Rick Hahn has some tough decisions ahead of him this winter.
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The White Sox finished 2021 in approximately the same place they did a year ago: Not quite where they want to go. They won a division title for the first time in 13 years, but their winning percentage was about the same as it was during the shortened pandemic season, and they won the same amount of postseason games: one.
Getting swept by the Astros would have left a more bitter taste in the immediate but almost no matter how the ALDS turned out, with the group the Sox have, the front office ought to approach the offseason like they're not good enough to win the World Series. Because, any reasonable person would agree, they're not. What happens next depends on how hard the Sox want to go at finishing the stressful rebuild of the past half-decade. With that said, we have questions, along with suggestions for answers, as the Sox head into the offseason.
1. Are they sure Tony La Russa is the guy?
The White Sox won 93 games and took first place against a weak division, but would have won more had they not endured several serious injuries, notably to Eloy Jiménez, Luís Robert at the beginning of the season, Yasmani Grandál in the middle, and Carlos Rodón toward the end. Rodón, Lance Lynn and Michael Kopech being less than 100 percent in the playoffs definitely impacted the Sox's chances of beating the Astros. But La Russa also seemed a step behind in making several pitching changes, especially in the early innings (but not always). If he were more aggressive and forward thinking about pitching, would the Sox still be playing? Given how most of the pitchers they used performed, nope. Does that make you feel any better about the managing? Nope.
Sox players who talked about it said, in general terms, that they liked having La Russa as manager and strongly implied they'd want him back.
La Russa had a few incomprehensible moments during the season, notably not understanding the extra-innings rule against the Reds, and the entire Yermín Mercédes debacle against the Twins and the fallout from it. For a guy who was so hot-to-trot about his players getting hit against the Astros and others, he didn't fight back much against the Twins when they used Tyler Duffey to hit Mercédes to avenge him hacking 3-0 against Willians Astudillo.
All of this seems academic because there hasn't been a huge outcry from the team over La Russa's transgressions. He also seemingly wants to manage again. And it's really just up to Jerry Reinsdorf. Time is shorter for the Sox than everyone thinks. The owner is in his 80s, the manager almost is too, and these player windows close so fast.
What should the Sox do? They missed a chance to hire a good manager in AJ Hinch and instead picked La Russa. They should quietly, in the next 48 hours, put together a list of better possibilities for the Sox and replace La Russa with that person.Sign Up for the Midway Minute newsletter
2. What's up with Eloy Jiménez?
Jiménez said Tuesday that he's 100 percent physically after returning from surgery on his torn pectoral muscle at the end of spring training. But something wasn't right, as he batted .249/.303/.437 with just 10 homers in 231 plate appearances. Overall he performed about 40 percent better than the league in 2020, but he was exactly league average in '21. He had a strong August, with numbers that looked like 2020, but then he stopped. He was a lot unluckier this season, losing almost 50 points on his batting average on balls in play, but his hard-hit rate was down a little more than 10 percent. His strikeout rate was unchanged and his walk rate was a career best. He hit more fly balls than ground balls, but they didn't go over the fence. On defense, he was better than anyone expected, finishing two outs above average, per MLB Statcast.
What should the Sox do? Trading him seems rash, good outfielders are hard to find, and he's just 24. It is possible, with Eloy being a free swinger, that the league has just adjusted. Give him a chance to adjust back.
3. What about right field?
Adam Engel has done a remarkable job turning himself into a hitter who could be effective against either hand of pitching. With what he's always been defensively, Engel could play right field every day if he were healthy.
But is that something the Sox should count on?
Gavin Sheets looks like a very good young hitter. Andrew Vaughn had a lot of struggles at the plate, plus a minor injury, but he's still going to be very good. He might be able to play left field, Sheets too, and Vaughn will probably make an above-average first baseman, but neither is a right fielder.
What should the Sox do? They have some trade capital here, among Jiménez, Vaughn and Sheets, and one should be moved in a deal for perhaps an older, expensive slugger who also can play right.
4. What about second base?
The Sox seemed to be sublimely clever in adding César Hernández to play second base after the Nick Madrigal injury/trade to the Cubs. Hernández hit a combined 39 homers with a plus-.300 ob-base the past two seasons who had a cheap team contract option for 2022. Well, he stunk up the joint, batting .232/.309/.299 with horrendous defensive numbers.
What should the Sox do? Maybe he'll bounce back but let it be for someone else. The Sox probably will sign Leury Garcia to a contract extension, which is the cheap thing to do, but what they should do is sign Marcus Semien off the free-agent market for a reunion on the South Side.
5. What about Craig Kimbrel?
That trade was mostly a disaster because, for whatever reason, his results as an eighth-inning guy stunk after he put up an 0.49 ERA with the Cubs in the first 39 games of the season. He has a $16 million team option with a $1 million buyout, but considering the free-agent qualifying offer is about $18 million, his payday is not out of whack. Still, with Liam Hendriks being paid $13.3 million next season, and the entire issue with Kimbrel in the eighth inning, paying two closers is not a great allocation of Jerry's money.
What should the Sox do? They should re-sign Kimbrel and trade him to recoup the value of losing Madrigal and Codi Heuer.
6. What about Carlos Rodón?
It's hard to know what to do with Rodón, who was a great success story in 2021 after being non-tendered the offseason before, coming back and pitching like an ace for three months. But his shoulder issues, and the fluctuating velocity and command that come with it, make it hard to commit him to a long-term deal. It would have been better if the Sox had non-tendered him and brought him back on a two- or three-year deal laden with incentives, which still could happen depending on how the market goes.
What should the Sox do? Try to bring him back, but only if they protect themselves — not just with an extended Rodón contract, but also with a starting staff that has enough innings to not only get through the regular season, but at least one round of the playoffs. Because they didn't have it in 2021.
7. What is going on with Michael Kopech?
He posted an ERA north of 5.00 in the second half after he got injured fielding that pop up. The Sox were reluctant to stretch him out into being a starter, which they certainly could have used given how the postseason turned out. Kopech and La Russa seemed to be unsynchronized in the postseason regarding the pitcher's availability. Is there an injury? Something still lingering with Tommy John? Does it relate to Kopech's sabbatical in 2020? Is La Russa screwing it all up?
What should the Sox do? They might think about a trade here for somebody else's prospect/near-breakthrough player. A change of scenery.
8. What was the deal with Lance Lynn at the end?
He mostly had a great season, but Lynn dealt with minor injuries down the stretch, missing several starts and pitching like he was diminished in Game 1 of the ALDS. His choice to throw so many fastballs to the Astros, who kill fastballs, will never make sense, even though Lynn mostly throws fastballs. It was a bad matchup historically, yes, so it was odd that La Russa chose to start the series with it. But it seems like there could have been some adjustment attempted.
What should the Sox do? Have pitching coach Ethan Katz encourage Lynn to make that adjustment the next time he faces the Astros.
9. Should the Sox trust that Dylan Cease is ready to make the next step?
He made a positive step forward in 2021. He's a little like Jason Bere or Rich Harden, a guy who throws hard with a big breaking ball, too. But Cease has recurring moments of his command abandoning him that he can't 100 percent shake. He pitched a legendary first inning against the Astros, but there are nine innings usually and, after that, he was typical Cease. He's just as likely to allow three runs and four walks over five innings as he is to strike out 11.
What should the Sox do? He could take another step forward in 2022, but they should consider trading him for a pitcher who's already figured it out. Who that is, who knows? If they're not available on the trade market, and they might not be, cross your fingers that Cease develops further.
10. Oy, what about Dallas Keuchel?
The decision Zack Wheeler made to join the Phillies before 2020 looks worse for the Sox with every passing moment. Keuchel was one of the three worst pitchers in the majors in 2021 and he's guaranteed $18 million in 2022 plus a small buyout or a $20 million vesting option in 2023 if he pitches at least 160 innings next season. It's possible that his body reacted poorly to the season being longer after the 2020 shortening, but he wasn't that good in the first half, either.
What should the Sox do? If they could trade him to someone desperate for innings, they ought to look into it. Is there a market for Dallas Keuchel? How much of his salary will they eat? What's worse for the Sox going forward would be starting Keuchel if they think he'll continue to struggle. The World Series is on the line here; screw Jerry's money.
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