The White Sox were short on bright spots during their disappointing 2022 campaign.
But amid a season of inconsistency and a seemingly never-ending search for a spark, two veteran acquisitions – both of them signed off the scrap heap – won plenty of fans over with their ability to deliver, both in terms of on-the-field results and off-the-field energy.
But both Johnny Cueto and Elvis Andrus are now heading to free agency, meaning Rick Hahn’s front office has to decide whether those two guys, two good clubhouse fits, deserve new contracts after succeeding in “prove it” type seasons.
“Deserve,” though, is perhaps not the right word, because both players definitely proved themselves while suiting up for the South Siders. It’s whether or not they fit into what’s expected to be a tricky offseason puzzle for the White Sox.
Cueto got a minor league deal right before Opening Day and spent much of the year as the team’s most consistent starting pitcher. Even as Dylan Cease was putting up Cy Young numbers, Cueto’s start-to-start output became predictable. He was good for no fewer than six innings and no more than three runs seemingly every time out, and his value to the pitching staff and team as a whole grew as he started going even deeper in games. He had four starts of eight or more innings, and he was one of only two White Sox pitchers (the other being Cease) to throw a complete game in 2022.
As reliable as he was on the mound, he was as much a presence off it, winning fans over when he told reporters the team needed to show more fire and bringing a fun personality – and unsolicited hitting advice – to the clubhouse.
“One day I told him, ‘Bro, you’re not a hitter. You don’t know how to hit. Why are you telling him something? For a pitcher, you can say everything. But for a hitter?’” Reynaldo López told CHGO. “He was talking to (Yoán) Moncada and (Luis) Robert over there. And I started laughing. And he was like, ‘What the fuck are you laughing at?’ But it’s fun having him here.”
Cueto figures to fit better than Andrus for reasons we’ll get into in a second, but that doesn’t assure he’ll be back with the White Sox in 2023. His pre-existing relationship with pitching coach Ethan Katz helped him land on the South Side in the first place, and even with a new manager coming in, Katz is reportedly expected to stay on staff, a no-brainer considering his successes in recent seasons.
The White Sox have an open spot in the rotation, even if Cease, Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech all return. Given the team’s win-now state, handing the open spot to a reliable veteran over someone like Davis Martin, who was terrific as a spot starter in 2022, would seem more sensible. After Giolito struggled, though, Hahn & Co. have a decision to make with the rotation, needing to pick between a top arm to add serious heft or a fifth-starter type to round things out while believing in a Giolito bounce back.
But does Cueto’s strong 2022 jack up his price to the point the White Sox are unwilling to pay, considering their vast needs elsewhere on the roster? And does he even truly count as a reliable presence moving forward, given 2022 was his first season hitting the 150-inning mark since 2016?
Valid questions, of course.
The second might be less troubling than the first, with Cueto saying at season’s end that 2022 was the first year he pitched with no pain since his Tommy John surgery in 2018. He’ll turn 37 before Opening Day, but he said he’s got multiple years’ worth of gas left in the tank. That said, his ERA made a big late-season jump as he posted a 5.67 mark over his final seven starts.
“I feel good,” he said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I want to pitch, and I feel like I can pitch two or three more years. I would like to come back here, but that is not my decision to make.”
As for Andrus, the veteran shortstop was a godsend with how he filled in during Tim Anderson’s extended injured-list stay, playing in the White Sox’ final 43 games – that’s right, no days off for Andrus – after being cut loose by the A’s. He hit nine homers after arriving on the South Side, and his OPS was .100 points higher than it was in Oakland. Add the eight long balls he hit as a Swingin’ A, and his 2022 home-run total of 17 matched that of White Sox team-leader Andrew Vaughn.
Andrus played solid defense and showed a consistency that the White Sox craved all year from their position players. In the clubhouse, he brought a veteran mindset and the experience of someone who made it to back-to-back World Series and has struggled to get back there since.
“(Missing the playoffs) makes you appreciate how hard it is to be in the postseason,” he said. “At the same time, it makes you think, a little bit, about what you need to get better for next year to make it happen and to not have this feeling of going home after (the final game of the regular season).
“A bunch of the guys here, they’ve started thinking, realizing. This is the first time for a few guys that they’re not going to be in the postseason. My advice is, ‘I felt the same way.’ I went to back-to-back World Series my first two or three years in the league and thought it was so easy. And I think it’s been like four or five years since I’ve been in the postseason. You have to be grateful and realize how lucky you are just to be able to make it to the postseason. I know everybody’s going to go home with that in their mind and put in a good offseason and not let that happen next year.”
That desire to win has become stereotypical for players late in their careers. The 34-year-old veteran of 14 major league seasons is unsurprisingly focusing on the ability to capture the ring he just missed with the Rangers as he eyes his next job, something that shouldn’t be too hard for him to find after his stellar couple months with the White Sox.
“For me, personally, being here, I really enjoyed every moment,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I’m a free agent for the first time in my career, so we’ll see how it goes. But everybody knows the chances are open for me to come back next year. We’ll see how it goes.”
Realistically, it’s hard to see Andrus returning, as good as was for this clubhouse, solely because of his position. The White Sox have a shortstop, the guy who started the All-Star Game at that position. Anderson is not only a spectacular hitter but the face of the franchise, and though Hahn is refusing to take any idea off the table this winter – including breaking up the team’s young core – it would be decently shocking to see Anderson leave town.
Second base, meanwhile, is arguably the only position on the White Sox’ roster that would be easy to change this offseason. Josh Harrison was a similarly positive clubhouse presence, but his lackluster offensive production could have the White Sox turning down a team option for 2023. Could Andrus fit there? He was down for it during the season, when the possibility of him and Anderson being healthy at the same time existed. But his attitude doesn’t change the fact that he’s never played second base as a big leaguer.
He, nor Miguel Cairo, seemed to mind.
“If that’s what it is, if that’s the only option I have, moving from short to another position, I’d be more than happy,” Andrus said. “For me, it’s about playing and, at this point in my career, winning, being in a winning environment. That would mean a lot for my decision, for sure.”
“Heck yeah,” Cairo said in September, asked if Andrus could play second base. “He’s a shortstop, he always can go and play second base. I think he will be bored over there, but he can do it. He knows the game. He has really good feet, good hands and he knows the game.”
Still, even with Andrus’ willingness to make a switch and a vote of confidence from a former big league second baseman, it would be surprising to see the White Sox hand an everyday job to someone who’s never played the position before at the outset of a “win now” season. Surely there will be those who point out the ample playing time Vaughn, a natural first baseman, received in the outfield in recent years, but in both 2021 and 2022, that stemmed from injuries to Eloy Jiménez that jumbled things up. An Andrus reunion would involve writing his name at the top of the second-base depth chart from the get-go. It is different.
The characteristics that both Andrus and Cueto brought throughout the 2022 season earned them consideration for spots on the 2023 roster, no doubt about it, chiefly the dependability the White Sox got in a year where so many of the players they bet their season on could not come through in a consistent manner.
But reunions might not be in the cards, for a variety of reasons, whether that’s plenty of other suitors following their nice seasons or the White Sox’ own tricky situation in augmenting their roster this winter.
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