CHICAGO -- The success of the 2021 White Sox has been debated since Oct. 12, when Houston claimed a 10-1 victory and eliminated the South Siders from the postseason.
For a team with a realistic World Series championship goal, four games in the Division Series fell far short of their target. But in manager Tony La Russa’s return to the dugout, the White Sox captured their first American League Central title since 2008 and made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history.
“It was a huge step this year,” shortstop Tim Anderson said. “We competed all season, through injuries, really through everything. And just for us to get to where we were, it says a lot about the ballclub and this organization.”
Here’s five questions the White Sox need to address with their competitive window now wide open following a rebuild.
1. For starters, who’s in the rotation?
Carlos Rodón had a season worthy of strong Cy Young consideration, with a 2.37 ERA and 185 strikeouts against 36 walks and 91 hits allowed over 132 2/3 innings. The southpaw didn’t make a start of more than five innings or 90 pitches after July 18, dealing with shoulder soreness and fatigue. As a free agent, Rodón understandably would be looking for a multi-year deal, but would the White Sox make him a qualifying offer and would the 28-year-old accept that offer?
Lucas Giolito had a 2.65 ERA over 13 second-half starts and topped 200 strikeouts for the second time in his career. Dylan Cease’s 226 strikeouts trailed only Robbie Ray (248) and Gerrit Cole (243) in the American League, and Lance Lynn also will get Cy Young support after posting a 2.69 ERA and 176 strikeouts in 157 innings. Left-handed veteran Dallas Keuchel has one guaranteed season left on his contract, coming off a career-worst 5.28 ERA but two seasons removed from a 1.99 mark in 2020.
Michael Kopech made 40 of his 44 appearances out of the bullpen in 2021, covering 69 1/3 innings. Moving Kopech to the rotation in ’22 was the talk before the ’21 campaign and should move forward despite leaving a void in the bullpen with his 103 strikeouts.
2. Is Kimbrel returning?
When general manager Rick Hahn acquired Craig Kimbrel from the Cubs for second baseman Nick Madrigal and right-handed reliever Codi Heuer, he pointed to the $16 million club option ($1 million buyout) as contractual control for 2022. The White Sox will exercise that option, as USA Today’s Bob Nightengale already has reported, with Nightengale also reporting the White Sox will try to trade the 33-year-old.
Kimbrel was one of the top two closers in the game this season when he posted a 0.49 ERA and 23 saves over 39 games with the North Siders to go with 13 hits and 13 walks allowed against 64 strikeouts over 36 2/3 innings. Liam Hendriks was the other dominant closer, already working the ninth for the White Sox when Kimbrel arrived.
That late-inning success disappeared for Kimbrel on the South Side, featuring a 5.09 ERA in 24 games and three runs allowed in two postseason innings. La Russa spoke of Kimbrel as a Hall of Fame closer, supported by his 372 career saves, who was used out of position.
Kimbrel simply could be a better fit in the ninth inning where he has worked most of his career, disregarding the notion of a pitcher being unable to work an inning other than the ninth after closing. But the White Sox clearly are a better bullpen with that first-half closer working high-leverage situations late in the game.
3. Are significant changes needed?
In a word, no, but when disappointment ultimately envelopes a talented team such as the 2021 White Sox, that line of thought often takes over. Significant would mean trading someone such as left fielder Eloy Jiménez, a potential 40 home run/.300 hitting staple for years to come, or rookie Andrew Vaughn, who figures to be one of the team’s top offensive players as the seasons progress.
There’s really no reason, though, to disrupt this core group. They deserve credit for reaching the 2020 playoffs during an abbreviated 60-game campaign, but ’21 really marked their true postseason arrival. There’s no glossing over a poor Division Series showing in the Houston loss, but if this group stays healthy, it only should get stronger.
4. Who’s on second?
César Hernández was another Trade Deadline acquisition carrying the bonus of a $6 million option for 2022 with no buyout. The switch-hitter finished with a career-high 21 homers between Cleveland and the White Sox but only slashed .232/.309/.299 over 53 games and 217 plate appearances for Chicago.
The White Sox could get really creative in using Jake Burger or Vaughn at second, with Vaughn playing one game there during the regular season and Burger playing five with Triple-A Charlotte. But the White Sox already challenged Vaughn defensively around the diamond as a rookie, probably giving him a steadier position for ’22 and beyond, and Burger was never used at second during his 15 games in the Majors.
Free agent Marcus Semien is the name White Sox fans want to hear: Great person, great player and one who started his career on the South Side. But his projected free-agent deal could be quite lofty after knocking out 45 home runs for the Blue Jays.
5. Is the right fielder currently with the team?
Gavin Sheets would get the nod in right presently, and the left-handed power bat would be a good choice. Sheets' story has been told numerous times: He was left off the 2020 alternate site training roster but instead of getting upset, Sheets worked diligently in the offseason to get better while learning the outfield. The White Sox also would work in Adam Engel, who wasn’t 100 percent healthy for much of this past season, as well as Vaughn.
Plenty of free-agent options exist for right field. The White Sox also have to decide on free agent Leury García, the current longest-tenured White Sox player and one of their more consistent players with the bat in 2021.