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The better case for Hendriks is what he can do for the bullpen’s big picture in high leverage situations. Both the White Sox (32-0) and A’s (24-0) were undefeated with ninth-inning leads in 2020. Hell, the Indians were in between them at 28-0, but that didn’t stop them from releasing Brad Hand, rather than paying their closer a previously reasonable net amount of $9 million for his option (he was in line for a $10 million salary, but Cleveland had to pay his $1 million buyout).
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The separation comes innings earlier:
Leading after White Sox Indians Athletics
Seventh 27-3 28-2 25-0
Eighth 30-2 28-2 24-0
Ninth 32-0 28-0 24-0
Perhaps the White Sox could promote Codi Heuer to the closer role, and he could be just as successful as a more proven option for a fraction of the price. Were that to happen, I wouldn’t question whether Heuer has the mettle for the last three outs, but whether the Sox have the depth to compensate for his absence in earlier innings.
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And they might! When healthy, Aaron Bummer and Garrett Crochet are as tough as it gets from the left side, and it’d be hard to ask for more from Evan Marshall the last two years, or Matt Foster in his rookie season. If Tyler Johnson or Zack Burdi can finish the development on their sliders at the highest level, depth shouldn’t be a problem. It’d be nice to add a right-hander with a track record, but he wouldn’t necessarily have to come at Hendriks’ cost.
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Health just happens to be a sizable caveat. Four of those six players spent time on the injured list the last two years, and Game 3 of the wild card series pivoted toward disaster on Crochet departing with forearm issues. That adds a little more urgency to the idea of reinforcing the bullpen.
So what about cost? Again, Hendriks seems like overkill at a four-year commitment, but here’s where Hahn’s ugly free agent track record looms over the proceedings. In each of the last two winters, Hahn has tried to introduce one of those proven righties to add bulk to Rick Renteria’s medium- and high-leverage options, and both were disasters. Kelvin Herrera came to the White Sox on a two-year, $18 million deal after the 2018 season. He posted a 6.54 ERA over his White Sox career, which ended early in the 2020 season when every appearance only made him come closer to his vesting option.
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The White Sox made a similar, less costly move in signing Steve Cishek for one year and $6 million, but he too was designated for assignment before the end of his contract after delivering the exact opposite of his profile.
The Sox’s issues with the bullpen are the same as the rest of the roster, in that they struggle solving problems with free agents unless they spend a problem-solving amount of money on free agents. Hendriks would require that kind of investment, which at least gives increased assurance that he’d give the White Sox something over his time on the South Side.
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I still don’t think Hendriks is necessary, at least at the expense of upgrades at DH or starter depth. The White Sox aren’t a year away from contending, but they are a year away from being rock-solid in their projectability, so I’d rather see those kind of resources directed to their most acute pain points. Lynn is great because he addresses the issues with rotation depth and innings. Adam Eaton doesn’t quite do the same for right field, or their issues hitting right-handed pitching, due to his injury history.
If the White Sox’s problem-solving money is limited, I’d rather use it to solve the active problems, rather than speculative sore spots. Just like clutch-hitting woes can be offset by increasing the number of scoring chances, any potential issues stemming from the lack of a name-brand closer can be first softened by generating more leads, then revisited at the trade deadline.
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It’s been a long, slow ascent for Burdi after his post-surgery velocity tanked into the low-90s (he had TJ in 2017). Once parked in the 97-102 range, he was living 90-92 early on in the 2018 Fall League and was shut down with fatigue. In 2019, he was back in the 94-97 range, topping out at 99, then sat 96-99 and touched 100 during his 2020 big league debut. Burdi was knocked around in a limited major league jaunt and his velocity slowly declined (though always remained good) during that stretch. Just based on his — and perhaps unfairly, his brother’s — injury history, I think the industry will always value Burdi a little lower than his talent, which is that of a late-inning reliever.
It’s odd and perhaps a bit of a yellow flag that he was hit so hard in 2020, but I’m still betting on the combination of velocity and two good secondary pitches and project Burdi as a third bullpen banana. His slider is short and cuttery but it’s really hard, in the 88-92 mph range, and it has biting two-plane movement when it’s located right. His low-90s changeup also has bat-missing tail. All three pitches are capable of missing bats, Burdi just needs to execute more consistently. During his big league action this year, I noticed he’d alter his position on the rubber depending on the handedness of the opposing hitter. I don’t know how long Burdi has been doing that or if it’s a thing he’s yet comfortable with, so perhaps he experienced a learning/feel curve in 2020. (Alternate site, MLB)