Paul Sullivan: Trading Dylan Cease means it’s full steam ahead for the Chicago White Sox’s Rebuild 2.0

It was only three years ago the Chicago White Sox looked as if they could have a solid rotation for years, headed by Carlos Rodón, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech.

All four had no-hit stuff, and Rodón and Giolito recorded no-hitters in Sox uniforms.

But the best-laid plans of former general manager Rick Hahn didn’t pan out. Rodón left as a free agent, Giolito was dealt to the Los Angeles Angels last summer and after Wednesday’s trade of Cease to the San Diego Padres for three prospects and a reliever, Kopech is the last one standing.

And on Thursday, Kopech was sent to the bullpen.

Meet the new rebuild. Same as the old rebuild?

General manager Chris Getz has been reluctant to label his plan as such, but by dealing his ace two weeks before the season begins, there’s really no other way to look at it. The Sox are coming off a 101-loss season with little chance of competing for a postseason spot this year, and Cease was their best trading chip.

Getz wisely held on to Cease at the winter meetings in December when he couldn’t find the right deal, and Cease’s value only rose during spring training with some big-name pitcher injuries driving up the price tag. With the organization in flux, it was a move he had to make.

Two top free-agent starters — former Padres ace Blake Snell, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, and the Texas RangersJordan Montgomery — remained unsigned as of late Wednesday, making Cease the most sought-after starter for teams looking to add pitching without paying the high asking price of agent Scott Boras.

With two years left before free agency and a relatively affordable $8 million salary, Cease should fit in well in San Diego, giving the Padres another ace to go with former Cub Yu Darvish.

The four-player haul the Sox received includes 23-year-old starting pitcher Drew Thorpe — the No. 5 prospect in the Padres organization, according to MLB Pipeline — and Jairo Iriarte, a 22-year-old right-hander with a 98 mph fastball who was ranked eighth in the organization. They also got 19-year-old Venezuelan outfielder Samuel Zavala, ranked seventh, and reliever Steven Wilson, who joins the bullpen along with Kopech.

The Padres had acquired Thorpe from the New York Yankees in December in the Juan Soto trade, and he was No. 85 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list. He was MLB Pipeline’s Pitching Prospect of the Year in 2023 with a 2.52 ERA and 182 strikeouts over 139 1/3 innings in High A and Double A. The 6-foot-4, 212-pound right-hander is projected to be ready at some point in 2024, so he could join the Sox rotation as early as this season.

“We feel like it was a very balanced deal,” Getz said Thursday. “And we’re not talking about guys that are Rookie ball or (Class A) ball. We’re talking about guys that are going to touch our major-league club and also are going to be at the lower minor leagues and working toward the big leagues as well.”

The loss of Cease is seismic for Sox fans, even as they knew the possibility was strong he would be dealt at some point this season. Cease spent the entire winter on the trade market, but the Sox announced him as the opening-day starter in late January, leaving him in limbo throughout spring training.

Cease, a deep thinker who appreciates art and writes poetry in his spare time, handled his situation extraordinarily well. He went through camp acting as if he would start the season on the South Side, even when he likely knew he was a goner.

The new Sox rotation figured to be headed by Kopech, who struggled in 2023 but drew praise all spring from manager Pedro Grifol; followed by free-agent signee Erick Fedde, who excelled in Korea; and trade acquisition Michael Soroka, looking to make a comeback.

But 20 minutes into his news conference, Getz made the surprise announcement Kopech will pitch out of the bullpen, a demotion for a talented but inconsistent pitcher brought in to kick-start the last rebuild and hyped as a future ace. Getz said Kopech would be used in the back half of games, though his lack of control needs improvement wherever he’s employed.

“We know Michael has the capability to get anyone out in this game, based on his stuff,” Getz said. “And he did show that as a starter, even in spring training outings. However, being a starting pitcher and the desire to (have starters) go deeper into games and be more efficient is something we’re aiming for.

“So now this transition, the smaller bite of the apple, so to speak, in reliever outings, whether one or two innings, is going to be something perhaps easier to accomplish for Michael and better for the White Sox.”

Reliever Garrett Crochet, who has looked strong this spring in his bid for a rotation spot, also has a shot. The Sox might want to limit his innings after he missed most of last season rehabbing from injuries, but otherwise Crochet, a first-round pick in 2020, has the stuff to be a front-line starter.

Cease won’t be soon forgotten. He arrived in the Sox organization in 2017 as part of one of the more one-sided crosstown deals in memory, in which Hahn sent starter Jose Quintana to the Cubs for Cease and outfielder Eloy Jiménez. It was a move that juiced up a rebuild that began the previous winter when Hahn traded Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox in a deal that brought back Kopech and Yoán Moncada.

Jiménez looked like a breakout star in 2019 before injuries set him back the last four seasons. He’s now a designated hitter who also could increase his trade value this season with a hot start.

“Quite honestly, this is the best we’ve seen him,” Getz said. “His at-bats have been at the top of any player I’ve seen in spring training.”

Cease was part of the Sox rotation that helped win the 2021 American League Central title, and he finished second to the Houston AstrosJustin Verlander for the 2022 AL Cy Young Award.

While he failed to follow up last year on that brilliant season, Cease’s slider remains one of the best in the game and most feel the 28-year-old’s best years are ahead of him. Now Jiménez is all that’s left from the Quintana deal, and his future is up in the air as Getz looks to upgrade the farm system and erase the memories of a nightmarish two-year stretch by the Sox.

Getz put his faith in Grifol — the manager he inherited from Hahn — after a difficult rookie year that included a lot of losing and clubhouse issues that reflected poorly on him. Now Grifol is in charge of guiding the next rebuild, just as Rick Renteria was put in that unenviable position in 2017.

Renteria managed to get the Sox to the postseason by 2020 but was fired after losing to the Oakland Athletics in the wild-card round and was replaced by Tony La Russa, a personal friend of Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. La Russa won the division in 2021 but left because of health reasons after the 2022 season. He has been in Sox camp this spring as an adviser to Grifol.

As opening day nears, the Sox will bring a lot of new faces to the South Side, hoping fans will accept the rebuild with the same attitude they showed from 2017-20. They embraced the call-ups of Luis Robert Jr., Moncada, Jiménez, Kopech and Cease and felt it was similar to the Cubs rebuild that led to a World Series title in 2016.

It looked for a while as if the Sox would be set through the rest of the 2020s, and Hahn even talked about the championship parade — prematurely, of course.

But that optimism was erased by the summer of 2022, and finding Sox fans excited about Rebuild 2.0 figures to be a much more difficult task for Getz.