Chris Volstad

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

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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.

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

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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.

Volstad, Santiago show capability as rotation alternatives, but White Sox still have starting-pitching mystery this weekend

Volstad, Santiago show capability as rotation alternatives, but White Sox still have starting-pitching mystery this weekend

Chris Volstad and Hector Santiago combined for one of the best outings by a White Sox starting pitcher this season.

These weren’t the names anyone expected to fit that description when the season began. But with struggles all around from James Shields, Lucas Giolito, Miguel Gonzalez and Carson Fulmer, here the White Sox sit as they approach the one-month mark of the 2018 campaign.

Reynaldo Lopez has been excellent, no doubt about it, and Fulmer has turned in a couple nice outings, including in Monday’s win over the visiting Seattle Mariners. But against that same M’s lineup Tuesday afternoon, Volstad — who lasted 4.1 innings in a 1-0 loss — became the first White Sox starter this season not to issue a walk.

It was an important outing for Volstad, as well as for Santiago, who followed him up with 3.1 shutout innings of his own. The duo showed they’re both capable of serving as reliable fill-ins in a White Sox rotation that got a hole punched in it Monday, when Gonzalez went to the disabled list.

Shields, Giolito, Lopez, Fulmer. Those guys aren’t going anywhere. But should Gonzalez remain on the DL for an extended period of time, it doesn’t seem as if the White Sox need to be searching for options.

“Volstad and Hector both did a nice job. I thought they gave us plenty of outs, they gave us plenty of opportunity,” manager Rick Renteria said after Tuesday’s game.

But that doesn’t mean the South Siders are out of the starting-pitching woods for the remainder of this week. Shields will go in Wednesday’s finale with the Mariners. Giolito and Lopez are set to pitch in the first two games of a five-game road series against the Kansas City Royals on Thursday and Friday, respectively.

But Saturday presents a mystery, one that doesn’t seem to have an easy answer.

Thanks to that opening-weekend snow-out, there’s a doubleheader Saturday, and while Fulmer is in line to start one of those games, who will start the other? The White Sox will get a 26th man for that day, and that spot is typically given to a spot starter brought up from Triple-A. But given the White Sox current situation on the 40-man roster, there aren’t many options, meaning a player might need to be outrighted in order to make room for a spot starter.

Let’s get this out of the way first: It seems unlikely that Michael Kopech will make his major league debut in a spot start during an April doubleheader in Kansas City. Yes, Kopech has been good in his three starts with Charlotte, sporting a 2.40 ERA with 21 strikeouts. But he’s got just six total starts at the Triple-A level, and the White Sox have made it abundantly clear throughout the last several months that the necessities of the big league team during this rebuilding season and Kopech’s readiness for the majors are independent of one another.

It makes no sense to potentially cut short Kopech’s development at the Triple-A level because the big league rotation needs a spot starter.

The options, however, are limited.

Of the seven players who have started games for the Knights this season, two are on the big league roster right now (Volstad and Chris Beck), one is Kopech and one has a 9.75 ERA (T.J. House). One is on the 40-man roster, Ricardo Pinto, who made his first start at Charlotte on Tuesday. Pinto, though, would be on short rest Saturday.

The other two are Dylan Covey, who turned in a 7.71 ERA with the White Sox last season, and Donn Roach, who has made two career major league starts, most recently giving up four runs in 3.1 innings in a spot start for the Cubs in 2015. Covey and Roach have 2.95 and 1.88 ERAs at Charlotte, respectively. But the White Sox would need to make room on the 40-man roster to bring either up, even just for a day.

While it would be on “short rest,” perhaps the most logical option is just to start Volstad or Santiago on Saturday and start the other on Sunday. Tuesday, Volstad threw 66 pitches and Santiago threw 59 pitches, neither total approaching the qualification of a heavy workload, especially considering both veterans have plenty of starting experience under their belts.

Renteria talked about how well it worked using both guys in tandem Tuesday, but he might have to split them up to staff his rotation this weekend. It would also eliminate the need to remove someone from the 40-man roster. The White Sox could just bring up another bullpen arm as the 26th man, someone like Juan Minaya, who was on the Opening Day roster.

Renteria has already shown willingness to use his pitchers outside of the traditional “every fifth day” strategy. Shields and Fulmer both pitched in back-to-back games just last week. And Fulmer’s turn was moved up when Gonzalez went on the DL, pressing him into his third appearance in six days Monday.

The mystery likely won’t be solved, at least publicly, anytime soon. We’ll likely have to wait a few days to know for sure. Until then, it’s a guessing game.