The White Sox were eliminated from the postseason because of their pitching.
Specifically, their starting pitching, which failed to produce more than two reliable options in what turned out to be a three-game AL Wild Card Series. Even if the White Sox 2020 campaign had spun on past the Oakland Athletics and into the ALDS, the South Siders would have been in the same predicament — if not a worse one — wondering what to do after Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, the two elite arms at the top of their rotation.
And so that would seem to be an area in need of addressing this winter, right? The White Sox have championship expectations from here on out after spending 2020 ascending out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode. There are some intriguing options out there, none captivating fans’ imaginations more than Trevor Bauer, the potential NL Cy Young winner who will be one of the brightest stars on the free-agent market.
But how would he or any other pitching addition fit into what’s already a crowded rotation?
That’s not to say the White Sox would look at their roster, with a primo contract offer for Bauer ready to go, and suddenly throw up their hands, declaring, “Sorry, Trev, but we’ve got no room for you.” For a player of that caliber, you make room.
But the White Sox also have three guys past Giolito and Keuchel in the rotation they believe can become players of that caliber.
As much as the growing pains of Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning and the absence of Michael Kopech helped sink the White Sox this season, sparking cries for change, these guys are nowhere near the finished products the team believes they can be. The White Sox have no intention of giving up on any of them.
Though if there’s going to be room for outside additions, not everyone will get a spot in the rotation. Giolito, Keuchel, Cease, Dunning and Kopech would figure to be the South Side starting five if they went to spring training today. That’s a group that doesn’t include, notably, Reynaldo López or Carlos Rodón, who have been around longer and haven’t made the most of their opportunities, whether due to inconsistent performance or injuries. Cease, Dunning and Kopech haven’t made 40 collective major league starts, and the bulk of that total belongs to Cease, who at 26 starts in his career is still under a full season of big league work.
It's well worth noting, of course, that Kopech has gone two full seasons without pitching in anything more than a Cactus League game. The White Sox expect him back for 2021, but it's perfectly valid to wonder whether he'd be ready to be a part of the major league rotation from Day 1. After all, they planned to start him in the minor leagues, coming off Tommy John surgery, had the 2020 season gone normally.
Regardless, though, you can’t have a spot for a newcomer without taking one away from an incumbent. While the hypothetical of too many starting pitchers has always been discussed as a “good problem to have” by Rick Hahn, the choice might have never been presented as one that involves stripping away the opportunity for a younger player to turn into something great. All three of these arms were acquired in those rebuild-defining trades in 2016 and 2017. They have long been considered building blocks, more than just lottery tickets.
The problem is now a real one, good or not, because the White Sox are trying to win the World Series.
Painting this as strictly a decision between Bauer, a world-class pitcher, and one of these guys might not be super helpful. There will be many suitors for Bauer’s services. When you go further down the free-agent rankings, the quandary is a lot more evident. Is Marcus Stroman worth sending Cease back to the minors? Is Taijuan Walker worth taking away chances from Dunning? Is Jake Odorizzi worth keeping Kopech away from the major leagues for even longer than he already has been?
Those questions might not have easy answers.
Yes, the expectations are now at the championship level. But this also remains a long-term endeavor. Who gives the White Sox the best chance next season and in the season after that and in the season after that?