CARLSBAD, Calif. — The White Sox’ “Change the Game” identity is shaped around vibrant position-player talents like shortstop Tim Anderson and outfielders Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez, but the foundation of their World Series strategy will be built around pitching.
It always will be as long as general manager Rick Hahn and vice president Ken Williams are in charge, and they aren’t steering away after the Sox exited the postseason for a second year in a row in the first round, still looking to win a first playoff series for the first time since 2005 when they went 11-1 in the postseason won it all behind starting pitchers Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia and a quality bullpen.
In the 3-1 series loss to the Astros in the ALDS in October, the Sox did not produce a single well-pitched game, certainly not from the starters who had carried them to the division championship.
Looking ahead to 2022, with Carlos Rodon becoming a free agent, Dallas Keuchel coming off a 5.28 ERA season that left him off the playoff roster and Michael Kopech joining the rotation for the first time and with innings restrictions, the rotation is far from locked and loaded behind Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease. What’s more, the bullpen has vacancies with Ryan Tepera becoming a free agent, Craig Kimbrel on the trade block and Kopech graduating to a starter’s role.
“It would be foolish of us to sit here and think there aren’t ways for us to get better,” Hahn said, “despite as strong as [the starting pitching] was over the course of those six months.
“Getting the pitching staff deeper and stronger is a priority. There’s different ways of going about doing it. We’re going to explore them all.”
That said, at the general managers meetings here this week, Hahn stopped short of stating that a starting pitcher is an offseason target. Perhaps he’s choosing not to tip his offseason targets in public, aside from making it clear that Kimbrel and his $16 million contract might be shipped away in a trade.
Had the Sox given Rodon a chance to pitch for one season at the price of an expensive qualifying offer, the rotation picture would be clearer, but, given Rodon’s health history, the front office deemed that price too steep despite Rodon’s dominant showing during the first half when he physically sound.
Making Rodon a free agent, to which Rodon’s agent, Scott Boras said “thank you” at the meetings on Wednesday. Seeking a multiyear deal, Rodon would have declined the offer, Boras said.
Reynaldo Lopez showed flashes of being an effective starter again, so he affords possible insulation from within. And then there’s Kopech, who probably won’t be asked to contribute more than Rodon’s 2021 workload in 2022.
“We’re going to have experienced starters in Lucas and Lance, Dallas and Cease, guys who have already had full years under their belts,” Hahn said. “We’re not going to be looking at [Kopech] as coming in and giving us 200 next year.
“We’re hopeful we’ll find the right balance between his workload and the rest and the pacing of next season that come October, we look around the room and say, ‘This guy deserves to be in the mix of starting a postseason game.’ ’’
Deserving is one thing. Who knows, maybe Kopech will actually make one and contribute a quality postseason start. It’s something the Sox haven’t had since Lucas Giolito in Game 1 of the 2020 Wild Card against the Athletics, with Keuchel in Game 2 of the Wild Card, Dane Dunning as an opener in Game 3, Lynn in Game 1 of the ALDS and Giolito, Cease and Rodon in 2, 3 and 4 all failing thereafter.
There are needs at second base, perhaps right field and backup catcher as well. Hahn has struck early, big and under the radar in the past — catcher Yasmani Grandal signed a $68 million, four-year deal two-offseasons ago after meeting with the Sox during the GM meetings — so there is always a level of mystery about what the front office is up to this time of year.
Major League Baseball’s expiring collective bargaining agreement on Dec. 1 is hanging over the industry, but Hahn stressed that he is operating “business as usual” even with the possibility of a lockout that would freeze player movement or make changes in free agency and arbitration guidelines.
“If something changes we’ll adjust,” he said.