As the White Sox look to fix everything that went so very wrong in 2022 this winter, it might be time for the front office to play “Let’s Make A Deal.”
“We’re not going to just be able to throw money at the problem,” Rick Hahn said in his end-of-season press conference, illustrating that free agency won’t be the only way the team attempts to make change this offseason. “So you have to get creative. And the trade market may be a more fruitful path for us to go, as opposed to free agency, in the coming months.”
It of course remains to be seen whether that plays out, but it seems just about any trade chip you can think up could materialize. Hahn committed to his typical strategy of not taking any move off the table, and this winter that includes the possibility of breaking up the young core he assembled during the early days of his South Side rebuilding project.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that Tim Anderson, Luis Robert or Eloy Jiménez are going anywhere, and it certainly makes sense the White Sox would rather not part with Andrew Vaughn or Dylan Cease, two guys who reportedly won’t be moved. But Hahn is unlikely to hang up on anyone without hearing them out, not in the wake of what he called the most disappointing season of his career.
Of course, trading any of those core youngsters is tricky, with Hahn staring at somewhat of a Jenga tower of a roster that could be dramatically impacted with any one move, or just be so stuck together that such a move is near impossible. Losing Anderson, Robert or Jiménez – on top of the potential departure of José Abreu in free agency – would make this team worse. And it could be difficult to find a taker for either Yoán Moncada or Yasmani Grandal after each player posted a career-worst season in 2022.
But there is one area of strength and depth on this roster that Hahn could work with, even if dealing from it would be less likely to net the sort of impact improvements most White Sox fans are clamoring for this winter. The South Side bullpen is relatively stacked – 12th in the majors in ERA and eighth in WAR, per Fangraphs – and while fans are always quick to jump on any relief corps, no matter how strong, as a problem area, maybe it’s the key to finding a trade to make this roster better.
Liam Hendriks shouldn’t be going anywhere. While he won’t make it three straight AL Reliever of the Year honors in a row – his name is not Emmanuel Clase, after all – he’s fresh off a 37-save season, a total just one shy of the career-high and AL-leading 38 he posted during a dominant 2021, and his third All-Star appearance in the last four years. Hendriks will be the first to tell you his second season in a White Sox uniform wasn’t as good as his first, but he still had a great campaign and is making his high-priced free-agent contract look worth every penny for the White Sox.
“I struggled with inherited runners, I struggled in tie games, I struggled against our division,” Hendriks said at season’s end, already identifying what he’ll be focusing on this winter. “There’s a lot of positives that I can take from this year, but I always like to sit on the negatives and be like, ‘OK, what can I do to get past those?’ And those few things, the walks this year. I obviously doubled my walk total from last year to this year, which isn’t great.”
Still, Hendriks should be manning the ninth inning next year. And despite a few memorable games gone wrong, free-agent addition Kendall Graveman had a nice season, too, finishing with a 3.18 ERA that was lower than what Jimmy Lambert ended his much heralded season with. The emergence of Lambert and Reynaldo López as late-inning options covered up some struggles, caused by injuries as well as underperformance, from a trio of veterans and kept the White Sox’ bullpen strong.
“I think we’ve looked at it (as a strength) for a few years, and obviously some things have changed, some of the names have changed. But I think we should have just about everybody back next year, back and healthy,” Lambert told CHGO in September. “Absolutely, we can look at this part of the team as a strength and something we can build off of.”
The three veterans are all under contract for 2023, with Aaron Bummer (who was actually quite good in a season shrunk down by injury), Joe Kelly and Jake Diekman all currently slated to be a part of that unit next year. Fans might shudder at the mention of the latter two, who had wildly out-of-character seasons given their histories as big league relief arms. Kelly was on and off the injured list all summer and finished with an ERA north of 6.00, while Diekman was often ridiculed as the team’s lone trade-deadline acquisition and didn’t help his standing with the fan base by posting a hideous 6.52 ERA in a White Sox uniform.
Keeping all three, to go along with the quartet of Hendriks, Graveman, Lambert and López, would keep the South Side ‘pen incredibly deep. Hahn likes to remind how volatile relief pitching can be from one season to the next, and that goes both ways, bringing to mind the perfectly reasonable idea that the long-reliable Kelly and Diekman could bounce back in 2023.
“I think we have a great bullpen. I don’t think anyone’s leaving after this season. I think, overall, us as a unit has thrown the ball extremely well,” Kelly told CHGO, praising the group’s ability to stay healthy as well as to perform. “We have a lot of talent down there, and a lot of guys have thrown in different roles, high leverage, low leverage. It’s definitely going to be exciting to be part of the same exact group next year.”
But the track records of Kelly and Diekman could potentially come in handy, too, if Hahn is looking to make a trade this winter. A couple of relievers with 6.00-plus ERAs can’t be the only thing he’s willing to shop, of course, and it might take a less popular departure – surely there’d be those willing to listen on Bummer, Lambert and López, for example – to make something happen. But the point is that the White Sox’ relief corps is deep enough to be considered a strength that Hahn could use to his roster’s advantage.
Don’t forget, too, that the White Sox expect Garrett Crochet back at some point during the 2023 season. That could be as early as Opening Day, should everything go right and the team decide Crochet is most valuable as a reliever, even while the young lefty would prefer to get back to the starting-pitching job he had at the University of Tennessee. But Crochet was a terrific weapon out of the bullpen for the White Sox in 2020 and 2021 and could return to that kind of role in time to be considered part of the team’s puzzle for next season. That, too, only strengthens the relief group and makes losing one of those arms to trade hurt less.
We’ll see if that’s the way Hahn decides to go. As mentioned, dealing exclusively from the bullpen isn’t likely to land a headline-grabbing return that solves all the problems the White Sox experienced during the 2022 season. But given the trickiness of changing this roster at all, any tweaks could help, and the bullpen has the look of one of the few spots on this roster with a surplus.
Of course, that’s also a good argument for keeping it that way.