Coming off a 2020 season in which they won at a .583 clip and made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the Chicago White Sox swiftly placed more pressure on themselves for 2021. That's because they swiftly parted ways with Rick Renteria, an AL Manager of the Year finalist in his last season at the helm, and made the thoroughly bizarre decision to replace him with the long-retired Tony La Russa. They made that latter decision -- or, reportedly, owner Jerry Reinsdorf made that decision by fiat -- despite knowing that La Russa had again been arrested on suspicion of drunk driving.
That translates to a heavy commitment to the notion that La Russa, age 76 and seemingly of a traditionalist mindset, can get this young roster to reach new heights. If the White Sox in 2021 don't go significantly deeper into the postseason or, worse yet, fail to return to the postseason, then Reinsdorf will look like a meddlesome fool for forcing La Russa upon a dynamic young roster. As such, he'd best be willing to improve the team this offseason.
So how should Reinsdorf and the White Sox best improve La Russa's chances for success in the season to come? Here are four steps:
1. Add a corner outfielder
Ideally, the White Sox would find two corner outfielders and allow young slugger Eloy Jimenez to move to DH. However, Jose Abreu is installed at first base, which means top prospect Andrew Vaughn will likely settle in as the DH at some point next season until Abreu retires or signs elsewhere. Given the current situation, right field seems like the best path for an upgrade.
Last season, Nomar Mazara was supposed to give the Sox some much-needed lefty pop in right field, but that didn't happen. Mazara struggled badly across the abbreviated season, and by the time you read this he may have been non-tendered by Chicago. The ideal solution would be signing top-tier free agent George Springer. Assuming he'd be willing to shift to right from center (Luis Robert should relocate for no one), he'd provide the Sox with a major upgrade at the position.
That, however, may require a nine-figure investment. If Reinsdorf isn't willing to go that high, then perhaps Joc Pederson could be had at a much lower cost and form the dominant half of a platoon with Adam Engel. Robbie Grossman is another possibility. Beyond that, the aforementioned non-tender market figures to be flooded with options. The point is that the current right field situation isn't acceptable for a team with designs on the World Series.
2. Fortify the rotation
Lucas Giolito is a genuine ace, and of note is that new pitching coach Ethan Katz was Giolito's coach in high school. Dallas Keuchel is a worthy No. 2, and youngsters Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning are on hand to provide back end help. Prospect Michael Kopech may also be able to provide some help, but he's not a known quantity given that he hasn't pitched since September of 2018.
So the Sox need some certainty in that rotation, and that's the case even if Carlos Rodon isn't non-tendered. Obviously, signing Trevor Bauer would be the biggest splash of all, but that seems like an improbable pairing of team and free agent right now. A reunion with Jose Quintana makes some sense, and free-agent names like Jake Odorizzi, Corey Kluber, Masahiro Tanaka, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton are also worth consideration and perhaps pursuit. Golly o'crackers, why not a La Russa-Adam Wainwright reunion? As well, the trade market may include a number of valuable arms, Blake Snell reportedly among them.
Realistically, the Sox may need to add a pair of veteran starters in order to feel like they have the rotation they need to make a deep October run. We've already seen significant movement in the starting pitching market, so GM Rick Hahn should work to strike quickly on this front.
3. Find a closer
Last season, Alex Colome was just about perfect in his second go-round as White Sox closer:
Colome, though, is a free agent. Certainly bringing him back should be a consideration, but the Sox should also be open to signing Liam Hendriks, he of the elite fastball-slider combo and a 1.79 ERA and 6.71 K/BB ratio over the last two seasons. Also on the market is lefty Brad Hand, whose option the Indians somewhat inexplicably declined. The resurgent Trevor Rosenthal is available, as well. A riskier acquisition might be Blake Treinen, who's endured some decline since his tremendous 2018 campaign with the A's. Another intriguing possibility is limiting Kopech's innings and giving him a transition year by using him in a relief role in 2021. If the Sox acquire multiple starting pitchers this offseason, then that could be a viable option. They could then let a closer emerge from the returning group or go with a committee approach.
4. Do not acquire a DH
Edwin Encarnacion was the Sox's DH last season, and he endured a poor 2020. While it's fair to dismiss struggles across a 60-game season that was complicated by a global pandemic, the more likely explanation is that the 37-year-old slugger has reached deep decline. As such, the Sox were probably wise to decline his option.
As noted above, prospect Andrew Vaughn is likely in line to be Chicago's DH in 2021, and that's the proper course. Yes, Nelson Cruz is available for hire, and ideally they'd be able to move Jimenez into the role. For now, though, Vaughn should be the regular. The third overall pick of the 2019 draft out of Cal, Vaughn put up quality numbers in his first taste of the pros. He'll be 23 in April and should be ready to contribute at the highest level despite the lost season in 2020. Here's part of what our R.J. Anderson said about Vaughn in his recent ranking of the White Sox's top prospects for 2021:
Vaughn is comparable in many ways to Spencer Torkelson, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. They're both right-handed first basemen from the west coast who have all the tools -- eye, bat speed, strength, feel for contact and making adjustments -- and who should move quickly through the minors before taking their rightful spots in the middle of an order.
Maybe you give Vaughn a couple of weeks in the high minors to start the season, but he should be the primary at DH in Chicago for the vast majority of 2021.
Right now the Sox have less than $90 million in payroll commitments, which means plenty of room to operate on the market. Still, that latitude should be applied toward outfield, rotation, and closer upgrades. DH will be fine with Vaughn as the in-house solution.