Aaron Bummer

State of the White Sox: Relief pitching

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USA TODAY

State of the White Sox: Relief pitching

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The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.

With the postseason in swing and a little bit still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.

We’re moving on to relief pitching.

What happened in 2019

While the starting pitching left a lot to be desired in 2019, the South Side bullpen can be considered a strength heading into 2020. The only American League teams that owned lower relief ERAs this season were the five playoff teams and the Cleveland Indians, who finished with the best record among non-playoff teams.

The back end of the ‘pen was particularly effective, with Alex Colome and Aaron Bummer turning in strong seasons. Colome, acquired in the offseason trade with the Seattle Mariners that sent catcher Omar Narvaez to the Pacific Northwest, finished with 30 saves in 33 chances (only eight pitchers in baseball had more saves) to go along with his 2.80 ERA, his lowest since 2016. Colome has 126 saves since the start of that 2016 season. Bummer, meanwhile, emerged from a crowded pack of young relievers as a dominant late-inning force. He finished the season with a 2.13 ERA that ranked seventh in baseball among relievers who pitched at least 60 innings.

It’s true both pitchers experienced downticks in production following the All-Star break, with Colome posting a 3.91 ERA in the second half after putting up a 2.02 mark in the first half and Bummer finishing the second half with a 2.36 ERA after finishing the first half with a 1.89 ERA. But the duo instilled enough faith in Rick Hahn’s front office that they weren’t dealt at the deadline, like so many relievers before them were in previous seasons.

But that same front office uncovered a couple other solid performers, signing Evan Marshall as a minor league free agent and picking Jimmy Cordero up off waivers. Marshall turned in a 2.49 ERA in his 50.2 innings, and Cordero, often with a rolled-up sleeve, posting a 2.75 ERA in his 36 innings after joining the White Sox.

Obviously, it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops, and there wasn’t much middle ground between those four solid batches of production and the more upsetting numbers put up by White Sox relievers. Josh Osich was probably the next most effective, used as much as Bummer, with 67.2 innings logged, but his ERA was 4.66. Jace Fry finished the season with a 4.75 ERA. Most everyone else was north of 5.00, including 2015 first-round pick Carson Fulmer, whose transition to relief isn’t going super well. In his 27.1 big league innings this season, he had a 6.26 ERA with 20 walks. Offseason acquisition Kelvin Herrera fared about as poorly, with a 6.14 ERA in his 51.1 innings. His season was impacted by the same foot injury that ended his 2018 season with the Washington Nationals.

What will happen this offseason

The White Sox have some decisions to make when it comes to a couple of the guys mentioned above. Colome, Marshall and Osich are all arbitration eligible, and while Marshall’s projected $1.3 million makes him seem like a slam-dunk candidate to be tendered a contract, there’s discussion on the other two.

Colome was great last season, though his projected $10.3 million is raising a few eyebrows. His dependability as a late-inning reliever in recent seasons don’t make that number seem wildly outrageous, but his strikeout numbers were down last season, and his second-half ERA nearly touched 4.00. Still, the White Sox knew such a raise was likely when they made the trade with the Mariners, and they knew such a raise was likely when they decided to hang onto Colome at the deadline. Given the mystery that comes with relief pitching, hanging onto Colome with a tendered contract this winter seems a very logical move.

Then there’s Osich, whose projected salary is an affordable $1 million. But the numbers weren’t as sterling as Marshall’s. Still, Renteria leaned on Osich a lot, showing a relative amount of comfort in calling him in from the ‘pen. We’ll see what they do with Osich.

When it comes to potential offseason moves, maybe don’t expect one as consequential as the trade to acquire Colome last winter. After all, Hahn has plenty on his to-do list already in searching for upgrades for the starting rotation as well as new everyday players in right field and at designated hitter. While hitting on Marshall and Cordero probably isn’t enough to suggest that every under-the-radar pickup the White Sox make will blossom into a reliable bullpen piece, it’s likely the way we’ll see the team add relief pitching this winter, as Hahn alluded to during his end-of-season press conference last month.

“All 30 teams will tell you this week or whenever their press conference is that adding more bullpen pieces is an offseason priority, and we're no exception,” he said. “Obviously, the way Colome and Bummer have done over the course of the year makes you feel real good about their spot going forward. A now healthy Kelvin Herrera is the kind of guy who's probably a pretty good reliever bounce-back candidate bet, if it hasn't already happened here in terms of seeing what he's capable of doing when he's 100 percent.

“Cordero's been a nice find, as has been Marshall, but that's not going to stop us from continuing to potentially take guys off waivers like Cordero or minor-league free agents like Marshall. It's going to go into this offseason continuing to be a place we want to add because relievers are tricky. You see it every year, guys go from the top of the list to the bottom and back. Obviously, injury remains a consideration.”

That might not point to thrilling upgrades like Colome, but it points to moves nonetheless. Hahn has talked about the volatility of relief pitching before, and a team that has designs on contending would be wise to add as many options as it can.

What to expect for 2020 and beyond

Again, as Hahn mentioned, the production of bullpen arms isn’t as easily projected as the production of players at other positions. So saying that the White Sox have four innings of dependable relief spoken for in every game just isn’t true. Not yet, at least. We’ll have to wait and see how Colome, Bummer, Marshall and Cordero fare in 2020 before knowing that.

And other, positive changes could impact that late-inning equation, too. Hahn mentioned Kelvin Herrera, who after a rocky few months came off the injured list toward the end of the season and had a 1.93 ERA in September. One year further removed from his injury could make a big difference in 2020. Maybe Fulmer figures some things out and realizes at least some level of the hype that accompanied him as a top-10 pick.

Then there’s the host of young relief prospects that could still factor into the future. Perhaps Ryan Burr returns from Tommy John surgery to provide a late-season boost. Perhaps Ian Hamilton returns from his freak injuries to reclaim his highly touted prospect status. Perhaps Tyler Johnson reaches the big leagues after posting a 2.59 ERA at two minor league levels this season. Again, we’ll see.

Only the teams that end the season with elite relief corps or go out and spend huge dollars on relief can truly be projected to have a strong bullpen from one season to the next — and those projections don’t always pan out.

The ‘pen was a strength for the White Sox in 2019, and they have some arms that give confidence that it could be once again in 2020.

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After White Sox bullpen shuts down Twins, who's in and who's out for 2020?

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USA TODAY

After White Sox bullpen shuts down Twins, who's in and who's out for 2020?

The White Sox bullpen did a splendid job Wednesday night.

A “bullpen day” against the Minnesota Twins’ high-powered offense had potential disaster written all over it. Instead, Ivan Nova and a parade of relievers held those Twins hitless through five innings and to just one run in a sweep-avoiding win.

It’s actually the second time a “bullpen day” went better than expected against one of the best teams in baseball, Wednesday’s effort joining the one back in May against the Houston Astros. The White Sox lost that night but gave up just three runs to the kings of the AL West.

While nearly every pitcher that trotted out from the visitors’ bullpen Wednesday night in Minnesota pitched well, it doesn’t mean that the White Sox will carry this exact unit into a 2020 season that could be one in which they make the long awaited transition from rebuilding to contending.

Certainly Alex Colome and Aaron Bummer have been among the many bright spots for the White Sox this season, and the retention of both at the trade deadline provides confidence in what the back end of the bullpen can be in a potentially contending season. But while the eighth- and ninth-inning jobs are easily projected, what does the rest of the White Sox bullpen look like heading into 2020?

While starting pitcher is definitely on the winter wish list for Rick Hahn’s front office, it would be no shock to see relief pitching get addressed, too. It’s hard to predict which of the tons of relievers could wind up in a White Sox uniform before the team heads to Arizona for spring training. But we can try to guess at the fortunes of the relief arms currently on the roster, many of whom appeared in Wednesday night’s game.

Late-inning arms for 2020

Even if the White Sox make no additions to their bullpen this winter, the back end is pretty easy to project.

Colome has one more year of team control after being acquired in a trade with the Seattle Mariners last winter. He’s been allowing more base runners as the season has wound down — including a walk-off homer to Omar Narvaez, the guy he was traded for, last weekend in Seattle — but he’ll finish the campaign with excellent numbers, still having blown only one save. That’s the best save percentage in baseball. He’s got 124 saves over the last four seasons.

Bummer, meanwhile, has emerged from a host of internal candidates to grab a pretty tight hold on the eighth-inning job. He has a 2.31 ERA on the season with a week and a half to play, and he’s a guy who could be a back-end reliever and a potential closer for years to come.

As for other late-inning guys, Jimmy Cordero seems to be a diamond in the rough uncovered in season. He’s got a 3.34 ERA since joining the White Sox and has been an oft-used arm by Rick Renteria. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the White Sox put even more high-leverage situations on his plate next season.

Evan Marshall, too, figures to be back next season. He was another quality addition to the ‘pen, and he’s actually been better in the second half, with a 2.59 ERA since the All-Star break compared to the still-very-good 2.86 ERA before it.

Is that a fearsome foursome at the back end of a contending bullpen? Certainly all four of those guys have been good to very good this season. The White Sox would probably express a great deal of confidence in that quartet, but adding another late-inning arm to that mix in free agency would make that confidence level even higher.

What do you do with these guys?

If those four are very likely to be in key spots in the 2020 bullpen, what about some of the guys’ whose futures aren’t so obvious?

Jace Fry threw 1.2 innings without giving up a run Wednesday, dropping his season ERA to 4.96. That’s not a very pretty number, and there have been stretches this season that haven’t been very pretty, either. In a five-outing span in late May and early June, he walked six of the 19 batters he faced and gave up four earned runs in just 3.1 innings. Over a 13-outing span in August and September, Fry gave up 12 runs in 10.2 innings, walking nine and giving up 13 hits to the 53 batters he faced. But the White Sox love Fry’s potential. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him a part of the Opening Day relief corps. But if the White Sox are in contention mode, how long could they afford his inconsistencies?

Kelvin Herrera is almost certain to be back in 2020, considering the White Sox inked him to a two-year deal last offseason. But he’s going to need to improve dramatically from what he did in his first campaign on the South Side. He’s got a 6.51 ERA right now in 53 appearances. That’s obviously not good enough, and the White Sox will be hoping for something close to the kind of guy who mowed them down when he was a key piece on those back-to-back World Series teams for the Kansas City Royals. Another season removed from the foot injury that ended his 2018 season early ought to help.

Have the White Sox seen enough of Jose Ruiz and Carson Fulmer? Again, these guys have upside the team is excited about. Ruiz can throw the ball pretty hard, and Fulmer is a former top-10 draft pick. But the results have not been good, to say the least. Ruiz has a 5.87 ERA in 39 games. Fulmer, who threw 2.1 scoreless innings Wednesday, has a 5.33 ERA in 18 big league appearances. If there are free-agent additions to be had, these two could be squeezed out of the picture. But for right now, the White Sox aren’t done with them just yet.

Where art thou, minor leaguers?

If you cast your mind back to last season, you’ll remember a bunch of young arms that looked like candidates for the bullpen of the future. For various reasons, those guys didn’t do much impressing in 2019.

Injuries are to blame in certain cases. Ryan Burr was one of the many White Sox pitchers to have Tommy John surgery this season, wiping out an audition of a 2019 season for him. Ian Hamilton was similarly knocked out for the year with a pair of freak injuries. He was hurt in a car accident during spring training and then suffered a number of grisly facial injuries when he was struck with a foul ball while sitting in the dugout at Triple-A Charlotte.

Under-performance struck, too. Caleb Frare only made 31 combined appearances between the majors and Charlotte, but he posted a 10.13 ERA at the big league level and a 7.66 ERA with the Knights. Thyago Vieira had a 10.29 ERA in six major league games and a 6.27 ERA in 39 games at Triple-A.

But all four remain on the 40-man roster, for now.

Then there are three other guys who were highly thought of a year ago who didn’t help their cases for a major league promotion. Zack Burdi, the former first-round pick, was routinely rocked pitching in only 20 games at Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham, with a 6.75 ERA in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Tyler Johnson had good numbers but only pitched 31.1 innings in 22 games. Zach Thompson had a 5.23 ERA in his 45 appearances with Brimingham and Charlotte.

None of that screams must-include pieces of the 2020 major league bullpen. A lot can change between now and Opening Day, as well as now and any later point in the season when reinforcements to the relief corps could still make a big difference. But as we stand here right now, it’s hard to say any of these guys will be in the Opening Day ‘pen.

Unlikely bullpen arms?

The other internal options for relief arms in 2020 might come from an unlikely spot: the starting rotation.

There are only five spots on the 2020 starting staff, and Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease figure to have three of them spoken for. The White Sox will make at least one offseason addition, speaking for a fourth spot. And despite a bumpy 2019 season, it would not be surprising to see Reynaldo Lopez in that rotation, too, come Opening Day.

That doesn’t mean he’ll stay there all season, though. A contending White Sox team might not be able to put up with the kind of inconsistent results Lopez has delivered in 2019. Similarly, there’s a possibility Kopech could have to start the season in the minor leagues if the White Sox think he needs more time to work himself into game shape following a long layoff while recovering from his Tommy John surgery. Whether it’s multiple offseason acquisitions or simply Kopech returning and claiming a spot, Lopez might be squeezed out, in which case the bullpen would be a possible destination for him. The White Sox see him as a starter now, but there’s no reason that a squeezed-out Lopez, should it happen, couldn’t still help the team from the ‘pen.

Also, what becomes of other Tommy John recoverers when they return to full health? What happens if Carlos Rodon or Dane Dunning or Jimmy Lambert is available late in the year? Could they help in the bullpen even if they’re destined to be long-term starters? Maybe. It’s just speculation, but time will tell.

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White Sox most significant move at trade deadline: Reaffirming a run at 2020

White Sox most significant move at trade deadline: Reaffirming a run at 2020

Why didn’t the White Sox do anything significant at the trade deadline?

I think you can argue that they did.

Whether you want to or not is entirely up to you, and it’s likely defined by your general optimism or pessimism toward the ongoing rebuilding project.

The White Sox made one move on deadline day, trading Nate Jones — out for the season after undergoing forearm surgery — and some international bonus money for a couple minor league pitchers who’ve yet to reach A-ball. That wasn’t a significant move, nothing that will have an impact on this season or the next. As much as the White Sox might miss the good guy Jones, his constant injured status likely wrote him out of the team’s long-term plans.

Those long-term plans, however, were at the center of the team’s decisions Wednesday.

The most discussed trade candidates on the South Side leading up to the deadline were closer Alex Colome and setup man Aaron Bummer, discussed so much because of their great seasons and the White Sox recent deadline history of dealing relievers. Both guys might have fetched interesting returns. But general manager Rick Hahn must not have heard anything that would have netted the kind of value that he could lock in simply by keeping Colome and Bummer in the White Sox employ.

It all comes down to this: The White Sox think they might have what it takes to be a contender in 2020, to compete for the playoff spot that this franchise hasn’t seen in more than a decade.

If that’s what ends up happening, something that could be further solidified by the moves Hahn chooses to make this winter, then having an All-Star caliber closer who’s saved a combined 117 games since the start of the 2016 season and a young, controllable eighth-inning man who currently boasts a 1.62 ERA would be a very good thing — a better thing than whatever Hahn would have been able to get for them Wednesday.

Hahn said Wednesday it was a combination of not getting a return package he liked and a display of confidence in the 2020 team’s chances that led to the lack of major moves at this deadline. The general manager isn’t about to set expectations for the 2020 season with two months to go in the 2019 campaign, but through this whole season — through Lucas Giolito’s Cy Young caliber first half, Yoan Moncada’s breakout season, Tim Anderson’s breakout season, Eloy Jimenez’s arrival in the major leagues, James McCann’s out-of-nowhere trip to the All-Star Game and Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal tearing up the minor leagues — it’s looked like next year certainly could be the one that features the White Sox transition from rebuilding to contending.

If the focus is building a contending roster for the 2020 season, it only makes sense to have Colome and Bummer as parts of that roster.

“A lot of our conversations — actually all of our conversations — were centered around long-term fits, some of them involving pieces off the big league club and even many that were more of the prospect-for-prospect variety,” Hahn said. “As you come to these points in time where you have the opportunity to improve the club, it's the natural desire of all the front offices to make moves. We prefer to make trades than not make trades.

“But given where we're at in terms of this rebuild, it made more sense to only move if there was something that made sense for the long term, and that did not present itself.

“It was a matter of: Were we getting what we felt made enough sense to potentially put a hole in next year's roster, and how were we going to go about filling that hole? We just didn't get to the point where we were motivated by what was coming back to potentially weaken the 2020 roster.”

This might go raising some eyebrows across the White Sox fan base as the South Siders continue their stumble out of the All-Star break. They’ve dropped all but four of the 18 games they’ve played in the second half, averaging fewer than three runs a game while doing it and putting up some of the worst offensive numbers in the game during the span.

Skeptics can point to plenty: that Michael Kopech will be coming back from more than a yearlong absence thanks to Tommy John surgery, that the type of impact pitcher they will be looking for this winter might be out of their price range, that Robert and Madrigal could reasonably be expected to experience the same kinds of first-year growing pains that Moncada and Jimenez have gone through.

So it’s hard to declare that the White Sox will be contenders next season. But it looks like they could be. What happened in the first half is what’s responsible for that possibility, of course, but Hahn said the front office isn’t changing its thinking based on what’s occurred since the All-Star break.

“It doesn't change our prognosis going forward,” Hahn said. “It doesn't change what a healthy Tim Anderson or a healthy Eloy or healthy Moncada can bring to a team or what they're going to bring to this team over the next several years or what some of the other young players that have, knock on wood, stayed healthy this season what they'll be able to do, or what some of the near-ready minor league prospects are going to be able to do in 2020 and beyond. Nor does it change the importance or heightened importance that we have quality depth to withstand these things if they come up moving forward.”

And so the White Sox did do something significant Wednesday: They reaffirmed that they’re going to make a run at making a run in 2020. That means keeping Colome and Bummer to anchor the bullpen. That means hanging onto Jose Abreu and allowing Ivan Nova to finish his one-year mentorship of Reynaldo Lopez. That means keeping a clubhouse together that is building a familiarity with one another.

And that means Hahn mentioning what’s coming this offseason. Disappointed by a lack of midseason moves? Just wait till the winter. That could be the setup to make sure this deadline never repeats itself.

“We want to be in the position where at the deadline we're the ones looking to add,” Hahn said. “Not necessarily, ‘Are you going to add? Are you subtracting? Are you going to stand pat?’ We want it to be a clear decision that it makes sense that we're in the point of our competitive cycle and the chance to win a championship where it's obvious we're going to be looking ahead.

“Heading into this offseason, based on the progress of some of these young players, based on the progress of other young players that will be joining this roster over the coming months, I think it's very logical for us, you're going to see a heightened level of aggressiveness come this offseason. We'll wait until we get there to decide exactly where.”

The White Sox are getting ready for 2020. That started a long time ago, obviously, but it was reaffirmed Wednesday. And if all goes well, standing pat at the 2019 deadline will be a distant memory when the White Sox are shopping at this time next year.

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