One of the bigger decisions facing the Chicago White Sox as they embark on their offseason work earlier than hoped?
What do to with Craig Kimbrel's option for next season.
Kimbrel was the White Sox' big trade-deadline splash, a trade that looked tremendous at the time, even for the high cost: second baseman of the present and future Nick Madrigal and promising reliever Codi Heuer. Kimbrel is a potential future Hall of Famer, one of the greatest closers of all time, and the White Sox' bullpen had struggled through the regular season's first four months to establish the kind of consistency that fueled big expectations in the spring.
He was acquired to help the White Sox win the World Series.
But Kimbrel did not pitch well in a White Sox uniform. There was already an All-Star closer on the South Side, and Liam Hendriks had done nothing to warrant removing him from that role, showing how dominant he could be with a sensational September that earned him American League Reliever of the Month honors. Meanwhile, pitching in a role he was relatively unfamiliar with, Kimbrel struggled to the tune of a 5.09 ERA in 24 regular-season appearances, giving up at least one run in nine of those outings and one more in the postseason.
"Ever since he has been in our uniform, I mean, it's been an adjustment," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said Saturday. "Coming in here in a different role is a heck of an adjustment for the guy. He has Hall-of-Fame credentials. ... He is having to pitch the eighth inning, and there is a difference when those three outs.
"It's a heck of a mental adjustment. I know he would never make any excuses. That's why I'm just giving my explanation of how hard it is for him."
Well, if Kimbrel is best suited, or perhaps only suited, for a closer's role, that's a role the White Sox can't provide, not with Hendriks pitching so well as the ninth-inning man.
Kimbrel has a $16 million option for the 2022 campaign, and while the White Sox could certainly use all the bullpen help they can get — such is life for every major league club — especially one of All-Star caliber, it's not an easy decision considering the results from July 30 on.
Hendriks will anchor next season's bullpen, with Aaron Bummer in a setup role behind him. But the relief corps could thin from there. Ryan Tepera, also acquired at the deadline, is slated for free agency. Michael Kopech is expected to be moved to the starting rotation. Uncertainty surrounding Evan Marshall's health could make him a non-tender candidate. If Kimbrel were to go, too, the White Sox could be left with just Hendriks, Bummer, Garrett Crochet, José Ruiz and long man Reynaldo López from the team's playoff bullpen. And even Crochet has been discussed as a future starter, potentially yanking him from that group, as well.
Having a talent like Kimbrel's heading into next year would obviously be valuable. But the performance tells a different story. And with the White Sox likely to be searching for offseason upgrades in an effort to better compete with the AL's other contenders following a swift playoff exit, that $16 million could certainly be spent in a different manner.
One possibility is to just decline the option, making Kimbrel a free agent and allocating those resources elsewhere. Another, as described in a tweet by USA Today's Bob Nightengale on Wednesday, would be for the White Sox to pick up the option and search for a trade partner. With bullpen help often in high demand — and before he came to the South Side, Kimbrel was one of the best closers in the game thanks to a sterling first half with the Chicago Cubs — such a hypothetical deal could yield a return of some talent that could help the White Sox in pursuit of a championship in 2022.
The White Sox, too, could believe they have the formula to getting Kimbrel back to the kind of numbers he was putting up prior to the trade. With an entire offseason to prepare, the transition to an eighth-inning role might not be so dramatic.
But the results were what they were, and given those results, it certainly wouldn't be a surprise to see the White Sox fill their setup roles with pitchers who are more accustomed to them, moving on from Kimbrel in the process.
Of course, that's just one of many offseason decisions facing Rick Hahn's front office following the brief playoff stay that came to a disappointing end Tuesday.