Liam Hendriks set the bar high in his first season with the White Sox. What’s next for the closer?
It might be tempting to call a repeat of Hendriks' 2021 success a tall order. But he’s done this before.
Expectations soared when the White Sox signed Hendriks last January, capping a high-profile free agency for the LEGO-loving, philanthropically-minded, foul-mouthed hurler. And he delivered on those expectations.
“Look at what he’s done this year,” White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal said at the end of the season. “He’s the backbone of that bullpen, he’s thrown multiple days in a row. The guy is a bulldog. Every time he goes out on the mound, he makes sure he’s going to blow doors – that’s his line. So, he’s meant a lot. I’m glad we have him.”
For the second straight year, Hendriks claimed the American League Reliever of the Year award. He led the league with 38 saves, a personal best, and all AL relievers with a 16.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, another career high. But his career marks for ERA (1.78) from 2020 and strikeouts (124) form 2019 still held.
Hendriks began his career as a starter, and he bounced from one organization to another in various roles. But since the A’s made him their closer in 2019, Hendriks has been consistently dominant. There’s no reason to think 2022 will be different.
Does that mean we should expect this coming season to be status quo for the White Sox closer?
Mostly. But Craig Kimbrel’s status could throw a wrinkle in Hendriks’ usage.
The White Sox picked up Kimbrel’s 2022 option after he followed his pristine performance with the Cubs to start last season (0.49 ERA before the trade deadline) with a rocky tenure on the South Side. The career closer, who the White Sox primarily used as a setup man, is a candidate for a mutually beneficial trade. But Hendriks told local reporters in November that he hoped Kimbrel would be back this coming season.
"It's just a privilege to be able to work with him day in and day out, and talk baseball and talk off field stuff, and just kind of pick his brain about everything," Hendriks said. "It's definitely a big bonus being able to have a guy like that.”
If the White Sox don’t trade Kimbrel this offseason, they still will have a decision to make.
“The question for us is, with Liam here and (if) we proceed both of them, is how do we get the best out of both of them?” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said at the GM meetings in November. “In the second year of that role, would it be more comfortable (for Kimbrel), for example?”
Or, would the White Sox be better off reconfigure Kimbrel’s usage?
Hendriks has earned the closer role. Even right after the trade, when Kimbrel came to the South Side with momentum and eight All-Star nods as a closer, White Sox manager Tony La Russa kept turning to Hendriks as his first choice in the ninth inning. Hendriks only solidified his status in the final month of the season.
What if, however, Kimbrel were to share more of the ninth-inning load, at least to start the season? Would that familiar position help him find his rhythm? Or were Kimbrel’s late-season struggles, as he insisted, a product of mechanical slippage and not role?
Of course, the White Sox could also trade Kimbrel, rendering all those questions irrelevant.