Kendall Graveman is a heck of an addition to a Chicago White Sox bullpen that was in dire need of reinforcements.
It's not to say that the back end of the relief corps wasn't a strength. All-Star closer Liam Hendriks is arguably the best in the game at his ninth-inning role, as evidenced by his American League Reliever of the Year honor and his spot on the All-MLB Team, the latter announced the same day that it was reported the White Sox agreed to a three-year pact with the free agent Graveman.
Hendriks is dynamite, and Aaron Bummer's second-half resurgence showed he can still be the same late-inning weapon the White Sox inked to an extension in spring of 2020. But with Ryan Tepera and Evan Marshall free agents, Michael Kopech moved into the starting rotation, Garrett Crochet's role up in the air and Craig Kimbrel being openly discussed as a trade candidate, the bullpen quickly became a huge area of need this winter.
Well, Rick Hahn's front office got to work early in addressing the 'pen, Graveman about as good an option as could have been found on the free-agent market to team with Hendriks and Bummer at the back end. He was sensational with the Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros in 2021, finishing the regular season with a 1.77 ERA over 56 relief innings before dazzling in the postseason with a 1.64 ERA in nine appearances, the last pitcher on the mound for the Astros in three different World Series games.
Now, it's always important to remember that assembling a crack bullpen can be a tricky thing. Hahn himself will be among the first to remind that relief pitching is volatile from one season to the next, and Graveman himself is a fine example, stellar in 2021 after six seasons of big league pitching that saw limited success, mostly as a starting pitcher. The White Sox have invested a reported $24 million over the next three seasons based on one year of strong results. Very strong results, but only one year of them nonetheless.
Still, it's a splash signing on the relief market and one that addresses a critical need for the White Sox.
As good as Kimbrel's track record is, his insertion into a setup role after his acquisition at the trade deadline didn't work. Manager Tony La Russa described a tough transition for the future Hall of Famer from All-Star closer to eighth-inning man. Kimbrel posted a 5.09 ERA in 24 appearances in a White Sox uniform, and his unusually open discussion as a trade candidate signals there's a significant chance he won't be back on the South Side in 2022.
Even with just one terrific relief year under his belt, Graveman gives the White Sox more certainty in their setup situation than Kimbrel, Graveman perhaps even stepping into the role Hahn envisioned Kimbrel commanding when he dealt Nick Madrigal to the North Side. Though Graveman racked up 10 saves with the Mariners, he only finished 17 of the 53 games he pitched last season. His arrival on the South Side bolsters the back end of the 'pen, giving the White Sox a pair of strong setup men to go with their elite closer.
Of course, as that list of departures indicated, there's still more work to do. Even with Graveman aboard, should the White Sox trade Kimbrel, they'll be left with Hendriks, Bummer, Graveman, Reynaldo López and not much else.
There's still the possibility that the White Sox keep Kimbrel, in which case they'd believe that a full offseason of getting used to a new role could help him rediscover the outrageously good pitching he was doing before switching sides of town in last year's deadline deal. But without Kimbrel in the mix, it's still a small group.
If the season started right now, the middle-relief group would be Ryan Burr, José Ruiz and Matt Foster. And with that aforementioned volatility in mind, it's not to suggest that any combination of those arms couldn't be successful in 2022. But with eyes on chasing a World Series championship, it would make sense for more relief reinforcements to be on the way.
Graveman, though, is a whale of a start, likely the biggest addition to the bullpen Hahn will make this winter.