Tag sale: The White Sox to take on Wade Davis’ salary, they likely can pick up a former elite closer for free. (YouTube)
With the news that Marcell Ozuna could be signing with the White Sox on Monday, it certainly looks as if the team has a chance to compete for a playoff spot in 2020. Adding Ozuna and Yasmani Grandal, along with the possibility of adding a couple of starting pitchers makes adding bullpen help a priority for the Sox this offseason.
While the 2019 edition of a bullpen wasn’t bad for the Sox, they lacked an ability to miss bats on a regular basis. Alex Colomé and Aaron Bummer were the back end options for the Sox in 2019, and while they were good, both of them pitch to contact and don’t pile up Ks. They both could be due for regression in 2020.
The Sox have a couple of other pieces on the roster that could be good options in 2020, such as Jimmy Cordero, Evan Marshall, and bounce-back candidates Kelvin Herrera and Jace Fry, but none of them beyond Herrera have track records as dominant bullpen pieces on a yearly basis in the bigs. Putting too much trust into those pieces without adding some outside help with upside could prove costly for the 2020 team.
The free agent bullpeners who had the best years in 2019 look to be a bit redundant given what the Sox currently have in house. Will Harris (9.30K/9), Sergio Romo (8.95K/9), Sam Dyson (7.94K/9), Daniel Hudson (8.75K/9), and Brandon Kintzler (7.58K/9) are good pitchers, but might not be the smartest options for the Sox in free agency, at least as a main option. When the Sox are in late-inning, close-game situations, they need have guys that can get big strikeouts.
The most intriguing and talented option is Dellin Betances. Dellin has a big arm, is still young, and could be the perfect fit for the White Sox. Betances has a career 12.36 K/9, and from 2014-18 was absolutely dominant, posting a 1.40 ERA/1.64 FIP in 2014, 1.50 ERA/2.48 FIP in 2015, 3.08 ERA/1.78 FIP in 2016, 2.87 ERA/3.22 FIP in 2017, and 2.70 ERA/2.47 FIP in 2018. The problem? After dealing with shoulder and lat injuries that cost him most of 2019, Betances came back in September 2019 and promptly tore his Achilles after getting two outs. It was said to be a partial tear, and as far as Achilles injuries go, it shouldn’t be too serious of a recovery. But Jake Burger’s Achilles debacle was tough for the organization to swallow, so it may be hesitant to sign someone coming off of that type of injury. The injury also could present the Sox an opportunity to land an elite reliever at a non-elite price, which might be a chance they’re willing to take.
Minor league options
The White Sox do have some intriguing options in their system as it stands. Zack Burdi was taken after Zack Collins in the 2016 draft because of his huge arm. He elevated quickly through the system, and seemed primed for a chance to pitch in the bigs in 2017, before he tore his UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery. Burdi has had bumps in the road trying to come back from elbow surgery. He had a tough time regaining his big velocity, and tore his right patella tendon in June 2019. While Burdi has some work to do to prove he deserves to be with the big club in 2020, if he’s healthy and regains that big velocity, he has a chance to be a good one.
Tyler Johnson was another relief prospect who was elevating quickly through the system before a knee injury sidelined him for the first few months of 2019. Tyler finished last year with Birmingham, and had pretty good success. He has the ability to miss bats with his big fastball and good slider, and could be a midseason call-up candidate.
Ian Hamilton was another pitcher who was on the rise before injuries really hurt his status. He was dominating in hitter-friendly Charlotte in 2018 before he got a call-up. He didn’t have much initial success with the big club, but looked like 2019 was going to be a chance for him to shine. But freak injuries derailed his 2019, first with a car accident in spring training, then being struck with a line drive in the head after he made it back to action. Before the bad luck, Hamilton was impressing with a big fastball, and a pretty good slider. Maybe 2020 will be a bit kinder.
Zach Thompson is the other reliever who seems to have a chance. The big righthander was dominant in Birmingham to start the 2019 season, but hit a snag when he got to Charlotte. The hitter’s park and juiced baseball really hurt Thompson, as he gave up 14 homers in 75 ⅔ innings. The Sox converted Thompson to relief in 2018, and he dominated from the moment the change was made … until Charlotte. If Thompson proves he can make the adjustment in Charlotte at the beginning of 2019, a trip to Bridgeport could be in the works.
If the Sox are looking to trade for a relief pitcher, they would be looking at teams that probably aren’t looking to compete in 2020. If they want to find bullpen help, a trade might be the best route.
Elite Options include Josh Hader (2.62 ERA/3.10 FIP, 16.41 K/9), Liam Hendricks (1.63 ERA/1.82 FIP, 13.23 K/9), Brandon Workman 1.88 ERA/2.46 FIP, 13.06 K/9) and Ken Giles (1.87 ERA/2.27 FIP, 14.09 K/9). If the Sox decide to go this route, it will be costly in prospect capital. Of these pitchers, Hader would probably be the most costly because of age and contract status. A trade for Hader would probably cost the Sox their best prospect not named Luis Robert, and thus wouldn’t make sense. The other elites could possibly be obtained for a package centering around a tier-2 prospect like Dane Dunning or Jonathan Stiever. These types of deals would be more realistic at midseason, as the Sox would probably want to confirm that the team is competing before giving up real prospect capital in exchange for a relief pitcher.
Buy-low candidates are the type of guys who would make the most sense in the offseason. They fit the track record of the types of moves that the Sox front office likes to make as well. Andrew Miller (4.45 ERA/5.19 FIP, 11.52 K/9) and Wade Davis (8.65 ERA/5.56 FIP, 8.86 K/9) would be interesting options. Miller has been trending downward for the last couple of years, and has a lot of miles on his arm. Plus the Cardinals are a team with playoff aspirations. I wonder if they would welcome the salary relief, along with an interesting prospect in return like Luis Gonzalez or Blake Rutherford. Wade Davis’ second year with the Rockies was a miserable one, after signing a big contract in 2018. All of his numbers are down, and age could be catching up with him. But 2019 was a weird year: The ball was juiced, Denver is juiced, and there was some time on the IL for Davis as well. Two years ago with the Cubs, Davis was a much different pitcher (2.30 ERA/3.38 FIP, 12.12 K/9). Maybe getting out of the thin air would be just what the doctor ordered for Davis and the Sox. It wouldn’t take much to get Davis if the Sox offered to take on most of the contract.
Starter to reliever options would entail, for example, the Sox deciding to use Michael Kopech as a relief pitcher as he recovers from Tommy John. The Sox have a track record of using young starters in the bullpen before they start full-time, and Kopech could be a big weapon in a late-inning role. Reynoldo López would be another candidate to move to the bullpen. He has a big fastball, but has had trouble developing his secondary pitches. A move to the bullpen might allow López to focus on developing just one plus secondary pitch, as opposed to worrying about developing multiple secondaries. Plus López struggled with his concentration at times in 2019, so maybe one inning per outing would be a better option. Carlos Rodón also could be a bullpen option whenever he’s able to come back from his arm injury; another lefty in the pen is always good, and with Rodón’s injury history, a change in roles could be in the works.