Aaron Bummer

Projecting the White Sox 2020 bullpen, now including Steve Cishek

Projecting the White Sox 2020 bullpen, now including Steve Cishek

Declaring after the Dallas Keuchel signing became official that his front office's focus would be on improving the bullpen in the new year, Rick Hahn got right to work on that front, reportedly adding Steve Cishek on a free-agent deal Tuesday.

He might not yet be done adding to a relief corps that was surprisingly solid in 2019. You might not have realized it by watching them, but White Sox relievers ranked seventh in the American League with a 4.31 ERA, behind only the five teams that made the postseason and a team that almost did, the Cleveland Indians.

With a lot of those pieces back for 2020, the White Sox bullpen isn't terribly difficult to project for the upcoming campaign. Let's take a look.

Late-inning locks: Alex Colome, Aaron Bummer, Steve Cishek

Here are your high-leverage, late-inning guys. They number a closer who has racked up 126 saves since the start of the 2016 season, a 26-year-old with tons of team control who logged a 2.13 ERA during a breakout 2019 season and a guy who posted a 2.55 ERA in a whopping 150 appearances over the last two years on the North Side. It's not hard to be confident about that group, though there are some alarmed by Colome's first- and second-half splits in 2019: a 2.02 ERA before the All-Star break and a 3.91 ERA after it. As Hahn will tell you, the performance of relief pitchers is volatile and can swing wildly from one year to the next. But this is a very strong trio.

Guys who earned a spot in 2019: Evan Marshall, Jimmy Cordero

The need for Cishek stems from that volatility, and it's hard to say what exactly Marshall and Cordero will do in 2020. They don't have the veteran track records of guys like Colome and Cishek, so you can't bank on repeat performances from these two buy-low finds — Marshall was signed as a minor league free agent, while Cordero was an in-season waiver claim — despite strong stints with the 2019 White Sox. Marshall finished with a 2.49 ERA in 55 appearances, while Cordero had a 2.75 ERA in his 30 appearances after joining the team. Rick Renteria leaned on both of them last year, and they performed. Now there's some insurance in the form of Cishek in case they can't recapture the magic. And if they can, then this is a very deep back end of the bullpen.

Guys who weren't great in 2019 but aren't going anywhere: Kelvin Herrera, Jace Fry

Herrera and Fry struggled in 2019. Big time. Herrera, in the first year of what at the time looked like a great two-year, free-agent deal, had a 6.14 ERA. But there's reason to believe this season could go quite differently if he's unencumbered by the effects of his 2018 foot injury that lingered well into last year. A fully healthy spring ought to be beneficial, and perhaps he can return to some semblance of the guy who dominated the White Sox when he was a member of the Kansas City Royals. There was a positive showing in September, as Herrera gave up just two runs in his 10 appearances. Fry, meanwhile, struggled to find the zone, walking 43 opposing hitters in 55 innings. That's too many, obviously, but the White Sox still believe in Fry as a potential lights-out hurler, meaning he'll likely get a chance to prove it out of the gate.

One more guy (or two?)

There's a new 26th spot on big league rosters starting in 2020, and given the growing trend toward increased bullpen usage in recent years, you might assume that would be filled, in many cases, by another relief arm. That's not a bad assumption. But it can obviously be used elsewhere on the roster, too. The White Sox seemingly have a five-man rotation set with Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and Gio Gonzalez. But then there's Michael Kopech, who will be limited in some fashion, but does that fashion involve him on or off the Opening Day roster? We don't know yet, and obviously that could impact how many pitchers the White Sox end up carrying in their bullpen.

Hahn, as mentioned, could also make another addition of note to the bullpen that would fill this spot. Interesting, too, that there's no long-relief option among this bunch, the best internal candidate for that role being someone like Dylan Covey or Ross Detwiler, guys the White Sox might need to have starting in the minors in the event of an injury in the big league rotation.

Basically, there are a lot of ways the White Sox could go with this final piece or two of the bullpen puzzle. Right now, how about we say it will be Jose Ruiz, who the team still values for his hard-throwing ways. He didn't fare so well in 2019, with a 5.63 ERA in 40 appearances. But with Zack Burdi probably not yet ready for a jump to the majors, Carson Fulmer unable to show he can get consistent outs and Ian Hamilton coming off a lost 2019 season, Ruiz might be the most likely of the guys currently on the 40-man roster to fill a final spot.

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Forget adding another outfielder, next focus for White Sox is reportedly upgrading bullpen


Forget adding another outfielder, next focus for White Sox is reportedly upgrading bullpen

Going into the offseason there were clear priorities for the White Sox: starting pitching, right field and designated hitter.

Now that Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez are on board, the starting pitching has been upgraded. Nomar Mazara was an upgrade in right field, albeit a relatively modest addition. Edwin Encarnacion serves as a proven DH.

So what’s next? Another outfielder to complement a relatively unproven Mazara? Despite rumors connecting the White Sox to Nicholas Castellanos and Yasiel Puig, USA Today's Bob Nightengale reports that upgrading the bullpen is next on the list.

If the White Sox want to make a splash in the pen, the free agent relievers available include former Sox pitcher Daniel Hudson, ex-Astros righty Will Harris and former Cubs Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop. Those will be among the names to watch.

Based on the bullpen the White Sox have under contract, it’s easy to see the need for another reliever or two to be confident in the whole group.

Alex Colome (30 saves) was effective as closer last season while Aaron Bummer (2.13 ERA, 27 holds) and Evan Marshall (2.49 ERA, 19 holds) had breakout seasons. Betting on year-to-year success with relievers is tricky, but it’s safe to say those three are going to be given spots in the White Sox bullpen in 2020.

Jimmy Cordero (2.75 ERA, 31 strikeouts, 11 walks, 24 hits in 36 innings) was solid after joining the team midseason and is likely in position to return. Kelvin Herrera was not effective after signing a two-year, $18 million contract last offseason, but given the contract it will be tough to move him.

After that, it’s fair game to question who the White Sox would fill out to make a seven-man bullpen. Jose Ruiz had an ERA north of five and a WHIP of 2.00 and logged 40 innings. That’s one spot prime for an upgrade.

Lefty Josh Osich shared the lead with Bummer in innings pitched among White Sox relievers at 67.2. He signed with the Red Sox. Another lefty, Jace Fry, saw his walk rate double from 2018 to 2019. Fry could be given another shot or the White Sox could try to get another lefty.

The White Sox could be looking to add as many as three relievers, although one or two is more likely. There are a couple of internal candidates who could provide solutions.

Ian Hamilton, a 24-year-old right-hander, set the minors on fire in 2018 and earned a brief call-up that year, but missed most of 2019 with two non-pitching related injuries. He got into a car accident in spring training, which delayed the start of his season. Then he was hit by a foul ball in the face while watching from the dugout in Triple-A Charlotte. A healthy Hamilton could serve as one addition.

Tayron Guerrero was claimed on waivers from the Marlins earlier this month. The 28-year-old right-hander walked 36 batters in 46.0 innings last season, but if he can harness his control, his high-velocity stuff plays in the majors. 

Even with internal options, given the White Sox's aggressiveness this offseason, it's not likely they stand pat and hope for the best.

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State of the White Sox: Relief pitching


State of the White Sox: Relief pitching

Previous: Starting pitching | Designated hitter | Right field | Center field | Left field | Catcher | Shortstop Third base  Second base | First base

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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