Acquired alongside Lucas Giolito and Dane Dunning in a 2016 trade with the Washington Nationals, Reynaldo Lopez has often been a forgotten man for the White Sox. But they never lost track of his present value and future potential, extending him arbitration rights three years in a row, including times when he was a non-tender candidate.
Lopez has become a critical piece of the equation for rookie manager Pedro Grifol.
It’s unclear how Grifol and pitching coach Ethan Katz will utilize the 29-year-old, whose velocity soared after he was moved to the bullpen full time last season. He is a consideration both to fill the void while closer Liam Hendriks is treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and to step into the rotation if Mike Clevinger is suspended or placed on administrative leave following an investigation into domestic violence allegations.
This much is clear: The White Sox need a major contribution from Lopez in his walk season as they head toward spring training with their pitching inventory much lower than they had planned.
Johnny Cueto, a savior after signing a minor-league deal shortly before last season, always wanted a bigger contract than General Manager Rick Hahn was willing to give him. Cueto (Miami) and multiple-innings reliever Vince Velasquez (Pittsburgh) departed to go elsewhere, leaving the Sox down almost 225 innings between them.
They have only four of their top six innings pitchers back, and those four (Dylan Cease, Giolito, Lance Lynn and Michael Kopech) averaged only 146 2/3 innings. The bullpen does have some depth with veterans Kendall Graven, Joe Kelly, Aaron Bummer, Jose Ruiz and Jake Diekman but Clevinger’s uncertain status hangs over the pitching staff.
Clevinger, who was 38-18 with a 2.96 earned run average for Cleveland in 2017-19, recovered from Tommy John surgery to pitch to a 4.33 ERA over 114 1/3 innings for San Diego last season. Hahn signed him to a deal for one year and an option worth $12 million, including a $4 million buyout for 2024.
Clevinger is set to be reunited with Katz, who he coached in the Angels’ minor-league system. Katz told the Athletic his goal is to get Clevinger back to being a “No. 1 or No. 2 in your rotation,” but that process is on hold while MLB continues an investigation it reportedly began during the 2022 season.
The White Sox have said they did not know about the issue when they signed him on Nov. 29, and they weren’t known publicly until a report by the Athletic’s Brittany Ghiroli and Katie Strang a week ago.
Hahn is unlikely to find insurance for the Clevinger situation even if he can add to a payroll that currently projects to be $176 million on Opening Day. Michael Wacha is the most highly regarded option on the market, with Zack Greinke, Dylan Bundy, Chris Archer, David Price, Joe Ross and Chad Kuhl also unsigned.
Lopez joins Davis Martin, Jimmy Lambert, Jonathan Stiever and Jason Bilous among the internal options. But with him delivering a 2.0 fWAR season — his best since ’19 — last season while making 60 relief appearances, the Sox know the value Lopez can bring to the bullpen. He has no experience in the closer role — while he was technically 0-for-5 in save situations last season, he entered the game in the sixth or seventh innings in those appearances — and would be seen as a ninth-inning experiment.
But is he also ready to making a major contribution as a starter? Lopez’s velocity increased from the mid-90s to 97.1 last season, working in tandem with a power slider to produce an 0.951 WHIP and a 4.9 strikeout/walk ratio. He threw curveballs (7%) and changeups (5%) sparingly but Fangraphs’ pitch values rate them as effective pitches, suggesting he has a better pitch mix than early in his career, when he was used as a starter.
Graveman, Kelly, Ruiz, Bummer and Diekman give Grifol and Katz pieces they can use to take a bullpen-by-committee approach while Hendriks is sidelined. That would free up Lopez to take a crack at making 30-plus starts, as he did in 2018 and ’19.
It’s up to his bosses to find the best fit.