The White Sox took one major gamble at the trade deadline. They sent .305 career hitter Nick Madrigal across town to acquire Craig Kimbrel from the Cubs, and the next couple of months will show whether that was a wise investment.
It will also show if the Sox should continue to spend so heavily on closers. They hold a $16-million option on KImbrel for 2022 while Liam Hendriks will earn $13 million as he moves into the second year of his complicated four-year, $54-million deal (with $15 million deferred if he’s cut loose after 2023).
They are spending about $16.3 million to pair Hendriks and Kimbrel this season. General Manager Rick Hahn swallowed hard and recommended the move after watching a heralded collection of bullpen arms struggle to get leads to Hendriks over the first four months of the season.
In addition to adding a strong Hall of Fame candidate to work the eighth inning, the idea was that Kimbrel would keep Hendriks fresh for the postseason. It’s the job of Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa to have his first-place team as sharp as possible to try to give owner Jerry Reinsdorf a second World Series title in his 41 years in charge of the South Side franchise.
With a 10-game lead over Cleveland in the American League Central, the White Sox should make September more about preparation than survival. They have one of the deepest starting rotations in baseball, ranking second to Houston in the AL with a 3.51 starter ERA, likely giving them leads to protect in October.
Hendriks has been one of baseball’s top closers this season but through the first half of the season was on pace to work 70 innings over 74 appearances. He worked 85 innings for Oakland in 2019 — and threw a clean inning in the A’s Wild Card Game loss to Tampa Bay — so his durability doesn’t appear to be a major issue.
While Hendriks’ ERA is 4.24 in the second half, he’s essentially been as reliable as he was earlier in the year. The better judge could be the small difference between his .763 WHIP in the first half and an .882 WHIP in the second half, when his strikeouts per inning have actually increased. His career-best strikeout-nine ratio of 14.9 includes 15.4 per nine in the second half.
The acquisition of Kimbrel hasn’t caused Hendriks’ use to shrink by much. He remains on pace to work 69 innings over 68 games, only a slight drop from where he was when Kimbrel was added (71 2/3 innings in 72 appearances).
Kimbrel, who went to his eighth All-Star Game earlier this year, is having a difficult transition from Wrigley Field to Guaranteed Rate Field. He had an 0.49 ERA in 39 games for the Cubs, earning 23 saves, but that ERA stands at 2.06 entering the last night of August.
It would be easy to conclude Kimbrel is making the off-season decision on his contract a no-brainer — he’s allowed four home runs in 11 1/3 innings — but the reality is he will be judged by how he pitches in October and September, not August.
It’s an oversimplification to say Kimbrel is having trouble pitching in non-save situations. His worst performance for the White Sox came in a blown save against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on August 6. His season ERA in non-save situations (2.33) is only slightly higher than in save situations (1.88) this year.
Kimbrel says all the right things when he’s interviewed, especially that he’s fine working as a set-up man for Hendriks. But he’s been scored on in five of 11 appearances since the trade. He needs a strong September to build confidence for October.
Neither Kimbrel nor Hendriks have a great record in the postseason.
Kimbrel earned seven saves in his work for Atlanta, Boston and the Cubs — including one for the Red Sox in the 2018 World Series — but his postseason ERA is 3.68. Hendriks has a 4.97 postseason ERA, with his one save coming for Oakland against the White Sox in last year’s Wild Card series.
La Russa’s experience should be helpful for both. He has maximized the success of his bullpens throughout his managerial career, guiding the A’s and the Cardinals to three championships combined.
La Russa’s teams are 70-58 in the post-season. That .543 winning percentage is a tick better than he delivered in the regular season (.537).
His only mission this time around is to win a championship for Reinsdorf. If he pulls it off, the White Sox might just find a way to pay their two closers a combined $29 million as they chase an encore performance.
If he doesn’t, it is going to be painful for White Sox fans to watch Madrigal compete for batting titles in a Cubs uniform.