State of White Sox’ pen: Graveman locked in, Kimbrel in limbo

Attempts to deal Kimbrel are on hold until the MLB lockout is over.

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Kendall Graveman pitches in Game 5 of the World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves on Oct. 31, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

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Kendall Graveman, unlike Craig Kimbrel, is one of the lucky ones.

The three-year, $24 million deal Graveman signed to be a late-inning reliever for the White Sox was consummated before the Dec. 1 lockout, allowing him to enjoy the winter knowing where he will pitch in 2022. Kimbrel, on the other hand, is in limbo, although still under contract with the Sox after a disappointing 2021 half-season on the South Side. The Sox had designs on trading him this offseason and likely still do, but they were unable to find a suitable deal before the lockout that has halted all baseball activity until further notice.

With Liam Hendriks, who finished eighth in AL Cy Young voting, entrenched as the Sox closer, Graveman provides a safety net for setup work should Kimbrel get traded, a possibility general manager Rick Hahn rather strongly suggested during the general managers meetings in November.

Graveman, who notched 10 saves for the Mariners and posted a 3.13 ERA in 23 late-inning appearances after a deadline trade to the Astros last season, is equipped for and agreeable to any role.

“At the beginning in my time in Seattle I wasn’t closing, I was kind of doing a little bit of everything, and then I went to throwing in the ninth, and then I went to setting up when I got back to Houston,” Graveman said. “It was a benefit to do all of those roles in one year.”

Graveman said he told the Sox during negotiations the same thing he told Mariners manager Scott Servais and Astros manager Dusty Baker. “That I am trying to get three, four or five outs, whenever my name is called,” he said.

With Ryan Pressly closing for the Astros, Graveman pitched in three games in the postseason, posting a 2.25 ERA, including three innings of one-run ball in the Houston’s 3-1 ALDS victory over the Sox.

“I have no ego in this game. I couldn’t care less about personal stats,” Graveman said. “I want to help a baseball team win. If I throw the eighth, the seventh, if there’s a big situation in the sixth and [manager] Tony [La Russa] needs me, I’ll be available. I’ll be ready.”

With Hendriks, Graveman, Aaron Bummer, Garrett Crochet and Ryan Burr comprising the guts of the Sox back-end bullpen (Ryan Tepera is a free agent), keeping Kimbrel in the mix must be tempting. But that means devoting $37 million in salary to three relief pitchers (Kimbrel at $16 million, Hendriks at $13 million and Graveman at $8 million), and it means trusting Kimbrel will return to his All-Star form, but for a steep price. 

It would give the Sox the super pen envisioned when second baseman of the present and future Nick Madrigal and power-armed late-inning reliever Codi Heuer were traded to the North Side for Kimbrel, an aggressive deal that now has the Sox in need of a second baseman for 2022. While social-media clips of power-hitting corner infielder Jake Burger working at second base have fans wondering what the Sox are up to, it’s probably more than a sensible plan to make Burger as versatile as he can be.

But it’s a grim reminder that Madrigal is gone, with nothing to show for it because of Kimbrel’s flop.

Perhaps Graveman, a ground-ball specialist who combined to go 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA and 61 strikeouts over 56 innings with Seattle and Houston last season, will make fans forget. 

He said the Sox gave no indication to him what they had in mind for Kimbrel, whom Graveman got to know when he was briefly with the Cubs and rehabbing an injury in Arizona. Graveman reached out to Kimbrel when weighing his decision to sign.

“Somebody that even when I was younger would watch on TV and I truly respect to do it for that long and be that good,” Graveman said. “He is an outstanding human. I know his family and just know what good people they are so I wanted to get his opinion.

“He had a lot of positive things to say about the White Sox.”

Who, by the way, are still Kimbrel’s team even if it doesn’t feel that way.

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