Top dog: With three plus pitches and an ascendant career arc, Zack Wheeler would be a divine addition to the White Sox rotation. (Rawlings)
The Chicago White Sox pitching staff was 19th in Major League Baseball with an fWAR of 12.3 last year. Fortifying the roster in anticipation of the 2020 season is a desired outcome of the front office and pitching appears to be a priority. Young righties Lucas Giolito (5.1 fWAR), Reynaldo López (2.3 fWAR) and Dylan Cease (0.7 fWAR) make up the majority of that production, however, and reinforcements will be necessary.
Some good news comes in the form of 23-year-old phenom Michael Kopech re-joining the White Sox rotation, in addition to the eventual arrival of lefty Carlos Rodón. TJS rehabbing righthanders Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert, as well as southpaw Bernardo Flores, could offer late-season help from the farm system, if taking the most optimistic outlook.
But this isn’t enough depth or quality to dispel the notion that help from outside the organization will be inevitably added.
After failing to convert on intended targets last offseason, general manager Rick Hahn was emphatic that his club would continue to have a seat at the table in free agent discussions, saying, “The money will be spent. It might not be spent this offseason, but it will be spent at some point. It’s not just sitting around to accumulate interest. It’s money trying to be deployed to put us in the best position to win some championships.” For the sake of everyone involved, hopefully that money doesn’t just sit and collect interest into 2020.
In theory, the White Sox could look to balance out their starting rotation with a left-handed option from the free market. Those options are aplenty, with names like Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Keuchel, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Cole Hamels currently looking for work.
Bumgarner could be seen as the veteran stopper to place right in the middle of a young rotation, similar to the thinking when the Cubs signed Jon Lester was signed. The 30-year-old Bumgarner eats innings and has a strong pedigree of playoff performances. Madison also possesses a strong personality that would resonate with the city of Chicago and the South Side fan in particular. Hitting is a big part of his game, though, and he may choose to stay in the National League because of that. He a decision to make on his qualifying offer as well.
Ryu has only played for the Los Angeles Dodgers during his time in the major leagues, and he could look to stay on the west coast regardless of which uniform he wears in 2020. He’d be a solid addition for the Pale Hose, however. The 32-year-old lefty posted a 4.8 fWAR last year over 182 innings, with a 2.32 ERA and 3.10 FIP. The 6´3´´, 255-pounder will be testing the free agent market without the qualifying offer attached after accepting a QO to remain with the Dodgers last offseason.
It’s a second straight offseason of waiting for Keuchel, and his market should be more active this time around without the QO attached to his services. The 31-year-old southpaw posted a 4.06 xFIP in Atlanta this past year over 112 innings. He and superagent Scott Boras were unable to secure the escalated payroll commitment they desired in the marketplace a year ago, but Keuchel should land something in the three-year, $50-$60 million range this time around. He has a playoff pedigree as well and would slot nicely into the middle of the White Sox rotation.
Hamels was having a bit of a renaissance in the first half for the Cubs last season prior to an oblique injury that limited him to just 141 ⅔ innings. The 35-year-old was a fan of Chicago, but his thoughts on playing for the Sox are currently unknown. Cole struggled in the second half, but posted a 3.81 ERA with a 4.09 FIP overall. His rumored destinations seem to be returning to Philadelphia, where it all began for him, or a sojourn west to play for a contender. Hamels may have to ultimately wait for some of the other dominoes to fall in the market before finding his next gig.
Another spin at the Wheel
Similar to their pursuit of a hitter, it’s imperative that the White Sox don’t become slaves to handedness in their search for upgrades to the starting rotation. The southpaws on the market all would fit nicely every fifth day, but the best addition the front office can make is by adding a 29-year-old righty to anchor the current staff.
Zack Wheeler could be the remedy that the rotation needs, and the White Sox have shown interest in the former Met. Wheeler is a free agent for the first time after being selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft out of East Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga., by the San Francisco Giants.
Wheeler has had some blemishes on his record since making his big league debut in 2013, and battling numerous injuries has become a trend for the righthander. The 6´4´´, 195-pounder has accumulated 12.6 fWAR in his career but 4.7 of that came last season. Wheeler is seen as an ascending talent with some mileage left in his right arm.
Zack posted a 3.96 ERA with a 3.48 FIP in 195 ⅓ innings in 2019. He also threw 182 innings in 2018. His 3.90 K/BB ratio was the best output of his young career and it should solidify him as the third-best option on the free agent pitching market. Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg are clients of Boras Corporation and could break some financial barriers this winter. The presence of that pair could help or hurt Wheeler, a Jet Sports Management client.
Boras has no issue taking his constituents into the new year and holding out for the best possible deal. This could affect Wheeler in the sense that it could potentially take desperate suitors out of his marketplace. Plus, teams that miss on the big two would likely turn to Wheeler after their failed attempts. It could also help Wheeler in the sense that he could be seen as the best pitcher on the market willing to sign before Christmas.
Fitting in Pale Hose
Due to the presence of Boras and built-in proclivities of the past, it’s unlikely that the White Sox will be serious contenders in the markets of Cole and Strasburg. Wheeler should be pitching his home games at 35th and Shields next season, though. He’d slot perfectly behind Giolito to form a dynamic duo at the top of the rotation. He’s also the perfect steward to take this young rotation into the future because he’s still ascending with his best days ahead of him.
Wheeler’s fastball sits in the 95-100 mph range regularly and he posts elite spin and velocity numbers. Equipped with stellar peripherals, Zack offers immense upside as a guy available for possibly less than he’s theoretically worth. Wheeler has three plus pitches, and throws a slider and a changeup as well. His use of tunneling to enhance the look of his stuff is another added benefit to his evolving arsenal.
The White Sox have $14.8 million committed to their 2020 payroll before arbitration raises set in, and the money will apparently be spent. Wheeler will come with a qualifying offer attached, so the White Sox would have to pay the penalty in addition to the player. For this season, that would mean the forfeiture of their second round pick, plus the slotted amount that comes with the selection, in addition to $500,000 of international pool space.
The White Sox are unlikely to play at the very top of the free agent market, but there are plenty of tertiary additions available that could thrust the franchise immediately into contention in the American League Central next season.
Zack Wheeler would be a realistic start to that process.
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