The White Sox bullpen imploded Wednesday night in Cleveland. It sent Indians fans home happy. It sent White Sox fans scrambling for their computers.
I'd like to see the Google data. How many people in Chicagoland — the ones not flooding the streets of Northbrook to celebrate Jason Kipnis' walk-off grand slam — frantically searched "free agent relievers 2019"?
The results are pretty enticing, to be honest. Craig Kimbrel's going to be on the market. So is Cody Allen. So are Jeurys Familia and Kelvin Herrera and Zach Britton. And some guy named Andrew Miller.
It seems like a good idea, right? Ink one of those guys, two of 'em, even, and the bullpen troubles are gone. No clinging to a pillow and crossing your fingers when Rick Renteria comes out of the dugout in the late innings. No more outcomes like Wednesday's, when a trio of White Sox relievers entered the bottom of the ninth with a 1-0 lead only to load the bases and surrender a walk-off salami.
But a couple points.
First, the White Sox don't need a lockdown bullpen right this second. In a point that will come up again and again this offseason, the team is still in rebuilding mode. Spending big bucks might not be prudent at this juncture because the White Sox have not yet transitioned from rebuilding mode to contention mode. Spending big on high-priced free agents is something teams do when they're in win-now mode. And while a big acquisition can certainly carry a team into win-now mode — just look at what the Cubs did when they signed Jon Lester ahead of the 2015 season — it could also be jumping the gun when there's still a year or two of development that needs to happen for the team's young players to grow into the contending group of the future.
Plus, spending big on bullpens isn't exactly a magic bullet. The Indians and the Colorado Rockies both spent huge sums on their bullpens this past offseason, and while both teams could end up in the postseason, they rank near the bottom of the game in bullpen ERA: Cleveland's 24th out of 30, and Colorado's 26th.
Contending teams often make a habit of trading for bullpen pieces, a strategy that makes a lot more sense considering those deals usually come midseason, when a team is clearly established as a contender. But those deals have their downsides, too. The White Sox have shown how valuable stockpiling prospects in trades can be. The Cubs got their ring but probably would like to have Gleyber Torres right now after shipping him to the New York Yankees in 2016. The Indians are division champs again, but will there be a day when they'll wish they hadn't sent Francisco Mejia to the San Diego Padres in this summer's trade for Brad Hand?
But that, of course, is more of a "cross that bridge when you come to it" situation. The White Sox aren't at that bridge quite yet, as good a point as any that spending on a 30-plus closer two years ahead of when the playoff pushes could come is a risky proposition.
Second, the White Sox are still trying to figure out what they've got when it comes to the bullpen.
Last year and in the first half of this season, the White Sox relief corps was primarily an audition ground for midseason trades. That strategy worked well for Rick Hahn's front office in both seasons. Last year, a big trade with the Yankees sent two relievers out of town and returned a package that includes Blake Rutherford, the No. 7 prospect in the farm system. The White Sox dealt five relief arms last summer. This season, a trade that sent Joakim Soria to the Milwaukee Brewers brought back minor league pitcher Kodi Medeiros, an arm currently ranked as the system's No. 19 prospect. Soria was one of three bullpen arms traded.
In the second half of this season, however, young arms have reached the South Side that have the potential to make up a future bullpen that's mostly homegrown. The ERAs aren't pretty — especially after Wednesday's four-run ninth — but if ever there was a time to play the "small sample size" card, it's now. Ian Hamilton, Ryan Burr, Caleb Frare, Jose Ruiz and Aaron Bummer all put up big numbers in the minors this season. Jace Fry has been at the major league level almost all season. They're getting their opportunities now, and unless the White Sox produce their own episode of "Extreme Makeover: Bullpen Edition" this winter, they'll get their opportunities next year, too. A homegrown bullpen on a contending team is a hard thing to pull off, of course, but these guys — and the heretofore unmentioned Zack Burdi, many's pick for the closer of the future — have the opportunity to do just that.
As is the case with everything surrounding this rebuilding team, there is the luxury of time. The young group of arms does not need to be championship ready right now or in 2019. These guys will take time to develop just like the Yoan Moncadas and the Lucas Giolitos and the Tim Andersons and the Reynaldo Lopezes. Growing pains are to be expected. Until they're given the chance to either succeed or fail, the White Sox won't know what they have, which makes charting a long-term course in one offseason difficult.
Obviously the White Sox don't want to lose games like they lost Wednesday night's battle in The Cleve. But is it a sign that the checkbook needs to come out this winter? The bullpen of the future might not need to be bought at all. It might need to simply be given the opportunity to grow.
There will always be a free-agent market. There will always be a trade market. And shopping at those markets are always more exciting than playing the waiting game. But that's what rebuilding is all about.