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The White Sox have a veteran pitcher, a guy who’s been a Cy Young caliber arm while wearing their uniform, and it’s just not working at the moment.
He owns one of the highest ERAs in the sport. He’s giving up way too many hits, way too many walks, way too many home runs. He makes $18 million.
It should. The White Sox were faced with that situation last year, when Dallas Keuchel’s time on the South Side was brought to an early end with a midseason designation for assignment. Giving Keuchel a chance to rebound from a miserable 2021 campaign, things didn’t get any better, and the team cut him loose after eight starts, his ERA approaching 8.00.
Well, it’s happening again, this time with Lance Lynn, who has been given a much longer leash with which to figure out what’s not clicking for a guy who’s been so reliable for the bulk of his big league career.
Like they did with Keuchel, the White Sox had reason to believe that a relatively rocky 2022 wouldn’t repeat itself for Lynn. In his first season with the club, 2020, Keuchel finished fifth in the AL Cy Young vote with an ERA below 2.00. Lynn bested that feat, finishing third in the AL Cy Young vote in 2021. Unlike Keuchel, Lynn’s struggles last season could be mostly chalked up to the effects of springtime knee surgery; his lack of spring training and two-month absence forced a reacclimation period upon his return from the IL before he resembled his typically effective self toward season’s end.
But with full health this season and a dynamite spring highlighted by an impressive turn pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, things have not gone to anyone’s plan.
Lynn was immediately tagged for four first-inning runs in Tuesday night’s loss to the Dodgers. The White Sox’ silent bats might have ended up the larger culprit in the defeat, as Lynn settled down after that ugly first, allowing just a handful of base runners and one more unearned run. But his ERA grew ever so slightly after he managed only 15 outs in Los Angeles, up to 6.75, which ranks as the second highest among baseball’s qualified starting pitchers, behind only Jordan Lyles of the Royals.
Lynn has allowed 18 home runs on the season, tied with Lyles and the Blue Jays’ Yusei Kikuchi for the most in the sport. Only 14 pitchers have issued more walks than Lynn, who’s up to 31 after Tuesday. Lynn has made 14 starts, nine of them seeing the righty allow four or more runs. A workhorse throughout his career — he hit the magic 200-inning mark in 2019 and led the game in innings pitched in the shortened 2020 season — he’s only completed six innings in six starts this season, only completing seven in one.
It’s all to say what Lynn has said far more succinctly many times this season.
“I wasn’t good,” he said in early April.
“I’ve got to be better,” he said in late May.
“This isn’t going to work,” he told reporters Tuesday night.
It’s all to show that any frustration White Sox fans are feeling with the results of Lynn’s outings, Lynn’s feeling it much worse. Of course, anyone watching Tuesday’s game knows that thanks to Lynn slamming an iPad down in a dugout outburst of sorts.
Certainly Lynn’s experience offers the possibility that this is not who he’ll be for the remainder of the campaign. But to circle back to Keuchel, plenty of White Sox fans are calling for Lynn not to make it to the end of the campaign. Keuchel was jettisoned after eight starts last summer, and Lynn has made nearly twice as many, with results that haven’t been much better. Fans are wondering if the team could make a similar move with Lynn this summer.
It doesn’t seem likely.
Indeed, the White Sox are — as ridiculous as it sounds for a team 10 games below .500 — in the race for the AL Central title, and continued performances like the ones Lynn has turned in this season would figure to hurt their chances of chasing down the Twins, just five and a half games away in first place.
But with Keuchel, the White Sox had options. Not only did Davis Martin emerge as a dependable “No. 6 starter,” but the front office’s minor league signing of Johnny Cueto worked wonders. Cueto was initially signed to sub in for Lynn, who missed the first two months of the season. But in the end, he subbed in for Keuchel after the left-hander was DFA’d, filling that spot in the rotation while Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech took up the other four spots.
This year, the White Sox have no such options.
There is no 2023 version of Cueto. The team stocked the rotation with Cease, Lynn, Giolito, Kopech and Mike Clevinger, with Martin again planned to serve as that sixth arm when needed. That safety net, though, was pulled out from under this pitching staff earlier this year when Martin underwent Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, there was no minor league deal for a pitcher like Cueto.
The White Sox have experienced good health in their rotation thus far, with only Clevinger hitting the IL for a short period. But Jesse Scholtens, who was called up to briefly pitch in Clevinger’s stead, doesn’t provide the same sort of confidence that either Cueto or Martin did for this staff last season. The rest of the minor league depth the team would have to call on is even less exciting.
So there’s the main difference between the situations with Keuchel and Lynn: This time around, there is no alternative to fall back on.
It’s not like the White Sox have been shy about cutting loose veterans who aren’t getting the job done, as exemplified with Keuchel last summer and with Jake Diekman earlier this year. But no team wants to make a habit of paying exorbitant amounts of money just to have players not play. It was probably a much easier decision to part with Diekman, who had a $3.5 million salary this season, than it would be to part with Lynn, who’s making $18.5 million.
Keuchel, for what it’s worth, had a salary of $18 million last year.
But forget, even, the money and the roster stuff for now. Lynn is an important piece of the puzzle on this White Sox team. He’s an oft-cited leader, the leader of the pitching staff and someone the other pitchers gravitate toward when it comes to the time-tested baseball practice of picking a teammate’s brain. He’s been described as a “glue piece” and someone who “commands the room.”
Though Rick Hahn described Diekman as a leader on multiple occasions early this season, Lynn just doesn’t strike as someone the White Sox would chuck out the window. He’s somewhat of a load-bearing wall for this pitching staff and in that clubhouse.
Remember, too, that merely plucking Lynn out of the rotation would far from solve all this team’s issues. The pitching, in general, has been quite good, with the lineup seeming the White Sox’ major woe at the moment. Of the 10 games the team has played in June, it’s scored three runs or fewer in seven of them. Lynn could have thrown a much better game in LA, and the White Sox still would have lost, mustering only three hits and one run on a ninth-inning sacrifice fly.
It’s not an argument in favor of any one decision. But it’s to show that the team’s problems go well beyond Lynn’s struggles and that one move probably wouldn’t fix much, if anything. DFA’ing Lynn won’t boost Tim Anderson’s batting average, increase Andrew Benintendi’s power potential or cure the nagging health issues of Yoán Moncada and Eloy Jiménez.
That’s the bummer reality facing a massively underachieving White Sox team.
Lynn has been there and done that, perhaps providing him the tools necessary to turn his season around. We saw just last season that after a shaky return from the long IL stay, he straightened things out with a strong finish.
Is that in the cards for 2023? We’ll find out, because it seems unlikely that Lynn suffers the same fate Keuchel did last year.
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