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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