With the White Sox signing Kelvin Herrera, Rick Hahn’s efforts to improve the bullpen appear to be done this offseason. The unit surprisingly finished 10th in MLB in WAR via Fangraphs, 15th in FIP, and 23rd in ERA last season. Pairing Herrera with Alex Colome should help improve in each of those three categories for 2019, with the continuous caveat that they stay healthy.
Other than signing Manny Machado (or Bryce Harper), the next item on Hahn’s to-do list is finding another starting pitcher.
I’ve pointed out in previous posts where the White Sox lag behind postseason teams over the last 10 seasons in terms of offense and pitching between playoff teams the last ten seasons. Now it’s time to look forward. Steamer600 projects if each pitcher made 32 starts and threw 200 innings, making assumptions what their output would be if they carried a full regular season workload.
Using Steamer600, which you can look up on Fangraphs, the White Sox starting pitcher projected to have the best WAR in 2019 would be… Dane Dunning. Michael Kopech is second.
Third is Dylan Cease, who we assume will see some time in Chicago this upcoming season if he performs well in Charlotte and doesn’t get hurt. If that happens, it likely won’t be until after the All-Star break. Fourth is Carlos Rodon, and now we’re finally getting to a starter who is penciled into the rotation starting in 2019. Unfortunately, Steamer600 doesn’t see any White Sox pitcher having a season with 2 WAR or above. Rodon is the only one projected to have a WAR of above 1!
These projections are a way of saying that the White Sox need starting pitching help for this season. It’s not just because a lack of quality, although better pitching will make watching the games more pleasant. The Sox are also short on quantity.
Last year, the White Sox had nine pitchers who made more than one start. Adding Ivan Nova helps with depth taking over for James Shields, but Hahn needs to add another starter to make it through the 2019 season.
The Sox could trade for a cost-controlled starter, but if 2019 is kind to the White Sox, maybe that’s not needed as much if Dunning and Alec Hansen bounce back from injuries and other pitchers emerge showing promise. While we dream about these pitchers contributing soon, they won’t be in the picture on Opening Day 2019, which is when the White Sox need the most help.
Using Steamer600, I’ve created a list of the best possible free agent options Hahn could sign in free agency to help with the depth problem compared to internal options. Also, I’ve added one viable trade option for a known pitcher expected to be dealt.
A reminder of what the projected starting rotation looks like now:
- Carlos Rodon
- Ivan Nova
- Reynaldo Lopez
- Lucas Giolito
Internal options (Steamer600 2019 Projections)
- Dylan Covey (1.0 WAR, 4.91 ERA, 6.78 K/9 to 3.92 BB/9)
- Jordan Stephens (-0.1 WAR, 5.42 ERA, 7.20 K/9 to 4.03 BB/9)
- Spencer Adams (-0.7 WAR, 5.74 ERA, 5.24 K/9 to 3.63 BB/9)
The White Sox have a spot remaining in their starting rotation, and if Opening Day were tomorrow, I assume Dylan Covey would be the fifth man. Despite a few brilliant outings, Covey often struggled to get through the opponent’s lineup multiple times unscathed.
- Opponents vs. Covey, first PA: .216/.296/.329
- Opponents vs. Covey, second PA: .307/.382/.454
- Opponents vs. Covey, third PA: .300/.360/.440
Covey can provide value to the White Sox bullpen as a swingman, and in my opinion, that’s the best role for him. Sure, Covey can always step in for emergency starts, but it should be limited to just those situations.
Jordan Stephens is on the 40-man roster, and I assume that he would be a leading contender for emergency starts if needed. Spencer Adams is not on the 40-man roster because he has a tough time striking out hitters in AAA. There’s not enough swing-and-miss with his arsenal to feel comfortable about his chances against major-league hitters at the moment, but he’s on this list because if something were to happen with Covey and Stephens, I’m assuming Adams is next on the depth chart.
I don’t find the three internal options all that inspiring to fill the remaining spot in the starting rotation. This being the case, let’s take a look at what’s available in free agency and trade market.
The multi-year choice
- Dallas Keuchel (3.2 WAR, 3.68 ERA, 7.1 K/9 to 2.66 BB/9)
Best available starting pitcher left in free agency is Dallas Keuchel. Yes, his peripheral numbers suggest a decline in performance is coming (or already here) and hence why teams are a bit hesitant to meet his asking price for a five-year contract. Still, Keuchel wpitched 204 innings over 34 starts for Houston in 2019 and appeared to be in good health considering the time he missed in 2016 and 2017. Keuchel is not a 200-strikeout-a-season pitcher anymore and gives up more hits and walks than you would like from a front-line starter, but he had a 3.69 FIP paired with his 3.74 ERA. Consistency is Keuchel’s greatest strength these days.
What that level of consistency costs in an open market, I’m not sure. Is Rick Hahn even interested in signing a pitcher like Keuchel? Again, I’m not sure, but maybe he should be. Steamer still sees Keuchel as an above-average starter in 2019, and as I have illustrated above, that is much-needed production for the White Sox. Even when you draw up plans for 2020 and beyond, there is so much uncertainty with the starting staff thanks to injuries and poor 2018 performances. Maybe you don’t want Keuchel to lead a rotation in trying to win a division, but if Keuchel is your No. 3 or No. 4 pitcher, there’s enough talent and depth in the rotation to push the bar. Call me crazy, but I think Keuchel will age well to be a 2-3 WAR pitcher from 2020 to 2022.
If I were Rick Hahn, I’d entertain a three-to-four-year deal for Keuchel. If the White Sox are only interested in plugging roster holes with one-year options, however, here are the best available starters in the clearance aisle.
The one-year options
- Brett Anderson (2.4 WAR, 4.13 ERA, 6.19 K/9 to 2.46 BB/9)
- Gio Gonzalez (1.8 WAR, 4.39 ERA, 7.71 K/9 to 3.76 BB/9)
- Wade Miley (1.8 WAR, 4.36 ERA, 6.98 K/9 to 3.43 BB/9)
Brett Anderson last made 30+ starts was in 2015, and yet, Steamer600 still thinks Anderson will post the best WAR mark out of this group. I’m very skeptical of this projection, but Anderson was OK in his 17 starts with Oakland in 2018 posting a 4.48 ERA and 4.17 FIP.
I prefer Gio Gonzalez over Brett Anderson. Gonzalez has made at least 31 starts in eight of his last nine seasons, so he’s been dependable health-wise. The problem with Gonzalez is that he won’t help the White Sox’ walk issue. Last year, Gonzalez walked 4.2 batters per nine innings while posting a 4.21 ERA and 4.16 FIP.
Wade Miley pitched well for the Milwaukee Brewers last season, especially during their postseason run. The issue is whether that performance will carry over to 2019. His strikeout totals were quite low (5.6 per 9 innings), and walks have been an issue. One thing Miley did well is limit home runs allowed, as only three were smashed against him in 80 innings. Ultimately, I feel a swingman role is better suited for Miley.
That’s the best of what’s left in free agency. As for a trade idea, there is the unresolved issue with Sonny Gray and the New York Yankees.
Trading for Sonny Gray
- Sonny Gray (0.6 WAR as RP, 3.75 ERA, 8.96 K/9 to 2.89 BB/9)
I’m not entirely sold that Gray will be traded after CC Sabathia’s health scare in December (he underwent heart surgery). If there are lingering effects from the surgery, do the Yankees hold onto Gray as an insurance policy? Their rotation looks quite good with Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and JA Happ in the fold otherwise.
Let’s say that Sabathia will be fine to start 2019, or the Yankees add another starter and do decide to move on from Gray. Could the White Sox be a fit? The disparity between his ERA of 4.90 and FIP of 4.17 is eye-catching. So are his home and away splits where Gray had a 6.98 ERA at Yankee Stadium. Away from the Bronx, Gray was quite good 12 starts with a 3.17 ERA.
Then there is the TTOP issue, and much like Covey, the second time facing the lineup was not kind to Gray.
- Opponents vs. Gray, first PA: .246/.311/.401
- Opponents vs. Gray, second PA: .324/.392/.468
What’s funny is Gray was a this best the third time through: .198/.337/.346 in 19 games (98 plate appearances).
I can’t pretend to know what kind of package would get Brian Cashman to agree on a deal for Gray, who becomes a free agent in 2020. If it’s just for prospects, maybe Hahn can make a similar deal when he traded Alex Call to Cleveland for Yonder Alonso. If so, it might be worthwhile to see if Gray’s issues in 2018 are because of Yankee Stadium, and not something else.
There’s still another month before pitchers and catchers report to Glendale for Spring Training. A wide range of quality is available for Hahn to sort through to find another starter for the 2019 season. Maybe Manny Machado has another close friend or relative in need of a job? Or hey, Hahn could always bring back James Shields.