The White Sox obviously weren’t planning on this.
But both their starting rotation and bullpen are facing some serious question marks that are putting a spotlight on their pitching depth a week before spring training even begins.
Everyone’s thoughts should be with Liam Hendriks, the White Sox’ two-time All-Star closer who’s in the middle of treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But with the team committed to no updates on his status any earlier than Opening Day, it’s likely there will need to be a rearranging at the back end of a veteran-laden bullpen.
Meanwhile, the league’s investigation into offseason acquisition Mike Clevinger has produced a mystery in the rotation. It’s entirely unknown what will happen with Clevinger, under investigation following allegations of domestic violence and child abuse. The White Sox have committed to not speaking on the situation until the investigation concludes, but in the event they’re faced with a hole in their rotation, they’ll have to address any baseball ramifications.
So the team’s efforts to deepen its pitching staff this offseason are suddenly of great import.
Of course, this was an important area prior to either of these off-the-field events. Last season, the White Sox were fortunate to not have to call on much starting-pitching depth, even with a springtime injury to Lance Lynn that knocked one of their top-of-the-rotation arms out for the first two months of the season and the midseason DFA’ing of Dallas Keuchel. A spring flier on Johnny Cueto and the out-of-nowhere success of minor leaguer Davis Martin allowed the White Sox rotation to thrive while experiencing relatively good health.
The addition of Clevinger was meant to fill the one vacant spot in the big league rotation, but beyond Martin as the de facto No. 6 starter, the White Sox did little to bolster their starting-pitching depth this winter. Of course, that’s a difficult needle to thread, and fans’ calls for them to keep adding established major league arms ignored the fact that free agents of such caliber rarely sign up to be a long man in the bullpen or a Triple-A starter that sits around waiting for an injury in the major league rotation.
But the mystery surrounding Clevinger’s availability means Martin could be thrust into the five-man rotation with very little – if any – safety net waiting should there be an injury, something that’s basically inevitable during any baseball season. So far, the White Sox have added minor leaguers A.J. Alexy, Nate Fisher and Jesse Scholtens to serve as the next men up, three pitchers with 10 major league appearances between them, all but one of them coming from Alexy.
And then there’s what lies in the minor leagues. While Martin showed last year that you don’t have to be a highly touted prospect to succeed in a depth role, the top options are not exactly screaming dependability.
“Obviously, Davis was really valuable for us last year, and it’s important to have depth beyond your starting five. That six, seven, eight becomes vital to navigating a season,” White Sox assistant GM and farm chief Chris Getz said last week. “I think Sean Burke has a chance to work into that mix. We signed some free agents in Jesse Scholtens and Nate Fisher. Matt Thompson, we feel like, is trending in a direction to help us at some point. He’s had an excellent offseason. We saw him closely recently in Arizona as part of the minicamp, and he looks really good.
“It’s the beauty of every season that you’ll have players that perhaps we don’t necessarily anticipate getting into the starter-depth mix. We know it’s going to happen. We feel pretty good about things where we can put names down to seven, eight, perhaps even nine.”
Getz’s point about unpredictability certainly rings true after 2022. Asked a similar question last preseason about which minor league pitchers could help the White Sox as starting-depth options, Getz listed Jimmy Lambert and Tanner Banks, who became fixtures in the bullpen rather than the rotation, as well as Kade McClure, who was traded this winter, and Emilio Vargas, neither of whom ended up making a big league appearance.
Of those four, Lambert was the only one to register a start – a pair in April – and none of them were Martin, who started nine games.
The White Sox might feel “pretty good” about their options heading into 2023, but as Rick Hahn often says, no team can ever have enough pitching, and so it wouldn’t surprise to see low-risk additions continue into camp. Such additions of veteran types, known names in need of a “prove it” deal, come with varying results. Last year, Cueto was an incredible success story. In the past, attempts such as Ervin Santana flopped hard. But considering the unknown quantities in the players handed minor league deals to this point – who then featured prominently in Getz’s list of depth pieces – such veteran adds would seem well worth the complete lack of risk.
The White Sox have added a bit more in the relief corps, an area of the roster that typically features an awful lot of in-season churn compared to the rotation. The White Sox already had a pretty loaded bullpen, and even without Hendriks, it’s easy to pencil in a long list of names who are slam dunks to make the Opening Day roster: Kendall Graveman, Joe Kelly, Jake Diekman, Aaron Bummer, the aforementioned Lambert, Reynaldo López and perhaps even José Ruiz, who despite a lack of popularity among fans has been a reliable and oft-used piece over the past few seasons.
But there are more names kicking around. Nick Avila is a safe bet to make the major league roster after the White Sox selected him in this winter’s Rule 5 draft; if he doesn’t, the White Sox don’t get to keep him in the organization. They acquired Gregory Santos in a trade with the Giants. Keynan Middleton was invited to spring training on a minor league deal. And just last week, they acquired the Red Sox’ minor league pitcher of the year, Franklin German, in a minor league trade. Banks and Matt Foster remain on the 40-man roster. And it’s unknown when Garrett Crochet will be able to return to a big league mound after Tommy John surgery last spring.
Unlike in the rotation, that’s a lot to choose from. Whether it’s enough, though? Well, that remains to be seen. Relief pitching, in general, is volatile from one year to the next, another thing Hahn likes to bring up, and who knows whether the stars of 2022 can be counted on to dominate again in 2023, or whether veterans who struggled last season will be able to bounce back this season.
In other words, it’s nice to have a lot of options. The White Sox seem to have that, in some quantity, in the bullpen but would be well served to enhance their options in the rotation. The situations involving Hendriks and Clevinger count as mighty unforeseen circumstances, but anyone who’s followed baseball knows you need more than five starting pitchers to win a championship – or heck, just to get through a season, winning or losing.