At Liam Hendriks’ introductory press conference, Rick Hahn channeled his inner Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers” when asked what is next: “My team is on the floor,” he stated. A sly tactic to negotiate through the media for sure, but a fairly tough sell for a team that has made no secret of their 2021 intentions.
The roster is coming together nicely for an American League contender. But there are still two holes that need to be addressed: another starting pitcher and a designated hitter.
The White Sox still need another starting pitcher to begin the season as it appears Michael Kopech will head to AAA to start the season. Dylan Cease has earned a spot in the back of the rotation, but he does need to show more consistency than he did last year when he was moved to the bullpen in the playoffs. The last internal option is Reynaldo Lopez. If he has proven anything, it’s that he cannot be relied on.
The Sox were rumored to be interested in Corey Kluber and Jose Quintana before they signed with the Yankees and Angels, respectively. Garrett Richards has also been floated as an alternative but he appears to be Option B, as he has not gotten through a full season healthy since 2015. The organization is clearly playing in this second/third tier of free-agent starting pitchers market, but the pickings are starting to become awfully slim.
Yes, Trevor Bauer is still available. But at this point, it is fairly obvious the White Sox are not interested at his current price. This is obviously a disappointment for fans of the team, but it should not come as a surprise to anybody. In modern history, the only markets that the White Sox seem to be willing to pay top-dollar for are relievers, catchers, and international prospects. So unless Bauer is willing to take a discounted deal, count the White Sox out.
The other top remaining arms on the free-agent market not named Trevor Bauer are James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, and potentially Masahiro Tanaka, although he is likely more expensive. The White Sox have yet to be linked to any of these names, however. This leaves the last acquisition method left: the trade market.
After the Padres blitzed the trade market, there are also considerably fewer options here. The Reds have reportedly removed Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo from the trade block as well. Tuesday night brought rumors of the White Sox in discussions to acquire Corbin Burnes from the Brewers, which could potentially make the team missing out on veteran free agents sting significantly less.
Burnes is just 26 years old, has team control through the 2024 season, and has already shown the ability to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. In 2020, he pitched 59.1 innings over 12 games to the tune of a 2.11 ERA and 13.3 K/9. We won’t go too far down this rabbit hole as it is still just an unsubstantiated rumor, but the cost to acquire Burnes would certainly be substantial. If a deal were to take place, the White Sox would have to give up one of Andrew Vaughn, Michael Kopech, Garrett Crochet, or Nick Madrigal, plus some other prospects as well.
Andrew Vaughn is certainly slated to be the White Sox 1B/DH of the future. But he has not played above Advanced-A ball at this point, so relying on him to start the year in the major leagues and produce for a team with lofty expectations would be irresponsible. It is expected, however, that Vaughn will be ready to contribute at the major-league level at some point in 2021. This leaves the White Sox in a bit of a precarious position where they want a player who can hold the fort down and be an insurance policy, but also someone who won’t logjam the system and block Vaughn from playing time later in the season.
This likely means a full-time, highly-paid DH does not make sense for the White Sox. As much as we would all like to see Nelson Cruz join the good guys, it just doesn’t seem plausible. Michael Brantley was also linked to the White Sox earlier in the offseason, but his price tag and lack of positional flexibility make him a mismatch as well. From my perspective, the best option would be a utility-type veteran bat.
This type of player offers the team insurance if any of the young position players struggle, while also allowing management to use the DH spot to give players a virtual day off while keeping their bat in the lineup. I don’t think fans will be upset if Eloy is given a game or two a week to just hit the ball and not risk a clumsy injury in left field.
Tommy La Stella makes almost too much sense for this role. On top of his positional flexibility around the infield, La Stella is a left-handed bat and has experience with Tony La Russa from their time with the Angels. La Stella will not break the bank, and he is a clear offensive upgrade over Leury Garcia.
As we approach the end of January, the White Sox current total payroll for 2021 according to Spotrac is $120.5 million, good for 16th in baseball. For comparison, going into 2020 the White Sox were slated to be spending $131.7 million before salaries were pro-rated for the shortened season. All this is to say that the team still has some dollars left in the budget.
Rick Hahn is now singing a much different tune than his “Stay tuned” comment after the Lance Lynn and Adam Eaton acquisitions. But as outlined above, this should not be treated as gospel. Filling these two holes on the roster will round out a team that is already seen as one of the favorites in the American League.