White Sox offseason: How potential exodus could create bullpen need

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How potential bullpen exodus could create big need for Sox originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Evan Marshall is reportedly slated for Tommy John surgery, according to The Athletic, likely painting him out of the Chicago White Sox' bullpen picture for 2022.

That might not register too highly on the offseason Richter scale for a lot of White Sox fans, who despite Marshall's late-season effort to get healthy enough to pitch in the playoffs couldn't forget about the 5.60 ERA he posted in 27 appearances during the first half of the regular season.

But Marshall might not end up the only arm plucked out of the South Side bullpen for next season, and it's quite possible Rick Hahn's front office could be staring at a winter in which relief help is a major need.

RELATED: How Sox could add to starting rotation this winter

Obviously, the team spent big on a closer last offseason, giving a huge free-agent payday to Liam Hendriks, who showed he was worth the investment with a dazzling All-Star season in 2021, one that ended with American League Reliever of the Month honors in September, even if it didn't end with him blowing away the Houston Astros in critical October appearances.

The team also tried to bolster the bullpen with a trade-deadline splash for Craig Kimbrel, but that didn't work out, Kimbrel struggling in an unfamiliar setup role. Part of the allure of bringing Kimbrel aboard — and part of what eased the blow of sending Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer to the North Side in return — was the 2022 option on Kimbrel's contract. But after a couple months of clunky performances and woeful results, it wouldn't surprise to see Kimbrel ousted from next season's relief corps, whether by the White Sox declining the option or as USA Today's Bob Nightengale outlined, picking up the option and finding Kimbrel a new home via trade.

That's two back-end relief arms possibly gone, then. But wait there's more.

Ryan Tepera was the more successful of the two relievers acquired from the Chicago Cubs at the deadline. He pitched very well in a setup/back-end role and would figure to be well equipped to take on a similar role next season. But Tepera is heading to free agency, where good, back-end relievers are always a hot commodity. Even after his "sketchy stuff" comments riled up the Astros ahead of a 10-1 thumping in Game 4 of the AL Division Series, the White Sox would be wise to try to lock Tepera into their plans for 2022. But who knows who else will come calling, making for another potential departure.

Then there's Michael Kopech, who had a fine season as a reliever after returning from a two-year absence from the major league mound. For much of the campaign, he was one of Tony La Russa's most reliable relief arms, flashing an ability to take on multiple roles, either as a multi-inning weapon or a late-inning option. Kopech's year wasn't all sunshine and lollipops, though, as he owned a 6.43 ERA from the trade deadline on and gave up three runs in each of his two appearances in the ALDS. All the same, Kopech has been forecasted to make the jump to the White Sox rotation since last spring, and unless Hahn & Co. want to dramatically reshape that group after a disappointing postseason, that's the likely spot for Kopech in 2022.

A similar, though longer term plan exists for Garrett Crochet, too, who's expected to be a major league starting pitcher eventually. He was one of La Russa's more called on arms out of the 'pen late in the season, making his relief appearance in Game 2 against the Astros unsurprising, even if it caused a ton of fan consternation. When will the transition begin for Crochet? Good question. Considering he's had literally zero minor league experience, it would make sense that the White Sox would want to get him up to starting speed there before throwing him into a big league rotation that plans on contending for some time. The timing of that move could prove interesting, making it a bit of a question mark whether Crochet will be back in the major league 'pen next season.

Add it all up, and that's potentially a ton of departures from the South Side relief corps.

Hendriks and setup-man supreme Aaron Bummer aren't going anywhere. Reynaldo López would seem a strong candidate to return in the long-man/starting-depth role he flourished in this past season. But if all these relievers or any combination of them are no longer options in the bullpen, for one reason or another, Hahn could have some work to do in stocking a 'pen that was viewed as such a strength and source of depth before and throughout the 2021 season.

It could mean expanded roles for already-present arms like José Ruiz, Ryan Burr, Jace Fry and Jimmy Cordero, the latter of which didn't pitch in 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Or it could mean a trip to baseball's supermarket, where free-agent shopping could mean a long look at shelves stocked with available relievers. The list is a long one, so there's not much use targeting individuals this early in the game, as is the case at other positions, perhaps. Certainly the White Sox have their own wish list.

But the point is that with a hole at second base, a possible opportunity to add in right field and fans clamoring for change in the starting rotation, the bullpen could be as great a need as any for the White Sox, adding more to Hahn's offseason work, which has started much earlier than he and the team hoped it would.

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