Matt Albers threw the ball so well late in the 2015 season he became a trusted member of the White Sox bullpen.
But it was because of his performance, and the increased number of high-leverage appearances he made in September, that the White Sox believed Albers would pitch in a different uniform this season.
Instead, the White Sox have to be very pleased as they added to their bullpen depth by retaining the free-agent right-hander on Thursday with a one-year, $2.25 million deal. The club also holds a $3 million option for 2017 on Albers, who didn’t allow a run in his final 20 appearances and finished 2-1 with a 1.21 ERA in 30 games.
“It evolved for him,” pitching coach Don Cooper said. “When he came back (from injury) he emerged as a guy that we really, really liked and really, really trusted in big moments in the seventh and eighth inning. I know he has the streak going.
“He finished really strong. He did a great job for us, and for me it’s a great addition. I thought he might have been gone, but he’s not and he’s going to bring those same qualities back.”
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Albers flourished at the end of the 2015 season.
After he missed three months with a broken finger, the result of an April brawl with the Kansas City Royals, Albers returned on July 19 and quickly assumed a key role in the bullpen.
Only eight days after he was activated, Albers — who began the season appearing in six straight losses — made the first of 10 high-leverage appearances over his final 24 games (41.7 percent). That included a stretch in September where Albers made six high-leverage appearances in 11 games and picked up six holds.
Prior to 2015, Albers’ previous best was 32.1 percent high-leverage appearances in 2009.
Aside from David Robertson in the ninth inning, the White Sox haven’t defined any bullpen roles for 2016. But it’s likely that Albers would start the season in the early setup role (sixth and seventh innings) with Nate Jones, Zach Duke, Zach Putnam and Jake Petricka slated for the later innings.
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No matter what role Albers takes on, general manager Rick Hahn is happy to have the Houston, Texas, native back in the mix. With bullpens unpredictable from year to year, the White Sox are further insulated from an injury or a poor performance.
They also have a variety of pitchers. Whereas the 2014 squad was full of ground-ball relievers, this season’s group promises to have a nice mix of strikeout and sinkerball pitchers.
“Matt brings a different look and greater depth to our bullpen,” Hahn said in an email. “Robin (Ventura) and the staff trusted Matt in a variety of different roles over the course of the season, and he had success in all of them. We're glad he is back.”
Albers hasn’t allowed an earned run since July 31. Over that span, he went 23 1/3 innings, allowing an unearned run and 19 hits with six walks and 19 strikeouts.
While the team’s current bullpen doesn’t have the flash of the New York Yankees’ current group or Kansas City’s, Cooper is confident. He likes that Albers for his calm demeanor and pitch ability and because he induces grounders, a nice complement to the rest of the bullpen.
“We have enough talent out there to bridge things together, get people out and close out games,” Cooper said. “I do like our guys and think we can piece things together.”