White Sox

Bears' grades: Defense and special teams

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Bears' grades: Defense and special teams

When the Bears defense allows just 248 yards, 160 of those after an initial drive, and the Bears lose, the problem was not the defense (again). But a third straight touchdown drive of 80 or more yards (the last two vs. Seattle and Minnesotas first on Sunday) rocked the Bears on both sides of the ball.

In road games coach Lovie Smith typically prefers to have his defense on the field first in order to take home crowds enthusiasm down. He was handed that situation Sunday when the Vikings won the toss and elected to put Adrian Peterson and that offense out to start the game.

The game was dangerously close to be effectively over with less than six minutes played after the defense was trampled by Peterson, who had a franchise-record 104 yards in the first quarter. The unit rallied and did not allow a score over the final 54 minutes of the game but it was not enough with the offense giving Minnesota help in the form of two interceptions that resulted in scores.

The problem with evaluating this side of the ball in this game was that the numbers were generally in the Bears favor but one good Minnesota drive was one too many.

DEFENSIVE LINE B-

Corey Woottons sack of Christian Ponder was a major momentum bump in the first quarter after Minnesota had scored twice. But it was one of the few times the front four got any real pressure on a shake-able quarterback, who took just one official hit in the game.

Julius Peppers played one of his more active games in recent weeks, particularly with little time off. Peppers led all defensive linemen with four tackles, one for loss.

Being without starting nose tackle Stephen Paea hurt the run defense. Shea McClellin missed a TFL of Peterson that allowed a 14-yard gain in the first quarter. McClellin and Henry Melton (for a while) were out with injuries in the first half, forcing the rest of the group to play heavy snaps and Israel Idonije to spend more time inside at tackle.

The lack of work on Ponder was a significant failure.

LINEBACKERS C

The Vikings went right after fill-in Geno Hayes on the first play and were able to gash the front seven and Minnesota schemes got linebackers on wideouts too often in the first half.

Lance Briggs played a superior game, all over the field in coverage and the Vikings backfield. Briggs finished with 11 tackles, one for loss.

Nick Roach had nine tackles two for loss and performed serviceably in the middle in place of Brian Urlacher. Hayes had three solo tackles, one for loss.

But the overall of 154 yards for Peterson, which started with 51 on the first play of the game, was possible because of both sloppy tackling and some late fills into gaps, allowing Peterson to get up speed and pick up additional yardage after first contact.

SECONDARY C

Kelvin Hayden missed a tackle in the hole that allowed Adrian Peterson to break loose for 51 yards on the first play of the game. Hayden was victimized with a second missed tackle in the first quarter for another first down.

Major Wrights interception late in the second quarter ended a threat and gave the Bears an energy boost going in at halftime.

The group was without Tim Jennings (shoulder) and lost safety Craig Steltz in the third quarter. Charles Tillmans unnecessary roughness penalty in the fourth quarter was simply stupid, a late hit into a pile of down players.

COACHING D

The scheme to stop Adrian Peterson was strangely adequate despite the big yardage total. Missed assignments were repeatedly apparent in all areas, not something that falls to the coaches.

However, the Vikings were able to get wide receivers, particularly Jarius Wright, matched up on linebackers in coverage too many times. Christian Ponder was allowed to be an efficient 11 of 17 even for a pedestrian 91 yards and the Bears were not able to harass him even with blitzes.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Losing kicker Robbie Gould during pregame warmups was a setback but did not figure in the outcome. A lack of impact returns did, however. And Bears special teams had three penalties assessed on the unit.

KICKING B-

Robbie Gould appeared to injure his left calf in pregame, forcing Adam Podlesh to handle kickoffs. Podlesh, whose last kickoff came in his first NFL game in 2007, managed to get a touchback on his opening boot. Podlesh averaged 37.5 yards on his six punts, four placed inside the 20 to assist the defense.

COVERAGE A-

The Bears lost a huge opportunity by forcing a fumble on a second-quarter KOR but failing to find the ball in time to make a recovery at what would have been inside the Minnesota 25. Zackary Bowman flipped a ball back out of the end zone to Eric Weems to put the Vikings at the Minnesota 1 late in the third quarter.

The Vikings fair-caught five punts and the sixth was downed. Their only kickoff return was for 20 yards.

RETURNS C-

Eric Weems handled kickoff returns, not well to just the 17- and 11-yard lines. Devin Hester was part of a mixup fielding a 2nd-quarter punt that went out of bounds at the Chicago 3.

Matt Spaeth nullified a long Weems return with a holding penalty in the third quarter.

Hester averaged 11.6 yards on five punt returns but Weems had no kickoff runback longer than 18 yards and averaged 14.8 on his four returns.

COACHING B-

The punt coverage plans were exceptional, with lanes maintained and the Vikings able to do no damage on any returns. The penalties on the unit reflected some lack of discipline but the unit did nothing to hurt the overall for the day.

Jace Fry, who still hasn't allowed a hit, is penciling his name into the White Sox bullpen of the future

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USA TODAY

Jace Fry, who still hasn't allowed a hit, is penciling his name into the White Sox bullpen of the future

The White Sox best reliever through the first 42 games of this rebuilding season? Undoubtedly, it’s been Jace Fry.

With Rick Renteria’s bullpen hardly the most reliable relief corps the game has ever seen, Fry has been a revelation, starting his 2018 campaign with 7.1 scoreless innings over six appearances.

And now things are getting a bit more dramatic for the 24-year-old lefty, a guy who’s been through a pair of Tommy John surgeries. He pitched some high-leverage ball in Saturday night’s 5-3 win, sitting down all four hitters he faced in the eighth and ninth innings while protecting a two-run lead.

“I was ready the whole game, just waiting for my name to be called,” Fry said. “But it was awesome getting in there in the eighth inning, even getting the first guy in the ninth inning. After I got him I was kind of hoping he’d let me keep going.”

Renteria uses his bullpen in a non-traditional manner, one that perhaps he thinks is a way of the future or one that’s a result of his lack of dominant options out there. Whichever it is, he doesn’t really have a closer but rather a host of guys he uses in those high-leverage situations, whenever they might come during the late stages of a game. Joakim Soria, Nate Jones and Bruce Rondon have all been used to get big outs late in games, and Rondon threw a scoreless seventh Saturday, with Jones getting the game’s final two outs for the save.

But it could be argued that most difficult outs were recorded by Fry, who put away the visiting Texas Rangers’ fourth, fifth and sixth hitters before getting the seventh hitter to strike out to start off the ninth.

Renteria steered away from dubbing Fry one of his new high-leverage guys after the game, but why wouldn’t Fry be in that mix? All he’s done since joining the big league squad earlier this month is get outs. He’s got 10 strikeouts, hasn’t allowed a hit and has just two walks as the lone blemishes on an otherwise perfect season line.

“It just happens to be that it was the eighth inning and the ninth that he pitched,” Renteria said. “I think he’s looking very comfortable in those. It happens to be the eighth and ninth we needed him. He’s been very, very effective. He’s been commanding the strike zone very well, confidently approaching his hitters. He’s got pretty good stuff.

“He’s able to command the zone. Along with that nice breaking ball he’s got to lefties and righties, it’s pretty effective. But he’s continuing to show you he’s capable of coming in and getting some pretty good hitters.”

Fry has been a rarity this season in that he’s appeared to be a candidate for a long-term spot in the White Sox bullpen. Jones would perhaps be the only other guy coming close to qualifying for that, mostly because of his team-friendly contract that keeps him under control a few more years, but he’s had some rough moments, even with his ERA dropping to 3.50 on Saturday.

Fry, though, is young and is dealing at the moment. He even got a shoutout as a potential long-term piece from general manager Rick Hahn earlier this week.

“Take Jace Fry, someone we haven’t mentioned when we’ve had this conversation the last couple of weeks,” Hahn said Thursday, discussing the positives he’s seen during this developmental season. “He’s shown up here and shown that he’s made some progress in his last stint in the minors and now, at age 24, seems like he’s ready to take that next step, and pencil his name in as part of what we’re building here going forward.”

There’s a lot of season left, and no one’s expecting Fry to keep batters hitless and opposing teams scoreless from now through the end of September. But this is a nice development for the rebuilding White Sox at the moment, a guy who’s giving them at least one name to put into that bullpen of the future.

How long can he keep this thing going? As long as he keeps getting ahead of hitters.

“Having the success is awesome, but I realize it’s the plan, the plan of attack,” Fry said. “I’m going out and throwing Strike 1 and getting ahead. Actually doing it, seeing it and having the process work definitely creates more confidence. Once you go back to the blueprint of baseball, Strike 1 is everything.”

Carson Fulmer's demotion and the current state of the White Sox rotation provide several rebuilding reminders

Carson Fulmer's demotion and the current state of the White Sox rotation provide several rebuilding reminders

Carson Fulmer getting sent to Triple-A following Friday’s game might be, to this point, the biggest development this season on the South Side.

Fulmer doesn’t carry the same expectations as higher-rated prospects like Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen or Dane Dunning, but this is a top-10 draft pick who the White Sox still believe can play a significant role in their bright future. And he’s struggling. Badly. Once his ERA jumped up past 8.00 thanks to his third straight brief and run-filled outing, the White Sox made the decision to send him to Charlotte.

It leaves the White Sox rotation looking like this: James Shields, a struggling Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Hector Santiago and either Chris Volstad or the recently summoned Dylan Covey.

Four of those guys (Shields, Santiago, Volstad and Covey) don’t figure to play a role in the team’s long-term future, and Giolito is dealing with his own significant struggles, leading the American League in walks heading into his Saturday-night start. Lopez has been the rotation’s bright spot, but even he watched his ERA climb more than a full point after allowing six runs in two innings his last time out.

It’s not a great state for the rotation to be in if you, like the White Sox, have your sights set on the long-term future of this team, though it probably won’t look like that for too much longer. Still, it provides a few valuable reminders about not only this rebuilding effort but rebuilds in general.

This season is about development, and this is what development looks like

For better or worse, this is what development looks like. The White Sox own baseball’s worst record, and general manager Rick Hahn has been among the large number of White Sox fans to voice their disappointment over play that has been sloppy at times.

Fulmer’s struggles fall into the same category and serve as a reminder that growing pains like this are going to happen. We’ve seen it with Fulmer. We’ve seen it with Giolito. We’ve seen it with Lopez. Heck, we’ve seen it with Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson, too.

But more than wins and losses, this is what this season is about. Hahn calls it “the hardest part of the rebuild” because it features guys getting lit up and games being lost. The hope is that Fulmer can figure things out in the minors and that Giolito won’t require a similar demotion to right his ship. And if everything turns out all right, then this will be an easily forgotten chapter in both of those players’ development.

In the moment, though, it’s another reminder that rebuilds take time and that the waiting game provides minimal fun.

Each player’s development has a different trajectory

Just because Fulmer is getting bumped down to Triple-A doesn’t mean he can’t still turn into a successful major league pitcher. Player development and rebuilds aren’t linear, as rebuilders like to say. And to expect every prospect to travel in a straight line from potential to big league stardom doesn't make much sense.

“We reiterate, ‘It’s not the end of your career,’” Renteria said Saturday. “This is simply a reboot, a reset. Ultimately, I think after the initial shock for any player, they settle down and they understand exactly what’s going on when you look at it logically and look in the mirror. I think it’s easy to logically look at it and say, ‘I need to work on x, y and z.’

“This is a good kid with a really positive attitude and a lot of confidence. I think he’ll look in the mirror and go, ‘You know what, I got things I can work on, I’ll settle in and get over this initial bump and get to work.’ Those are the guys that end up giving themselves a chance to return sooner rather than later and have success.”

Not all prospects pan out

The other side of that coin is the reminder that not every single one of the White Sox wealth of prospects will pan out. Hahn & Co. have prepared for that and built up an incredible amount of prospect depth, but when someone doesn't live up to expectations, it will be painful.

This isn’t to suggest that Fulmer, specifically, won’t pan out, but it’s to point out that not everyone will. That’s a crowded-looking rotation of the future with Kopech, Hansen, Dunning, Fulmer, Giolito, Lopez, Carlos Rodon and Dylan Cease all competing for those eventual five spots. Rather than the White Sox having to make tough decisions about who will be left out, certainly a possibility, the developments of those pitchers might make those decisions for them.

Renteria is confident that Fulmer will be back in the big leagues, and there’s little reason to think that this is the end of Fulmer’s opportunity. But not every top-10 pick reaches All-Star status.

The future is on the way

The current starting rotation might have fans asking why the heck it looks like it does. But a month or two from now it will look drastically different.

Rodon makes his first rehab start Saturday at Class A Kannapolis as he battles back from shoulder surgery last fall, and he shouldn’t be too far away from providing a serious jolt to the starting staff. Not to mention, he’s a guy who as good a chance as anyone as grabbing one of those front-end spots, and with him in the rotation, things will look a tad more futuristic.

Same goes for Kopech, whose promotion figures to be coming at some point this summer. Given the hype and the expectations there, his arrival will obviously be a really big deal.

But regardless of the results either Rodon and Kopech put up in their first tastes of major league action in 2018, they’ll make the rotation into something that way more closely resembles the rotation of the future. There’ll be plenty of development left for the Hansens and the Ceases and the Dunnings in the minors. But a rotation featuring Rodon, Kopech, Giolito and Lopez looks a lot different than one featuring Shields, Santiago, Covey and Volstad.

Patience. It’s not much fun. But it’s necessary to build a contender.