The White Sox have begun reinforcing their bullpen for next year, signing setup man Kendall Graveman before the MLB lockout. And the front office still has work to do in that department.
As general manager Rick Hahn likes to say, pitching is “an area that you can never have enough.” But while MLB and the Players Association continue to sort out their differences through CBA negotiations, and the lockout halts major-league transactions, don’t forget the aspect of bullpen fortification that has nothing to do with trades or signings.
Ask closer Liam Hendriks about the bullpen, and he puts internal improvement at the center of the conversation.
“I think there's a few guys on our team internally that can really step up,” Hendriks told White Sox reporters last month. “I think they showed flashes of it last year, and being able to show flashes during the course of last year, it's only going to improve this year. … There's different moves you can make by bringing veteran guys in or bringing a veteran guy in to be in a different role, but he's going to help elevate those younger guys to a certain mentality to get them into the right spot.”
Internal improvement, of course, is one of the reasons for the White Sox bullpen’s thinning ranks. Michael Kopech, who filled a long reliever role last season, is pegged to join the rotation next year.
In addition, late-inning reliever Ryan Tepera is a free agent, and the White Sox are expected to test Craig Kimbrel’s trade market.
“For me, personally, I hope Craig is back,” Hendriks said. “He’s such a good person to lean on because he’s been able to do it for so long, because he’s been in every single situation in that regard. He’s been across the whole league. He’s been with so many teams now. It’s a privilege to be able to work with him, day in and day out and talk baseball and off field stuff. Just kind of pick his brain about everything you can. It’s a big bonus being able to have a guy like that.”
A trade, however, could be mutually beneficial. Kimbrel began last season in lights-out fashion, posting a 0.49 ERA with the Cubs before the trade deadline. But that success didn’t translate to White Sox tenure, as he recorded a 5.09 ERA after being dealt to the South Side and transitioning into a setup role.
So, it’s unclear how many holes the White Sox will have to fill after the lockout ends. But individual development can continue even in the midst of a transaction freeze.
Late-inning reliver Aaron Bummer has the chance to build off a strong finish to the season, after struggling with walks for much of the year. Garrett Crochet, 22, is on a similar development plan to Kopech’s last season. And Crochet posted a 2.82 ERA in 2021, his first full season on the mound.The list goes on.
As for a veteran presence that can elevate the younger relievers, Graveman’s addition helps. He’s only been in the bullpen for the past two seasons but has been in the league since 2014. Graveman’s career includes stints with four different organizations, overcoming Tommy John surgery and a benign bone tumor in his cervical spine, and this past season winning a pennant with the Astros.
“Talking to Ethan (Katz, White Sox pitching coach), and just being able to learn from him, and being able to lock arms and go alongside and try to learn and grow some of the guys, is something that I’m passionate about,” Graveman said. “It’s something I did when I was in Seattle and I’ll continue to do here in Chicago. How can I, myself, get better, but also how can I make others better around me?”
The White Sox bullpen will likely continue to evolve this winter, whenever the lockout ends; Hahn said the front office will look to add pitching. But when he examined his roster on the eve of the lockout, Hahn liked what he saw.
“We think it’s a strength,” he said of the bullpen.