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White Sox move Michael Soroka to bullpen as latest move in quest to restore his 2019 glory

Vinnie Duber Avatar
May 14, 2024
Michael Soroka

The Michael Soroka experiment isn’t exactly over.

But the White Sox’ attempt to resurrect Soroka’s career to his All-Star highs of five years ago has led to a move to the bullpen for the offseason trade acquisition.

Soroka, of course, was landed as part of a bulk package, Chris Getz turning one player into five when he shipped Aaron Bummer to the Braves in November. Soroka struck as the headliner of the deal because of that 2019 success, when he made the NL All-Star team, pitched in the postseason, finished as the runner-up in the NL Rookie of the Year vote and was top six in the NL Cy Young vote before his career was derailed by injury.

The arrival of new pitching czar Brian Bannister seemingly had the White Sox taking an approach to arm acquisition that focused on getting guys who had fallen from success and getting them back to that level, and Soroka sure fit the bill. Though his status as a preseason lock for the rotation might have been a bit of a stretch, considering he spent most of 2023 pitching in the minor leagues, he was really good during the spring and earned a spot on the starting staff, throwing in the second game of the regular season.

Now, though, just nine starts into the campaign, he’s off to the bullpen, being replaced in the starting rotation by Brad Keller, who the team signed to a minor league deal deep into spring training.

According to Pedro Grifol, the White Sox will keep Soroka stretched out, using him in multi-inning relief work as he looks to make the adjustments that can hammer down a 6.39 ERA. Those adjustments might need to be significant ones, as Soroka has been hit hard this season. No pitcher in baseball has allowed more home runs than Soroka, who’s served up 10, and he also started the day Tuesday leading the AL with 31 earned runs allowed.

Grifol compared the move to what the White Sox did earlier in the season with Chris Flexen, illustrating that Soroka’s not necessarily out of the rotation for good. The team moved Flexen to relief work briefly, and he pitched well in a couple appearances, returning to the rotation. He’s been excellent since; after posting a hideous 8.78 ERA in his first three starts, Flexen has a 1.61 ERA in his last five games.

We’ll see if the same strategy works for Soroka, who has not only posted poor numbers but made numerous brief starts this season: He’s thrown fewer than 80 pitches in five of his nine starts, including 71 or fewer pitches in three of his last four outings. It’s all added up to an average of fewer than five innings per start.

Soroka was visibly displeased after his most recent outing against the Guardians, in which he gave up four runs and didn’t finish the sixth inning, serving up a pair of homers. Still, he felt that he was improving from what he was doing at the very beginning of the campaign.

“Early in the season, there was not too many things I was doing well to give myself a good chance,” he said. “But over the last few outings, I’ve been a lot closer to what I wanted.

“Today stings the most because you see your numbers, you see what you’re doing when you go out there with the team, and you want to give the team a chance to understand I’m in there deep with low pitch counts and runs every time out. It’s a good feeling when your teams knows you’re out there to be a dog.

“You can chase results all you want, but it’s about the process. And I’ve got to trust what I’m doing because things are going in the right direction, just a matter of a couple small things here and there.”

Those “small” changes will have to occur now with Soroka pitching out of the bullpen. And judging from how he’s reacted following starts that didn’t go the way he wanted them to, one would guess that he’s not seeing this shift in roles as things going according to plan.

“I mean, he’s a competitor. He wants to continue to pitch,” Grifol said Tuesday. “However, he understands that there’s adjustments that he needs to make. He also understands that we believe in him. I truly believe in the player.

“There’s no reason why he can’t make some adjustments and get to where he’s consistent enough to be that guy or even better than the guy he was.”

Grifol said he spent his Monday watching Soroka’s postseason start from 2019 side-by-side with that most recent outing against the Guardians and noticed plenty of similarities, the only thing missing being consistency.

Whether the White Sox can work with Soroka to recapture that magic remains to be seen, as does exactly what Soroka’s future looks like on the South Side. Acquired with just one year of club control left, Soroka figured to be an attempt at a midseason flip, as so many players on this roster appear to be. There’s more than two months to straighten Soroka out and try to turn him into something before the trade deadline, but he’ll have to dramatically overcome these early season struggles to generate any midsummer interest.

Meanwhile, the White Sox’ rotation continues to evolve — and continues to do so with more veteran arms, as opposed to youngsters who figure to actually play a role in the team’s long-term future. Nick Nastrini and Jonathan Cannon made brief appearances at the big league level in April, but they returned to the minors in a hurry, replaced with in-season signing Mike Clevinger and now Keller.

Again, it would seem that dedicating playing time to those pitchers is about attempting to turn them into something before the end of July, when there could be new opportunity for the Nastrinis and Cannons of the organization as Getz’s long-term rebuilding project advances.

We’ll see if the White Sox can turn Soroka into one of those trade pieces. But certainly him heading to the bullpen is not how anyone would have drawn it up on Opening Day.

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