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White Sox: Unconventional Bullpen Construction Appears to be Paying Off

As the 2018 season winds down for the White Sox, their bullpen of the future begins to take shape. David Wildman writes about how the Sox flipped the script when it comes to constructing a dominant bullpen.

Ask any General Manager in baseball if there’s a blueprint to constructing a winning team. They’ll all tell you the same thing, of course there isn’t. There’s no full-proof guide to building a winning team. But one thing every winning team has in common is a solid bullpen. Bullpens have become increasingly crucial for winning teams in the past few years, and quality relievers are fetching higher prices in trades and free agency than ever before. So how do you build a reliable bullpen that can get you the final three to fifteen outs your team may need on any given night?

Well it depends who you ask. Some teams employ a bullpen of all converted starters, who for one reason or another, couldn’t last as a starter. Maybe it was the violence in their delivery, a lack of reliable secondary or third pitches, or perhaps some control issues. This was the tactic the Royals employed in building the bullpen that carried them to their 2015 championship. Their elite back end of the bullpen trio of Wade Davis, Danny Duffy and Luke Hochevar was constructed entirely of players that had been drafted as starters and converted into bullpen arms. The trio’s heroics carried the Royals to their first championship since 1985.

Other teams wait until they the time is right, and strike on high leverage bullpen arms available on the trade market. This has been amongst the most popular options for contending teams of late. Cubs fans will never forget the mega deal that cost them top prospect Gleyber Torres in exchange for the controversial Aroldis Chapman. The cost was mighty, but it was Chapman’s heroics that carried the team through some of its toughest moments in the 2016 playoffs that culminated in their historic title. That same season, the Cubs’ World Series opponent, the Cleveland Indians, paid a hefty prospect price for another elite reliever in Andrew Miller. Miller is still a force in the back of the Indians’ bullpen, which has carried them to three straight playoff appearances. The Astro’s championship winning bullpen in 2017 was also anchored by a closer in Ken Giles that had also been acquired at a high prospect price.

The final option that teams have employed in attempts to build the next great bullpen have been high priced free agent signings. In an offseason which made the United States job market circa 2008 seem ripe, relievers were the only ones who could easily find work. The normally thrifty St. Louis Cardinals spent $25 million dollars on two relievers alone. Former Royals hero Wade Davis walked away with a new $59 million dollar contract from the Rockies, and the Cubs invested $21 million dollars into Brandon Morrow. Even Anthony Swarzak, who before being enrolled in the Don Cooper school of pitching was nearly out of baseball, took home a cool $14 million dollars from the Mets. The market for relievers has never been pricer.

So while there may not be a set “script” on building a winning bullpen, precedent suggests there are only a few options. Furthermore, every option involves a fair amount of pain in what a team is forced to part with. But as the 2018 season draws to a close, the White Sox bullpen of the future appears to be taking shape. And it might end up being one of the most unconventionally constructed bullpens of all time.

The past two weeks have seen the arrival of three future major bullpen cogs for the White Sox. Ian Hamilton, Ryan Burr, and Caleb Frare. Jace Fry is another member of the team’s bullpen this year and appears to have an important role in the future, but he has been up since May. So if those four do indeed end up making up the important back end of the next great bullpen, just how did they arrive to the White Sox? Well, through some very unconventional means.

Of the four, only Hamilton, an 11th round pick of the White Sox in 2016, and Fry, a third round pick of the Sox in 2014, came to the team in a conventional way. But even their conventional arrival bucks some historic trends, as both players have had decidedly unconventional paths to the majors. Hamilton was drafted as a reliever, bucking the trend of dominant relievers just being failed starters. While Fry’s path to the majors has been even less conventional, as he was forced to overcome two Tommy John surgery’s prior to his Major League debut. While Fry was technically drafted as a starter, the surgeries forced him to overhaul his repertoire to become a late inning reliever nearly immediately.  As mentioned above, most modern bullpen arms were at least given the chance to start at some point in their career, but Hamilton was never afforded the opportunity and Fry’s career as a starter was very short lived.

While drafting pitchers with the set goal of making them relievers may not be the most typical path for many high leverage arms, it’s in the acquisitions of Caleb Frare and Ryan Burr that the White Sox organization truly flipped the script in building a winning bullpen. Both Frare and Burr came to the team by virtue of the Sox flipping international pool money to other teams in exchange for the young arms. For the Sox, these were essentially free acquisitions, as the contract they signed Cuban outfielder Luis Robert to last season prevented them from spending more than $300,000 dollars on any international amateur player this season. Thyago Viera was another bullpen arm acquired through the use of what is essentially free money for the Sox, but his struggles since being called up have his future in question.

These shrewd, opportunistic acquisitions seem to have the White Sox in position to field a daunting bullpen in 2019 and beyond, and more importantly, will allow Rick Hahn and co. the ability to use their prospect surplus to address different needs down the road. The new pitchers that fans have seen as the 2018 season winds down are not the only future bullpen arms the team has acquired in the past year. With recent acquisitions Zack Burdi (first round 2017), Kodi Medeiros (Trade with Brewers) and Jose Ruiz (waivers from Padres) all looking to make an impact on the bullpen in 2019. It’s an exciting time as the White Sox unconventionally constructed bullpen begins to form into a conventionally dominant unit.

Follow David Wildman on Twitter–Feature Photo Credit: The Chicago Sports Column 

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