Bruce Rondon

Jace Fry emerging as bright spot in an otherwise unreliable White Sox bullpen

0516_jace_fry.jpg
USA TODAY

Jace Fry emerging as bright spot in an otherwise unreliable White Sox bullpen

The White Sox came into the season with a bullpen stocked with potential flip candidates and guys trying to carve out a spot in this organization's bright future.

Neither party has fared too well.

Joakim Soria and Luis Avilan haven't done much to convince a contender to cough up a prospect or two in a midseason trade. Juan Minaya and Gregory Infante, who both showed promise at the end of last season, were both quickly demoted to the minor leagues. Nate Jones and Aaron Bummer have had their stumbles. Hector Santiago and Chris Volstad have taken turns plugging holes in the White Sox leaky starting rotation to varying degrees of effectiveness.

But at least one guy is showing signs that he could maybe become something out there in the 'pen and be part of the relief corps when the White Sox open up their contention window in the next couple years.

Jace Fry hasn't allowed a hit this season, his most recent appearance coming in Wednesday's 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Fry has faced 20 batters over six innings of work, and the only men he's put on have reached via a pair of walks. He's struck out eight of those 20 hitters.

Fry, a third-round pick of the White Sox back in the 2014 draft, got his first taste of the majors last season, and things did not go well. He logged 6.2 big league innings over 11 appearances and finished 2017 with a gargantuan 10.80 ERA. He was promoted right from Double-A Birmingham, where things did go well, with Fry posting a 2.78 ERA in 45.1 relief innings there. This season, he started at Triple-A Charlotte, and he gave up just one run in 6.2 innings before getting the call to come back to the bigs.

And now he's perhaps the most reliable option Rick Renteria has to go to in that bullpen. Four of Fry's five outings have last at least an inning, and he's struck out multiple hitters in three of his five appearances.

Compare that to the rest of the White Sox relief corps, which has struggled. Soria coughed up the game-winning run in the seventh inning Wednesday and now has a 4.72 ERA. Jones, who White Sox fans are likely still associating with that four-run ninth last week against these same Pirates, got his ERA down under 4.00 (it's 3.86) with back-to-back scoreless eight innings Sunday against the Cubs and Wednesday in Pittsburgh. Chris Beck is the third pitcher in the 'pen whose ERA is under 4.00, at 3.94 after 3.2 innings of relief in Tuesday's loss.

Bruce Rondon has arguably joined Fry as another bright spot, though that's pretty relative considering his ERA is all the way up at 4.15, even after he picked up the save in Sunday's win at Wrigley Field. He's got strikeout stuff but also has a four-run appearance to his name this season.

In other words, Renteria's options aren't numerous.

Fry, though, because of his age (24) and his status as a homegrown member of the White Sox organization, could find a way to stick around not just in 2018 but beyond. The sample size is small, but he's been impressive out of a bullpen that's been mostly the opposite so far this season.

Perhaps Rick Hahn was again trying to execute the same strategy he did a season ago, when he traded away much of the relief corps in midsummer deals. That doesn't seem likely to happen unless this group radically changes its performance. But in Fry, he might have a arm to stick in that future bullpen.

Did Rick Renteria just pick a new closer, or is this how White Sox bullpen was always supposed to work?

0513-bruce-rondon.jpg
USA TODAY

Did Rick Renteria just pick a new closer, or is this how White Sox bullpen was always supposed to work?

Bruce Rondon threw a scoreless ninth inning Sunday and locked down a 5-3 win for the White Sox.

So he’s the new closer, right?

It’s no secret that the ninth inning hasn’t been the strongest for White Sox relievers this season, and after Nate Jones’ four-run implosion last week against the Pittsburgh Pirates, maybe it was time for Rick Renteria to turn to a new option at closer.

But look what happened the inning prior to Rondon’s shutdown ninth, and you might see that Sunday was just an example of how Rick Renteria has wanted to use this White Sox bullpen all along.

Jones was the man on for the eighth inning, and he went 1-2-3 to keep the Cubs offense down. But while the ninth inning gets all the glory, it’s very easy to argue that the three outs in the eighth were more difficult to get than the three in the ninth. After all, Jones faced the middle of the Cubs’ order: Willson Contreras (he of the monster weekend against White Sox pitching), Javy Baez (the National League RBI leader) and Kyle Schwarber (kid’s got some pop). Jones got those three to go strikeout, fly out, groundout.

A nice bounce back for Jones, perhaps once more being used in a “closer’s” role, albeit a less traditional one than most folks are used to.

Rondon fared well and was pumped up after he struck out Addison Russell and Ian Happ, then got Ben Zobrist to fly out to end the game after Tommy La Stella’s pinch-hit single.

For Rondon, the one-time “closer of the future” for the Detroit Tigers, he treated it like he was getting the game’s three biggest outs.

“Every time that I go out, my mindset is the closer mindset, and I like it,” Rondon said with the help of a translator.

But Rondon’s manager wasn’t keen to hand out a role to any of his relievers after the game. Instead, he talked about a plan he’s discussed since spring training, one that has multiple guys as “high-leverage” relievers, no matter which inning they happen to pitch in.

“I think in terms of outs, it just happened to be the ninth inning and he got us the outs he needed to get,” Renteria said. “I don't talk to our relievers about innings situations, I talk to them more about getting outs.”

And the bullpen guys get that, too.

“Ricky just tells us to be ready after the seventh because when the situation arises we need to perform there and that's what we have been doing,” Rondon said.

Unmentioned to this point is Joakim Soria, who was added this offseason as a potential closer and a guy who could potentially be flipped for a rebuild-aiding piece this summer. But he hasn’t fared especially well, either, with a 4.38 ERA on the year. Jones has been used in big situations throughout the season to varying degrees of effectiveness. After Sunday’s great eighth inning, he’s got a 4.11 ERA. Rondon’s 4.15 ERA doesn’t exactly scream “new closer,” but he’s had flashes of brilliance, including Sunday, when he blew away a couple Cubs hitters.

But there’s a strong case to be made that Jones got the three biggest outs recorded by a White Sox relief pitcher Sunday, and that might make him as much of a “closer” as the White Sox have.

Maybe Rondon does become the team’s new ninth-inning man. Or maybe this was exactly how Renteria wanted things to play out from Day 1.

Nate Jones had a bad day, but White Sox bullpen hasn't offered much in the way of lock-down options

0509-nate-jones.jpg
USA TODAY

Nate Jones had a bad day, but White Sox bullpen hasn't offered much in the way of lock-down options

Closers are going to blow saves. They wouldn’t have a statistic for it if it never happened.

But Nate Jones’ blown save Wednesday made for a back-breaking loss that’s become far too commonplace for the White Sox during this rebuilding season.

Home runs from Tim Anderson and Daniel Palka built a 4-0 lead early — much like the 4-0 lead the South Siders had after one inning in Tuesday’s eventual 10-6 loss to the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates — and Welington Castillo provided some insurance with an RBI double to make it 5-2 in the eighth. But Jones never seemed to stand a chance, blowing that three-run lead in 10 pitches. The first five hitters of the ninth went single, single, groundout, two-run double, two-run homer.

Game, blouses.

“Just didn’t execute right there,” Jones said. “We had some pitches in mind. Didn’t execute on my part, and big league hitters do what they’re supposed to do when you leave pitches up or in the zone. I paid for it.”

It’s been a not-so-good season for the White Sox, who are on a five-game losing streak, are 1-9 in their last 10, are 4-10 in one-run games, have lost three games when leading after the eighth inning and are 3-15 at home, the worst 18-game home start in team history.

It’s also been a not-so-good return season for Jones, who pitched in only 11 games in 2017. Entering Wednesday, Jones still had a very good 2.03 ERA. But he’s had some glaring moments. He turned a four-run game into a more manageable three-run game in the eighth inning of that disastrous home opener. He made things nerve-racking with three walks in the ninth inning of that 14-inning marathon in Oakland. He walked two of the first three hitters he faced in the eighth inning last week against the St. Louis Cardinals. He gave up a home run in Sunday's loss to the Minnesota Twins.

After Wednesday’s fiasco, his ERA sits at 4.40. He’s now converted just four of his 24 career save opportunities with an 8.14 ERA in those chances.

But this isn’t to pile on Jones, one of the more affable guys in the White Sox clubhouse. After all, how many members of the White Sox bullpen have fared significantly better? Joakim Soria’s ERA is 4.38. Hector Santiago’s is 5.76. Aaron Bummer’s is 5.06. Luis Avilan’s is 5.23. Chris Volstad’s is 5.19. Bruce Rondon’s is 4.91.

Gregory Infante and Juan Minaya, two guys who had good 2017s to earn places on the Opening Day roster this season, were rapidly demoted to Triple-A, both sporting major league ERAs over 8.00. Danny Farquhar hasn’t been an option for obvious reasons.

There aren’t many lock-down weapons out there for Renteria to turn to, leading to why he deemed Jones the guy he wanted out there in a save situation Wednesday.

“Based on results easy answer no,” Renteria said when asked his opinion on whether Jones has had a good season to this point. “But his arm strength, his life on his fastball, everything is pretty good. His changeup and slider, it’s good. … From the strength aspect he’s still very good.

“He’s our best guy to finish it off. I couldn’t have scripted it any better today, to be honest. We did exactly what we wanted to do, had the guy to close it out and we didn’t. That’s it. We played a really good ballgame, we had a chance to win and weren’t able to close it out.”

Rick Hahn’s front office added some pieces to its rebuilding effort last summer when it traded away much of the big league bullpen. David Robertson, Anthony Swarzak, Tommy Kahnle and Dan Jennings (and eventually Tyler Clippard) were all dealt away in deadline deals to acquire prospects.

After that strategy worked as well as it did, it seemed a similar one was employed in building this season’s relief corps. Soria, Avilan and Rondon — not to mention veteran adds who have yet to be summoned from Triple-A like Jeanmar Gomez, Xavier Cedeno and Robbie Ross Jr. — were all low-risk acquisitions that could be flipped midseason for another piece. But these guys need to pitch more like Robertson, Swarzak, Kahnle and Jennings before those trades can happen.

There’s plenty of baseball remaining between now and the July 31 trade deadline, so that group has plenty of time to turn in good performances and turn into trade-able assets. But until then, bringing in any number of guys from that bullpen seems like a move that could go south for the 9-25 White Sox.