What-if scenarios about the past aren’t very useful exercises for baseball executives who need to deal with the here and now, and know about 25 other potential moves that almost came to fruition for every one that slips out to the public. And also, they’re only the sort of thing we really took dwell on when the road that was proves to be very bumpy.
But a month before the White Sox signed Dallas Keuchel to a three-year deal to shore up the front of the rotation, their five-year, nine-figure offer to Zack Wheeler was bypassed as he chose to join the Phillies. Wheeler is now in the third year of a run with Philadelphia that has outstripped even the promise he showed entering free agency, and would have made him a crucial cog in a White Sox rotation that has clearly been recently fortified with alternatives so it could absorb a move like cutting ties with Keuchel–as the team did on Saturday.
If Wheeler is in tow, what does the White Sox do with the 2022 resources committed to deals for Johnny Cueto and Vince Velasquez, who both could help account for Keuchel’s immediate innings? Do they finish with a higher postseason seed in 2021 with him, and fare differently in the playoffs because of his presence? If Game 2 of the 2020 Wild Card series in Oakland is started by someone more effective than Keuchel, who struggled after hurriedly working his way back from back spasms that landed him on the injured list, what else changes if a Rick Renteria-helmed White Sox team advances deeper in that season’s playoffs?
The Sox clearly first-guessed whether it was worth it to pursue a different, pricier free-agent starter ahead of the 2020 season, and their difference in confidence was reflected in the difference in length of each player’s contract. But even with that, they were hoping to get closer to squeezing three viable seasons out of Keuchel.
“We certainly got what we expected in 2020 and in the first half or so in ’21,” said general manager Rick Hahn, who spent the early portions of his Saturday session with media lauding the first half of Keuchel’s White Sox tenure. “Unfortunately the latter half of his White Sox career didn’t pan out the way we had hoped. With any free-agent signing, there’s a certain level of expectation, but there’s also reasonable projections involved on our end at least in terms of potential decline. In this case, I’d say the decline occurred a little more precipitously at the end than we anticipated.”
The questions linger because the 2022 White Sox, at least so far, are not what they should be, and it’s hard to figure what brought them to this point of looking so unfamiliar. Two months in, they are floating around .500 with a differential run and eye test that suggests they could be worse. Instead of taking the step toward World Series contention that was supposed to come during Keuchel’s tenure, they are still searching for form as good as the team that was knocked out in the ALDS last year.
The White Sox have $18 million committed to Keuchel this season (fourth-highest salary on the team), but since he was assigned for assignment before the end of May, after what Hahn conceded was a substantial period of discussion, this year’s Sox roster was planned and constructed with this possibility in mind. In the immediate, it’s a blessing for the Sox that their actual answer for who replaces Keuchel is just going to wind up being Lance Lynn in due time. But they also never got to address second base or right field this offseason – or simply just wield their Craig Kimbrel trade chip – without the hindrance of also worrying about how prepared the rotation would be if and when the events of May 28th came about. Everything is connected, even when it isn’t.
Hahn reiterated frequently on Saturday that making a decision to designate Keuchel for assignment did not have broad, team-wide implications. And with the way Keuchel’s work product had declined, he certainly did not have to justify the move. Vince Velasquez has mostly struggled, but still has significantly better numbers than Keuchel’s 7.88 ERA and 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Davis Martin’s major-league debut/spot start showed more stuff and first-strike consistency than Keuchel has touted all year, and he and Velasquez just represent the stopgap options.
“It would be interesting to see how we’re getting to a five-game lead and he’s at the same spot he’s at over the last few months,” said Hahn, when asked if Keuchel would have been allowed more rope if the Sox had an ample AL Central lead to work with. “I don’t think that anything should be read on the decision on Dallas Keuchel beyond it was time to move on from Dallas Keuchel. No one in there needs a message sent via a roster move to one of their teammates. Everyone knows where they stand. They know what our expectations are and they know where improvement needs to take place. That decision was about putting us in the best position to win going forward and feeling like this wasn’t getting it done, this wasn’t cutting it, it was time to do something different. My hope, my sincere hope, is that’s the last such decision we have to make along those lines the rest of the way.”
Given the number of underperformances taking place across the roster currently, that registers more as hope than a firm prediction. But while Keuchel’s second half of 2021 made this moment predictable, the Sox’s struggles largely lie in what seemed like viable solutions heading into the season. Apart from second base, that the Sox were coming into the year expecting Yasmani Grandal, AJ Pollock and Yoán Moncada to be middle of the order maulers didn’t register as cause to lament budget constraints or unsuccessful free agent outlays.
As with his struggling hitters, Hahn made reference to “the back of the baseball card” with Keuchel, in that they wanted to allot a certain amount of opportunity to a proven veteran player to just produce the way they always have. But where as the additions of Cueto and Lynn provided the Sox a path to simply cut bait (and eat money) when nothing changed, the rest of the roster and the rest of this season does not afford a similar level of luxury.
“We know this offense is capable of more and we’ve seen it over the last few seasons,” said Hahn, as the topic shifted to the long-scuffling offense. “When teams struggle as a whole guys try to do a little more to lift everyone up and as a result, guys maybe expand out of the zone and chase pitches they should let go by. In many instances when it comes to the offense, the track record and approach will carry the day.”
Track record did not so easily carry the day with Keuchel, and the decisions for similar problems that lie outside of him won’t be easy either.
(Photo: Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)