Why the Sox chose to spend big on Hendriks and the bullpen


When the offseason started for the White Sox back in October, the list of positions they hoped to address looked an awful lot like it did a year earlier.

In fact, it was exactly the same: right field, designated hitter and the starting rotation.

But just like last year, the biggest splash the team made in free agency ended up being someone who doesn't play any of those positions.

RELATED: After adding Liam Hendriks, Sox are AL's top team

Last winter, it was Yasmani Grandal, the White Sox handing the richest free-agent deal in club history to a catcher while they already had an All-Star backstop on the roster. This winter, it's Liam Hendriks, one of the best closers in baseball who's joining a bullpen loaded with talented young arms. The White Sox gave him a four-year contract worth $54 million.

So why did they do it? Why did the White Sox opt to make their largest allocation of offseason resources to a position that wasn't among their biggest needs, or at least the stated ones?

"We entered the offseason wanting to make multiple improvements," general manager Rick Hahn said Friday. "The rotation, the outfield, ... we've addressed. The bullpen, though, was always on the list.

"I don't think we went into the offseason, necessarily, with the preference as to where the largest commitment was going to come in terms of those categories. We let the market play out and see what was accessible to us.

"Obviously, a premium piece at the back of the bullpen was of great interest and the free-agent market was, in our opinion, the most efficient way to go about doing it despite the cash associated with that acquisition."

The Hendriks acquisition, of course, is different from the Grandal signing a year ago, as the White Sox perhaps didn't have as reliable a closing option to turn to as they did a catching solution in James McCann, at least for the season immediately following the addition. It was a little easier to project that closer was a need, what with Alex Colomé on the free-agent market and all those talented youngsters in the bullpen not having major league closing experience.

Even while Hahn listed guys like Aaron Bummer, Codi Heuer and others as potential options had the White Sox needed to turn to them, it long seemed that installing a proven veteran in that role was the most sensible outcome.

And that's exactly what the White Sox are getting in Hendriks, someone who turned in a phenomenal couple of seasons with the Oakland Athletics after taking over as a full-time ninth-inning man. In 2019 and 2020, he posted a combined 1.97 ERA and saved 39 games.

Now he's the key cog in the South Side bullpen, his very presence allowing the White Sox to continue to describe the relief corps as a strength after a strong 2020 campaign for that unit. Not only does Hendriks bring a dominant style to the ninth inning, he allows all those other pitchers to remain in the roles they flourished in a year ago.

In an offseason where the White Sox have prioritized reliability ahead of a 2021 season with championship expectations, this move — and the big investment that comes along with it — makes all the sense in the world.

"We've all seen over the years, when you lose a key piece in your 'pen, even if it's not the closer spot, if you lose your seventh- or eighth-inning guy, everyone has to sort of step forward. We've seen that sort of discomfort or adjustment period that's required," Hahn said. "Acquiring someone like Liam allows us to keep a lot of our young guys in the role they've grown accustomed to.

"It doesn't mean there might not be a save opportunity, occasionally, along the way, or Tony (La Russa) may go to Liam earlier and one of the kids comes in late to close it. If that happens right now, it's because of the flexibility that's built in as opposed to, in a year in which we have high aspirations, forcing guys into roles that they might not quite be ready for."

Considering how important relief pitching has become, particularly in the postseason, the White Sox can now be confident in how their bullpen will perform as they chase a World Series title. Their $54 million closer gives them that peace of mind.

Click here to subscribe to the White Sox Talk Podcast for free.

Contact Us