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Fans are begging for it, but here’s why changing White Sox’ roster won’t be easy this offseason

Vinnie Duber Avatar
September 25, 2022

Well. That de-escalated quickly.

A week ago, the White Sox were four games out of first place, playing well since Miguel Cairo took over as acting manager. They were amped up for a crucial three-game series against the first-place Guardians, and though the odds were somewhat steep – they still needed a relative Cleveland collapse to get them a second straight division crown – things were far from impossible.

But those feelings of hope didn’t last long. The White Sox lost the first game of that series Tuesday, shrinking their playoff odds to next to nothing. By week’s end, they were a whopping 10 games out of first place, with the Guardians officially running away with the AL Central crown.

It’s a stunning result, considering preseason expectations that had the White Sox pegged among the World Series favorites, but as Gavin Sheets put to words in the wake of a sweep at the hands of the Guardians, anyone who’s been watching this team this season knew what was coming.

“It’s frustrating, it’s disappointing, but it’s not just this series,” he said. “We had to play better all season.”

And so instead of readying for a third consecutive postseason appearance, the South Side is readying for a mighty important offseason. You might say they’re all important, of course, and you’d be correct. But after two straight seasons’ worth of enduring examples of just how far the White Sox are from where they want to be – last October’s playoff thud against the Astros and the Guardians running rings around them last week – the stakes are high if Rick Hahn’s front office is going to turn this contention window into actual contention.

Fans are very vocal about what they want to see in the wake of this disappointing campaign: change and lots of it.

It’s no surprise that there have been calls for Hahn to reshape this roster in just about every way imaginable, suggestions from the fan base that he trades just about every player imaginable. It goes to show just how disappointing this season has been that there are ample calls for Hahn to blow the whole thing up and field basically a completely different team next season. There are plenty of cries for such an overhaul to extend past the players in uniform and apply to the field staff and front office, as well, though there’s no clarity yet about what’s going to happen – and who’s going to be sitting – in the manager’s chair.

The cries for that level of change are understandable, considering just how badly the White Sox underperformed this season.

But they aren’t realistic.

In fact, it’s going to be quite difficult for Hahn and his front office to shake things up in any dramatic fashion. The reason was part of the rebuilding plan, of course, to assemble a collection of talented young players who would be around for years. Team-friendly contracts crafted a contention window that by no means has closed.

But the look of it sure has changed. And whether anybody but the players on this roster can change it back to something that gets folks really excited remains to be seen, because the White Sox are somewhat boxed in when it comes to who they can reasonably get rid of, where on the field they can upgrade and how they can augment this roster without knocking out numerous load-bearing walls and surrendering a whole lot of already-invested money.

These decisions aren’t supposed to be easy, of course, and if they were, then every fan with a Twitter account would actually be qualified to run a baseball-operations department. But this is an extra tricky Jenga tower Hahn is dealing with, making the prospect of much of this team returning for another go-round in 2023 seem rather realistic, as unpopular as that thought will be to much of a frustrated fan base.

Just how stuck are the White Sox? Well, let’s take a position-by-position look.

Catcher

Yasmani Grandal figures to be back at catcher next season, under contract for $18.25 million. The idea that Hahn would be able to ship him anywhere for anything is hard to get behind with Grandal wrapping up far and away the worst offensive season of his career, one plagued by injuries that have extended to the defensive side of things by hurting his mobility behind the plate. Grandal’s one-time strengths of on-base and power skills declined at an unbelievable rate in 2022, dragging down the White Sox’ overall deficiencies in both areas.

If that level of production continues, those wanting to see a new name atop the catching depth chart would likely have to wait for a Dallas Keuchel type scenario, where the team would try to see what Grandal has left in the tank for a couple months of the 2023 season before deciding to eat the rest of his salary.

Seby Zavala has proven to be a decent enough backup catcher, though with Grandal seemingly unmovable from the No. 1 spot, perhaps the White Sox would eye a more established backstop to earn playing time behind the plate.

First base

The expiration of José Abreu’s contract has already become a dominant talking point. He made oddly cryptic comments about the potential end of his White Sox tenure back in the spring, shocking if only because of how drastically different they were from the lovefest that was the last time he approached free agency. Abreu, the pinnacle of durability despite getting beat up physically the last few years, might call it a career before turning 36, but he’s also shown himself to still be wildly productive, one of the White Sox’ best hitters this season and someone who could end 2022 as the AL’s hit king.

That makes for an incredibly tough decision if Abreu decides he wants to come back. The White Sox have an obvious log jam of first base/DH types, with Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets natural first basemen and Eloy Jiménez thriving in the DH role with his legs keeping him out of the outfield. Plenty of fans are arguing there’s just no room for Abreu if the White Sox are going to improve defensively by getting Vaughn out of regular outfield duty. But a team that’s biggest weakness all season was an inability to score runs would seem foolish to turn away an elite hitter who wants to return.

It’s a hell of a conundrum, and considering Abreu’s ties to this organization, the odds might be in favor of a 10th season on the South Side.

Second base

It wouldn’t seem likely that the White Sox would pick up Josh Harrison’s $5.5 million team option, as excellent a presence as he’s been in the clubhouse. But after failing to land a bigger fish at perhaps their biggest position of need last offseason, Harrison was not the roll of the dice Hahn was hoping for, with a hot stretch in the middle of the season but not much else to show offensively. The White Sox are one of two major league teams to get negative WAR out of their second basemen in 2022, showing it’s still an area that badly needs to be addressed.

Fortunately, if you want to call it that, this is one of the positions that it could be reasonably easy to change this offseason, what with the White Sox not tied to Harrison. Of course, Leury García is still under contract for another two seasons – and $11 million – but the team hasn’t seemed very interested in playing him down the stretch and still longs for the day where roster-wide injuries won’t keep him from playing the “play everywhere” role he’s best suited for.

Shortstop

Tim Anderson is the face of the franchise and a relative bargain for a guy who started the All-Star Game this season. 2023 is the first year of a pair of club options the White Sox will certainly pick up.

But while the idea of the White Sox moving ahead without Anderson seems ludicrous, it’s here where we start to broach Hahn having to make a really, really difficult decision on a young core player or two. Fans calling for a shake up have been talking about it for months, which guy will have to be cut loose to get this team in better fighting shape. That doesn’t mean it will happen, but Hahn’s typical approach of not taking anything off the table applies; heck, he showed he’s capable of such a move by sending Nick Madrigal to the Cubs last summer. Truth is, Anderson will have some of the highest value of that group. But it still seems nearly unthinkable that the White Sox would deal away their “change the game” All Star.

As for Elvis Andrus, who provided a hell of a spark filling in for the injured Anderson late in the season, where do you play him? Bringing him back on a free-agent deal would be fine if he’s willing to accept a bench role, but though plenty were arguing for him to take over at second base when Anderson returned from the IL – something that might not happen before the season’s over – that’s tough to invest in and bank on heading into the 2023 campaign, considering he’s never played there in his lengthy big league career. His time on the South Side might not extend past next week.

Third base

Plenty of fans would be happy if the core player Hahn parted with was Yoán Moncada, who has had a miserable offensive season in 2022 and has yet to follow up his breakout 2019 campaign with anything close to the “future MVP” hype he once possessed. Moncada can be excused for being perpetually bothered by physical ailments, be they the energy-sapping COVID infection he had in 2020 or the more regular baseball maladies he experienced each of the last two seasons. But he’s about to get a hefty raise – $17.8 million next season and $24.8 million the season after that – and he’s rarely produced like someone deserving of such a significant chunk of his team’s payroll.

But again, who’s lining up to take on that money? Moncada’s value is at perhaps its lowest point, and the only way he’s departing via a trade is if the White Sox eat some of that salary. Fans will say, “Pay it!” But that’s easy when it’s not their money. The White Sox have invested a lot in Moncada, and turning that into an investment to make Moncada go away would be a very tough pill to swallow.

Center field

Luis Robert spent much of the year dealing with a host of different injuries, most recently the sprained wrist that had him in and out of games – and taking some of the most awkward-looking swings in recent memory – over the season’s final month-plus. A fully healthy Robert is anticipated for 2023, and with it, the “six-tool player” who was being talked up as a preseason MVP candidate.

That all sounds like something that might generate some interest across the league. But it’d be mighty tough to part with a talent like that, someone who was long described as the best of the bunch when these young core players were all highly touted prospects.

Adam Engel also remains under club control.

Left field and right field

Jiménez’s days patrolling left field would seem to be over, right? Maybe. They’ve perhaps cured his complex about being able to hit well while DH’ing, as he’s been one of the sport’s top bats since the All-Star break while playing only sparing left field due to his legs. Considering his playing out there was contributing to a string of injuries, it was a perfectly valid argument to suggest making him a designated hitter on a permanent basis.

But remember that log jam? Well, Jiménez is a part of it. So is Sheets. So is Vaughn, whose defensive play in the corner-outfield spots this season has left an awful lot to be desired, especially compared to the admirable work he did filling in for Jiménez in 2021. Is it possible that Jiménez is the better defensive option in left these days?

AJ Pollock, who was acquired in the spring to be the team’s primary right fielder, has earned plenty of playing time in left this season and would seem a safe bet to pick up his player option for 2023, currently set to be worth $13 million, thanks to escalators. The idea of anyone handing him a contract more valuable than that – even when you factor in a $5 million buyout – doesn’t seem the most realistic.

The presence of Oscar Colás, recently promoted to Triple-A, in the minor leagues could appear as a safety valve of sorts for a trade, at least compared to elsewhere on the roster, where there’s little in the way of attractive minor league depth.

Jiménez and Vaughn probably have significant trade value, but they are undoubted cornerstones of this lineup, productive hitters on a team that needs to improve offensively, not slide backward – not to mention they’re both under team control for years to come. Sheets is one of the few power bats on a team that struggled to hit for power all year. And Pollock, well, he’s probably picking up that option.

Think there’s an easy solution to all this? There’s not.

Starting pitching

The White Sox would figure to have 80 percent of their rotation in place for 2023 in Dylan Cease, Lance Lynn, Michael Kopech and Lucas Giolito. The unit was actually pretty strong this year, especially once Lynn got right following his recovery from preseason knee surgery that knocked out the first two months of his season. Obviously, Cease was fantastic. Obviously, Giolito was not.

Pessimists might argue that Lynn’s too old, that Giolito’s best days are behind him, that Kopech hasn’t shown enough and that Cease, newly a Scott Boras client, will one day leave via free agency, as good a reason as any to trade him now.

I’d say, lighten up, Francis, to that, pointing out that the other side of that coin has the White Sox with a pretty strong rotation moving forward. Of course, it’s also one arm shy of a full unit. Johnny Cueto won fans over with consistent excellence on the mound and his midseason comments about a disappointing team needing to show more fire. He could find himself with plenty of suitors for a short-term deal this winter, and perhaps the White Sox would be interested in keeping such a reliable arm around. Davis Martin, meanwhile, was very solid in fill-in duty throughout the campaign.

The White Sox aren’t exactly boxed in when it comes to their starting staff. But anyone begging for them to ship out Giolito is probably overlooking the fact that the team would be selling really low on that front. Cease, Lynn and Kopech shouldn’t go anywhere. There’s room to improve the rotation without getting rid of any of them.

Relief pitching

The White Sox aren’t likely to undergo a bullpen makeover thanks to more than half a dozen relief arms being under contract already for 2023. Liam Hendriks will be in his third season as the team’s All-Star closer. Kendall Graveman and Joe Kelly each signed multi-year free-agent deals ahead of this season. Left-handers Jake Diekman, acquired at the deadline, and Aaron Bummer have multiple years of club control left on their contracts. Reynaldo López and Jimmy Lambert were both very good this year and figure to be back next season. José Ruiz will be under team control next season.

Garrett Crochet’s role moving forward is still somewhat up in the air as he continues to recover from Tommy John surgery, though he’s professed his desire to be a starter, which would keep him away from the majors till the middle of next year, at the earliest. He could potentially be back sooner should the White Sox value him more as a reliever.

It all means that after the relief-pitching splashes of the last two offseasons, it might be relatively quiet on the bullpen front this winter. Considering the White Sox have a bullpen ERA around the top third of major league teams, tweaking the relief corps might not need to be high on Hahn’s list of wintertime priorities. In fact, there’s a case to be made that this is the area of strength he might be able to deal from.

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