Who will be the White Sox version of Justin Verlander? Their version of Jon Lester?
The big-name veteran brought in from outside the organization to be the cherry on top of a rebuilding effort and push things into contention mode. Who will Rick Hahn & Co. bring in to play that role on the South Side?
The White Sox got a firsthand lesson in why such a player is a necessity, dominated in every sense by Verlander on Tuesday night in Houston. Verlander, who long tormented the White Sox when he played for the division-rival Tigers, took a no-hit bid into the seventh inning and finished with one run, one hit and one walk allowed in eight dazzling frames. Jose Abreu's solo homer that broke up the no-hitter in the seventh was the one moment on the evening in which Verlander looked human.
That's the kind of thing Verlander's been doing since the Astros traded for him during the 2017 season, which ended with them winning the World Series. They might do it again this year, the best team in baseball halfway through this four-game series against the White Sox. And he's a big reason they've stayed atop the list of championship contenders the last two years.
Verlander's acquisition was a little different than that of Lester on the North Side of Chicago. The Cubs needed to inject some legitimacy into their rebuilding project and got it by giving Lester, who knew Theo Epstein and his front office from the Boston days, a ton of money to top their rotation. The Astros needed a similar push from one of the game's best pitchers, and they got it by trading for Verlander in a waiver deal with the Tigers. But Verlander accomplished the same goal for the Astros that Lester did for the Cubs. Even in 2019, they're two of the more reliable arms around.
The White Sox might not be ready to vault into contention mode on Day 1 of the 2020 season. Michael Kopech's next start will be just his fifth as a big leaguer. Dylan Cease won't have much more than a month or two of big league experience. Eloy Jimenez has already missed a month of developmental time. Luis Robert will likely be getting his first taste of the majors.
But adding a Verlander type to that group could make a huge difference.
Now, Verlander is one of the best pitchers ever, plain and simple, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. To suggest that kind of pitcher will be available this offseason is perhaps unrealistic. Verlander was set to be among a loaded free-agent class before he signed an extension to stay with the Astros. He wasn't alone, and that thought-to-be-loaded free-agent class is now significantly less loaded. But there are still options, and perhaps more than ever a trade looks like it might be the way to go. If the White Sox do have a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher on their wish list, Verlander's teammate and Wednesday night's scheduled starter, Gerrit Cole, is on track to be among the available free agents.
So, too, is Madison Bumgarner, who more closely fits the mold of accomplished guys like Verlander and Lester. Bumgarner's got an unparalleled amount of postseason success, but he comes with plenty of questions, too. He pitched in just 38 combined games in 2017 and 2018, and while longevity hasn't been an issue this season — he's failed to go six innings in only one of his 10 starts — effectiveness has been an issue. He's got a 4.21 ERA through 62 innings. His highest single-season ERA prior to 2019 was 3.37 in 2012.
It doesn't have to be Bumgarner. And maybe it doesn't even have to be a pitcher. The White Sox have a list of potential starting-pitching options that includes Kopech, Cease, Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning and others. The Cubs and Astros couldn't craft rotations of homegrown players. The White Sox might be able to, though considering the injuries that have plagued those young arms and the current lack of major league ready starting-pitching depth, a big-time starting-pitching addition would really fortify things.
It could also add that kind of legitimacy that Lester brought to the Cubs. Get one big name to come aboard a still-emerging group, and that could draw more talent that could really kick things into high gear.
There might be no one way to do a successful rebuild, but if the White Sox want to follow the template the Astros and Cubs have used to win championships in recent years, a Verlander type would be a good way to go about doing that. The opportunity has to exist, but you'd have to imagine it's an opportunity the front office will be looking for this winter.
Certainly they're already motivated to do just that. Watching Verlander cut through their lineup Tuesday night should back that motivation up.
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