Steve Cishek

Why the White Sox are ready to take the next step: A stacked bullpen

Why the White Sox are ready to take the next step: A stacked bullpen

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.

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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.

RELATED: Why the White Sox are ready to take the next step: Top prospects arrive

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.


Why the White Sox are ready to take the next step: Free-agent additions

Why the White Sox are ready to take the next step: Free-agent additions

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.

They sure look capable of doing just that. And while it wouldn’t be possible without the emergence of the young core last season, you can’t build a contender solely from homegrown stars.

Rick Hahn followed through on this February 2018 declaration that “the money will be spent” with a super busy offseason that saw him add to nearly every facet of the roster. He remade the White Sox lineup, adding some power and on-base skills after the team sorely lacked in both areas a year ago. He added some dependability to a starting rotation that still seeks answers from its young, talented arms. And he even strengthened the back end of the bullpen with a proven late-inning option.

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All that work got fans super excited, and though the moves were a mixture of short- and long-term contracts, they all mesh together to provide the kind of fuel that can power the White Sox drive toward the top of the AL Central.

First was Yasmani Grandal, who signed before Thanksgiving, and though he — and everyone else, for that matter — has been overshadowed during “Summer Camp” by rookie five-tooler Luis Robert, he’s probably the most important newcomer to this 2020 group of South Siders. Robert will, the idea is, be around for the better part of the next decade, and superstar status might not be far off, if his teammates’ reviews are a reflection of reality. But Grandal sees the White Sox future in their pitching, the reason he keeps giving for why he bought into Hahn’s long-term vision and signed the biggest free-agent deal in club history.

A catcher, Grandal plays a position where it’s hard to find a long-term fill. White Sox fans don’t need to be reminded of that and can probably rattle off the name of everyone the team’s tried there since A.J. Pierzynski’s departure. Grandal is rated highly as a pitch-framer, a valuable skill until the robots come for the umpires’ jobs. He’s got good defensive numbers and is known as a quality influence on pitchers. The White Sox have a lot of young hurlers, some who still need to figure things out at the major league level — or have yet to even get there — and Grandal is going to be around for at least the next four years to shepherd them into what the team hopes is a lengthy contention window.

But Grandal is a huge upgrade with the bat, too. No offense to the All-Star numbers James McCann turned in during the first half last season, but Grandal has a much longer track record of being one of the more productive offensive catchers in the game. He was an All Star, too, last season, a career year that saw him hit 28 homers, drive in 77 runs and — perhaps most importantly — walk a whopping 109 times. That walk total was one of baseball’s highest last season and a gigantic addition to a White Sox lineup that, as a team, had the fewest walks in the game in 2019.

Grandal was the big fish that bought in first, but it might be Dallas Keuchel who ends up serving as the White Sox version of Jon Lester. Keuchel has a Cy Young Award and a World Series championship on his resume. He knows how to win, and he’s bringing his veteran know-how to that same young pitching staff. He’s already receiving rave reviews for how he’s worked with the White Sox young arms.

“Talking about Dallas, you don’t have enough time in a daily day to say all the positives he brings to the table,” White Sox bench coach Joe McEwing said last week. “He’s the ultimate professional, a guy who goes out there and is an amazing teammate. What he builds, the chemistry in that clubhouse, and takes guys under the wing, the way to go about it as a true professional.

“His history has shown he’s a winner in every aspect, on the field and off the field, in the clubhouse. We are very very fortunate as an organization to have him to help us as an organization and help everybody in that clubhouse.”

But it’s his dependability every fifth day that will be the biggest plus for the White Sox, who outside of Lucas Giolito struggled to find much consistency from their starters during the 89-loss campaign a year ago. If White Sox fans turn up their noses at a Cubs comp, though, then let’s call Keuchel a potential Mark Buehrle type. Like the South Side legend, he’s got a closet full of Gold Gloves, and he’s accomplished what he’s accomplished without exactly blowing people away like Michael Kopech. With Keuchel and Giolito paired at the top of the starting staff, the White Sox have a reliable 1-2 punch that would sound pretty good as the first two starters in a playoff series.

RELATED: White Sox staff leader Lucas Giolito ready to rock, hopeful for multiple aces

To get there, though, the White Sox will have to outslug — or slug right along with — the division-rival Minnesota Twins. Before the previous offseason, this team just wasn’t capable of doing that. Grandal adds some power to the lineup, as does Robert and another newcomer in Nomar Mazara, but the White Sox have a new big bopper in Edwin Encarnación. The guy’s hit at least 30 home runs in each of the last eight seasons. Like José Abreu, he’s a proven and consistent veteran slugger who provides not just production but the peace of mind that the production will be there. He also brings an imaginary parrot.

The White Sox lineup is significantly more menacing with Encarnación in the middle of it, and for a team that ranked toward baseball’s bottom in both home runs and slugging percentage last season, it’s one heck of an upgrade.

“It gives us depth,” McEwing said of Encarnación last week. “It lengthens an extremely good lineup. It was a good lineup before. It makes it extremely longer. And the professionalism, Eddie, you can’t put a number on it. You can’t put a measure on it what he means to this ball club, not just in the clubhouse but on the field. When he steps in the box, it’s a presence that is the model of consistency in what he has done throughout his career and what he’s capable of doing. It means so much to every individual in that locker room and every time we step on the field, it’s a different presence.”

And it’d be wrong to exclude Steve Cishek from this group. He’s the newcomer at the back end of the White Sox bullpen. Teamed with Alex Colomé and Aaron Bummer, a unit that was a strength last year is now stronger. While Hahn will be the first to remind you of the volatility of relief pitching from one season to the next, Cishek brings a nice track record, including some high-stakes moments during his two-year stint with the Cubs. That time on the North Side showed durability, if nothing else, as Joe Maddon called on Cishek a whopping 150 times in two years.

The White Sox are obviously in the position they’re in because of the meticulous work of bringing young talent into the organization and getting it to the big leagues. But it’s free-agent splashes that truly move the needle in a fan base starved for championship contention. The White Sox did that, too, over the winter, reaching the always planned-for phase of the rebuild when they started adding win-now pieces.

Grandal and Keuchel are multi-year additions that fit in with Hahn’s long-term planning. Encarnación and Cishek? Maybe more like hired guns. Regardless, they’ll all have an impact on the 2020 team, and their presence is a big reason why the White Sox look ready to take the next step.


White Sox reliever Steve Cishek working out in Chicago alley before camp

White Sox reliever Steve Cishek working out in Chicago alley before camp

Steve Cishek isn’t letting a lack of facilities get in his way to prepare for the upcoming MLB season.

Cishek showed off some of his great control-- and resourcefulness in an Instagram post he published on Wednesday.

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No excuses. Keep working. #colossians 3:23

A post shared by Steve Cishek (@srshrek31) on

Cishek featured some nifty video production as well, showing off three different camera angles of his makeshift Chicago alley backstop.

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Taking a look at the tape, it looks like Cishek is already showing solid command with the fastball, which is always an important first step in getting ready for game action.

Righty and lefty garbage cans seemed equally sheepish at the plate, too. Reviewing the footage, there were no swings on any of the practice pitches.

Will this alleyway workout give Cishek the competitive edge when Opening Day arrives?

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