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It’s deadline time.
The White Sox are a .500 team, the same as they’ve been for much of this disappointing season. But thanks to similarly unimpressive play from the rest of the AL Central, they’re nothing more than a good week from sitting atop the division standings, so they’ll be buying at this year’s deadline, which arrives Tuesday evening.
It’s perfectly reasonable if you don’t want to be a believer in this team, as it’s shown little to suggest it will suddenly start playing like the championship contender it was assumed it would be when the season began. But Rick Hahn didn’t oversee a multi-year rebuilding project only to sell in the middle of a contention window.
And so we’re talking about what the White Sox could acquire at the deadline to better their chances of turning things around during the regular season’s final couple months.
Considering their farm system is relatively thin, ranked by those who rank such things as one of the game’s worst, they aren’t expected to be able to put together a prospect package that would reel in one of this year’s most discussed names. Juan Soto ain’t walking through that door.
But the White Sox aren’t incapable of swinging a deal for some serious help. It didn’t take much to acquire a late-inning reliever (Ryan Tepera) and a starting second baseman (César Hernández) last summer.
As should come as no surprise, they have a longer list of needs this time around, not leading the division by a country mile like they were in 2021. This time they’re chasing a couple teams, performing well below their expectations and have a host of bugaboos – fielding errors, base-running mistakes, a lack of power and, suddenly, consistent relief trouble – that just won’t go away.
Hahn listed a few specific needs when he spoke after the All-Star break, and he figures to be checking in everywhere to address as many as possible over the next few days as the clock ticks down on the end of trade activity this season.
So here’s a ranking of the team’s most pressing needs ahead of next week’s deadline.
1. Relief pitching
A few weeks back, this might not have topped the list. But since the White Sox returned from the All-Star break, there’s been a parade of problems on the relief-pitching front, which have teamed with existing ones to make this the most important item on Hahn’s to-do list.
Heck, he said as much.
“Every team in baseball, whether they’re in it or not, never feels like they have enough pitching, and we’re certainly not immune to that, primarily in the bullpen,” Hahn said. “Obviously, Aaron Bummer has been absent for a while. He’s starting to make some progress, and we do project him to return at some point. But that’s not guaranteed. So I would say bullpen’s probably the most obvious need.”
Bummer’s injury has eliminated not only a late-inning arm from the White Sox’ relief corps but also its most effective left-handed option. Considering Garrett Crochet was already missing from the projected unit – he’ll miss the remainder of the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery – that’s two late-inning lefties on the shelf. So it goes to figure that Hahn would be searching for a southpaw reliever.
But he doesn’t have to stop there. In the six games since the break, Matt Foster, Liam Hendriks, José Ruiz, Reynaldo López, Kendall Graveman have all had outings in which they’ve given up runs. Graveman has had two. Hendriks has had three. López is currently on the IL with a bad back, and Kelly exited his last outing with a bicep issue, even if it’s one that isn’t expected to keep him out of action long.
All told, it paints a picture of a ‘pen that could use some reinforcements, at the very least, if not a more dramatic infusion of new life. The unit has been decently reliable for the bulk of the season, but there are two – the White Sox hope three – more months to get through, in which it will need to be very reliable if the team is going to come anywhere close to reaching its preseason goals. Expect some newcomers between now and Aug. 2.
2. Left-handed hitting
For the strides the White Sox have made in improving offensively after a miserable first couple of months of the campaign – they went from the basement to the middle of the pack in scoring and have lifted their run differential to minus-19 (it was much, much worse for a long while) – they still aren’t getting it done against right-handed pitching.
The White Sox have a team .674 OPS against righties, which ranks 27th out of 30 major league teams, ahead of only the Pirates, A’s and Tigers. They’re 25th with only 62 home runs off right-handers this season. It’s not good.
They’re simultaneously fantastic against left-handed pitching, leading baseball with a .284 batting average and ranking second, behind only the Yankees, with a .788 OPS.
But in general, they could use some pop, whether it’s right-handed, left-handed or ambidextrous. Against right-handers – and specifically right-handed starters – things are dire. The left-handers and switch hitters in the White Sox’ lineup have not produced anywhere close to as hoped this season, with Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal only recently coming along. Gavin Sheets, expected to be the team’s chief source of lefty power, has not impressed the same way he did as a rookie in 2021, his 2022 featuring a brief return to the minor leagues.
So just as the relief troubles are super obvious, so too have been the team’s offensive woes against righties.
“Yeah, that would be an area to improve,” Hahn said, alluding to the obviousness of his team’s problem. “Wherever we’re not the best would be an area to improve.”
3. Second base and right field
Certainly Hahn isn’t limited to acquiring someone who plays one of these two positions. But these were the two spots on the diamond that he called out during his most recent media session as ones that could use an upgrade, from a production standpoint.
“If you look at our offensive and defensive performance over the course of the year, the performance at second base and right field haven’t quite been what we would hope,” Hahn said. “That said, if you look at what Josh Harrison has done since June 1 and you look at what Gavin Sheets has done since he returned from the minors, those both potentially could be solutions there. We’ll have to wait and see.”
The springtime signing of Harrison has not worked out as hoped, even though he has followed up a woeful start with a productive past couple months.
Right field has been far more complicated, with projected right fielder AJ Pollock mostly playing left field this year while Eloy Jiménez spent a long time on the injured list. Pollock, too, has upped his offensive game of late, with some big hits since the break. With Jiménez back, Pollock might see more regular time in right. But Andrew Vaughn, who has been one of the team’s best hitters this year, and the aforementioned Sheets factor into the mix out there, too. All those guys are part of the conversation at DH, as well, though Tony La Russa has shown a desire to use Grandal at that spot when he’s not catching – which has been often – complicating matters further.
But whether the White Sox actually need new blood at second or in right, they provide opportunities for Hahn to add a bat. Pretty much everywhere else, the team will bank on the production – realized or merely hoped for – of the guys entrenched there already. As Moncada and Grandal spent much of the season struggling at the plate, it seemed worth asking whether third base and catcher were being held to the same production standard as second and right.
“Moncada being Moncada and Yaz being Yaz are kind of part of what makes this team go. So you’re not switching that out,” Hahn said. “You’re going to try to make that work, if they’re healthy, the best you can with those players because of what they’re capable of doing when they’re right. We saw what Yaz did last year when he came off the IL. He damn near carried this team for a little while. So I think pivoting from four- or five-win players midstream is probably not the strategy you want to follow.”
Those two have hit well of late, proving Hahn’s point and making the discussion somewhat moot. But Harrison and whatever combination of guys you want to describe as the team’s right fielder are not so immovable. If the White Sox are going to add offense, those positions are the best bet.
4. Starting-pitching depth
While plenty of fans are voicing their frustrations about Lucas Giolito’s search for himself and Lance Lynn’s multi-month ramp up to his usual performance, the White Sox’ starting rotation is far from the team’s biggest concern.
Everything’s relative, of course, and that’s not to say everything is sunshine and rainbows. Giolito has indeed struggled to find himself and perform like the ace he’s shown he can be for this staff. Lynn spent the season’s first two months in recovery mode and is only recently describing his play as up to his standards after a couple months of unusual outings for the guy who finished third in the AL Cy Young vote last year. While Dylan Cease has dominated and has been one of baseball’s best, there are perfectly valid reasons to be wary of what Michael Kopech and Johnny Cueto can deliver, too.
But in the grand scheme, the areas listed above are of far more immediate concern.
That said, there is an opportunity to add to the starting-pitching group.
Though Hahn was unsure how much there’d be to choose from on this summer’s trade market, he acknowledged the team’s continued management of Kopech and the health issues that bedeviled Lynn in the second half of last season and into 2022. Considering this is the guy who says he can never have enough pitching, it makes sense that he’d carry a similar mindset into the deadline.
But don’t expect him to kick anyone out of the rotation unless he lands an overwhelmingly obvious top-of-the-staff guy.
“I would love for these to be the five from here on out,” Hahn said. “If there’s a chance to add to it and get better, we’ll look at it. I’m not sure about that market having a ton of volume in it right now. We’ll just have to wait and see. But we’re not going to say no to anything that could potentially make us better.
“I certainly know enough by this point not to ever feel comfortable that plans are going to work out when it comes to pitching, so we’re going to remain open-minded and flexible. But hopefully these are the five that stay healthy and stay strong and answer the call every fifth day.”
But beyond those five arms, Hahn can still bring in the type of pitcher who can swing between a starting role and a relieving one, someone who can fill the role that was pegged to be played by Vince Velasquez, who has been on the IL for a month with a blister. Davis Martin has been pretty good as the de facto No. 6 starter, but he’s done so with little experience and a small number of chances to fill in.
Such a move might not wow many fans – who’s ever wowed by a sixth starter? – but it’s the type of addition that helps bolster the rotation while still relying on a solid quintet of arms currently in the White Sox’ employ.
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