White Sox

With fresh outlook and arm, White Sox minor leaguer tackles comeback


With fresh outlook and arm, White Sox minor leaguer tackles comeback

He disappeared before ever throwing a pitch, reappeared four years later out of the blue and is back firing 99 mile per hour fastballs.

Now, thanks to a tryout and a second chance, White Sox minor league right-hander Brett Bruening has an outside shot at a major league career.

Nearly five years after the White Sox drafted him out of Grayson County College, Bruening, 26, has just begun his first full professional season. The Single-A Kannapolis pitcher -- who earned a save with a scoreless inning Wednesday night --- believes he’s in the right place to resume his career after graduating college and handling off the field issues that forced him into early retirement.

Having retained him on the restricted player list since 2010, the White Sox are eager to see what they have in the 6-foot-8, 240-pounder.

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“We didn’t know what we were going to see once we got him back,” White Sox farm director Nick Capra said. “When we first did see him, we kind of stepped back and said 'Wow.' 

“He's not only opened our eyes, but some scouts along the way. Any time you light up the radar gun like that you're going to draw attention to yourself.”

As of last spring, the White Sox hadn’t heard from Bruening since he unexpectedly retired in the summer of 2010. Drafted for a third year in a row -- he was selected by St. Louis in 2008 and the New York Yankees in 2009 -- Bruening passed on attending Texas Tech to sign with the White Sox, who took him in the 42nd round. But before he ever pitched for the organization’s rookie ball team at Great Falls, Mont., Bruening opted out.

Not only did he want to resume his education, Bruening dealt with anxiety and other issues off the field. He knows he wasn’t ready to be in baseball and though he regretted the decision, Bruening retired.

“I just wasn't mentally prepared for the grind of the every day being in the minors,” Bruening said. “Deep down inside I never stopped loving the game, but also I wasn't prepared to succeed. I think I just needed to step away. I had some things outside of baseball that I wanted to improve upon and needed to go to take care of those first and foremost.”

An amateur scout at the time, Keith Staab remembers well the “dreadful call” he received from now-assistant general manager Buddy Bell when Bruening retired. 

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“Before you knew it, he’s on a playing flying home,” said Staab, now a pro scout. “We couldn’t get a hold of him for four or five days.”

Bruening isn’t embarrassed by his situation. And upon graduating in May 2013 (he majored in communications at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi), he felt better prepared for baseball.

“It was kind of just the culmination of a lot of things that all boiled into one life-changing decision,” Bruening said. “I think everything happens for a reason and I came back a lot better mentally and just in a much better place to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.”

But before he got the chance, Bruening had to figure out his options. He rediscovered the drive to pitch and thought he was still in good enough shape to do it. He also knew now was the time before he found another job.

In March 2014, his agent emailed Staab to say Bruening had started throwing again and hoped to try out and find out his status (the White Sox still had him on the restricted list).

Staab agreed to a 30-pitch workout in the last week of March but didn’t know what to expect since Bruening hadn’t pitched for four years.

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“The first pitch out of his hand was 94,” Staab said. “The sliders were out of whack, but they were 84 to 86 and they had the right tilt and dip to them.”

Bruening recalls he felt good, but he was nervous. He had only been throwing for two weeks.

“When Staab was flashing numbers out when I was throwing my pen, he was holding up three and four and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm throwing 84 miles an hour,' ” Bruening said. “After the bullpen he was like, 'No, that was 93, 92.' I was freaking out.”

Though the longtime scout thought the White Sox would have a similar reaction, he first needed to be convinced Bruening was for real. Bruening had left the Sox on bad terms and Staab wanted to make sure of the pitcher’s intentions before he vouched for him to the front office.

The two talked for 30 minutes and Staab was convinced.

“It was a gut feel telling me this guy isn’t fooling around this time,” Staab said. “I saw a tear forming in his eye. I believe in second chances.”

By June, Bruening was in Kannapolis. He pitched three innings there and another three in the Arizona Rookie League in August.

Without a full offseason program, Bruening didn’t have much arm strength and the White Sox didn’t want to push him. But he did enough to earn an invite to spring training and caught the attention of rival scouts.

[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans]

“It’s a special arm,” said another AL scout. “It’s not about the slider or his stuff, it’s about his brain after what he’s been through.”

Staab and Bruening believe he’s ready for anything. Staab thinks having a college education has freed Bruening of any worries and he’s able to solely focus on baseball.

Bruening has already proven his commitment several times, first by arriving a month early for minor league camp to work on conditioning and a throwing program. Upon his arrival, Staab requested Bruening apologize to Bell and Capra and thank them for his second chance. Bruening immediately did and called Staab 30 minutes after he arrived in Glendale, Ariz. to let him know.

Now Bruening’s focus is fastball command and further development of his slider. Because he’ll turn 27 in December, he has no ambition of becoming anything other than a reliever.

He doesn’t have enough time to develop into a starter. But four years away from pitching has left Bruening with a fresh arm that continues to pump fastballs in the high 90s.

“After I got done with school I did what I said what I was going to do,” Bruening said. “In my mind I was much better and knew I could handle coming back and living the lifestyle that we live out here. There's just something inside of you when you know you're prepared to do something.”

Eloy Jiménez thriving in loaded lineup: 'Thank god I'm part of the White Sox'

Eloy Jiménez thriving in loaded lineup: 'Thank god I'm part of the White Sox'

Eloy Jiménez has settled into a nice routine for his media sessions.

He gives an exaggerated wave, usually with both arms, asks everyone how they’re doing and loudly exclaims about this writer’s facial hair.

Given that kind of thing is par for the course in every interaction with Jiménez, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time that the ebullient outfielder has ever been uncomfortable since arriving on the South Side at the start of last season.

But whether he was uncomfortable or just less comfortable, there’s no doubting he’s super comfortable now.

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Jiménez launched a clutch, game-tying home run Tuesday, an absolute bomb that traveled 428 feet to dead-center field. It was the biggest blast in the White Sox 3-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers, the team’s sixth straight.

Like several others in the White Sox firing-on-all-cylinders lineup, Jiménez is off to a rip-roaring start. His homer Tuesday night was his third in the nine games he’s played this season. He’s slashing .333/.378/.667.

Things are going well for these White Sox, and Jiménez is right in the middle of it.

“It feels really nice, you know?” he said after Tuesday’s game. “This year, we have a different lineup. Everybody can have that moment, and that’s really good for the team.

“Thank god I’m part of the White Sox now.”

Even if you don’t get to laugh with Jiménez on Zoom calls or catch a glimpse of his camera-loving antics during game broadcasts, you should be able to glean from nothing more than the box score that he’s feeling better as a sophomore than he was as a rookie.

“I think he's starting to find his way at the major league level as a player. He's feeling more and more comfortable,” manager Rick Renteria said. “I know he always looks like he's happy-go-lucky. But it takes a little bit of time for guys to kind of sink in to understanding the depth of how good guys are at the major league level. And these guys are starting to show that they're capable of handling anything that's thrust in front of them.”

Jiménez showed off the kind of dead-center power he unleashed Tuesday throughout his rookie season in 2019, which he finished with 31 home runs. But even with that big number, that campaign was hardly a runaway success for him.

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Renteria talked often about how Jiménez was just scratching the surface of the kind of big leaguer he was going to be. And Jiménez himself has admitted often since that, at least out of the gate, he wasn’t playing how he wanted to be playing.

This season’s just a week and a half old, but already things are going much better for the 23-year-old left fielder.

“I feel much better, more confident at the plate,” he said. “Last year, I tried to do too much. This year? Go out and enjoy. That pretty much helped me.”

In general, this White Sox lineup is looking much beefier than it did when Jiménez was a rookie last year. In addition to him flexing his muscles in the middle of the order, the White Sox are getting contributions all over the place.

Luis Robert has been a daily wow factor, showing off his hit tool, his power tool and, as of this week, his speed tool. Yoán Moncada has been a steady hit producer. José Abreu came through with two huge hits against the Brewers, a game-tying homer Monday and a go-ahead RBI single Tuesday. Yasmani Grandal has heated up after a slow start. Edwin Encarnación presents a constant power threat. Even unexpected contributors have emerged in Leury García and Adam Engel.

In other words, the White Sox offense can do a lot of damage. But you knew that after it produced a combined 20 runs and 35 hits in wins Saturday and Sunday in Kansas City.

Jiménez is playing a starring role, which isn’t terribly surprising, considering he’s got the camera-friendly personality to go along with the highlight-reel home runs.

“I think it's hard to be in a bad mood when you're hitting game-tying home runs,” starting pitcher Lucas Giolito said. “Eloy's one of the very positive presences, one of the very positive people in our clubhouse. He's always laughing. He always has a smile on his face, always looks on the bright side of things. He's definitely a great guy to have in the clubhouse, amazing teammate.

“Obviously we saw what he can do on a baseball field tonight.”

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This is what the White Sox envisioned all along, of course, since the second they got Jiménez from the Cubs in that 2017 trade. A methodical rebuilding project was always supposed to end in a lineup as potent as this one, and Jiménez was to be right in the thick of it, alongside Robert, Moncada, Abreu and the rest.

But this is a long-term endeavor, too, one that's supposed to set the White Sox up for success years into the future, not only in 2020. Jiménez is supposed to only get better as only gets more comfortable.

This guy? More comfortable than he already is?

To borrow from Jiménez, who reacted to the final two questions he was asked Tuesday with playful confusion:



White Sox proving they can win big or small: 'We have that belief now'

White Sox proving they can win big or small: 'We have that belief now'

The White Sox have proven they can beat teams big. Now they’re showing an ability to win close, intense ballgames.

Both contests in Milwaukee were nail biters, but the White Sox found a way to win 3-2 Tuesday night at Miller Park after an equally impressive 6-4 win Monday.

“Just grit and determination,” Tuesday’s starter Lucas Giolito said. “We have that belief now that was kind of missing the last couple years that we trust how good we are. We trust our talent. We know that if the game is close, we have a very, very good chance of winning it.”

Belief in baseball is a dangerous weapon and Giolito did his part to run the White Sox’s win streak to six games, allowing just two runs and four hits in six innings of work. But for the second straight night, it took clutch pitching and clutch hitting to hold off the Brewers. The White Sox trailed by two runs in both games, but one night after José Abreu tied things up with a two-run home run in the seventh inning, Eloy Jiménez did the same thing Tuesday in the sixth inning.

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest White Sox news and analysis.

“You’re seeing a different cast of characters contributing, so that’s nice to see and that’s actually a good sign for our team,” manager Rick Renteria said after the win.

Indeed, it seems like the White Sox are always one swing away from getting back in any ballgame, which is a sign of a competitive team. The Brewers might not be at full strength right now, but they still threw some good pitchers at the White Sox the last two nights. Corbin Burnes was a handful on Monday, but Abreu used an 11-pitch at-bat from the fifth inning to help him finally crack the code in the seventh. A similar event played out Tuesday, as Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff was pitching a gem before Jiménez tagged him for a 428-foot blast to center field. In his first two at-bats, Jiménez chipped away with singles before getting the big one.

"We get out and play hard for nine innings,” Jiménez said. “We can win with (many) runs and with one run. We are a really good team and we just try to go out and play hard.”

The White Sox are backing up the hype, surviving a slow 1-4 start to improve to 7-4 after a six-game win streak. That has allowed them to stay two games behind the red hot, 9-2 Minnesota Twins, despite the White Sox dealing with mounting injuries.

The two days in Milwaukee proved to be costly for left shoulders, as Carlos Rodón, Nick Madrigal and Edwin Encarnación all left Wisconsin with left shoulder soreness. Rodón was placed on the 10-day Injured List Tuesday, but there appears to be some legitimate optimism that his injury might not be too serious.

“It wasn’t too crazy or anything. Hopefully we’ll have him back soon,” Giolito said.

Madrigal left Tuesday’s game after injuring his shoulder on a slide into third base. He was attempting to go from first to third on a Luis Robert single and Renteria admitted it was probably a play where Madrigal should have pulled up at second base. Encarnación suffered his shoulder injury on a swing. Both players left the game and will be reevaluated Wednesday in Chicago.

The depth is certainly being tested, but the White Sox are hardly flinching. That was proven by overcoming the 1-4 start and a doubleheader sweep in Cleveland a week ago. The White Sox haven’t lost since.

“We didn’t even need to talk about it,” Giolito said. “That last game against Cleveland, we knew we had to go in and do our job. Going into Kansas City it was all about taking care of business.”

And in Milwaukee it was about riding the momentum. They did exactly that, showing they can win in a variety of ways.

Now the Brewers visit Chicago, where Dallas Keuchel awaits. And the only question is, who will step up next?