It’s been almost two weeks since the 2021 Chicago White Sox met their demise at the hands of the Houston Astros. The immediate aftermath was not fun for any fan, although my peer Nik Guar worked through those feelings well here. At this point, though, my focus has shifted towards the next season.
Clearly, the White Sox have some work to do if they want to become AL favorites. Sure, the Red Sox and Braves are demonstrating currently that you don’t need to be a top-2 team in your league to win in the playoffs – you can also just be really hot and lucky. But the first option is much safer than the second, especially considering the bad luck we all associate with the organization on the south side of Chicago. That being said, here are my keys to the 2022 White Sox campaign.
Kopech and Vaughn Take the Next Step
A decent chunk of Sox fans jumped the gun on Michael Kopech to a certain degree, me being one of them. Shockingly, I’m not perfect. I distinctly remember telling my friends that he would be a top 10 pitcher in baseball by the end of 2022. While that’s still possible, he’s still a little bit away from that tier of excellence.
It’s important to note that Kopech was very unlucky in the second half of 2021. “Zeus” recorded a 5.56 ERA after the All-Star Break despite notching a 3.55 FIP in that time. Although his strikeout and walk rates were nearly identical in both halves, his HR/FB% took an absurd leap from 9.4% to 17.1%. Overall, these numbers paint a picture that Kopech wasn’t much to blame for his late-season struggles.
On the flip side, a jump from a 2.41 to 3.55 FIP shows Kopech is not yet an elite arm. Moreover, his youth and inexperience are very much evident—the powerful righty saw major drops in his statistics in both “High Leverage” and runners-in-scoring-position situations according to Fangraphs. That’s also just the regular season, the Houston Astros demonstrated that Kopech wasn’t any more ready for adversity in the bright lights of the postseason.
Now I’m taking you all on a bit of a rollercoaster here, but I still think this was a great year for Kopech. The above criticisms are relative to the expectations of your average pitcher, but 2021 was Kopech’s first real season in the big leagues. His statistical profile indicates that a great career lies ahead of him.
As for 2022, the major question is how well he can translate a solid rookie season as a reliever into a second-year gig as a starting pitcher. There’s little doubt in my mind that by 2024 he will be a major force at the front of the Chicago rotation, but it remains to be seen if he can make that leap in year one of being a starter. If Kopech is able to pitch to a sub-3.50 ERA next year, the White Sox rotation is in good shape. Anything north of 4 means Giolito, Lynn, and Cease will have to do some heavy lifting.
Andrew Vaughn was not as impressive as Kopech in 2021, but expectations for him were probably lower anyway. After all, Kopech had a solid two more years of minor league experience under his belt. Still, Vaughn is likely just as vital to the South Siders’ success moving forward, assuming he’s not traded.
On the whole, it was a respectable showing from the former #1 prospect. His final slash line read .235/.309/.396 for a 94 wRC+. That doesn’t tell the full story though, as Vaughn was largely underwhelming outside of a scorching hot July. Moreover, Vaughn was hardly playable against right-handers, specializing in lefty-mashing for a big portion of his offensive production.
Still, he put up better numbers in his first full season than Tim Anderson or Yoan Moncada did (I would compare him to another 1B in Jose Abreu, but Abreu debuted at such an old age it wouldn’t make sense). Those two players also spent about 6 times more time in the minors. Vaughn’s profile is also pretty high-floor, so I’m very confident that, like Kopech, he will be a core piece at some point in the next few years.
But again, when will that happen? If he has a 2018 Anderson or Moncada season (85-100 wRC+) then the Sox offense won’t be very deep. But a 2019 Moncada/Anderson year (125-140 wRC+) makes the Sox lineup so much more imposing. Luis Robert is a shoo-in to go crazy in 2022, and we know what to expect from most of the rest of the lineup, but Vaughn is the biggest question mark and thus a huge key.
Get Second Base and Right Field Situated
It’s more than a little annoying that we are talking about upgrading right field for what seems like the millionth year in a row. In fact, Jermaine Dye was the last reliable player to man that spot for the Sox, so 1 million isn’t such a stretch. Here’s a video of Dye to cheer us all up:
Last offseason, Rick Hahn made it clear that a platoon of Adam Engel and some lefty bat was sufficient for the front office in RF. I don’t blame him for thinking that way, as Engel has impressed when healthy since the beginning of 2019. Adam Eaton figured to fit in nicely given his RHP-hitting abilities. Then, Engel missed over 100 games due to injury and Eaton decided to fall off of a cliff.
This is more of a “what needs to happen” instead of a “how things should happen” article, so I won’t delve into solutions too much. Clearly, there’s a bit of a roster crunch with Engel, Vaughn, and Sheets all potential fits for the position. Only one of those guys can truly field the position well though, but he’s the same guy that can’t stay healthy. On the bright side, Engel actually hit righties much better than lefties in 2021, so with some variance normalization, he could be an everyday guy if he stays healthy. Rick Hahn and Co. have a bit of mess on their hands, but the bottom line is the team can’t afford Leury Garcia-type production in RF next year.
Nick Madrigal, Chicago’s favorite beefy, slugging second baseman, was traded in July after Rick Hahn acquired Cesar Hernandez following Madrigal’s season-ending injury. Craig Kimbrel was all too excited to join the Adam Eaton Cliff-Falling Club, and Hernandez teased Sox fans for a week before revealing his true identity as a Cleveland
Indians Guardians double-agent. What a fun chain of events!
I don’t blame Hahn for much of what happened, hindsight is 20/20 and there wasn’t much in Hernandez or Kimbrel’s numbers that signaled incoming regression. Past aside, there’s a glaring hole in the Sox infield, and we all know it’s not from a Tony La Russa shift. What to do? Unlike the right field situation, free agency or trade is pretty much the only choice here. Rumor has it that Hernandez’s option will be declined; on top of that, Garcia won’t keep hitting as he did in September and there’s no trustworthy minor-league replacement.
Unfortunately, the middle infield options are thin outside of the amazing yet pricey Marcus Semien, Carlos Correa, and Corey Seager. The only acceptable names to me outside of those three are Chris Taylor, Trevor Story, and Javier Baez. Each of those players comes with some uncertainty but are nonetheless big improvements over what options TLR currently has. Getting one of them would be another huge step in assembling a complete team.
There are no doubt a few smaller keys to consider. Jose Abreu and Lance Lynn need to stay productive in spite of their age. Eloy Jimenez must return to form. Frank Menechino has to start understanding the value of fly balls over ground balls. Carlos Rodon or some free-agent pitcher must be able to fill out the rotation adequately. Finally, of course, the team needs to stay healthy. We saw this year how valuable getting the 1 or 2 seed can be in terms of playoff home-field advantage.
All in all, I think the Sox will be a better team in 2022. Almost every valuable piece is returning, Hahn has shown devotion to making moves within his narrow budget, and a few young guys are well-positioned to break out. But the few key pieces I wrote about here are what will largely decide whether the South Siders are AL favorites or merely another contender. Let’s actually “change the game” this time around.
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