Asked during the GM meetings last week in Arizona what kinds of pitchers he wants to acquire this winter, Rick Hahn had a snappy response.
"Good ones," he said.
Well, Zack Wheeler falls into that category, and the White Sox are reportedly in pursuit, with Jon Morosi reporting Wednesday on MLB Network that the South Siders are one of four teams — alongside the Los Angeles Angels, San Diego Padres and division-rival Minnesota Twins — in "the leading group right now" for Wheeler's services.
Wheeler, a free agent after pitching in five big league seasons with the New York Mets, had himself a very good 2018 campaign, finishing with a 3.31 ERA and 179 strikeouts in 29 starts. He made 31 starts in 2019, striking out more batters (195 of them) but finishing with a significantly higher 3.96 ERA. He closed the season strong, with a 2.83 ERA in his final 12 starts. Wheeler was terrific in his five September starts, posting a 1.85 ERA in the season's final month.
The 29-year-old right-handed hurler is one of the more attractive names on this winter's pitching-heavy free-agent market. He's not commanding the attention of Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner, perhaps, but he's still plenty high on a lot of wish lists. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2009 draft, Wheeler's dealt with injury issues throughout his major league career, missing the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons, first with Tommy John surgery and then with a right arm strain that did not require another surgery.
The White Sox got to see Wheeler up close in August, when he tossed a gem at Guaranteed Rate Field, throwing seven shutout innings, allowing just four hits and striking out seven.
Certainly it makes sense that the White Sox would be interested, as well as casting a wide net in their search for starting-pitching help this winter. Asked last week whether the White Sox are searching for top-of-the-rotation guys, such as the Coles and Strasburgs of the world, or middle-of-the-rotation guys who would slot in behind Lucas Giolito, Hahn didn't limit himself to one or the other.
"We have room for improvement in both spots," he said. "We'll continue to monitor the trade and free-agent market for all different types of starters, and any ones that we feel are going to make us better both short- and potentially long-term, we'll be in on."
The most Hahn revealed about the team's starting-pitching pursuits is that the White Sox are looking to add two arms to the rotation this winter. Those two arms would go along with Giolito, Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez in the rotation. The White Sox, until they assess the situation in the spring, are uncommitted to how much Michael Kopech will pitch out of the rotation in 2020. If the goal is improving the rotation in the short- and long-term, Wheeler would figure to do the job.
"I don't think any team ever feels they have enough starting pitching," Hahn said. "And looking at where we sit, with (Carlos) Rodon on the IL to start the season and Kopech coming back from the injury, I think we feel good about potentially adding two arms to that mix. If it turns out once Carlos is healthy or how Michael shows up in spring training that, lo and behold, we have too many quality starters, we'll deal with that problem as it arises."