At the end of the 2018 season, Reynaldo López was the White Sox most effective starter. Four years later, he emerged as a lethal weapon out of their bullpen. It’s been a crazy journey for the 28-year-old right-hander. But after battling adversity, he has his sight set on the closer role.
During a Zoom session with Scott Merkin of MLB.com, Katz discussed Lopez’s future goals.
“Ultimately, his goal is to be a closer one day,” Katz said. “That’s where I feel like his mind is, and the conversations I’ve had with him, he likes that environment.”
He also added that returning to his role in the rotation probably isn’t in the cards.
“We haven’t had conversations about him starting. He enjoys the role he’s in. If he wants to talk about starting again, we can, but I think he’s happy where he is.”
López has all the tools to be a dominant closer. He throws hard and does not walk, guys. His 4.3 walk rate in 2022 ranked in the top five percent of all MLB pitchers. According to Baseball Savant, his fastball velocity ranks in the 93rd percentile.
López is a two-pitch pitcher that relies heavily on his fastball-slider combo. He does have a changeup and curveball but only throws them 12.7% of the time. The San Pedro de Macorís native posted a career-low 2.76 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and held opponents to a .218 batting average.
New Found Confidence
It took a few years, but it looks like López has finally carved out a role that suits him well. The White Sox López acquired in a package that sent Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals. He immediately became one of the top pitching prospects in the White Sox organization, hoping to develop into a dominant starter. Lopez showed promise in 2018 when he had the lowest ERA amongst White Sox starters with a 3.91 mark.
In 2019 things slowly began to unravel. For whatever reason, he has struggled with consistency. Lopez finished the season with a 5.38 ERA. In 2020 he was jettisoned to the team’s Alternate Training Site to start the season. When he was eventually called up, his ERA imploded to 6.49. The following season, he lost the battle for the fifth starter job to Carlos Rodon, then amassed a 7.62 ERA in Triple-A Charlotte to start the season. It looked like his career in the MLB would be over.
Then in May, López underwent an eye procedure to improve his vision, and everything changed. The surgery repaired both of his and grew his confidence in his command.
“Sometimes I threw pitches with not a lot of conviction,” Lopez said, noting that he couldn’t always see the catcher’s signs. “That was where the problem began. Once they performed surgery, I gained confidence in all my pitches because I was seeing the pitch that the catcher was calling.”
“I’m 200 percent confident in myself and all my stuff.”
With his overpowering stuff complemented by some newfound confidence, could the White Sox make him their closer in 2023?
Roadblock For López
There is one major roadblock for López to become the White Sox closer in the form of Liam Hendriks. As long as Hendriks is on the team, the ninth inning belongs to him. Fortunately for the White Sox, this is an excellent problem to have.
Hendriks has consistently been one of the best relievers in baseball over the last four seasons. In 2021 he was named the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year for the second straight season, becoming the first pitcher to earn the award in consecutive seasons. He led the American League in saves (38), strikeouts (113), WHIP (0.73), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (16.14).
In 2022 the Australian was named an All-Star for the third straight season. His ERA went up a tick in 2022 from 2.54 to 2.81, but he still managed to log 37 saves.
If there is a time to trade Hendriks, it would be now. His stock is still high coming off another All-Star season. His contract also suddenly looks team friendly.
Edwin Díaz reset the closer market by signing a record-breaking five-year deal with a reported value of $102 million with the Mets.
The White Sox signed Hendriks to a four-year deal worth $54 million before the 2021 season. That deal now looks like a steal and makes his two years of control all the more attractive for teams looking for reliever help.
There are lots of contenders that will be in the market for a closer. The Dodgers and Yankees each had issues with their big-name closers. Both Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman were left off the postseason roster.
The Phillies will also be looking for ninth-inning help with three of their top four saves leaders from 2022, Corey Knebel, David Robertson, and Brad Hand, all hitting free agency.
A case could be made that the White Sox should hang onto their All-Star closer for the last two years of his deal. While this is not a bad alternative, there are some warning signs that regression could be on the way.
Hendriks was placed on the 15-day IL on June 14th with a right forearm strain. Forearm strains can be an ominous sign for someone who throws as hard as Hendriks and sometimes is a precursor to elbow issues.
Hendriks also revealed that he has been playing with a tear in his UCL for over ten years.
“I’ve had a tear in my UCL since ’08,” Hendriks told reporters in June. “It’s been there. That’s been manageable. I’ve been able to deal with it. But over the course of this year, my elbow has been constantly inflamed a little more than usual.”
It doesn’t sound like the White Sox will be significant players during free agency, meaning that the only real upgrades could come via trade. The White Sox don’t have to trade Hendriks, but if the price is right, they should seriously consider it with López waiting in the wings.