The White Sox Have a Kimbrel Problem

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The Chicago White Sox were serious contenders in 2021, or so it seemed. while they were somewhat exposed by the more experienced Astros in the American League Divisional Series, the Sox held a solid lead in the American League Central for much of the season and were not seriously threatened in the second half. Still, they were a team in obvious need of a couple of upgrades if they were to challenge for a World Series title. So, at the trade deadline, the White Sox made several trades that, at least on paper, made them stronger and deeper in critical areas. Even though they ultimately came up short, general manager Rick Hahn did pull the trigger on some big trades.

The one trade that stands out for most Sox fans (for various reasons), was the trade that saw Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer shipped to the North Side for closer Craig Kimbrel. The trade was cheered by some and jeered by some, based on his or her opinion of Madrigal. Yet, the trade made sense on paper – for 2021, anyway. Madrigal was out for the season, and the Sox needed some help in the back end of the bullpen. Kimbrel was available, so why not make the deal? What contender wouldn’t love to add a Hall of Fame closer to their bullpen for the postseason run?

And Then, Reality Hit the South Side

As any White Sox fan can tell you, the Craig Kimbrel trade did not work out well for the South Siders. The vision was to have Kimbrel come in and pitch the eighth inning and set up the ninth inning for the Sox ace closer, Liam Hendriks. Again, on paper, it looked and sounded good. After all, Kimbrel was outstanding for the Cubs in the first half. He racked up 23 saves for a bad team and compiled an earned run average of 0.49. In addition, he posted a WHIP of .709 and a K/9 innings of 15.7. These numbers are beyond other-worldly, as Kimbrel had about as good a first half as a reliever could have. Sadly, for Sox fans, Kimbrel came nowhere near replicating these numbers on the South Side. In 24 games for the Sox, Kimbrel had an ERA of 5.09 and a WHIP of 1.217. The trade was a total failure.

The White Sox Double Down on Kimbrel

So, as all fans know, some trades work and some fail, and you just have to move on to the next season. Madrigal and Heuer are gone, and the Sox need to address the bullpen. However, Kimbrel had a team option for 2022 that was worth $16 million. Surely, after his miserable performance in 2021, the White Sox would just refuse the option and allow him to become a free agent. After all, Hendriks is signed for at least two more years, Kimbrel was an abysmal failure as a set-up man, and $16 million would sure help the team strengthen other areas. Yet, in a shock to some, on November 6th, the Sox picked up Kimbrel’s option for 2022, and are on the hook for the $16 million.

Fast forward to today, and the ongoing MLB lockout. Since picking up Kimbrel’s option, the White Sox added setup man Kendall Graveman to the fold with a three-year contract worth $24 million. As things stand here in mid-January, the Sox have three closers signed for 2022 at a combined cost of around $37 million. This includes the failed setup man Kimbrel, who has the highest contractual obligation of the three. This also includes the AL Reliever of the Year (Not Kimbrel, but Hendriks). A reasonable person could look at this situation and wonder just what in the world the Sox were thinking when they picked up Kimbrel’s option.

The White Sox Kimbrel Problem

It appears that the White Sox do, in fact, have a Kimbrel problem. First of all, it makes no sense to have so much money committed to the closer/setup man position. Secondly, Kimbrel failed miserably in the setup role. Thirdly, Graveman transitioned seamlessly from a closer role to setup duty when he was traded to the Astros. So, the team would appear to have a setup man (Graveman) and a closer (Hendriks) in place for the 2022 season. Where in the world would they use Kimbrel – in the seventh inning? Why would they expect him to succeed there when he could not pitch effectively in the eighth inning?

Possible Solutions

Several potential solutions have been suggested to address the issues in the back of the bullpen, mostly on social media. One such solution would be to use Kimbrel in the eighth inning, assuming that his 2021 performance was just an aberration. Some have suggested that the Sox switch Kimbrel and Hendriks, as Kimbrel has been a successful closer for a longer time period. Surely, Hendriks would go along with this, right? Even though he was signed to be the team closer? Or, how about keeping him until the trade deadline and “see how it goes?” These two solutions don’t really make a lot of sense, and should not be under consideration. The only option that makes sense, then, is to trade Kimbrel.

Yet, even trading Kimbrel has become complicated for Rick Hahn and the Sox. It seems that the Sox would have had a trade in place before picking up his option. Now with the lockout underway, the window shrinks with each passing day. In addition, the addition of Graveman makes Kimbrel even more expendable, possibly lowering his trade value. Teams now know that Hahn may be somewhat desperate to unload the veteran closer. Again, this could affect the return the Sox may get in any trade. Trading him at the deadline means that he would be around for almost four months, which makes no sense. In any event, the White Sox created unnecessary problems for themselves when they picked up Kimbrel’s option. Sox fans hope that these problems will be corrected by October. We will see.

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Mike Fisk is a lifelong baseball fan. For him, there is nothing like being at a baseball game, with the sights, the sounds, the smells. Writing about baseball is a bonus!