The waiting game sucks, let’s play Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Homer Simpson was onto something with a need to kill time, and boy, do we need to kill time as baseball’s insufferable lockout stretches into its fourth month.
While we have no idea when the game’s frustrating work stoppage will come to an end, we do know that at the end, there will be an offseason, or rather the rest of an offseason, likely squeezed into a couple days in what’s expected to be a bonanza of player movement. There are free agents to sign, trades to be made and other team-building decisions ahead of a 2022 season of indeterminate length.
And the White Sox have plenty of work to do.
Yes, the South Side’s baseball heroes have championship aspirations, but even with a currently well-stocked roster, they have to do better than inking Kendall Graveman and re-signing Leury García to improve their chances of hoisting that piece of metal at the end of October.
So here’s a look at what Rick Hahn & Co. have to do once the lockout is lifted.
1. Get a second baseman
Beg, borrow or steal, the White Sox need a second baseman.
It’s been priority No. 1 since the dual, ill-fated deals of the trade deadline: an injured Nick Madrigal heading to the North Side in exchange for relief help that never quite materialized, and César Hernández unable to replicate the offensive and defensive impact he made for a division rival.
With no second baseman to speak of — García’s value is clear, but it’s as a versatile piece, not an everyday starter at a solitary position — Hahn will need to scour the trade market. The few free-agent options at offseason’s beginning have all landed other gigs by now, and though there are plenty of calls Hahn can make, he’ll have to part with one or more players to pry away someone who can join Tim Anderson up the middle and provide an upgrade to the lineup.
Given the White Sox’ championship hopes and a farm system recently ranked dead last in baseball, who knows what sort of return package can be crafted to get an everyday guy of such description. But Hahn has to figure it out, as the hole is glaring.
2. Trade Craig Kimbrel
In a perfect world, Kimbrel could be the guy to net the White Sox their second baseman. But trading Kimbrel has swung wildly, at least in my observational opinion, between a seeming formality and something that might not be so easy.
On one hand, Kimbrel is one of the all-time great relief arms, not long removed – we’re talking months – from being one of baseball’s currently great closers. With teams annually clamoring for relief help, it shouldn’t be hard to sell them on acquiring someone with that resume.
On the other hand, Kimbrel is fresh off two-plus months of a downright yucky performance as the White Sox’ setup man, a job he had trouble transitioning to after making the All-Star Game as the Cubs’ closer. During his North Side tenure, things were far from consistent, and that could turn off potential buyers.
Hahn’s open discussion of Kimbrel as a trade candidate during the GM meetings in November was an atypical move, given he rarely speaks of a specific outcome of his offseason work, and one that trumpeted to every other front office what the White Sox are trying to do. Who knows whether that enhanced or decreased the ability to make a deal. We’ll find out.
But even if Kimbrel ends up easy to move, the Sox have to do more than simply just rid the bullpen of a pricy arm. They also have to make sure the move befits the quest for a title in 2022. A Kimbrel departure could mean the arrival of more major league-ready help, the influx of necessary depth or simply the freeing up of several million dollars to use for other upgrades. That benefit, though, is necessary.
3. Add a bat – somewhere
While it’s easy to say the White Sox need a right fielder, I think it’s more accurate to say they could benefit from another bat added to the lineup. And it’s my opinion, even after the starting-pitching disaster that was the ALDS, that they’d benefit greater from upgrading the lineup than trying to cram a splashy pitching addition into the rotation.
Right field provides the best opportunity to make that sort of addition, and there are numerous free agents out there who could slide right into that spot while simultaneously boosting the offense: Kris Bryant, Nicholas Castellanos, Jorge Soler and Michael Conforto among them.
But Andrew Vaughn, Gavin Sheets and even Adam Engel can’t be forgotten, not as players whose production should be compared with those available free agents but as guys who can man the right-field position should a different sort of bat catch the White Sox’ eyes.
Hahn doesn’t need to limit himself to finding a right fielder, as he could reasonably send Vaughn out there most days – thereby keeping his young slugger’s bat in the lineup while taking advantage of some defensive versatility – and stick a shiny new toy at DH.
Vaughn and Sheets could obviously be used as regular DHs, too, and perhaps they’re better suited there than in right field. But finding another stick is more important than finding someone to play that position.
4. Continue bullpen upgrades
Bullpens are bullpens, and sometimes, you just have to make the best moves you can and cross your fingers.
Hahn will be among the first to remind of year-to-year relief-pitching volatility, and after what looked like a loaded 2021 White Sox relief corps didn’t exactly realize its plans for global domination — even as Liam Hendriks mostly dazzled as the AL Reliever of the Year — it’s easy to understand that simply loading up doesn’t equal success.
That said, the White Sox made a great move in acquiring Graveman, and his production in a variety of roles last year for both the Mariners and Astros — the guy was the last Astro pitching in a trio of World Series games — should serve the South Siders well.
But given the exodus from the White Sox’ bullpen, another arm or two wouldn’t hurt. Michael Kopech made the move to the rotation, Kimbrel is seemingly destined to be dealt away, Ryan Tepera and Evan Marshall are gone to free agency, and even Garrett Crochet’s role was a mystery to the White Sox themselves as of a few months ago.
While there’s reason to believe in a back end of Hendriks, Graveman and Aaron Bummer, Crochet sticking as a valuable relief arm and guys like Ryan Burr taking a step forward, more pieces could increase the chances of a reliable bullpen — not just an important piece of any championship puzzle but a necessary one.
5. Find starting-pitching depth
It’s unglamorous, but Hahn needs to find some veteran arm, or arms, who wouldn’t mind sliding into the bullpen or even the Triple-A rotation at the end of spring training. Because guys are going to go on the injured list during the season — especially in the event of a rushed spring — and somebody will need to fill in for them.
That’s not the starting-pitching shake up plenty of White Sox fans have pleaded for since no arm lasted even five innings in the playoffs. But it is necessary if the South Siders are going to achieve their championship goals.
Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease, Dallas Keuchel and Kopech could very well form one of baseball’s best rotations, but behind them stand Reynaldo López, Jimmy Lambert and not much else. López will likely be leaned on heavily as a fill-in, but even after a post-eye surgery resurgence in 2021, he’s far from the game’s most dependable pitcher. Lambert has had little success in a very small handful of big-league appearances. All the while, Kopech is looking at less than a full workload, with Hahn pledging another year of creative usage in the fireballer’s first as a full-time major league starter.
So there needs to be more. López and Lambert could provide it, who knows, but the way to better assure depth is to add depth.