider effectiveness to explode his ERA. Owed one more trip through arbitration before free agency, Cessa is an easy non-tender candidate for a rebuilding Reds team this winter and could probably be had for close to nothing, when he’s fully healthy. As we’ve seen plentily this year, good relievers don’t grow on trees, but they’re also rarely worth paying sticker price for. Cessa has been bad for 30 games in 2022 after being quite good for nearly 120 games over three seasons; plucking him from the pits of the NL Central is an easy dart throw, even if the upside isn’t quite as high as with some of the others seen here.