The White Sox are heading into the shortened 2020 season with the same expectations they had back when they thought they’d be playing a 162-game schedule: to leap out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode.
Plenty of facets of this team have been in the works for years, and the big league breakouts by Yoán Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson and Eloy Jiménez last season mixed with a collection of young arms packed with potential and the free-agent acquisitions of Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel have the White Sox set up for what the team hopes is an extended period of success.
But you can’t win without a good bullpen. And if the White Sox are to meet the postseason expectations they’ve set for themselves, they’ll need dependable relief pitching.
The bullpen was a strength last season, and the same cast of characters who gave Rick Renteria a number of late-inning options is back for 2020.
Alex Colomé is back for a second season as the team’s closer, and though his numbers were drastically different between the first and second halves in 2019, he still did a pretty stellar job as the ninth-inning man, converting 30 of his 33 save opportunities for the third 30-plus save season of his career. In the last four seasons combined, he’s got 126 saves.
Obviously saves aren’t the end-all, be-all stat, and the White Sox hope his 60 games in 2020 look a lot more like the 2.02 ERA he put before last year’s All-Star break than the 3.91 ERA he had after it. But if you’re looking for veteran dependability at the closer spot, you could do a heck of a lot worse than Colomé.
The White Sox might be eyeing their closer of the future in the guy right next to Colomé at the back end of the bullpen. Colomé is scheduled to be a free agent after this season, and the White Sox gave eighth-inning man Aaron Bummer a contract extension during spring training, keeping him on the South Side through the 2026 season. Bummer was indeed excellent in 2019, with a 2.13 ERA in his 58 appearances. Just 26 years old, he’d figure to be the first pitcher Renteria would turn to should Colomé falter during what’s being considered a two-month pennant race. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bummer get the first crack at the job in 2021.
While those two made a strong tandem at the back end, Rick Hahn opted to further bolster his late-inning unit, adding Steve Cishek on a free-agent deal during the winter. Cishek spent the previous two seasons on the North Side of town, working overtime for Joe Maddon, with 150 combined appearances in 2018 and 2019. That workload didn’t slow Cishek’s effectiveness one bit, though, and he finished his two-year Cubs tenure with a 2.55 ERA. He’s ready to be called on frequently once again for the White Sox.
Though there are more pitchers behind Cishek who did good work in 2019, Hahn will be the first to remind you about the volatility of relief pitching from one season to the next, and so Cishek’s arrival looms large as someone who can be counted on if some of the pitchers with less of a track record should swing away from their positive performances.
But Renteria at least enters the season with plenty of confidence in Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero, who both pitched well last season despite not being part of the Opening Day roster. Marshall had a 2.49 ERA in 55 appearances, while the midseason acquisition Cordero posted a 2.75 ERA in his 30 appearances with the White Sox, all the while showing his disdain for sleeves. As mentioned, those two might not have the track records of Colomé or Cishek, but they were solid last year and if they can come close to replicating that work, the White Sox bullpen will be really deep.
It will be deeper still if they can get a bounce-back season out of Kelvin Herrera, the former All Star who put up some ugly numbers in his first season with the White Sox. Those were chalked up mostly to some never-disappearing effects of a foot injury suffered during the 2018 season. But he does have a lengthy track record of success dating back to his time with the Kansas City Royals. The good news is the pressure is most definitely off Herrera with so many other arms in the bullpen, but if he can rediscover what made him a key cog in the Royals’ bullpen during their World Series years, then think how loaded this relief corps could be.
"I think it's exciting," Bummer said. "You add in Cishek, you add in a full season of the guys like Marshall, Jimmy Cordero, and there are a lot of guys out there, there are guys hungry for a nice bounce back between Kelvin and Jace (Fry). I think everybody's hungry to go out there and do their job.
"I would stack us up, I think we're seven or eight deep out there to go out there and get competitive outs. As long as we keep ourselves in games, I think our bullpen is going to be a pretty good strength moving forward."
The bullpen might not be nearly as glamorous as the young stars up and down the White Sox lineup or the tantalizing potential found in the starting rotation. But in order to elevate to the level of winning ball clubs, a good relief group is integral.
The White Sox have a good relief group. And it’s another reason why their much anticipated next step could come in 2020.