Fixing a faulty bullpen was an organizational mandate of the White Sox this off-season. The club has lost 195 games over the last two seasons and bullpen failures contributed heavily to those outcomes. Coming into the winter, I questioned whether or not it would be prudent for the front office to focus on bullpen upgrades with a plethora of young relievers on the cusp of the big leagues. The decision makers obviously decided that they would be best suited to insulate the back end of their pen though.
Dominican right-hander Alex Colome was the first addition of the winter for the White Sox back in November. The 30-year-old righty flashes a devastating fastball and cutter combination and has closed games in the past. In 68 innings for the Rays and Mariners in 2018, Colome posted a 3.04 ERA with a 3.44 FIP and averaged 9.5 K/9. He posted FIP’s of 2.92 and 3.37 in 2016 and 2017 respectively as well. Alex will slot in nicely at the back end of the White Sox bullpen.
Kelvin Herrera has a long history of success and his playoff experience could be just what the doctor ordered on the south side. The Dominican will be looking for a bounce back after dealing with a torn Lisfranc ligament in his foot last season. The 29-year-old lowered his walk rate last year but also saw a decline in his strikeout rate only punching out 7.71 per nine innings. Kelvin did post a 2.44 ERA in 44.1 innings for the Royals and Nationals, however. He received $18 million on a two-year pact this off-season.
— Vinnie Duber (@VinnieDuber) February 16, 2019
The White Sox love to add former top prospects with worn off shine and this year’s version in the bullpen is right-hander Randall Delgado. The 29-year-old struggled in the majors last year in a brief sample but posted an ERA of 2.00 for Arizona’s Triple-A club. Evan Marshall is a 28-year-old righty that pitched well for the Indians in a small sample last season as well. Both players are in camp as Non-Roster Invitees and while it’d be a surprise to see either head north with the big club, they could offer depth pitching in AAA with the Charlotte Knights.
Nate Jones is back after the club decided to exercise a $4.5 million option on the flamethrower’s contract. Jones is the elder statesman of the group and the longest tenured member of the White Sox. The 33-year-old righty threw 30 innings in 2018 but struggled with his stuff and battled injuries again. Jones has really good stuff and throws hard, and has been sort of an enigma for the Sox for years. He could be formidable in a 7th inning role after being miscast as a late-inning high-leverage type of late.
Jace Fry was a 3rd round pick of the White Sox back in 2014 and has found a home in the bullpen after undergoing his 2nd Tommy John Surgery. The 25-year-old threw just over 50 innings in the big league bullpen last year showing off a new repertoire of pitches. Fry struggled down the stretch but posted a 2.67 FIP and 1.2 fWAR while averaging 12.27 K/9 in his first full season. Jace has the look of a high-leverage lefty that should be able to be relied on for crucial outs in a ballgame.
Juan Minaya has been a steady yet unspectacular member of the White Sox bullpen over the past few seasons. Minaya was sent to Charlotte early in the 2018 campaign to fix his issue of awarding free passes and he returned to compile 46.2 innings in Chicago. The 28-year-old struck out 11 hitters per 9 innings but also walked over 5.5 per contest. He posted a 3.28 ERA and 3.57 FIP on the season. Minaya has good stuff and he should be in the driver’s seat to land a roster space due to being out of options. However, with more spring struggles he could find himself in DFA limbo before the season.
Rick Renteria‘s club has broken north with 13 pitchers recently and I have no reason to believe that this year will be any different. There is a massive roster battle for the final 3-4 spots in the Chicago bullpen and it will be an interesting storyline to follow as the 40-man roster is littered with intriguing relief arms. Ian Hamilton could be the most likely of the bunch to start the year in the majors. Hamilton took off in the system last year after being drafted in the 11th round in 2016. The 23-year-old righty struggled in 8 major league innings to end the season but he flashed high-leverage stuff regardless. Hamilton is listed as a top 30 prospect in the organization for most publications and his 1.71 ERA at Triple-A with decreasing walk rate earned him the call up.
Dueling with Hamilton for a roster spot will be the 24-year-old right-hander Ryan Burr. The 6’4″ Arizona State product also struggled in a small major league sample in 2018 after a successful campaign with AA and AAA in the Sox system. 25-year-old southpaw Caleb Frare is an interesting option as well. Acquired from the Yankees in a trade during the season, Frare flashed immense potential towards the end of the season. He posted a 2.73 FIP with 11.57 K/9 in 7 major league innings after posting a sparkling 0.71 ERA for the Knights. Frare could have the inside track to be the 2nd lefty out of the pen for the club.
Competing with Frare for a job on the big club will be lefty Aaron Bummer. The 25-year-old actually pitched very well in the majors last year despite being returned to the minors at midseason. In 31.2 innings, Bummer posted a 2.40 FIP with 10 K/9 and a decreasing walk rate. The biggest question for Bummer will be whether or not the organization decides to keep three lefties in the pen on Opening Day. 24-year-old righty Jose Ruiz was pretty good in 4 major league innings to close out 2018. He walked too many batters but his strikeout rate of 12.46 K/9 is intriguing. Ruiz struck out 11 per 9 innings with a 2.84 FIP in 45 innings for Double-A Birmingham before the major league call as well.
25-year-old Brazilian fire thrower Thyago Vieira was a bit disappointing in his time in 2018. He threw 17.2 innings for the White Sox and posted a 7.13 ERA with peripherals that weren’t much better. Someone with his stuff will need to harness the control and strikeout more than 7 hitters over 9 innings. Dylan Covey and Manny Banuelos will be battling for the #5 starter job in camp but either player could ultimately play a swingman role out of the bullpen as well. Banuelos was acquired from the Dodgers early in the off-season after posting a 3.73 ERA in Triple-A last season. The 27-year-old Covey pitched 121.2 innings in Chicago last year and could be on the staff again in some capacity.
— Scott Merkin (@scottmerkin) February 17, 2019
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) February 17, 2019
2015 1st rounder Carson Fulmer is the wildcard in the pitching mix. The 25-year-old right-hander started the 2018 season in the starting rotation in Chicago. Fulmer posted an 8.07 ERA in 32 innings and was quickly sent back to Triple-A Charlotte. He didn’t fare much better in the International League. Carson threw 67 innings of 5.32 ERA ball and struggled with repeating his delivery and throwing enough strikes to succeed. Fulmer decided to attend Driveline Baseball this off-season to get himself back on track. Fulmer has gone back to his old mechanics to try and salvage his career as outlined wonderfully by Chris Cwik of Yahoo Sports. The former 1st rounder will be a story to watch all spring.
Down on the Farm
Zack Burdi was considered to be the best relief pitching prospect in the sport after he was drafted in the first round back in 2016. The former Louisville product possessed triple digit heat and multiple plus pitches. In 2017, Burdi threw 33.1 innings at Triple-A Charlotte and posted a 2.86 FIP with a strikeout rate of 13.77 K/9. His 2017 season was abbreviated after he suffered a torn UCL in his right elbow. Zack underwent Tommy John Surgery and has since worked his way back into action. The 23-year-old threw 6.1 innings in the AZL last year and had a brief cameo in the Arizona Fall League. Burdi should start the season in Charlotte and likely makes his major league debut sometime in 2019.
6’7″ 250 pound righty Zach Thompson burst onto the scene a bit in 2018. the 25-year-old posted a 1.35 ERA in 40 innings in Birmingham and a 1.78 ERA in 35.1 innings in Winston-Salem. Thompson was sent to the AFL after last season where he looked the part. He was eligible for the Rule-5 Draft after being left off the 40-man roster and the White Sox were able to keep him in the organization. He should be part of a very solid bullpen in AAA with the Knights but could also debut in 2019.
The White Sox acquired left-handed starter Kodi Medeiros from the Brewers at last year’s deadline. The Hawaiian hurler was a first rounder way back in 2014 and has spent his time as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues. The 22-year-old struggled in 34.1 innings in Birmingham after arriving in the Sox system. Kodi posted a 3.14 FIP for the Brewers in AA prior to the trade. The 6’2″ 180 pound southpaw could ascend to the majors quickly in a relief role if that is the plan at some point. He likely begins the season as a starter but was recently added to the 40-man and that plan could change at any time. Medeiros could be another candidate to make his debut in 2019.
Tyler Johnson was a 5th round pick out of South Carolina in 2017 and has moved quickly through the Sox system. In 31 innings at Winston-Salem to close out the year, Johnson compiled 12.48 K/9 with 1.74 BB/9 and a 1.58 FIP. This was after averaging over 15 K/9 in Low-A Kannapolis. Hunter Schryver is a lefty that was acquired at last year’s trade deadline from Tampa Bay. The 23-year-old posted a 1.20 ERA with 12.60 K/9 in Winston-Salem in 2018. The southpaw cut down on the walks in 15 innings in the White Sox system. It would be a surprise to see either of these guys in the majors in 2019 but they should both be in Double-A to start the year and should continue to move quickly.
2019 Bullpen A Strength
During a rebuild, one of the common themes is generally a bad bullpen. There’s no reason to load up on quality relievers when trying to lose baseball games and the White Sox have been proof of that recently. 2019 should be different, however. The White Sox would like to be a better baseball team and that shines through in their moves. Colome and Herrera definitely help to shore up a leaky back end immediately. Jones, Minaya and Fry will be back to pitch in roles more apt for their skillsets. Bummer and Frare could add serious depth from the left side which is something that teams are always looking for.
Improvements from any of the young pitchers in the bullpen could go a long way. What was once seen as a weakness should now be considered a strength. The Chicago White Sox bullpen stacks up with some of the better bullpens in baseball and it might just be the best bullpen in the American League Central. That perceived strength should go a long way towards winning baseball games in 2019. Before that though, the battle for roster spots in spring training begins in earnest and it should be an interesting development to monitor.
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