The White Sox filled their right field vacancy by making a long-awaited Craig Kimbrel trade, otherwise focusing on signing Kimbrel’s replacements rather than compensating for the departure of Carlos Rodon.
Major League Signings
- Kendall GravemanRP: three years, $24MM
- Joe KellyRP: two years, $17MM
- Leury GarciaIF/OF: three years, $16.5MM
- Josh Harrison2B/3B: one year, $5.5MM
- Vince VelasquezSP: one year, $3MM
- Total spend: $66MM
Trades and Claims
Notable Minor League Signings
After a disappointing ALDS loss to the Astros, the White Sox kicked off their offseason by exercising their hefty $16MM option on reliever Craig Kimbrel. The righty had struggled after a crosstown trade in which the Sox paid the high price of Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer. The White Sox seemed intent on trading Kimbrel all along, and at the time their choice on the option seemed related to having given up Madrigal for him. As I wrote in December, “[White Sox GM Rick] 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.”
At the time it needed to be made, the Kimbrel decision involved some financial risk for a club that has never been willing to run a payroll near the first competitive balance tax threshold. Days later, in what appeared to be a related choice payroll-wise, the White Sox declined to issue a one-year, $18.4MM qualifying offer to lefty Carlos Rodon.
Especially with the benefit of hindsight that the White Sox would make no major commitments to their rotation, the Rodon decision must be read as the club thinking that the southpaw accepting the qualifying offer would have been a bad thing. It’s hard to say whether Rodon would have accepted. He was one of the game’s best pitchers through mid-July last year, but lost velocity and was handled carefully after that due to shoulder issues. Rodon went on to sign a two-year, $44MM deal after the lockout with the Giants that allows him to opt out after the first year if he reaches 110 innings. Rodon’s market would have been different if he had a qualifying offer attached, due to draft pick forfeiture.
In granting right Lance Lynn a two-year, $38MM extension last July – similar to the contract Rodon would eventually sign – it might be that the White Sox felt they could choose only one of their 2021 aces. That’s only true in that owner Jerry Reinsdorf decided not to set a payroll that would accommodate both. So, the White Sox received no compensation for Rodon’s departure, while Lynn had knee surgery earlier this month and wasn’t expected to make his season debut before his 35th birthday on May 12th. The second half of the season will determine whether the White Sox made the right bet: Lynn will be a big factor in Chicago’s rotation, and we’ll learn whether Rodon holds up all year.
According to Bob Nightengale of USA Todaythe White Sox showed “strong interest” in Justin Verlander before he reached an agreement to re-sign with the Astros on November 17th. That would’ve been a reasonable way to fill Rodon’s shoes, but competition for Verlander was fierce and the Astros were at the top of his list. Most other top free agent starting pitchers signed prior to the lockout as well, and the White Sox weren’t rumored to be interested in them.
Otherwise, the White Sox made a pair of free agent strikes before the December 2 lockout. They gave out a pair of decent-sized three-year deals, adding setup man Kendall Graveman and retaining super-utility man Leury Garcia. The Graveman signing laid groundwork for the eventual Kimbrel trade, ensuring the team would remain strong in the late innings behind top closer Liam Hendriks. Garcia garnered a larger commitment than expected, but would end up as part of the team’s second base solution.
Rick Hahn’s first post-lockout move was to finish off that second base combo with the signing of Josh Harrison. Through nine games of the season, manager Tony La Russa has split second base time evenly between Garcia and Harrison. Harrison is a righty batter with a modest platoon split, with a 113 wRC+ against southpaws from 2020-21. Garcia, a switch-hitter, is also better against lefties. From 2019-21, Garcia and Harrison sport identical 83 wRC+ marks against right-handed pitching. So for the 70% of the time a righty pitcher is on the hill, the White Sox figure to have a fairly easy out coming from the second base position in the lineup.
On the same day as the Harrison signing, the White Sox somewhat surprisingly moved to further bolster their bullpen with the signing of Joe Kelly. Not only was the team surprising given Chicago’s existing bullpen commitments, but Kelly had exited Game 5 of the NLCS with biceps tightness and still secured a strong commitment. His White Sox debut has been delayed by at least a couple of weeks due to the injury. When Kelly is healthy, he, Graveman, and Aaron Bummer can form a very strong bridge to Hendriks.
After the lockout, the White Sox added only back-end starting pitchers to cover for the loss of Rodon and ineffectiveness of Dallas Keuchel, as Lynn had not yet gotten injured. Vince Velasquez, 29, has longstanding control issues that pitching coach Ethan Katz will attempt to solve. Johnny Cueto, meanwhile, can be a source of veteran innings. The White Sox can still plan a hopeful playoff rotation of Lucas GiolitoLynn, Dylan Ceaseand Michael Kopech. While their depth to cover April injuries to Lynn and Giolito isn’t impressive, if everyone is healthy this will be a fearsome rotation.
The White Sox made efforts to trade for Sean Manaea or Frankie Montas, and Montas remains available. According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the Sox “nearly acquired” Manaea from the A’s before the Padres closed the deal. Nightengale suggests the A’s have sought Andrew Vaughn from the White Sox for Montas. If nothing else, these rumors suggest the White Sox know they’re a bit short on pitching depth, especially with Keuchel’s struggles last year and Kopech’s likely innings limit.
On April 1st, the White Sox finally found a match for Kimbrel, sending him to the Dodgers for AJ Pollock. This was a strong move for the White Sox, vindicating their decision to exercise Kimbrel’s option. In the 34-year-old Pollock, the White Sox effectively fills their right field vacancy with a player who posted a 135 wRC+ over 632 plate appearances from 2020-21. Pollock’s injury history suggests he’s good for about 115 games per year, so the Sox will be covering his absences with Adam Engel and Vaughn. The White Sox can’t exactly time when Pollock will get hurt, but the goal will be to have him active for the playoffs. The Sox also completed a smaller swap with the Collins-McGuire deal, improving their defense at the backup catcher position.
With Yasmani Grandal behind the plate, Jose Abreu at first base, Tim Anderson at shortstop, Yoan Moncada at third, Eloy Jimenez in left, and Louis Robert in center, the White Sox came into the offseason with a strong core of hitters. Pollock only deepens that mix. Vaughn, the third overall draft pick in 2019, should bounce around between the outfield corners, first base, and DH depending on the team’s needs. Anderson is under team control through 2024, Moncada through ’25, Jimenez and Vaughn through ’26, and Robert through ’27.
In the aggregate, the White Sox didn’t necessarily do much to improve upon last year’s 93-win team. When Pollock is healthy, they’ll clearly be better in the right field, and the team won’t have to play Vaughn at an outfield corner. Second base is mostly a wash. They covered the losses of Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera with Graveman and Kelly, but also lost Garrett Crochet to Tommy John surgery. The rotation is worse off for the loss of Rodon, but Kopech and/or a future trade might fill much of that void. But maybe this was enough – the White Sox remain the clear favorite in the AL Central, and Tony La Russa’s crew is a credible threat to win the World Series in 2022.