With a burgeoning payroll, can the White Sox find a strong replacement for Carlos Rodon and upgrade at second base and/or right field?
- Yasmani Grandal, C: $36.5MM through 2023
- Dallas Keuchel, SP: $19.5MM through 2022. Includes $20MM club option for 2023
- Jose Abreu, 1B: $18MM through 2022
- Craig Kimbrel, RP: $16MM through 2022
- Liam Hendriks, RP: $42MM through 2024 (technically through ’23 but the option and buyout prices are the same)
- Lance Lynn, SP: $38MM through 2023. Includes $18MM club option for 2024
- Tim Anderson, SS: $10.5MM through 2022. Includes $12.5MM club option for ’23 and $14MM club option for ’24
- Yoan Moncada, 3B: $59MM through 2024. Includes $25MM club option for ’25
- Kendall Graveman, RP: $24MM through 2024
- Eloy Jimenez, LF: $32MM through 2024. Includes $16.5MM club option for ’25 and $18.5MM club option for ’26
- Luis Robert, CF: $45MM through 2025. Includes $20MM club options for ’26 and ’27
- Leury Garcia, IF: $16.5MM through 2024.
- Aaron Bummer, RP: $13MM through 2024. Includes $7.25MM club option for ’25 and $7.5MM club option for ’26
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Declined $6MM club option on 2B Cesar Hernandez
- Exercised $16MM club option on RP Craig Kimbrel
The White Sox won the AL Central this year, marking back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in the club’s storied 121-year history. Prior to 2020, the team hadn’t even put together a winning record since 2012. The White Sox are here to stay as a perennial contender, even if they went quietly to the Astros in the ALDS this year. As you can see in the contracts section above, the team has already locked up core pieces and should have relatively strong continuity for the next several years.
Several significant moves and non-moves took place prior to the December 2nd lockout. The White Sox made a pair of unsurprising option decisions, cutting second baseman Cesar Hernandez loose and retaining reliever Craig Kimbrel. I wonder if the Kimbrel decision represents something of a sunk cost fallacy, with the Sox having surrendered former first rounder Nick Madrigal plus reliever Codi Heuer to acquire Kimbrel from the Cubs at the July deadline. Who the White Sox gave up, of course, should have had no bearing on Kimbrel’s option decision. The team only had 25 innings in which to evaluate Kimbrel, during which his extreme home run tendencies returned.
Since 2019, Kimbrel has been an effective pitcher for only the 36 2/3 innings at the beginning of the ’21 season. But in those 39 games, Kimbrel was utterly dominant, allowing only two earned runs. Even heading into his age-34 season, Kimbrel is undoubtedly one of the top strikeout relievers in the game, ranking third in that metric since 2020. The question is whether home run and walk proclivities will be an issue in 2022, and I don’t think anyone really knows the answer. The White Sox, who appear to be bumping up against their payroll limit, gambled $16MM that Good Kimbrel will show up over the next 60 innings or at least that they can unload him to positive effect.
White Sox GM Rick Hahn spoke openly about trading Kimbrel, saying, “We’ve had conversations with other clubs and have a sense of what is potentially available.” Hahn added, “It’s easy to make the assessment that if you put him back in the closer’s role, it’s what he’s accustomed to and he’s more likely to have success.” That’s not a particularly reliable assessment: put Kimbrel back in a closer role, and he’ll be good again.
The White Sox struck a pre-lockout deal with one of the top free agent relivers in Kendall Graveman, seemingly only increasing the chances of a Kimbrel trade. Possible matches for Kimbrel could include the Tigers and Royals, but intra-division trades among contenders can be tough. The Rangers, Blue Jays, Marlins, and Phillies make some theoretical sense, but it will not be easy for Hahn to find a team willing to take on a $16MM closer and give up a player of value. Hahn has gambled that whatever he gets back will be better than just paying the $1MM buyout on Kimbrel and spending the money in free agency.
The White Sox also made the curious choice not to issue the one-year, $18.4MM qualifying offer to Carlos Rodon. Rodon was a surprise Cy Young contender through mid-July, but wore down thereafter and experienced a velocity dip. Soon after the Rodon decision, Noah Syndergaard, with two innings under his belt from 2020-21, snagged a one-year, $21MM deal from the Angels. Hahn offered little insight into the team’s decision, saying, “We made the assessment based on everything we know, which includes our needs and our other targets, that that wasn’t an offer we were comfortable making at this time.”
The implication is that the White Sox felt that A) there was a real chance of Rodon accepting the QO and B) that would have been a bad thing for the team. On both fronts, the team has more information than we do. We don’t know exactly how Scott Boras played it and if maybe he bluffed his way out of the QO by intimating they might accept. Afterward, of course, Boras acted as if there was never a chance Rodon would accept. Additionally, no one knows Rodon’s health better than the White Sox. Health concerns are one potential justification for not offering the QO to Rodon. If the club thought Rodon is likely to provide even 100 innings of 3.50 ball in 2022, the QO is an easy yes.
There’s also the chance that the White Sox budgeted $20MM+ for a potential frontline starter, and they wanted to keep their options open and attempt to acquire someone they feel is better than Rodon. Case in point Justin Verlander, in whom the Sox “showed strong interest” prior to his re-upping with the Astros, according to Bob Nightengale. The White Sox already have a projected rotation of Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Dallas Keuchel, and Michael Kopech. Allowing that they could attempt to dump Keuchel’s salary, there’s generally room for only one addition. Save for perhaps Clayton Kershaw, who’s unlikely to sign in Chicago, free agency doesn’t offer anyone of Rodon’s caliber. The post-lockout trade market, however, could be robust. If Hahn were to come up with, say, Frankie Montas, the Rodon decision would look reasonable.
Second base remains a clear area of need for the White Sox. Nick Madrigal is now across town, and the club declined Cesar Hernandez’s option after he posted a 70 wRC+ for them. The White Sox have Leury Garcia back in the fold as a fallback, but they could consider acquiring Jean Segura, Ketel Marte, Josh Harrison, DJ LeMahieu, Jeff McNeil, or Jed Lowrie. Also consider the summer report that the White Sox were interested in acquiring Trevor Story and playing him at second base back in July. If multiyear offers are not to Story’s liking, he could land in Chicago on a one-year deal and attempt to pull a Marcus Semien. I don’t think a Semien reunion was ever a consideration for the White Sox, but they have seen a few more affordable second base options come off the board in Chris Taylor and Eduardo Escobar.
Since the White Sox non-tendered Avisail Garcia three years ago, they’ve been searching for a solution in right field. In the three years that followed, Ryan Cordell, Nomar Mazara, and Adam Eaton were their innings leaders at the position. Aside from Leury Garcia, the club has solid internal options for ’22 in Andrew Vaughn, Gavin Sheets, and Adam Engel. Vaughn, the most promising hitter of the bunch, spent most of ’21 filling in at the other outfield corner with Eloy Jimenez out. The club is not in desperation mode here, but they figure to monitor the market. What the White Sox do with right field might depend on the caliber of player they add for the rotation and second base. Available right field-capable players could include Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, Michael Conforto, Wil Myers, Max Kepler, Cody Bellinger, Joey Gallo, Jorge Soler, Andrew McCutchen, and Manuel Margot, though not all of those would be upgrades over internal options.
Along with all these permutations, the team’s payroll must be considered. The White Sox’ 2021 Opening Day payroll of $128.7MM was an all-time high, just a hair above where they peaked a decade prior. The team currently has 13 players under contract for 2022 at a total of $152.75MM, plus a projected $12.9MM for their arbitration eligible trio. That brings the total to around $165MM for 15 players, with an MLB-wide expected minimum salary increase on the way. It’s unclear how far owner Jerry Reinsdorf is willing to go and how much of Kimbrel and perhaps Keuchel’s salary can be cleared. Abreu, Keuchel, and Kimbrel are off the books after ’22, though the club figures to attempt to extend Abreu. Plus, the club has scheduled or expected raises to Moncada, Anderson, Giolito, Robert, Jimenez, and Bummer in ’23.
Rodon was the top White Sox pitcher by WAR in 2021 in just 132 2/3 innings, so replacing his production will not be easy. Though the team’s four division-mates didn’t put up much of a fight in ’21, the Tigers have already made major additions. All five clubs now fancy themselves contenders. While the White Sox are still the AL Central favorite currently, there’s work to be done once the lockout ends.