How Sox could add to starting rotation this winter originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
You watched the American League Division Series. You know what happened.
The abrupt end to the Chicago White Sox' championship chase was a result of many factors. But most noticeably, the AL's finest starting rotation got roughed up by the Houston Astros. And now that the offseason has started much earlier than expected, that's got plenty of White Sox fans asking the same question:
How can Rick Hahn's front office fix the starting staff?
Before getting all aboard the "starting pitching or bust" train this winter, though, it's important to realize that the White Sox did have the best rotation in the AL for six months. Things went sideways in four playoff games, about as small a sample size as you'll find and the kind of thing that shouldn't be the justification for sweeping change. Just look at that same Astros squad, which has been knocked around by the Boston Red Sox in Games 2 and 3 of the AL Championship Series.
But those four games were the most important of the White Sox' season. And the quartet of Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodón did not deliver.
On one hand, look at the regular season, and there's no great need for a starting-pitching overhaul or, really, even a splashy addition of any kind. On the other hand, the White Sox want next October to last far longer than this one did, and addressing the main reason for this year's brief stay would seem like a decent way to make that happen.
That's going to be easier said than done, of course. Things could get tricky. But it's not impossible. If you're hoping to see a starting-pitching shakeup this winter, here's how it could happen.
Opening up a rotation spot
The White Sox, by extending Lynn during the summer, seemingly locked their 2022 rotation into place. As things stand, all five spots are spoken for.
Lynn, Giolito and Cease aren't going anywhere after strong seasons. It's the other two arms who present the opportunity to make some tweaks.
Michael Kopech has been forecasted to make the jump from the bullpen to the rotation since last spring, and the White Sox see him as an impact starter into the far future. The question marks, though, arise when trying to figure out if Kopech can make the jump from a reliever who didn't even throw 70 regular-season innings this year to someone who's going to take the ball 30-plus times. That seems unlikely, perhaps speaking to the need for starting-pitching depth beyond Kopech. "Starting-pitching depth" is rarely code for a giant offseason splash.
Then there's Dallas Keuchel, who followed up a sensational first season in a White Sox uniform with one disappointing enough to prevent him from even making the ALDS roster. He was knocked around particularly well in the second half of the season, and though the veteran lefty has a history of bouncing back from suboptimal seasons, this was Keuchel's most suboptimal season ever as a major leaguer.
The White Sox, especially after Ethan Katz worked his magic on Cease and Rodón in his first year as pitching coach, could believe they have the key to getting Keuchel back on track. Or they could attempt to move him to free up a rotation spot for a potential addition.
A Rodón reunion?
Obviously, Rodón has spent his entire career with the White Sox. But should he find his way back to the South Side for 2022, that would count as a big pitching addition.
The White Sox seemed to make the decision between keeping Lynn and keeping Rodón when they gave the veteran the extension. But after Rodón's terrific 2021 season, if they want to keep him in their employ, it will require a new deal — most likely.
They could extend a qualifying offer to the left-hander, worth just north of $18 million for the 2022 season. And Rodón, despite counting Scott Boras as his agent, seems like a candidate to accept such an offer.
In the early stages of the 2021 campaign, he seemed to put his lengthy injury history behind him and finally pitch up to the hype of his draft position. But as the season wore on and Rodón threw more innings than he had in years, the effect became a huge story, to the point that he was going more than a week between late-season outings and his status for his postseason start was a mystery until he walked in from the bullpen.
That could have an obvious effect on his free-agent market and make an $18 million payday for next season an enticing option. There's also his success working with Katz and the fact that he made his return to the White Sox after getting non-tendered because of his familiarity with the organization.
If not Rodón, then who?
But here's the thing: Rodón was an obvious part of why things went wrong in the ALDS, just like he was such a big part of why things went so right for the rotation during the regular season. If you want to see a big change, Rodón is not that change.
So then what?
Well, if a rotation spot opens on the South Side and Rodón departs via free agency, then the task is finding someone better and more reliable than Keuchel to fill the spot created by, for example, the White Sox moving the veteran lefty.
The free-agent market will have its options, for sure, though they're the kinds that will command the type of multi-year investment the White Sox gave Keuchel just two offseasons ago. Top names include Robbie Ray, Max Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard, Kevin Gausman, Wily Peralta, Marcus Stroman and Eduardo Rodríguez.
If none of those names tickle your fancy, then the trade market always exists. But to land an impact starting pitcher, there is a cost. Plenty of White Sox fans are currently stewing over the team parting with Nick Madrigal in the deal that brought Craig Kimbrel to the South Side. Is adding to the current rotation worth potentially feeling the same way about Andrew Vaughn or Gavin Sheets?
A road worth traveling down?
If the ALDS showed anything, it's that the White Sox seem to be far from the team the Astros are. Of course, the back-to-back thumpings the Red Sox have handed the Astros could weaken that argument.
The point being that the White Sox should not shy away from improvements as they try to construct a championship-caliber roster. They're in the arms race now in the AL, no matter what the rest of the Central Division ends up looking like. If they want a World Series win, they'll need to be better than the Astros and every other team to get it.
But the rotation was also very, very good in 2021. There are other, more glaring needs around the diamond, and going all in on starting pitching just because good pitchers didn't pitch well in one series does not strike as the best way to shore things up. That's especially true if doing so would detract from other areas, in the case of a trade, for example.
A reunion with Rodón would return all the pitchers who just formed the best rotation in the AL. That's good.
Is it good enough to win more than one playoff game next fall? That's what the White Sox have to decide this offseason.