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

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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.

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“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.”

With Nicholas Castellanos on the market, how important is defense in White Sox search for new right fielder?

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USA TODAY

With Nicholas Castellanos on the market, how important is defense in White Sox search for new right fielder?

We’ve talked about this before.

The White Sox are looking for a new right fielder after getting some of the worst production in the majors out of that spot in 2019. The free-agent market looks to be the most realistic source of any new everyday player considering the team’s potentially weakened trade potential after a season of injuries and under-performance in the minor leagues.

The best outfield bat on that free-agent market? It belongs to Nicholas Castellanos, who long feasted on White Sox pitching as a member of the division-rival Detroit Tigers. He showed just how impactful his bat could be in a playoff race after a midseason trade to the Cubs, posting a 1.002 OPS in 51 games on the North Side. All told, he hit a major league leading 58 doubles in 2019, the 10th highest single-season total in baseball history.

The bat is no question, and it would look terrific in the middle of the White Sox order. But Castellanos’ tremendous offensive reputation is accompanied by a poor defensive reputation. Whether that reputation is deserved or not is another aspect of this discussion, with folks who followed his time on the North Side saying things weren’t that bad in right field. Though certain defensive metrics tell a different story.

And so we continue to wonder, as the White Sox have already been linked to Castellanos this winter, just how much that glove means to them.

Well, we’ve got some new insight from Rick Hahn, and yes, defense does matter. But like everything involving the White Sox offseason, it’s not going to close any doors.

“It’s a legitimate consideration,” Hahn said during the GM meetings last week in Arizona. “We don't want to send somebody out there and it's going to, you know, tax our center fielder too much or tax the pitchers too much by not making plays. So it's a legitimate consideration.

“I pause half a step because we have discussed some pretty good offensive contributors who might not quite be up to snuff to what you want defensively that conceivably at some point in the offseason we wind up saying, ‘They're the best option, so let's move on it.’ So I don't want to just say it's the end all be all.

“But as we sit here today, the prototypical guy that we add to that position will be an above average defender to help lighten the load on the rest of the fielders and our pitchers.”

While that’s hardly an ironclad commitment one way or the other, Hahn voiced a definite preference for someone who can provide some defense in right field. While Luis Robert, who’s expected to spend most of the 2020 season as the team’s starting center fielder, receives positive reviews for his defense up the middle, Eloy Jimenez is still a work in progress in left field. Putting another less-than-stellar defender in the other corner-outfield spot would put a heck of a lot of pressure on Robert as a rookie center fielder.

"You're asking a lot of (the center fielder) if you put a poor defender in right and Eloy continuing to develop and left," Hahn said. "It's a real consideration when we're putting together this outfield.

"We think Eloy's got a real special bat, and even though he's a work in progress and still improving defensively, we like having him out there in left field, even though he's not going to be mistaken for an everyday center fielder defensively. If we're looking and we absolutely had our pick of the litter, we're looking for a guy in right who can contribute with the glove, as well.”

Castellanos might not fit that description. But his offensive abilities could certainly outweigh that and push the White Sox to bring him aboard. Of course, he’s going to command a pricey contract, with his agent, Scott Boras, already talking him up last week with this gem: “Ol’ St. Nick delivers once a year. Young St. Nick delivers all season.”

Certainly the White Sox would enjoy that kind of season-long delivery. They also happen to have a hole that needs filling at designated hitter. If we’re playing fantasy baseball or creating video-game lineups, slotting Castellanos into that spot would make an awful lot of sense. But a guy looking for a long, expensive contract and doing so at just 27 years old probably doesn’t want to do it as a DH.

Maybe the White Sox end up throwing enough money his way that it doesn’t matter. But there’s also the risk of putting someone who doesn’t have DH-ing experience at the position, potentially continuing the not-so-great track record of the likes of Adam Dunn, Adam LaRoche and Yonder Alonso. Castellanos has been a DH in just 41 of his 839 career big league games.

It’s all stuff to think about. It might end up, simply, that Castellanos swings a big bat and the White Sox would like that, no matter what comes with it. Hearing that they prefer a right fielder with a good glove might only apply if they have to move further down their wish list.

Time will tell.

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Lucas Giolito’s most impressive feat of 2019

Lucas Giolito’s most impressive feat of 2019

From the highest ERA in the Majors in 2018 to an All-Star appearance in 2019, Lucas Giolito had a season that nobody could’ve imagined possible.

As Giolito worked a pair of shutout masterpieces during the season, you knew you were watching something special. Then as the season unfolded, for the first time in MLB history four teams reached the finish line with at least 100 wins.

The White Sox, at 72 wins certainly were not among the ranks of the 100-win teams.

But the Astros and Twins both DID reach 100 wins, and something else those teams have in common is a 2019 shutout defeat at the hands of Giolito. Not only were those complete game shutouts the only ones thrown against those teams this past season, but they were the only complete game shutouts tossed against a 100-win team PERIOD. Nobody hurled a CG shutout against the Yankees and nobody pulled it off against the Dodgers.

So Lucas Giolito was the only pitcher in 2019 to toss a complete game shutout against a team that finished the season with 100 or more wins.

But let’s take it a bit further.

From 2012-2019 there were 12 teams who won at least 100 games in a season. And there were only five combined complete game shutouts against those teams. Giolito owns two of the five; Sean Manaea (against the 2018 Red Sox), Luis Severino (against the 2018 Astros) and Jason Vargas (against the 2017 Indians) have the other three.

Going back even further, from 2000 to present, 26 teams won 100 games in a season and there were 25 combined complete game shutouts tossed against those teams. Lucas Giolito & Jason Vargas (2017 vs. Indians and 2011 vs. Phillies) are the only two pitchers to have more than one. But Giolito is the only one to do it twice in a season.

To find the last pitcher with two shutouts against eventual 100-win teams in the same season, you need to go back to 1999 when José Jiménez of the Cardinals did it against the 100-62 Diamondbacks, which in itself is impressive given that Jiménez was only 5-14 with a 5.85 ERA that season. But Jiménez had both of his against the same team. What about the last pitcher to toss complete game shutouts against MULTIPLE 100-win teams in the same season?

Well, the last time THAT happened was 1980, when both Larry Gura and Moose Haas had one shutout apiece against the 103-59 Yankees and the 100-62 Orioles. Gura’s shutout against the Orioles came against eventual 1980 Cy Young Award winner Steve Stone.

As far as White Sox history is concerned, Giolito was the first White Sox pitcher to toss a CG shutout against an eventual 100-win team since both Melido Perez & Eric King shut out the 103-59 Athletics in 1990. And before that, Steve Trout had one apiece in both 1979 (against the 102-57 Orioles) and 1980 (against the 103-59 Yankees). But for the last time a White Sox pitcher did it twice in the same season, it’s Tom Bradley, who remarkably blanked the 101-60 A’s THREE TIMES in 1971.

So while Lucas Giolito’s shutouts were awfully impressive at the time, they become even more incredible when you look back at the season and realize that he was the only pitcher to shut out a 100-win team this season.

And he did it twice. 

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