Rich Hill

Who will the White Sox sign? A preliminary ranking of the top 10 free-agent starting pitchers

Who will the White Sox sign? A preliminary ranking of the top 10 free-agent starting pitchers

The White Sox need starting pitching. The free-agent market’s got starting pitching.

Seems like a match made in hot-stove heaven, doesn’t it?

General manager Rick Hahn has made no secret about his front office’s pending pursuit of starting pitching, dating back to the early portions of the 2019 season, when Carlos Rodon’s Tommy John surgery and a parade of ineffective fifth starters wore the White Sox major-league-ready starting pitching depth bare. Even with Lucas Giolito turning in an All-Star campaign that should land him somewhere in the AL Cy Young voting results, the 5.30 ERA of the South Side starting staff was the seventh highest in baseball.

Hahn reiterated that intention to add starting pitching this winter when he laid out his team’s offseason plans during his end-of-season press conference last month.

“We're very pleased, going into the offseason, projecting out Giolito, (Dylan) Cease and (Reynaldo) Lopez as part of that rotation, but that leaves a couple spots,” Hahn said. “Obviously, Michael Kopech's coming back from injury, Carlos Rodon at some point next year, at some point next year Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert. But it still leaves the opportunity to solidify that rotation either through free agency or trade, and that will likely be a priority in the coming months.”

Giolito obviously has a spot locked down, as should Kopech and Cease, two still-developing youngsters with incredibly high ceilings. Lopez, on the other hand, might not be on as solid ground after a mostly ugly 2019 campaign that saw him finish with a 5.38 ERA. His ceiling remains high, too, as evidenced by the not infrequent gems he tossed in between the more disastrous outings. But if the White Sox are truly serious about contending in 2020, the long leashes created by the state of the rebuild in recent seasons could shorten in a hurry.

And so despite the anticipated returns of rehabbing youngsters like Rodon, Dunning and Lambert, there will need to be outside help to fill out the rotation — never mind to bolster it. Fortunately for the White Sox, they have the financial flexibility, an accomplished goal of the rebuild, to play in whatever area of the free-agency sandbox they choose. Free agency will be a focus, not just because it always is, but because the White Sox, due to a rash of injuries and under-performances throughout the minor leagues this season, don’t seem to have as much depth to deal from as they did at this time a year ago.

And so, with that, let’s take a look at the best starting pitchers who will be hitting the free-agent market this winter.

1. Gerrit Cole, RHP, age 29
2019 stats: 2.50 ERA, 326 strikeouts, 212.1 innings

No player in baseball will garner as much attention this offseason than Cole, who was absolutely unreal this season pitching for the Houston Astros. He led baseball with 326 strikeouts. He led the American League with a 2.50 ERA. And he didn’t lose after the White Sox beat him on May 22, going 16-0 with a 1.78 ERA in his final 22 starts.

At just 29, Cole will reel in a monster contract, one of the richest, if not the richest contract ever handed out to a pitcher. The White Sox have the financial flexibility to do just about anything, but will they go that big? While Hahn is intent on smashing preconceived notions about his club, the team’s free-agent history isn’t exactly littered with bank-breaking deals for pitchers.

Obviously Cole would be a tremendous addition to any staff, and the White Sox would be no exception. Pairing him with another Southern California kid in Lucas Giolito would put a pair of All-Stars atop the rotation and make for a fearsome 1-2 punch. But the cost will be astronomical (no pun intended), and it will only get higher when he hits the market, when he could have a Cy Young Award and a World Series ring in tow.

2. Stephen Strasburg*, RHP, 31
2019 stats: 3.32 ERA, 251 strikeouts, 209 innings

Mind the asterisk, as Strasburg might never hit the market. But this offseason, he'll have the opportunity to opt out of the final four years and $100 million of his contract with the Washington Nationals. Given that opt-outs exist for a reason — so really good players can get more dollars based on their really good play — Strasburg heading to a bidding war in free agency makes plenty of sense.

Certainly he’s earned it after leading the National League in both wins and innings pitched this season. Like Cole, Strasburg got better as the season went on, posting a 2.70 ERA over the final three months, a number that was all the way down to 1.98 if you take out the nine-run clunker he threw on Aug. 3. And he’s dazzled in the postseason, with a scoreless relief appearance that earned him the win in the NL wild card game followed by a six-inning gem in Game 2 of the NLDS, where he took a no-hit bid into the fifth inning against the high-powered Los Angeles Dodgers.

Already a three-time All-Star, Strasburg is sure to get another extended deal at 31 years of age. The White Sox have money to spend, though this could get really expensive really fast, just like with Cole. Strasburg, through little fault of his own, doesn’t bring the same “winning” cachet some of the other available arms would, as his Nationals have had little postseason success. Yet he’s only given up two earned runs in his five October appearances.

3. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, 30
2019 stats: 3.90 ERA, 203 strikeouts, 207.2 innings

Want winning? Bumgarner’s got that, with three World Series rings on his fingers and a reputation as perhaps the best postseason pitcher the game has ever seen. Seriously, he’s got a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 playoff innings, with a microscopic 0.25 ERA in 36 innings in the World Series. I mean, come on.

Bumgarner is the absolute perfect fit if the White Sox are looking to add their own Jon Lester, a guy with a storied winning history that can bring that kind of thing to an up-and-coming squad, helping to guide them to their own postseason success. Now, the Cubs' rebuild and Lester were a fairy-tale match, with Lester coming to the North Side the same time as Joe Maddon, and a preexisting relationship with Theo Epstein making the recruitment process a lot easier. Would Rick Hahn be able to convince Bumgarner to take a similar leap of faith?

With so much youth — and the corresponding question marks — in the White Sox rotation, a veteran type like Bumgarner (even though he’s just 30, a year younger than Strasburg, if you can believe it) would be a valuable add. You’re not sure if Giolito’s transformation is permanent, if Cease can settle down after a rocky rookie year, if Kopech is the same guy from before Tommy John, if Lopez can be the pitcher he’s showed flashes of becoming? Well, you know what you’re going to get from Bumgarner. And if you get to October, then look out.

4. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, 31
2019 stats: 3.75 ERA, 91 strikeouts, 112.2 innings

The White Sox (and 29 other teams) had the opportunity to sign Keuchel last winter, and no one did. The Atlanta Braves scooped him up on a one-year deal in June, and he’s been very good for the NL East champs — independent of the three homers he gave up in Game 3 of the NLDS on Monday afternoon.

Still, Keuchel’s provided these Braves with the same kind of thing he’d provide the 2020 White Sox: a stabilizing force in the rotation with a strong resume of success he could bring to this group of youngsters. He went through the Astros’ rebuild and came out the other end with a Cy Young award, four Gold Gloves and a World Series ring. Even if he’s not yet the future Hall of Famer that Lester was when he signed with the Cubs and Bumgarner is now, he’d fill that kind of role atop the rotation next to Giolito.

Keuchel also figures to be more affordable than the Coles and Strasburgs and Bumgarners, albeit not exactly the same type of No. 1 guy the others are. He’s still an impact addition, however, and would go a long way toward solving the White Sox starting-pitching woes.

5. Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, 32
2019 stats: 2.32 ERA, 163 strikeouts, 182.2 innings

No qualified starting pitcher had a lower ERA in 2019 than Ryu, who bet on himself last season by accepting the Dodgers’ qualifying offer and then having a Cy Young caliber season ahead of what should be a nice payday this winter. Ryu started the All-Star Game for the National League, and though he might get edged by the New York Mets’ Jacob de Grom in the NL Cy Young race, he was quite simply one of the best pitchers in the game this season.

Ryu might have cost himself the Cy Young with a bumpy four-start stretch in August and into September, where he gave up 21 runs in just 19 innings. But he closed the season with three straight seven-inning efforts and still ended with yearlong numbers that could give him pitching’s ultimate prize.

Health will always be a question mark for Ryu, who despite pitching for the Dodgers since 2013 has made just 125 career starts. But he’s been remarkably effective in each of the last two seasons, potentially en route to back-to-back World Series appearances. That ought to make him mighty attractive to any teams looking to strengthen their staff, the White Sox included.

6. Jake Odorizzi, RHP, 29
2019 stats: 3.51 ERA, 178 strikeouts, 159 innings

The Bomba Squad was most responsible for the Minnesota Twins winning more than 100 games and the AL Central crown this season, but Odorizzi certainly helped with an All-Star season on the mound. He had the lowest ERA among Twins starters and finished second only to ace Jose Berrios in starts and strikeouts. Of the five Twins pitchers who made at least 26 starts, he was the only one to give up fewer than 20 homers.

Odorizzi was particularly good against the White Sox, making four starts against them as a division rival and posting a 2.86 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 22 innings. And he’s looking like a prime candidate to fill the team’s starting-pitching need should they be priced out of competition for the biggest names. That’s certainly not something that’s expected to happen, what with the aforementioned financial flexibility making them seemingly able to pay for just about anyone. But Odorizzi fits a couple different bills: providing starting pitching help and allowing the White Sox to use some of those financial resources to fill other needs, such as the declared ones in right field and at designated hitter.

7. Zack Wheeler, RHP, 29
2019 stats: 3.96 ERA, 195 strikeouts, 195.1 innings

Wheeler’s not grabbing the same kind of pub as his rotation-mates with the Mets. Difficult to do when you’re on the same staff as de Grom, Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman. But he'll be one of the better free-agent arms this winter. White Sox fans know how good he can be after he came to the South Side and twirled a gem on the first day of August, throwing seven scoreless innings in that one, allowing just four hits and striking out seven.

Wheeler didn’t do that every time out, and he’s not the rotation topper like some of the guys mentioned above, but he could slide in nicely behind Giolito in the White Sox rotation. He’s just 29 years old, lining him up with a lot of those young arms on the South Side. And he closed the season strong, with a 2.66 ERA over the final two months of the campaign.

8. Rich Hill, LHP, 39
2019 stats: 2.45 ERA, 72 strikeouts, 58.2 innings

One of these things is not like the others, obviously, as the 39-year-old Hill isn’t exactly the kind of long-term splash the White Sox and their fans might be looking for. But Hill has been downright fantastic when healthy for the Dodgers in recent seasons. He made just 13 regular-season starts this year, but his ERA in three and a half seasons in LA is a sterling 3.16 in 68 starts.

Hill fills that Lester-esque role of a veteran with recent winning experience, even if that winning has been pennants and not championships. He’s also a lefty, something these White Sox could use in the rotation, a need enhanced by Rodon’s uncertain future as he recovers from Tommy John with just two more seasons of team control remaining. Giolito, Kopech, Cease and Lopez are all right-handers. That rotation could use a little variety.

Hill is older than the other potential targets, sure. But if the White Sox think their contention window will open in 2020, they can invest in a more short-term solution to help them win right away.

9. Jose Quintana*, LHP, 30
2019 stats: 4.68 ERA, 152 strikeouts, 171 innings

Another asterisk here, but Quintana could hit the free-agent market if the Cubs opt not to pick up his option for the 2020 season. Considering they’re looking to improve their starting pitching, as well, they might be keen to hang onto whatever reliable arms they have. But if he’s available, maybe the White Sox would be interested in a reunion with the guy they dealt across town in exchange for rebuild jump-starters Eloy Jimenez and Cease.

The main attraction would be Quintana’s left-handedness, to help balance out a projected right-handed-heavy rotation. But obviously Quintana has had his moments since leaving the South Side. That included earlier during the 2019 season, when he carried a sub-4.00 ERA into September. But he fell apart in the final month of the season — a team-wide issue on the North Side — with a monstrous 11.09 ERA in just 18.2 innings over his final five starts.

That’s obviously troublesome, but the White Sox know what Quintana can do, watching him develop into an All-Star on their watch. They figure to have a more capable offense coming than the one that refused to provide Quintana with any run support in his South Side stint. Quintana wouldn’t be able to contribute a top-of-the-rotation reputation that some of the other names on this list could, but he’d return to the White Sox with the experience of being in playoff races. He’s less attractive an option than others, sure, but he’d bolster the rotation’s depth.

10. Cole Hamels, LHP, 35
2019 stats: 3.81 ERA, 143 strikeouts, 141.2 innings

Hamels wasn’t the same breath of fresh air in 2019 that he was after the Cubs traded for him in the middle of the 2018 season, but he still posted a sub-4.00 ERA and could do something to solidify a rotation next season. He’s older, obviously, but brings winning experience, a World Series champ with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. If the White Sox are looking to plug a pair of holes with free-agent signings this winter, they could do a lot worse in the second spot than Hamels.

Other guys?

There are a ton of different ways the White Sox could go to address their starting-pitching needs this offseason, be it by signing top-tier free agents, mid-tier free agents, acquiring someone in a trade or signing bargain-basement depth come spring training (hopefully with more success than they found with Ervin Santana last spring).

The players listed above are the best available on the free-agent market, but what about some other guys who’ll be looking for a job this winter? That list includes Michael Wacha, Kyle Gibson, Alex Wood, Wade Miley and potentially Chris Archer, should the Pittsburgh Pirates want an escape from his contract.

Hahn and his front office seem spoiled for choice. Now it comes down to making the right ones.

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Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers

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AP

Cubs could see this heavyweight rematch coming: Bring on the Dodgers

WASHINGTON – Joe Maddon plays mind games and sends messages through the media and sometimes just runs with whatever idea pops into his head.

Maddon turned on a big-picture question from a New York Times reporter in late August, essentially skipping over the comparisons between the 2016 Cubs and the 2017 Dodgers and jumping to how much he would love to face the group on the Sports Illustrated cover labeled as: “Best. Team. Ever?”

Bring it on, Maddon signaled, looking forward to when the defending World Series champs would be at full strength and saying how much he would love that matchup against the Dodgers in October.

Well, here it is, a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series, Game 1 on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, Clayton Kershaw and the rest of a $200-plus million team knowing this season will be a failure if they don’t win an iconic franchise’s first World Series title since 1988.

“You have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon explained this week in the middle of a grueling first-round, five-game series against the Nationals. “You can’t run away from any of this stuff. The question could have been about any team, not just the Dodgers.

“Pick the ’27 Yankees. Pick the ’64 Cardinals, the Big Red Machine, whatever, the We Are Family (Pirates). You just want to believe your guys can match up with anybody. And I want our guys to believe the same thing.”

The Cubs had credibility issues when Maddon made that declaration in Philadelphia during a 3-3 road trip against the last-place Reds and Phillies, part of the same overall pattern that led to a 43-45 first half and Milwaukee’s three-game sweep at Wrigley Field in the middle of September.

From that point, the Cubs buried the Brewers and Cardinals in the division race, going 15-4 to close the regular season and devastating a 97-win Washington team in the playoffs.

“That was brought up to me,” Maddon said, “and all I said was I was just agreeing with the comment. Somebody brought up the Dodgers. They could have brought up the ’27 Yankees. I was not pointing anything out.

“When that was all going on, there was a lot of nonbelievers. We have really, obviously, picked it up in the second half in general, and then I’m using Milwaukee as the benchmark. In 2015, I used the Giants in August as being that seminal moment that all of a sudden it seemed to get right. Since (then), our mental intensity has really been outstanding every game.

“I wasn’t talking about the Dodgers. Somebody else was.”

The Dodgers still have the main elements in place that held the Cubs scoreless for 21 straight innings during the 2016 NLCS — the great Kershaw, lefty curveball specialist Rich Hill, Kenley Jansen imitating Mariano Rivera — but their roster isn’t quite as top-heavy anymore after making a trade-deadline splash with Yu Darvish and developing Cody Bellinger into a 39-homer, 97-RBI force and probably the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year.

While the Cubs felt like they blacked out during a crazy NLDS —  and the team’s West Coast charter flight got diverted to New Mexico on Friday morning — the Dodgers relaxed and set up their pitching after sweeping the Diamondbacks in three games.

“I can’t wait,” said shortstop Addison Russell, whose 2016 postseason could be divided into through (1-for-24) and after (12-for-40) Game 3 at Dodger Stadium. “We’re willing to take on each challenge. I know that we got another big challenge ahead of us against the Dodgers.”

Remember, the Dodgers had to play a one-run elimination game at Nationals Park on Oct. 13, 2016, using Jansen and Kershaw to nail down the final nine outs, the same urgency/desperation the Cubs showed Thursday night in using Jose Quintana and Wade Davis for the last three innings against Washington.

Will the 2017 Cubs run out of gas like the 2016 Dodgers? Can the 2017 Dodgers withstand the pressure and freak-out moments as well as the 2016 Cubs? Stay tuned.  

“They’ve been the best team in baseball since Day 1,” said Jon Lester, last year’s NLCS co-MVP with Javier Baez. “The roles are reversed. We were that team last year — and we moved on — and they’re that team this year.

“But we know going into L.A. that it’s going to be a hard series, regardless. They got a great staff. They got a great lineup, so we got to respect them. Hopefully, they respect us, and it’s a good series.”    

How ex-Cub Rich Hill reinvented himself and returned from the baseball wilderness

How ex-Cub Rich Hill reinvented himself and returned from the baseball wilderness

LOS ANGELES — Here’s how Rich Hill reinvented himself and returned from the baseball wilderness to start a playoff game at Dodger Stadium against the Cubs franchise that drafted him 14 years ago.

Hill moved back home to Massachusetts after getting released from the Washington Nationals last June in the middle of his ninth season spent on the Triple-A level. At the age of 35, he started working out with his old American Legion team again, hoping it would be a pit stop on a journey he didn’t want to end.

Hill contacted Jared Porter, the director of professional scouting for the Boston Red Sox at the time who now has the same job with the Cubs. They met at Milton High School — where Hill starred before moving on to the University of Michigan — and Porter can’t even remember who caught the 6-foot-5 lefty during that workout.

But it helped redirect Hill toward Dodger Stadium, where he will stand on a historic mound on Tuesday night and face a star-studded Cubs lineup in a crucial Game 3 in this National League Championship Series.

“Rich really believed in himself,” Porter said. “He deserves all the credit.”

Hill won 11 games for the 2007 Cubs team that captured an NL Central title — and lost Game 3 during that sweep by the Arizona Diamondbacks — but until this year had never again reached 20 starts or passed the 100-inning threshold. A series of injuries stalled his career — including Tommy John surgery in 2011 — and his blister issues will absolutely be something to monitor during this tied best-of-seven series.

But Hill was still convinced that he should work as a starter and throw from a higher arm slot. Porter stood behind him and watched him throw from the first-base side of the rubber, another technique teams had encouraged as a way to create more deception as a reliever.

“The first probably 10 or 15 fastballs he threw had tons of life on them,” Porter recalled. “Everything was starting on the outer half of the zone and tailing out of the zone. With Rich, he’s never really gotten hit (hard). He’s gotten in trouble in his career when he hasn’t thrown enough strikes.

“So I was like: ‘Hey, have you ever considered moving over to the third-base side of the rubber?’

“He tried it, and all those balls that were starting in the zone and going out were now starting and staying in the zone because he had the extra foot or so. (Like now) if you watch him now on the extreme third-base side of the rubber.”

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The Red Sox agreed to track Hill as a starter for the Long Island Ducks in the Atlantic League before eventually signing him to a minor-league deal and plugging him into their Triple-A rotation.

“There (were) absolutely humbling parts of being in the independent league,” Hill said, “whether it was traveling from Sugar Land (Texas) on a 6 a.m. flight (or) no bathroom in the dugout and peeing in a bucket.

“Things like that you have to take into account where you’re playing the game because you love it. But it’s also perseverance that you want to continue to get back to the highest level and not give up and continue to grind.”

The Red Sox also hooked Hill up with Brian Bannister, the pitching guru who combines big-league experience with a fluency in analytics, delivering the message that you can pitch backwards and revolve everything around that curveball. Bannister’s influence had once helped turn Zack Greinke into a Cy Young Award winner with the Kansas City Royals.

Hill parlayed last season’s four quality starts for the Red Sox between Sept. 13 and Oct. 1 into a one-year, $6 million deal with the Oakland A’s. Fourteen more starts (9-3, 2.25 ERA) with the A’s got him flipped to the Dodgers at the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

“I watch video,” said Ben Zobrist, the most accomplished postseason hitter in this Cubs lineup. “And when I see (Hill) pitching up there, I’m like: ‘That ball should be going a long ways.’ And guys are getting jammed or popping it up. So there must be something with his spin rate or some deception there where it kind of gets above the barrel.”

Hill threw his curveball more than 42 percent of the time this season, and these Cubs haven’t seen his new left-handed look yet. It created seven perfect innings on Sept. 10 at Marlins Park — before Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled Hill while fearing the blister problem and thinking about October.

An ex-Cub who almost completely fell off the grid could have a huge impact on this NLCS.

“Every pitch is its own moment,” Hill said. “It’s really taking that cliché of pitch-to-pitch process. But that’s really what I’ve been able to do — (and) that started in Long Island when I was in independent ball.

“That mindset (carried over to) every single opportunity that I’ve had, every single outing that I’ve had. And not getting outside of that is what I believe has made me successful.”