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White Sox add Chris Flexen to starting-pitching mix rife with question marks

Vinnie Duber Avatar
January 2, 2024
Chris Flexen

The list of options for the White Sox’ starting rotation keeps growing.

So, too, does the list of question marks.

Chris Flexen is the latest to join the burgeoning mix, signed to a one-year deal just before the calendar flipped to 2024. Like others added before him during a busy, if not exciting, White Sox winter, he’s a reclamation project following an ugly year pitching for the Mariners and Rockies that finished with a 6.86 ERA across 102.1 innings.

The two years prior, 2021 and 2022, saw better results and a bigger workload. He appeared in 64 games with the Mariners, 53 of them starts, and logged 317.1 innings, coming just shy of the 180-inning mark in 2021. He posted a 3.66 ERA combined between those two seasons.

The White Sox obviously hope that Flexen will resemble that type of pitcher more than the one who stumbled through 2023, when he made nearly as many relief appearances as starts, though he was used exclusively as a starter after a midsummer trade from the Mariners to the Mets, who he never pitched for, released three days after the swap. The Rockies picked him up a week later, and he made a dozen starts for one of the only teams in baseball with a worse record than the White Sox.

Digging around for reclamation projects obviously makes sense for the White Sox, who aren’t expected to contend for an AL Central crown in 2024 and seem intent on lowering payroll, if their bevy of low-cost moves to this point is any indication; Flexen’s another, making just $1.75 million this year. The team trumpeted its hiring of senior pitching adviser Brian Bannister, who touted his own “sweet spot” as helping pitchers reclaim former glory. Alongside pitching coach Ethan Katz, Bannister can count Flexen as one of those types of pupils.

“My sweet spot has always been helping pitchers who are either coming off a down year or have lost their identity a little bit,” Bannister said in September, “and really getting in there and building trust with them and helping them identify what makes them a productive major league pitcher and just walking alongside them in that process.”

But until Bannister can produce such a turnaround, Flexen is the latest question mark added to a starting-pitching mix that needed serious help and has received, to this point, serious volume, if nothing more. Chris Getz made starting pitching a priority in his first offseason as general manager, and he inked Korean baseball MVP Erick Fedde alongside a trade for one-time All-Star arm Michael Soroka. Jared Shuster, who made 11 starts for the Braves in 2023, came over in the same trade as Soroka, and the White Sox used a Rule 5 pick on Shane Drohan, who struggled with the Red Sox’ Triple-A team last year.

The cupboard wasn’t exactly bursting with options when Getz took over for Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams in late August, but the starting-pitching mix can also be said to include 2023 late-season auditioners Touki Toussaint and Jesse Scholtens, alongside obvious holdovers Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech.

But the question marks start at the top. Cease’s name has been included in trade rumors all winter long, and dealing him away seems the best, if not only, way for Getz to bolster his team’s long-term future this offseason. Team brass, though, expressed no urgency to move Cease, and it figures they won’t until someone wants to meet what’s been reported as a mighty steep asking price.

Kopech is fresh off a miserable 2023 season. Soroka has made only nine major league starts since his All-Star season in 2019, missing the entirety of the 2021 and 2022 seasons with an injury; his ERA was well north of 6.00 in a half dozen big league starts last year. And Fedde, for all of his overseas success after a career transformation last offseason, has a career 5.41 ERA in parts of six major league seasons with the Nationals and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2022.

Down on the farm, Davis Martin is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and despite some promising talent brought in with last summer’s deadline deals, it’s unsure if anyone else is ready for the big leagues just yet. The closest, it seems, is Nick Nastrini, acquired last August in a trade with the Dodgers and promoted to Triple-A late in the season. Cristian Mena got the same bump up from Double-A late last summer.

Martin, Nastrini, Mena, Jake Eder, Ky Bush, Jonathan Cannon and Peyton Pallette — and further down in the minor leagues, Noah Schultz — give some hope for a brighter future, but in the immediate, they offer little in terms of being realistically available for the start of the 2024 campaign.

It all adds up to a ton of question marks for the White Sox as they look to put a staff together for the upcoming season. Now, the offseason is not all the way over quite yet, and Getz could certainly have some more moves left, chiefly a potential trade of Cease, which would reshape things considerably. He also will likely continue to make starting pitching a priority, even after the additions he’s made to this point.

Whether that means Getz has a pitcher who would have much impact beyond 2024 in his sights or not is unknown. Outside of Fedde and the reported vesting option in Martín Maldonado’s yet-to-be-announced contract, Getz’s moves this winter, on the pitching and position-player fronts, have been low-cost, one-year deals that strike as rebuilding-style placeholders.

But Getz has alluded to a long-term plan, and maybe there’s a long-term move to be made this winter. We’ll see.

Until we know where Cease will be pitching next season, it’s difficult to forecast the White Sox’ rotation come Opening Day. Fedde and Flexen, given their major league deals, would seem relative locks, and Kopech will be given every chance to bounce back from his hideous 2023. Soroka, with an All-Star appearance on his resume, would seem a logical choice for the fourth or fifth spot (depending on Cease’s status), with Shuster perhaps lining up behind him. That could, barring an impressive spring, shuttle Drohan off to the bullpen, or maybe even back to the Red Sox. And Toussaint and Scholtens could wind up in the depth roles they’re likely best suited for, unless of course they show out in Arizona.

But the waters are far from clear. When will Martin be ready for a return to the big league mound after he impressed as a fill-in in 2022? Will any of Flexen, Drohan, Toussaint, Scholtens and even Kopech wind up as bullpen arms? It will be no surprise to hear their “versatility” touted come the spring, as Kopech’s was as recently as September. And what about Fedde? Will his Korean success translate to the majors? Will he be a consistent presence near the top of the rotation, or will he be considered as a midseason trade chip?

So even as new names like Flexen’s keep getting added to the White Sox’ starting-pitching equation, the result seems to be the same: question marks and lots of them.

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