With Liam Hendriks, White Sox choose to go big at closer

As many here and elsewhere have noted, Rick Hahn isn’t afraid of inviting your comparisons to the first time he won the winter. Prior to the 2015 season, he traded for one year of a workhorse starter in Jeff Samardzija. This time, it’s Lance Lynn. Six years ago, he plugged a hole in the outfield with a high-floor, low-ceiling outfielder in Melky Cabrera. Adam Eaton became that guy.

Now here comes Liam Hendriks, looking like he’s filling David Robertson’s dual role as the offseason’s four-year closer signing and biggest financial commitment. The White Sox signed him to an odd contract whose guaranteed amount is more certain than the length. He’s going to make $54 million from the White Sox no matter what, including $39 million over the first three years. As for the remainder, it’s either a $15 million club option for 2024, or a $15 million buyout paid out over 10 years.

The unusual structure has something of a precedent, as Paul Konerko has been earning $1 million from the White Sox for the last seven years, and will receive his final payment on July 1. In Konerko’s case, he let the Sox withhold $7 million of his $13.5 million salary in 2013 to spread out from 2014 through 2020 (the one-year contract he signed to wrap up his career pushed back the terms a year). With Hendriks, the deferred money is presented as a stark baseball choice that could result in an insult — paying him $15 million right now to stay, or spreading out $15 million to make him go away. But that’s a problem for Tomorrow Guy, or 2024 Guy to be precise.

There’s nothing to dislike about having Hendriks in the White Sox bullpen. He’s been the best reliever in the game the last couple of years, and the Sox saw up close during the wild card series how much trust he earned from his manager. The Sox needed a pure strikeout guy, and Hendriks delivers an alarming amount of them.

If excitement is muted, it has more to do with Hendriks’ role than the pitcher himself. His work can only be properly enjoyed if his teammates do well enough in the first eight innings. Robertson fell short as the crowning piece of the 2014-15 offseason because he didn’t get enough of those leads. He personally earned his $46 million deal, yet the White Sox did not get their money’s worth because they did not have a single winning season over Robertson’s term.

So when you see Jerry Reinsdorf approving a lot of money for a closer, and not a lot of money or resources toward positions in greater need of an upgrade, it’s fair to wonder if priorities are once again skewed.

In St. Louis, there’s an urban legend that says no building is allowed to rise higher than the Gateway Arch. The idea that no building in Washington D.C. can stand taller than the Capitol is similarly unfounded, but persistent. When Philadelphia finally erected a skyscraper higher than the William Penn statue atop its city hall, it was spun into a curse explaining the lack of sports championships.

Height restrictions, real or imagined, aren’t always so trivial. They often rise from practical implications, like airport flight paths or fault lines. Sometimes they’re used to maintain historical character. That’s where it can get sketchy, because oftentimes those arguments are used to quash density or otherwise cling to a status quo that benefits a smaller and smaller group of people every year.

That’s what comes to mind when the White Sox signed Hendriks for $54 million during the same winter they signed Eaton for $7 million. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the dollar amounts each player received, but we’ve seen that kind of allocation be used in a manner equal parts self-aggrandizing and self-defeating. Hahn can say Reinsdorf opens up the budget for top free agents, but it just so happens that top closers cost a fraction of what top outfielders and top starting pitchers do. It’s part of a budget that self-governs down to a level lower than most teams. The skyline ends up flat, and while everybody can see the real ornate water tower, it’s just a water tower, and not something that attracts visitors and keeps them there.

One key difference: This is Hahn’s second building winter, not his first. He signed Yasmani Grandal for $73 million in November 2019, and Dallas Keuchel will make $74 million if he earns his club option. Robertson’s contract ended up being the biggest commitment of an entire ramp-up, while Hendriks is running third at the moment. That alone reflects a healthier set of priorities.

Not to mention the White Sox went 35-25 last year. The broader amount of young talent on the roster makes it a much better time for a landmark closer than the 73-89 White Sox from 2014. While the Sox’s record in late innings shouldn’t be expected to improve from the last two seasons even with Hendriks aboard, preserving that success rate is just as crucial for securing marginal wins. After seeing Hahn whiff on second-tier relievers in successive offseasons, I welcome him super-solving an issue instead of attempting to finesse it.

Would I have preferred to see that attitude deployed elsewhere? Yes. And maybe they will. They should, whether it’s by ponying up once more, or pouncing on falling prices, although the contracts signed by Hendriks and James McCann show that bargains aren’t yet the norm during a pandemic offseason. The Sox aren’t repeating a mistake by signing a four-year closer. They’ll only be repeating one if they stop focusing on getting him leads.

(Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire)

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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asinwreck

I just had the realization that it is possible the White Sox might think a reunion with Melky Cabrera is a good idea.

roke1960

Now add Brantley/Rosario/Cruz, Q/Kluber/Paxton, and Kurt Suzuki/Flowers and they should be ready to go.

Josh Nelson

Programming News:

  • A new podcast will be released tonight regarding Hendriks signing
  • Michael Fisher of Codify will be our podcast guest for an episode that will be released Friday night. He makes heat maps for Lucas Giolito, Yasmani Grandal, and Hendriks. Patreon supporters can submit your questions to ask Michael on Friday here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/46123727

Eagle Bones

Excellent write-up Jim! Let’s hope they’ve learned their lesson about the value of marginal wins when getting to this point on the win curve.

tommytwonines

Jim, I think you’re being a little generous in your assessment of Robertson’s tenure with the Sox. Didn’t he lead the league in blown saves his first two seasons of that contract? But we’ll always have Blake Rutherford and Tito Puente.

Last edited 1 year ago by tommytwonines
Eagle Bones

Blown saves, while relevant, may not be the best stat to judge the overall performance of a reliever. He was quite good.

Oddvark

Not disagreeing, but from a purely emotional perspective when watching games, blown saves are the absolute worst!

tommytwonines

As I recall, he was very good during his half-year third season with the Sox, which led to the Yankee trade (thank you Kahnle) that hasn’t panned out except as a salary dump. Am I missing something? The first two seasons were not good.

LuBob DuRob

I guess you could argue his 2016 season was not good given his contact, but 2015 stats are good.

HallofFrank

He’s probably wasn’t what the Sox were hoping for, but he wasn’t bad. In fact, he’s tied for 7th (with Liam Hendriks, of all people) among AL relievers during that stretch in fWAR.

If anything, it shows the value of spending. He was a (relative) disappointment but he was still one of the top players in baseball at his position.

Eagle Bones

Not good based on what metric? I mean I guess his ERA was just good rather than great the first two years, but I would put more of that on the Sox defense than him. His fielding independent and park neutral numbers were quite good. It wasn’t like some dynamite contract win for them, but he was a very good pitcher and earned that contract.

tommytwonines

Blown saves for a high-priced closer is not a metric? How about WAR value per dollar/salary? That was a winner?

Eagle Bones

I didnt say its not a metric, I just dont think its necessarily representative of a reliever’s performance level. Blown saves are often a matter of sequencing and bad luck. Like I said, by most fielding independent and park neutral stats (fip, xfip, fip-, xfip-, siera), he was quite good.

Last edited 1 year ago by Eagle Bones
To Err is Herrmann

The White Sox, or Tony LaRussa, or someone must have really wanted Hendricks. They paid through the nose. Well, at least they did something. Reinsdorf’s self-imposed salary cap is kind of strange — it doesn’t seem to be an overall cap but a cap by position. I have learned to accept and surrender to what I cannot control, and Jerry Reinsdorf and the White Sox front office is at the top of that list. Go Sox — continue to astound and surprise.

dwjm3

Reinsdorf’s cap is zero 100 plus million dollar contracts. With that cap you pretty much can’t get any true superstar players in free agency.

The cap largely cosigns us to three to four year contracts with free agents.

Last edited 1 year ago by dwjm3
Un Perro

I don’t know, the comparisons don’t seem quite right.

Trading Dunning for Lynn was (IMHO) a bad deal, but Lynn is better than Shark and Semien had a much higher floor than Dunning, so that deal isn’t really all that comparable. That Semien trade was just all kinds of stupid given his minor league track record.

One year of Eaton v. a multiyear deal to Melky also doesn’t work. Melky was a garbage defender and Eaton at least has that covered. The bigger question is why Rick wasn’t looking at Dahl.

Finally — Robertson was about the only guy in that transaction flurry who worked out. He was very good for the Sox and, while his trade return was nil, I’d do that signing again in a heartbeat. It’s a little weird that they didn’t look at Brad Hand first, but this money isn’t unreasonable for the top talent in the game.

While I still think that Hahn may be the worst GM in baseball, these transactions are far more defensible than prior years.

MrStealYoBase

Hahn may be the worst GM in baseball

Jeff Bridich would like a word.

andyfaust

Hawk Harrelson on line two…

asinwreck

Notably, Bridich, like Hahn, is responsible for dealing with the….quirks of ownership. Not saying these men don’t have their faults, but consider the Monforts and Jerry Reinsdorf in what happens on their teams.

Oddvark

Whenever I hear comments like “Hahn may be the worst GM in baseball”, it always strikes me as a commonly seen reverse-homerism. Fans frequently overvalue their teams’ players (especially prospects) and over-hate their teams’ front offices.

It’s not just about Hahn and the White Sox, but something you’ll see on almost any team’s fan sites.

Un Perro

We can go deal by deal through what he’s done since he’s been in charge, but other than the McCann signing and the Eaton acquisition I’m hard pressed to think of a solid “win”. I suppose you could give him points for the Cuban connection. They did bring in Abreu and Robert, but I question how much of that is attributable to the GM. Most teams in baseball would have jumped at the opportunity to do those deals. And I do understand that he’s been hamstrung by ownership, to an extent.

But on the other side of the ledger, look through his transactions and find a win. His history as a GM has been FA misses and trades that come back to bite us in the ass. And don’t give him credit for the white flag. Anyone could have traded Sale, Q, and Eaton into a solid core of prospects. Maybe some of the cheap contract extensions to lock up additional years. But there are too many Semien, Flowers, and LaRoche-style headscratchers to conclude that he’s close to competent.

I have to admit the possibility that I’m a reverse homer on this one. But when we all sit here in real time, point out the terrible aspects of his decisions, and then see them come to fruition, I really don’t see why anyone would defend him anymore.

HallofFrank

Yes, reverse homer-ism: we are more critical of Hahn because we see all of his failures.

Hahn has done plenty worthy of criticism, but he’s also built what very well may be the best team in the AL—and perhaps the best team in the AL last season…until they clinched.

For solid “wins”, I would count the Sale, Q, and Eaton trades as solid wins and likely soon followed by the Sale trade. They are the defining moves of Hahn’s tenure, as they encompass his failures (couldn’t win with that core) and successes (increased their value with team friendly deals; flipped them for mass of prospects).

Abreu and Robert count, obviously, but I’d add the Grandal and Keuchel signings, as both of those look good. And, though we’ll have to wait to judge it, I’m a big fan of the Lynn trade.

You can say “anyone could have traded Sale, Q, and Eaton into a solid core of prospects,” but “a solid core of prospects” does not necessarily translate to MLB success. Look at the returns the Tigers got for Verlander or the Marlins got for Yelich. The fact is, prospects aren’t a sure thing, so to get a *major,* all-star caliber contributor from each of those three deals is nothing short of remarkable.

Un Perro

You could seriously fault him just as much for trading away prospects who are all-starts now, then, in trades that weren’t nonsensical at the time. Montas, Bassitt, and of course Tatis. I don’t fault him for any of those, because nobody really projected at the time what they’d actually become, but the knife cuts both ways. So for you to say “prospects aren’t a sure thing” concedes that you are dealing in probabilities, and high end roster talent should merit high probability prospects. I don’t credit that point at all.

Only a fool would haven taken issue with Abreu or Robert at the time of the transaction, so why would he get credit for the obvious move? I’m about as inclined to give credit to Minnie Minoso for those deals. Maybe you could say the Abreu extension, which I thought was an overpay, but we’ll see how the last two years of that contract work out. Hopefully I continue to be wrong on that one.

Grandal and Keuchel have performed at roughly contract value (unless you go by ERA or FG’s laughably absurd pitch framing values for catchers) so I guess you’re arguing that at least they aren’t the awful FA contracts he’s given in the past? In my mind those are solid moves but it’s not like the recent Texas pitcher deals, where they paid for used sedans and got racecars.

I really don’t see anything in here that changes my mind at all.

HallofFrank

I must be misunderstanding you because this sounds nonsensical to me. As I understand it, you’re making two basic claims:

(A) A GM gets no credit for “dealing in probabilities,” or hitting/missing on prospects in trades.

(B) A GM gets gets no credit for moves that look good at the time.

I don’t even know what to say to A. Yes *of course* trading Montas, Bassitt, and Tatis for what he got in return goes against his record. Part of a GM’s job (and of those under him) is to evaluate prospects. Do you think evaluating prospects is not part of his job?

I can’t see any other way around B being nonsensical. Just because no one takes issue with it doesn’t make it a good move, nor vice versa. You call it “obvious” but why didn’t the other 29 GM’s make it? Why didn’t they outbid him?

As for Grandal and Keuchel – “roughly contract value” according to what? It sounds like you want to cherry pick your own metric for what counts as “worth it.” But by pretty much any metric, Grandal and Keuchel were *at least* worth what they were paid—if not more. And, yes, that is a win for Hahn. That is literally his job. It sounds like you want to label all of his good results as “obvious” when they are, well, not.

A genuine question: if, as seems likely at this point, the White Sox are a perennial contender over the next 5 years and consistency find themselves in the playoffs and maybe even make a deep run or two, would you maintain that Hahn is the worst GM in baseball?

MrStealYoBase

Only a fool would haven taken issue with Abreu or Robert at the time of the transaction, so why would he get credit for the obvious move?

Rusney Castillo comes to mind.

Or Daisuke Matsuzaka. Or Kei Igawa.

Does Lucius Fox ring a bell? Top ranked international amateur in 2015? Signed for more than Vlad Jr., Juan Soto, & Tatis Jr. combined.

But you’re right. The Abreu and Robert signings were totally without risk. Evaluating international players, especially ones who play in a country shut off from the rest of the western world, is a trivial exercise.

Last edited 1 year ago by MrStealYoBase
Oddvark

I’m not even really trying to defend Hahn as a great GM. There are definitely things deserving of criticism. It’s just the “worst” GM hyperbole that caught my eye.

And your response kinda confirmed my suspicions of “reverse-homerism”. Hahn gets little to no credit for good results (including Abreu, Robert, Moncada, Kopech, Giolito, Dunning/Lynn, Jimenez, Cease, Madrigal, Vaughn, Crochet, Bummer, Grandal, Keuchel, Hendriks). All of those international signings, trades, extensions, draft picks, and free agent acquisitions were standard moves that any GM would have made. OK.

But the moves that didn’t work out, they must be proof that he is terri-bad, even if many of them looked at least reasonable at the time they were made, and even if he was financially constrained in making them, and even if pretty much every other GM has many similar deals that didn’t work out.

I think this is how many people perceive their favorite team’s front offices. Not much credit for making “obvious” moves, all the blame for moves that don’t result in success.

Un Perro

Why “hyperbole”? There aren’t many baseball GMs and I think Hahn is in the conversation for bottom 3. I’ve only seen Bridich’s name mentioned and that team also has Arenado, Blackmon, and Story — and they’ve also had one more winning season than Hahn in less time.

And w/r/t drafting, I mean, I guess you’re suggesting that the Sox have been good in that department? I love me some Tim Anderson but you really can’t be serious if that’s your argument. And yes, the rest of those all were obvious moves. “OK”, in your words.

So I’ll give Hahn credit for the couple things he’s done right but he’s done far more things wrong. And the places where he turned in a “C” you’re using to claim he’s not the worst, but I haven’t seen you actually identify any worse GM during that tenure.

lifelongjd

He’s the GM for one of the current favorites to win AL/World Series and you rank him as a bottom 3 GM? Jeez, your standards are pretty high.

MarketMaker

most teams wouldn’t have given him so many years to get his first playoff appearance. so while a good forward projection is nice, it’s not like his track record matches it.

MrStealYoBase

There aren’t many baseball GMs and I think Hahn is in the conversation for bottom 3

In the interest of adding some other names to Bridich as inarguably bottom 3:

Dayton Moore: 15 seasons, 3 winning ones and 1 division championship

Jerry Dipoto: One division championship & playoff appearance in 11 seasons. 5 of which included Mike Trout

Half of all current GMs have been on the job 4 seasons or less. I don’t know if it’s even possible to compare them to more established names. What have Farhan Zaidi or Mike Elias done to put themselves above Hahn? Or below him?

Heck, is this even a fair exercise at all? Given 23 tries at it and the resources of the Yankees, I’m sure there are people who could be doing better than Brian Cashman. Dan Dombrowski has built his contenders on the backs of free agent spending and “obvious” moves, as you call them. AJ Preller failed miserably in his first attempt to be competitive. His second chance has the benefit of ownership willing to spend tremendously in free agency and on the international market.

I’m not a Hahn defender. I often push back against the people who blindly say that he’s one of the best GMs. But I also don’t think he’s one of the worst. And like others have said if you take a myopic view to the resumes of any GM who has been around as long as he has, you are not going to come away happy.

Un Perro

I really don’t know how to speak to “real time excitement”. But a one year reclamation project on the cheap is a lot better than throwing a lot of money at a DH masquerading as a LF. Lynn is better than Shark and Semien was higher-upside than Dunning. Those aren’t really post-hoc rationalizations – it’s what I and others said at the time. We can go back look through the SSS comments but your recollection seems different than mine.

I’m hoping the Hendriks deal works out as well as the Robertson deal. If he performs to expectations like Robertson did, then we have arguably the game’s best reliever for the next four years for not much money, comparatively speaking.

Eagle Bones

That was not the widespread thinking on Melky and Samardzija at the time.

Oddvark
MarketMaker

hendriks has been ridiculously good. he put up a 3.9fWAR season in 2019 and was on pace to beat it in 2020. tons of strikeouts, few walks and even fewer HRs? this is a really rare breed of reliever dominance and it’s going to be fun to watch, even if colome’s efficacy means it won’t translate to more wins. i’m happy with this signing.

also, i don’t think enough is being said of the fact that he’s gives you dominance in volume. he’s thrown the 2nd most innings of any reliever in baseball since 2019.

GrinnellSteve

I’m curious as to whether this was a signing pushed by LaRussa, Katz, Hahn, or the analytics staff. Presumably it was some combination of all 4, but someone had to be the champion of the deal or they could have gone in an effective but cheaper direction.

I’m not criticizing; just wondering.

MrStealYoBase

Hahn’s failures in free agency are well noted. But the hit rate on guys with $20M+ guarantees are pretty good so far. If they want to be the kings of the mid-tier of free agency, that’s a strategy that they can make work. But for the love of god they need to do something to increase their hit rate on guys in the lower tier.

And all of this flexibility they’ve purposely built in for 2024 better mean that they do what it takes to keep Giolito around.

Michael Kenny

Hahn can say Reinsdorf opens up the budget for top free agents, but it just so happens that top closers cost a fraction of what top outfielders and top starting pitchers do.

I really think this is what’s happening. Why spend $300M on the best position player when you can spend $46M/54M on the best closer? You get the best player in his respective market either way, and now you can say you went all-in to get the best player.

SonOfCron

Just in case your question wasn’t rhetorical, the short answer would be because the best position players tend to provide more WAR per season, more reliably, over a longer period of time than the best relief pitchers.

Michael Kenny

It was rhetorical. It’s not a very smart strategy.

I had to resist the temptation to argue on Twitter as to whether I’d rather have Manny Machado ($300M), or Hendriks/Keuchel/Grandal/Robert/Moncada ($367.5M). Honestly, maybe the dumbest false choice I’ve ever encountered.

Eagle Bones

Whoever asked that question needs to go to baseball re-education camp as they have been brainwashed by the owners and their media mouthpieces.

lifelongjd

Definitely an interesting take, one that I didn’t even consider. Spending at the top of the market for closers and catchers is very White Sox, and an against the grain strategy. Although, the circumstances for 2021 are different. This is a team on the rise and spending in the margins makes more sense than it did last time. In 2014 it seemed more of the FO trying to pay their way into contention.

Overall, I’m happy they spent the money and the team is much better than yesterday. It pushes talent down as well. Maybe this signifies their future plans with Crochet as a starter?

Eagle Bones

FG’s Craig Edwards like the move for the Sox. This snippet seems especially relevant:

All that said, Hendriks is not most relievers. A few years ago, Jeff Sullivan took a look at good relievers and how sustainable their performance is long-term and found that their production held up at a comparable rate to position players. Going back even further, I found that elite relievers like Hendriks with projections in the win and a half range or higher were much more likely to reach those numbers than the merely good relievers. There’s always going to be risk associated with any player, but Hendriks is the type of pitcher worth splurging on.

https://blogs.fangraphs.com/in-liam-hendriks-white-sox-get-free-agencys-best-reliever/

John SF

Jim sneaking some YIMBY a Market urbanism metaphors into this analysis is my favorite couple graphs of the entire year.

TCBullfrog

I’ve lived in St. Louis about 20 years now and I’ve never heard the legend about the Arch