Jace Fry

Competition among intriguing young arms could help define roles in White Sox bullpen of the future

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Competition among intriguing young arms could help define roles in White Sox bullpen of the future

The White Sox bullpen of the future has been assembled rather quickly.

Summertime trades shipping veteran arms out of town and the annual expansion of rosters that happens this time of year has rapidly changed the look of the relief corps. It’s gotten younger, and there’s a heck of a lot more potential for these guys to form the group that Rick Renteria will call on when the White Sox eventually transition from rebuilding mode to contention mode.

Seven pitchers under the age of 26 now reside out in the White Sox bullpen, with the majority called up in recent weeks: Aaron Bummer, Ryan Burr, Caleb Frare, Jace Fry, Ian Hamilton, Jose Ruiz and Thyago Vieira. Most of those guys put up really good numbers in the minors this season, and as they get their opportunities here in the final month of the 2018 campaign, they conjure the idea of the White Sox potentially constructing a homegrown relief corps for the next roster that will compete for a championship.

“We have brought up some young men which we’re looking at now who show good arm, good command of the zone. We’re going to continue to find out more about them,” Renteria said Tuesday. “Hopefully we are able to put a lot together from within our own system, from the young men that we have and they’re growing into those roles, trusting that they have the stuff to do what they need to do in order to close out the back end of a ballgame.

“I think that the organization as a whole, Rick (Hahn) and the whole front office, has done a great job of the acquisitions and the drafting, so now we’re starting to see some of these kids and they’re pretty exciting to watch.”

The numbers from the minor leagues have been eye-popping for some of these newcomers. Hamilton had a 1.74 ERA with Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte. Burr had a 2.45 ERA with those two teams. Bummer had a 2.64 ERA at Charlotte. Frare, acquired in a July trade with the New York Yankees, had a 0.78 ERA between the two organizations. Ruiz, called up Tuesday, had a 3.07 ERA with Class A Winston-Salem and Birmingham. And Fry, who’s been in the majors for most of the season, has a 2.38 ERA since the beginning of August.

Zack Burdi, who many fans and observers are predicting could be the team’s closer of the future, remains on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery and therefore hasn’t reached the South Side yet. But the arrival of all these other relievers could signal the assemblage of much of the bullpen of the future.

It ought to have rebuild-loving White Sox fans feeling very good.

“It is something incredible,” Ruiz said through a team translator Tuesday. “I’ve been playing with all of them in the minors, in Double-A, and I know the talent that they have. I think they’re going to have a really good challenge and really good competition between us just to try to see who can do a better job. It’s going to be something good for us to see who has the best stuff, in a good way. We all have very good stuff and we’re all very talented.”

Competition has been a theme for this group. Burr has used the phrase “competition breeds success” a few times since getting called up, and it’s intriguing to think about what competition among these guys will yield.

Much like the starting staff has talked about the friendly competition going on there, competition in the ‘pen could help Renteria and his staff define roles for the 2019 campaign. For a team that’s operated without a closer since Joakim Soria was traded away before the July 31 deadline, finding some set roles at the end of games could be very beneficial. And competition between all these young arms is what could do just that.

“I'm hoping, amongst all the men we have here, if there is a defined role as a closer that we ultimately maybe have it come from within our system,” Renteria said. “We’ve been debuting a lot of guys in that role this year, I think we’ve had nine guys close out games for us this year. I think we’re in that stage now where we have an opportunity to see these guys work, see them work under different circumstances and see how they respond, see how they react.

“And hopefully amongst the group we find those leverage situation pitchers for us working from the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth. That’s what we’re trying to find out.

“When you have depth in the organization and there’s competition for roles in your position, you don’t have time to let down. There’s an edge that you have to develop in order to be able to compete. It’s nice for us as an organization to be having the competition that they’re having amongst each other, to show each other what they’re capable of doing. That’s really an important piece.

“That sense of urgency beyond just being here and competing against another club and trying to win a ballgame on a daily basis, but knowing that, ‘Hey man, if I don’t perform there’s a chance somebody else is going to be able to do what I need to do.’ That’s a pretty important piece of the puzzle.”

Speaking of puzzles, Renteria will have an interesting one to solve on a daily basis as all these young pitchers simultaneously audition for important roles in next season’s relief corps. Fortunately he’s got a lot of pieces to choose from, pieces that will be trying to one-up the guys around them. And if Burr’s maxim proves correct and competition does indeed breed success, then the White Sox bullpen of the future could wind up a strength of the team of the future.

Jace Fry, who still hasn't allowed a hit, is penciling his name into the White Sox bullpen of the future

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USA TODAY

Jace Fry, who still hasn't allowed a hit, is penciling his name into the White Sox bullpen of the future

The White Sox best reliever through the first 42 games of this rebuilding season? Undoubtedly, it’s been Jace Fry.

With Rick Renteria’s bullpen hardly the most reliable relief corps the game has ever seen, Fry has been a revelation, starting his 2018 campaign with 7.1 scoreless innings over six appearances.

And now things are getting a bit more dramatic for the 24-year-old lefty, a guy who’s been through a pair of Tommy John surgeries. He pitched some high-leverage ball in Saturday night’s 5-3 win, sitting down all four hitters he faced in the eighth and ninth innings while protecting a two-run lead.

“I was ready the whole game, just waiting for my name to be called,” Fry said. “But it was awesome getting in there in the eighth inning, even getting the first guy in the ninth inning. After I got him I was kind of hoping he’d let me keep going.”

Renteria uses his bullpen in a non-traditional manner, one that perhaps he thinks is a way of the future or one that’s a result of his lack of dominant options out there. Whichever it is, he doesn’t really have a closer but rather a host of guys he uses in those high-leverage situations, whenever they might come during the late stages of a game. Joakim Soria, Nate Jones and Bruce Rondon have all been used to get big outs late in games, and Rondon threw a scoreless seventh Saturday, with Jones getting the game’s final two outs for the save.

But it could be argued that most difficult outs were recorded by Fry, who put away the visiting Texas Rangers’ fourth, fifth and sixth hitters before getting the seventh hitter to strike out to start off the ninth.

Renteria steered away from dubbing Fry one of his new high-leverage guys after the game, but why wouldn’t Fry be in that mix? All he’s done since joining the big league squad earlier this month is get outs. He’s got 10 strikeouts, hasn’t allowed a hit and has just two walks as the lone blemishes on an otherwise perfect season line.

“It just happens to be that it was the eighth inning and the ninth that he pitched,” Renteria said. “I think he’s looking very comfortable in those. It happens to be the eighth and ninth we needed him. He’s been very, very effective. He’s been commanding the strike zone very well, confidently approaching his hitters. He’s got pretty good stuff.

“He’s able to command the zone. Along with that nice breaking ball he’s got to lefties and righties, it’s pretty effective. But he’s continuing to show you he’s capable of coming in and getting some pretty good hitters.”

Fry has been a rarity this season in that he’s appeared to be a candidate for a long-term spot in the White Sox bullpen. Jones would perhaps be the only other guy coming close to qualifying for that, mostly because of his team-friendly contract that keeps him under control a few more years, but he’s had some rough moments, even with his ERA dropping to 3.50 on Saturday.

Fry, though, is young and is dealing at the moment. He even got a shoutout as a potential long-term piece from general manager Rick Hahn earlier this week.

“Take Jace Fry, someone we haven’t mentioned when we’ve had this conversation the last couple of weeks,” Hahn said Thursday, discussing the positives he’s seen during this developmental season. “He’s shown up here and shown that he’s made some progress in his last stint in the minors and now, at age 24, seems like he’s ready to take that next step, and pencil his name in as part of what we’re building here going forward.”

There’s a lot of season left, and no one’s expecting Fry to keep batters hitless and opposing teams scoreless from now through the end of September. But this is a nice development for the rebuilding White Sox at the moment, a guy who’s giving them at least one name to put into that bullpen of the future.

How long can he keep this thing going? As long as he keeps getting ahead of hitters.

“Having the success is awesome, but I realize it’s the plan, the plan of attack,” Fry said. “I’m going out and throwing Strike 1 and getting ahead. Actually doing it, seeing it and having the process work definitely creates more confidence. Once you go back to the blueprint of baseball, Strike 1 is everything.”

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.