Michael Kopech's recovery from Tommy John surgery put an unanticipated item on this offseason's to-do list for Rick Hahn's front office: The White Sox now need to fill a 2019 rotation spot that was supposed to belong to Kopech.
There are numerous ways to fill that hole in the rotation, though are any more attractive, perhaps, than simply bringing James Shields back for another season on the South Side?
Shields' third year in a White Sox uniform has undoubtedly been his best. After he posted a 5.60 ERA and allowed a combined 67 home runs during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the 13-year major league veteran has done impressive work this season. After six innings of two-run ball Thursday night in Cleveland, Shields has a 4.48 ERA in 2018.
Of course, that's not a number that will have fans picketing Guaranteed Rate Field if the White Sox opt to move on from Shields this winter. But don't let that one figure overshadow how reliable Shields has been during the campaign. Thursday night marked his 19th quality start of the season, and he ranks in the top 10 in baseball in innings pitched.
Detractors have some statistical ammunition, too, however. Shields is one of three White Sox starting pitchers ranking in the top 10 in the game in walks (74 after three on Thursday), and his 33 home runs allowed are the second most in baseball (back-to-back jacks by the Indians accounted for pair of runs he gave up Thursday).
But Shields, it should be noted, has plenty of value independent of the kind of numbers he's posted during his White Sox tenure. He is a veteran mentor to the team's young pitchers. That includes Lucas Giolito, whose locker has been next to Shields' all season — or rather it was until Kopech became Shields' new locker buddy when the organization's No. 1 pitching prospect got his promotion to the big leagues. That placement, by the way, was Shields' request. While Kopech will be in recovery mode during the 2019 season, bringing Shields back would allow him to continue to help Giolito and act as a resource for Kopech.
This team is young and will continue to be young next season. Having a few reliable veterans around to guide the youngsters is a valuable thing.
Plenty, though, might not be sold on the idea, a reasonable reaction as the team moves toward contention mode and might need to free up spots in a rotation that could soon star some of the young arms developing in the minor leagues. But what are the alternatives for plugging Kopech's empty spot in the 2019 rotation? And if Shields doesn't come back, that makes two holes that need filling.
There isn't a wealth of major league ready options within the organization. Dylan Covey has a 5.33 ERA after his 19 starts this season. At the Triple-A level, Spencer Adams and Jordan Guerrero would figure to be the next-best options. Adams had a 3.19 ERA in 15 starts at Charlotte, and Guerrero had a 3.46 ERA in 12 starts. Though it's possible the White Sox could want them to receive some more conditioning in Triple-A. Jordan Stephens' 4.71 ERA in 21 starts and Carson Fulmer, who was moved to the bullpen after getting sent down to Charlotte earlier this season, are less appealing options.
Of course, the White Sox could go outside the organization, and that would seem to be the most likely course of action. But whether that's via free agency or a trade, wouldn't the still-rebuilding White Sox rather do that once than twice? And while there's nothing to say that the White Sox can't spend big this offseason with a loaded free-agent class, is the time right to do so? Does spending big this winter line up with the timeline of this rebuilding effort? In simpler terms: Would signing a pair of free-agent starting pitchers be the kind of win-now moves that Hahn has tried to avoid during this rebuild?
The most attractive free-agent options include the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel, Patrick Corbin and Charlie Morton. But those big names could be looking for instant contention or a gigantic contract that could put the White Sox out of the running. Going lower down the wish list, you'll see names like Chris Tillman, Wade Miley, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Anibal Sanchez, Jeremy Hellickson, J.A. Happ, Garrett Richards, Nathan Eovaldi, Tyson Ross and Gio Gonzalez.
It's quite possible that even with Shields brought back, the White Sox will need to sign one of those guys. Here's the question: Are two of those guys — and the contracts they'll command — better than one of them and Shields?
Another thing to think about: With Kopech on the mend until spring 2020, how close could the White Sox get to contention by the time he returns? And if the team has reached the contention stage, could they afford any growing pains that Kopech could have during his first full season in the majors? Remember that Kopech's first start in 2020 will be just his fifth big league start. That could affect the approach the White Sox take this offseason, perhaps hoping to acquire a pitcher who could be around for a while — not just as a bridge to Kopech but as a safety net for him, as well.
So does a Shields return make sense? Given that the White Sox might still be playing the waiting game next season, having a reliable arm to save the bullpen and a veteran presence to help the still-developing young pitchers could be an attractive option this offseason.
The White Sox bullpen imploded Wednesday night in Cleveland. It sent Indians fans home happy. It sent White Sox fans scrambling for their computers.
I'd like to see the Google data. How many people in Chicagoland — the ones not flooding the streets of Northbrook to celebrate Jason Kipnis' walk-off grand slam — frantically searched "free agent relievers 2019"?
The results are pretty enticing, to be honest. Craig Kimbrel's going to be on the market. So is Cody Allen. So are Jeurys Familia and Kelvin Herrera and Zach Britton. And some guy named Andrew Miller.
It seems like a good idea, right? Ink one of those guys, two of 'em, even, and the bullpen troubles are gone. No clinging to a pillow and crossing your fingers when Rick Renteria comes out of the dugout in the late innings. No more outcomes like Wednesday's, when a trio of White Sox relievers entered the bottom of the ninth with a 1-0 lead only to load the bases and surrender a walk-off salami.
But a couple points.
First, the White Sox don't need a lockdown bullpen right this second. In a point that will come up again and again this offseason, the team is still in rebuilding mode. Spending big bucks might not be prudent at this juncture because the White Sox have not yet transitioned from rebuilding mode to contention mode. Spending big on high-priced free agents is something teams do when they're in win-now mode. And while a big acquisition can certainly carry a team into win-now mode — just look at what the Cubs did when they signed Jon Lester ahead of the 2015 season — it could also be jumping the gun when there's still a year or two of development that needs to happen for the team's young players to grow into the contending group of the future.
Plus, spending big on bullpens isn't exactly a magic bullet. The Indians and the Colorado Rockies both spent huge sums on their bullpens this past offseason, and while both teams could end up in the postseason, they rank near the bottom of the game in bullpen ERA: Cleveland's 24th out of 30, and Colorado's 26th.
Contending teams often make a habit of trading for bullpen pieces, a strategy that makes a lot more sense considering those deals usually come midseason, when a team is clearly established as a contender. But those deals have their downsides, too. The White Sox have shown how valuable stockpiling prospects in trades can be. The Cubs got their ring but probably would like to have Gleyber Torres right now after shipping him to the New York Yankees in 2016. The Indians are division champs again, but will there be a day when they'll wish they hadn't sent Francisco Mejia to the San Diego Padres in this summer's trade for Brad Hand?
But that, of course, is more of a "cross that bridge when you come to it" situation. The White Sox aren't at that bridge quite yet, as good a point as any that spending on a 30-plus closer two years ahead of when the playoff pushes could come is a risky proposition.
Second, the White Sox are still trying to figure out what they've got when it comes to the bullpen.
Last year and in the first half of this season, the White Sox relief corps was primarily an audition ground for midseason trades. That strategy worked well for Rick Hahn's front office in both seasons. Last year, a big trade with the Yankees sent two relievers out of town and returned a package that includes Blake Rutherford, the No. 7 prospect in the farm system. The White Sox dealt five relief arms last summer. This season, a trade that sent Joakim Soria to the Milwaukee Brewers brought back minor league pitcher Kodi Medeiros, an arm currently ranked as the system's No. 19 prospect. Soria was one of three bullpen arms traded.
In the second half of this season, however, young arms have reached the South Side that have the potential to make up a future bullpen that's mostly homegrown. The ERAs aren't pretty — especially after Wednesday's four-run ninth — but if ever there was a time to play the "small sample size" card, it's now. Ian Hamilton, Ryan Burr, Caleb Frare, Jose Ruiz and Aaron Bummer all put up big numbers in the minors this season. Jace Fry has been at the major league level almost all season. They're getting their opportunities now, and unless the White Sox produce their own episode of "Extreme Makeover: Bullpen Edition" this winter, they'll get their opportunities next year, too. A homegrown bullpen on a contending team is a hard thing to pull off, of course, but these guys — and the heretofore unmentioned Zack Burdi, many's pick for the closer of the future — have the opportunity to do just that.
As is the case with everything surrounding this rebuilding team, there is the luxury of time. The young group of arms does not need to be championship ready right now or in 2019. These guys will take time to develop just like the Yoan Moncadas and the Lucas Giolitos and the Tim Andersons and the Reynaldo Lopezes. Growing pains are to be expected. Until they're given the chance to either succeed or fail, the White Sox won't know what they have, which makes charting a long-term course in one offseason difficult.
Obviously the White Sox don't want to lose games like they lost Wednesday night's battle in The Cleve. But is it a sign that the checkbook needs to come out this winter? The bullpen of the future might not need to be bought at all. It might need to simply be given the opportunity to grow.
There will always be a free-agent market. There will always be a trade market. And shopping at those markets are always more exciting than playing the waiting game. But that's what rebuilding is all about.