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PHOENIX – As Rick Hahn attempted to discuss his front office’s most recent acquisitions, he had to fight the overwhelming sound of garbage trucks doing some waste management at the White Sox’ spring training facility.
He hoped it wasn’t a metaphor.
It wouldn’t be surprising if a large chunk of White Sox fans think this was perfectly apt, the general manager trying to explain his signing of free-agent pitcher Vince Velasquez as garbage trucks beeped and clanged their way through the parking lot at Camelback Ranch. That specific acquisition wowed no one, not that it was really supposed to. This is what pitching depth looks like, after all, and guys who can swing between a long role in the bullpen and emergency spot starts are rarely the sexiest of free-agent pickups.
But as fans are always expected to do, White Sox fans are hoping for the big fish, the big splash that vaults their favorite team from mere World Series contenders to World Series favorites.
The truth is that the White Sox’ roster is in plenty good shape already. But it’d be equally irresponsible to suggest it can’t be improved – especially now that the White Sox’ aspirations are of the “World Series or bust” variety.
“There’s always one more move to make,” Hahn said. “Sometimes you are better off not making that one more move, because you don’t want to make a move simply to do it. You want to do it because it truly puts you in a better position to win.
“Conversations continue with other clubs, with free agents. Certainly I can’t predict when any of them are going to lead anywhere, but it’s not going to be for lack of effort.”
Hahn’s work is not done, though it will be interesting to see when and how it continues, be it with a big trade or a big signing before Opening Day, continued augmentations of the smaller variety or a wait-and-see approach with a focus on in-season adjustments and potentially another buzzworthy trade-deadline move.
But while further work by the GM was a primary topic, it wasn’t the only one covered as he met the media Monday. Here’s what White Sox fans need to know from Hahn’s session.
Joe Kelly to start season on IL
Hahn usually spends the opening days of the spring talking about injuries, and though he didn’t have to do that in his first post-lockout media session Friday, he did have one to report Monday.
The newly acquired Kelly, signed to a free-agent deal announced Monday, dealt with a nerve issue in his arm at the end of last season, and the White Sox are going to play it slow with him in the ramp up to the season, with Hahn going as far to say that he won’t be a part of the team’s Opening Day roster.
“Based on the fact that this is an abbreviated spring – and we are going to be cautious and this is about making us as strong as possible for the length of the season – we don’t expect him to break on the active roster at the start of this season. It’s three and a half weeks from Opening Day. He’s going to be built up properly.
“Now, Joe would probably tell you he’s ready. We are going to err on the side of caution. If we had a normal spring, maybe he’d break with us. We’ll have to see how the next several weeks of his build back goes. We knew that going in, and this again was an acquisition for the length of this season and the next couple.”
Kelly was excellent in the third and final year of his deal with the Dodgers in 2021, but this issue is going to delay the start of his first year with the White Sox. The good news is the White Sox have dealt with this kind of thing before, specifically with Aaron Bummer, who had a comparable injury during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. Hahn and Kelly both viewed this experience as a plus, in that the team will know how to handle Kelly’s return to the mound.
Right now, there’s no real telling how long into the regular season it will be until Kelly is ready to go. But the White Sox believe a cautious approach will allow them to have one of their key bullpen pieces available and strong as possible for what they hope is an extended October run.
“Honestly, we have to see how the progression goes. There’s just going to be no rush here,” Hahn said. “Could be a few weeks into the season. We’ll just have to wait to see until he starts facing hitters and building him back.
“Nothing gives us long-term pause in this. This is about making sure a guy who obviously has not been under a team’s care for three-plus months and now is showing up for an abbreviated spring isn’t rushed.
“We want to be as strong as possible in April. Those games matter as much as September. But this acquisition is about the long term and October for the next few years as much as it’s about the early season.”
Why Michael Kopech is behind schedule
Tony La Russa got everyone asking, “I’m sorry what now?” when he revealed Saturday that Kopech hadn’t done the amount of work he wanted to during the lockout, signaling the young fireballer was perhaps behind schedule.
Turns out he is, with Hahn explaining why Monday.
“Michael dealt with an illness after the first of the year (when) he was in the process of building up that derailed him for a few weeks. So that’s the reason he is not where everyone hoped he would be, including Michael, coming to camp,” Hahn said. “That said, he’s fully healthy now and is able to start the process again after the illness. We expect him to build and be ready for us Opening Day.
“Michael, due to no fault of his own, is not going to be fully stretched out as a starter: five, six innings or whatever some of these other guys are going to get prior to leaving camp here.”
Now, Hahn clarified that last bit, and the White Sox will be using Kopech as a starting pitcher. Just because he might not be capable of lasting deep into games doesn’t mean he won’t be part of the Opening Day rotation.
But Kopech will not be able to last deep into games, and this is on top of the already looming question marks surrounding his usage in his transition from a bullpen arm that logged fewer than 70 innings last season to a full-time starter.
Back in November, Hahn had forecasted a “creative” approach to handling Kopech, and “workload management” is about to become an important term in White Sox fans’ lexicons. Without the lockout, without the illness, Kopech would still have been under a usage microscope. Now, that process starts early as the White Sox aim to, like was just explained with Kelly, have one of their most talented arms available and effective come the really important games at season’s end.
“At the very least, his workload is going to be managed right away from the start,” Hahn said. “This part is not by choice, it’s just a circumstance of him fighting an illness earlier in the year. He only has so many bullets, and we’re hoping to keep him strong and effective through October. Needing to manage his innings a little at the start of the year just helps toward that goal.”
Craig Kimbrel’s White Sox future
La Russa caused another stir during his first media session of the spring when he said he fully expected Craig Kimbrel to be a part of his team’s Opening Day roster.
Given the winter-long conversation about Kimbrel as a likely trade candidate – Hahn took the unusual step of discussing a potential trade openly at the GM meetings – it was assumed the season would start with Kimbrel wearing other colors. And La Russa acknowledged those realities, too, saying, “He really likes it here, but he really likes closing,” indicating that the best thing for all parties might be to find Kimbrel a new home.
Hahn spoke on his big trade acquisition from last summer and basically echoed his manager, talking Kimbrel up as a valuable member of the bullpen but leaving the door open to a trade at the same time.
“Until he’s not in that room, he’s part of what we are trying to do here,” Hahn said. “I’ve spoken with Craig, with his representative, and they both fully understand we view Craig as a piece of building a championship team. He’s preparing to be part of it, which is the right step at this point.
“Obviously, the experience and resume speak for itself. He’s very much a viable piece on a championship club. It remains to be seen exactly if that’s going to be here, but we are preparing as if it will be.”
Perhaps the right deal just hasn’t come around yet. Perhaps the right deal won’t come around until well after the season starts. And perhaps Kimbrel will put his woeful August and September behind him and start pitching the way the White Sox expected him to when they made the move for an All-Star closer last July, giving them no reason to send him elsewhere.
What’s sure, according to La Russa, is that there will be no role change for Kimbrel, who struggled in switching from a ninth-inning man to an eighth-inning man last year. A future Hall-of-Fame closer, Kimbrel will pitch in a setup role – with occasional closing appearances in the event Liam Hendriks is unable to go – should he remain a part of the White Sox’ bullpen. It then remains to be seen whether he can take an offseason worth of adjustment time and fit better into that role than he did after coming down from the North Side last summer.
What makes sense, though, is the continued discussion of Kimbrel as a trade candidate, not because he needs to be removed from the roster but because after the Kelly signing, the back end of the bullpen is suddenly a position of great strength for the White Sox. And typically, when it comes to making a trade to improve the club, dealing from a position of strength is the way to go.
So don’t close the door on a Kimbrel trade. But also maybe start getting used to the possibility that he’s not going anywhere.
What moves come next?
As mentioned at the top, Hahn’s not ready to say he’s done making moves. But should the reported signing of Josh Harrison become official, the White Sox’ 40-man roster will be at 40, and any further moves means maneuvering there.
That’s not really that big a problem, but it will require further decisions. And there’s probably a large portion of fans and observers that can point to areas in need of or at least warranting improvement.
Hahn spoke glowingly of the team’s current situation in right field, a three-headed option featuring Andrew Vaughn, Gavin Sheets and Adam Engel. Given the marquee outfielders still on the free-agent market, plenty are hoping that changes between now and Opening Day.
If the fans yelling their wish lists at the GM as he walked through camp Sunday were any indication, hopes are, too, that Hahn will do something to shake up the starting rotation. The news involving Kopech has only increased those calls, and fans are still leery, at best, about what Dallas Keuchel can provide after his career-worst season in 2021.
Hahn was asked if signing Velasquez – who is aboard on a major league deal, likely signaling he’ll start the season as a necessary, innings-eating member of the bullpen – satisfied his goals for adding to the rotation.
“It satisfies the desire to get Velasquez and have more versatility and upside on that pitching staff. It doesn’t necessarily preclude us from doing other moves,” Hahn said. “We’ll see what happens in the coming weeks. Things are still fluid.
“It’s a shorter onboarding period, and the immediate full schedule is going to require flexibility on how we handle all these guys. We’re looking to play deep into October. So early on, we might have to do some creative things.
“I would never stand here and say we have enough pitching.”
Hahn’s way is to leave the door open to any and all possibilities, the right approach as you never know what’s going to pop up – or pan out. Certainly, though, the focus will remain on his work in this most unusual of springs, with a Winter Meetings level of rumors and player movement existing alongside all those videos of bullpen sessions and batting practice.
“Whether it’s today or a week from now, whenever this flurry of transactions comes to an end, it’s not the end of us looking to improve the 2022 White Sox,” Hahn said. “There will be other opportunities to have additions, whether that’s in March or May or July. It’s something we’re going to explore. No single acquisition is going to make us stop doing that.”
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