BREAKING: White Sox miss out on Hamels, Wheeler

What comes next?

Matthew Rago, Editor-in-Chief

Two days ago, there was speculation that the Chicago White Sox were interested in adding two free agent starting pitchers.  On Wednesday, the White Sox watched their two primary targets sign elsewhere.

The Sox had been tied to former New York Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler and former Chicago Cubs lefty Cole Hamels. Hamels, 35, took to social media to express interest in joining the White Sox, also stating that the team “reached out” to him. However, Hamels instead opted to sign with the Atlanta Braves, with the two sides agreeing to a one-year, $18 million deals. Hamels finished 2019 with a 3.81 ERA over 141.2 innings pitched. Following a midseason trade to the Cubs, Hamels pitched to a 2.36 ERA across 12 starts.

While Hamels would have been a nice back of the rotation addition, the Sox missing out on Wheeler hurts a bit more. The White Sox firmly set their sights on the 29-year-old flame-throwing righty, who in 2017 returned from a two-year injury hiatus. Over the past two seasons, Wheeler has pitched to admirable 3.65 ERA over an aggregate 377.2 innings. Many scouts believe Wheeler, whose repertoire also features an 89 mile per hour changeup and a low-90s slider, is still yet to tap his full potential.

Wednesday, Wheeler agreed to a five-year, $118 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. According to Ken Rosenthal, the White Sox were the highest bidders in the Wheeler sweepstakes, offering upward of $120 million. Per Rosenthal, the deciding factor for Wheeler came down to family considerations, as Wheeler’s wife is from New Jersey, making Philadelphia’s proximity more appealing than a marginally higher bid from the White Sox.

With both Wheeler and Hamels off the table, the White Sox’ offseason plan is in a state of disarray. The signing of catcher Yasmani Grandal was supposed to indicate a turning point for a desolate franchise that has routinely been spurned by their  free agent targets. Instead, the Sox find themselves in a familiar position, forced to passively watch on as premier franchises poach their top targets despite underbidding them.

What Comes Next?

The White Sox have three options remaining. The first option is to scour the bargain bin for a third or fourth-tier starting pitcher. Rich Hill, Wade Miley, and Tanner Roark are all viable, if not underwhelming options. One dark horse candidate that hasn’t generated much buzz is the Braves’ Julio Teheran, whose 3.81 ERA in 2018 was actually better than Wheeler’s 3.98.

The Sox’ second option would be to splurge on a premier free agent starting pitcher, though considering that the club has not yet been

linked to any top-tier starting pitchers thus far, that seems a tad ambitious. Gerrit Cole is the obvious prize of the free agent class, though it has been reported that the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angels are the frontrunners for his services. Stephen Strasburg declined the Washington Nationals’ qualifying offer earlier this offseason, though barring an unreasonable offer from another franchise, all indications point to Strasburg either returning to the Nationals or signing with his hometown San Diego Padres. Madison Bumgarner and Dallas Keuchel are the unknowns. While Keuchel’s market has yet to really materialize as of Wednesday, according to Andy Martino of SNY, the Sox and Minnesota Twins are the foremost suitors for Bumgarner. However, Bumgarner’s market is mere speculation at this juncture.

Short of finding the right fit, the Sox may opt to move forward with their core of young starting pitchers. Last season, Manny Banuelos, Dylan Covey, Ross Detwiler, Hector Santiago, Ervin Santana, Odrisamer Despaigne and Carson Fulmer combined to start 42 games on the South Side. Another 14 games were started by 23-year-old Dylan Cease who, as expected, struggled mightily in his rookie campaign. Of those players, Cease’s 5.79 ERA was the low mark, with Santana and Despaigne each pitching to a 9.45 ERA. Next season, the White Sox won’t have the same problem.

With a 70-grade fastball and a curveball that drops off a cliff, Cease’s pure stuff is simply too electric to replicate his poor showing in 2019.  With a half season of experience under his belt, Cease is expected to take the next step forward in his development. However, he will need to learn to both command his pitches and adapt to major league hitting.

Flamethrowers Michael Kopech and Carlos Rodon are both returning from Tommy John surgery. Additionally, White Sox’ prospect Dane Dunning, acquired in the Adam Eaton trade, is rehabbing from the from the same procedure.  Given the nature of Tommy John surgery, all three are question marks at this point, particularly Rodon, whose extended injury history has derailed a promising career. However, if all three are able to return to form, the Sox’ rotation will look formidable.

All-Star Lucas Giolito had a Cy Young-caliber first half of the season before his performance dipped post-All Star break. Giolito’s chemistry with catcher James McCann and his ability to expertly change speeds makes him a prime candidate for a second consecutive All-Star appearance.

Reynaldo Lopez is the dark horse here. At his best, Lopez is untouchable, combining tantalizing velocity with knee-buckling off-speed offerings. However, Lopez’s inconsistencies have tarnished his reputation, forcing the Sox’ front office to consider a transition to the bullpen if he finds himself unable to bring it all together in 2020.  Lopez has the pure stuff to be a front of the rotation starter. However,  following a laborious 2019, his basement has been lowered from quality starter to bullpen arm.