The Chicago White Sox are starting their offseason work far earlier than they hoped they would be.
After a disappointingly quick exit from the postseason, Rick Hahn's front office needs to figure out what to do this winter to prevent that sort of thing from happening again next fall.
That could prove tricky, with long-term fixtures at most positions on the diamond and a starting rotation already fully stocked for 2022. There might not be many changes to make, with mostly the same group of players that just got steamrolled by the Houston Astros set to be leaned on to achieve the team's World Series goals next season.
But there are decisions for Hahn & Co. to make, ones that could be the difference in avoiding the same disappointment a year from now. Here's a look at five of the most important ones.
What to do with Craig Kimbrel and César Hernández
Kimbrel and Hernández were both acquired at the trade deadline, part of the attractiveness of their arrivals being the contract options for the 2022 season, which helped justify the cost of parting with Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer in the deal for Kimbrel.
Neither player experienced much success after arriving on the South Side, though. Kimbrel went through a challenging transition pitching in an unfamiliar role as Liam Hendriks' setup man, while Hernández's early season power vanished and he struggled mightily at the plate.
Declining both options — or picking one or both up and engineering a trade, as USA Today's Bob Nightengale suggested could be the route the White Sox go with Kimbrel — would allow the team to simultaneously move on from two struggling players and make other upgrades at those same positions and elsewhere.
While that seems the most logical outcome, there's a possibility the White Sox could use a full offseason to prepare both players for their roles in 2022. Kimbrel is one of the best relief pitchers of all time. Hernández plays Gold Glove defense at second base.
Would a Carlos Rodón reunion work?
The White Sox seemed to make their decision on which of their two pending free-agent starting pitchers they'd bring back when they inked Lance Lynn to a contract extension during the summer. Securing Lynn's services for 2022 seemed to lock in next season's starting rotation, Lynn joining Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech, whose move from the bullpen to the starting staff has been forecasted since last spring.
But then Rodón turned in a sensational season and proved invaluable when Keuchel's struggles kept the veteran lefty off the playoff roster.
The health issues Rodón experienced down the stretch — persistent shoulder soreness he credited to a huge jump in his workload that required extended rest between starts and made his postseason availability a mystery until the eve of his ALDS outing, which didn't last long — could certainly affect the kind of payday he gets this winter, as teams might not jump at handing out a huge contract to someone with a history of significant injuries and a recent history of other maladies. We'll see how agent Scott Boras paints those to prospective employers.
In the White Sox' case, they were able to bring Rodón back on a one-year deal after non-tendering him last winter chiefly because of the familiarity he had with the organization. And now that pitching coach Ethan Katz can take some credit for Rodón's career year, that familiarity could prove valuable if there's interest in bringing him back once more. But playing time will be the chief hurdle to clear, not for Rodón, necessarily, but in how the White Sox would cram six pitchers into five spots.
It might be easy for fans to suggest delaying Kopech's ascent to the rotation or to find a way to get rid of Keuchel after a disappointing sophomore season on the South Side, but it might not be as easy for the White Sox to pull off in reality.
What to do with Dallas Keuchel
The White Sox boasted the best starting staff in the AL during the regular season, but their starters fell flat against the Astros, none of them making it out of the fifth inning and combining for an ERA north of 10.00. Ironically, a way to potentially solve the White Sox' starting-pitching problem they just experienced in the playoffs could be to find a way to jettison the guy who didn't even make the roster.
Giolito, Lynn, Cease and Rodón all stumbled in the ALDS. But with the exception of Rodón potentially leaving via free agency, none of them are going anywhere next season and all figure to be pitching the next time the White Sox are in the playoffs. That postseason performance should not suggest that the starting rotation needs any grand fix. But starting pitching was perhaps the chief reason the White Sox lost the series, and teams have had dramatic reactions to far smaller issues when looking to correct what went wrong ahead of a new campaign.
Kopech figures to join the rotation. But moving Keuchel could open a hole fans would like to see filled by a new talent.
Keuchel, of course, has a history of swinging between tremendous seasons — such as his first in a White Sox uniform, which ended with a 0.99 ERA — and disappointing ones, and keeping him around could yield very positive results. But if the White Sox want to find a way to bring back Rodón or add a different free-agent arm, selling low on Keuchel could be a way to make that happen, even if it might seem a bit reactionary.
Who to bring back
Rodón is not the White Sox' lone pending free agent, and a few of them play roles that are often so valuable in chasing a championship.
Leury García is no role player, especially if you ask Tony La Russa, and a red-hot finish to the regular season provided evidence that he deserves a starting gig somewhere. It still seems that his best role on the South Side would be as someone who plays all over the field, and bringing him back to top the depth chart at second base or in right field might not be the ideal outcome given his versatility. Add that he could find starter's money elsewhere, and the odds might be against the longest tenured White Sock staying that way.
But García is obviously well at home with the White Sox, and he's proven affordable — not to mention valuable — making a hypothetical return a solid move, given the right circumstances.
Ryan Tepera might have set the Astros off with his "sketchy stuff" comments that reshaped the final days of the ALDS, Houston players citing them as a motivating factor following a 10-1 drubbing of the White Sox. But when he was on the mound following his midseason acquisition from the Cubs, he was very good, with a 2.50 ERA in 22 regular-season appearances.
The White Sox might find themselves in perhaps more desperate need of bullpen help than you'd think, with Kimbrel potentially departing, Kopech set to jump to the rotation, Evan Marshall's health uncertainty making him a potential non-tender candidate and Tepera a free agent. Finding a way to bring Tepera back could ease that exodus and keep the back end strong.
Then there's Billy Hamilton, who would seem to be a good candidate to be re-signed after a season spent as a tremendous clubhouse and dugout presence, not to mention the speed and defensive weapon he was signed to be in the spring.
Arbitration-eligible players like Giolito, Adam Engel and Reynaldo López are no-brainers to be back, and others like Jace Fry and Jimmy Cordero (remember him?) figure to be cheap enough to return, as well. But Brian Goodwin could find himself on the outside looking in of a crowded outfield mix, even after positive contributions in 2021.
Who to go get
As mentioned, there might not be many places for the White Sox to add, but that doesn't mean there are none. The bullpen seems an obvious area where additions can be made, what with a thinning likely to occur via several departures. But the White Sox made their big bullpen splash last winter with Hendriks.
Fans looking for the biggest signing should look to second base, where after the trade of Nick Madrigal, there is an obvious hole, especially if the team moves on from Hernández this winter.
Unfortunately, there aren't a ton of big-name free agents at second base, like there are, say, at shortstop. But two of those free-agent shortstops, Marcus Semien and Javy Báez, have done more than just dabble in playing second throughout their All-Star careers. Semien would be the biggest fish after smacking 46 homers with the Toronto Blue Jays this season. The former White Sox infielder has had MVP-caliber years in each of the last two full seasons he's played and figures to get paid this winter.
But both Semien and Báez could prefer to make shortstop money and play that position, which is spoken for on the South Side.
Right field is another position the White Sox could choose to upgrade, though that would, at the moment, seem the logical 2022 spot for Andrew Vaughn, who is expected to continue developing as he moves on from his rookie season. His defensive versatility earned him rave reviews in the corner outfield spots this season, and La Russa even talked him up as a potential second baseman, which could allow the White Sox to move the puzzle pieces around this offseason if they see a right fielder worth pursuing — big fishes like Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos or Michael Conforto.
The White Sox could see designated hitter as a place to install a bat-for-hire, though swapping Vaughn and Gavin Sheets in that spot could be a fine plan for 2022. The ageless Nelson Cruz is on the market again, though he just finished up his weakest offensive season since the early 2010s. Jorge Soler was not the same player who had a monster season in 2019 but undoubtedly brings the thunder.
And if you're dreaming about free-agent starting pitchers — which, as addressed, might not be the likeliest thing to arrive on the South Side this winter — Rodón, Robbie Ray, Max Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard, Kevin Gausman, Wily Peralta, Marcus Stroman and Eduardo Rodriguez are among the options set to be available.