While the White Sox exercised their $16MM club option on Craig Kimbrel back in November, Chicago GM’s Rick Hahn hinted that the veteran closer could very well be in a different uniform come Opening Day 2022. “What we have to figure out is if it makes the most sense to have Craig in a White Sox uniform going forward or is there a better use of that spot and him perhaps via trade?” Hahn told reporters, thus setting the stage for weeks of trade rumors before the lockout halted all big league trade activity. The signing of Kendall Graveman prior to the transactions freeze also seemed to indicate that Kimbrel would be moved, as the White Sox now had his replacement readied.
Kimbrel’s salary, age (he turns 34 in May), his lack of success in 2019 and 2020, and his struggles after joining the Sox at the trade deadline are all notable obstacles to any deal. The clearest avenue towards a trade might be some kind of swap of unfavorable contracts, with the White Sox moving Kimbrel for another high-salaried player that could be a fit for second base, right field, or another of Chicago’s positions of need. Or, in a longer shot, there might be a bullpen-needy team out there willing to cover most or all of Kimbrel’s contract, with this team less focused on Kimbrel’s aforementioned red flags and more on the incredible numbers he posted for the Cubs during the first four months of the 2021 campaign.
As much as Kimbrel didn’t pitch well post-trade, his early-season dominance can’t be written off. Kimbrel posted a 0.49 ERA, 46.7% strikeout rate, and a 37.2% strikeout-to-walk rate, looking all the world like he’d bounced back to his early-career star form. This performance was why the Cubs were able to command a high price for Kimbrel at the deadline, resulting in the acquisition of Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer from their Windy City rivals.
Declining Kimbrel’s option would’ve meant the White Sox would’ve gotten nothing at all for that big trade outlay. So, as risky as it may seem, exercising Kimbrel’s option and dealing him now might allow the Sox salvage a good return (if obviously not a Madrigal/Heuer return) and get a new player who can help them take that next step forward in the postseason.
But, for all of the Kimbrel trade speculation, there has been far less buzz over the other portion of Hahn’s statement. While it can be assumed that the team’s preference is to work out a trade, what if such an acceptable deal can’t be found, and thus “it makes the most sense to have Craig in a White Sox uniform going forward“?
NBC Sports Chicago’s Vinnie Duber recently explored the challenges of a Kimbrel trade, and floated the possibility that Kimbrel might wind up returning to the White Sox bullpen. “Yes, it would seem quite strange for Hahn to take the seemingly significant step of talking about a Kimbrel trade in the open only to not make a deal,” Duber notes, and yet it isn’t exactly a worst-case scenario for the Sox to have what might be a potentially loaded bullpen.
With closer Liam Hendriks headlining a group of Kimbrel, Graveman, Aaron Bummer, Jose Ruiz, and (depending on how he is deployed) Garrett Crochet, there’s a lot of talent in that relief corps. This type of depth might also be a necessity given the questions in Chicago’s rotation — Carlos Rodon seems likely to sign elsewhere in free agency, Dallas Keuchel struggled in 2021, and Michael Kopech might not yet be ready to assume a full starters’ workload. If the White Sox bullpen can consistently eat three or more innings per game, however, that significantly reduces what is required of the starters, and helps keep them fresh for the playoffs.
This assumes that Kimbrel will be a solid contributor himself in 2022, rather than the homer-prone reliever who allowed five home runs and posted a 5.09 ERA over 23 innings with the ChiSox. As small as that sample size is, Kimbrel’s 36 2/3 innings with the Cubs last season isn’t much larger, so it remains to be seen exactly which Kimbrel might show up next year.
Breaking down Kimbrel’s Sox tenure, it is worth noting that a lot of his problems were contained to two brutal games — ironically, both against the Cubs. Kimbrel allowed three runs over two-thirds of an inning against the Cubs on August 6, and then three more runs against his former team in an inning of work on August 27. Subtract those two outings from the equation, and Kimbrel suddenly has a much more impressive 2.95 ERA over 21 1/3 frames with the White Sox, and only two home runs allowed.
There might also be a more basic reason why Kimbrel didn’t pitch well with the White Sox. The right-hander tossed only 36 total regular-season innings over the 2019-20 seasons, before jumping back up to 59 2/3 IP in 2021. As Jordan Lazowski of the Sox On 35th blog observed, Kimbrel’s fastball velocity declined by 1.7 mph from June to September, leading to a natural decrease in the quality of his fastball, and some mechanical issues that seemed to develop as Kimbrel tried to adjust and compensate.
In theory, if the 2021 season helped get Kimbrel’s arm re-acclimated to an increased workload, it could bode well for the righty to keep things going for all six months of the next regular season (and, the White Sox hope, into October). This is another instance where a deep Chicago bullpen can come in handy, as if Tony La Russa can pick and choose from several quality options for close late-game situations, Kimbrel’s innings can be managed to some extent.
Keeping Kimbrel’s $16MM on the books gives the White Sox less flexibility for other moves this winter, as the Pale Hose are already projected for a team-record high number of roughly $180MM in 2022. Yet, if Hahn and company can move some other money around to get that second baseman or right fielder, or if ownership green-lights more spending, a Kimbrel deal wouldn’t be so critical to Chicago’s post-lockout plans.