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.