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Sox grades: Breaking down the South Side bullpen

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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The Chicago White Sox' season ended in disappointment, much earlier than hoped.

But the team accomplished plenty during the 2021 campaign, winning the American League Central crown and playing playoff baseball on the South Side for the first time in 13 years. After years of rebuilding, there was indeed progress toward achieving the franchise's ultimate goal of winning a World Series championship.

At the same time, the expectations of reaching that goal this year were realistic back in the spring, and the White Sox fell well short. A sour AL Division Series loss to the Houston Astros resulted in the same number of postseason wins as the White Sox had a year earlier, before a managerial change and roster upgrades.

RELATED: How potential bullpen exodus could create big need for Sox

So how should we judge these South Siders?

If we're just handing out grades for those four games in October, not many would receive a passing mark. But a baseball season is not four games long, and though the group disappointment was huge following a quick playoff exit, most of the players excelled during the regular season, setting up reason to believe that the White Sox can improve in 2022 and move closer to a championship.

Here's a player-by-player review of the 2021 campaign, continuing with the bullpen.

 

Liam Hendriks: A

The White Sox' biggest free-agent splash proved to be worth just about every penny, dominating as the team's ninth-inning man and doing so in wildly entertaining fashion. Hendriks brought the same screaming, swearing, fist-pumping show that the White Sox watched as they were eliminated from the playoffs in 2020 to the South Side, and boy, did it work.

There were some unfortunate moments, of course, and Hendriks yielded twice as many homers this year as he did in two years closing for the Oakland Athletics. But he showed over the season's final month how lights out he can be, still arguably the finest closer in the game.

Aaron Bummer: B-

Bummer's first half did not go well, from a results standpoint, making his preseason goal of the White Sox bullpen locking down every game in which the team had a late lead look a little laughable at times. A devastating ground-ball pitcher, he was getting the grounders that he feasts on, they just weren't finding gloves.

But Bummer turned things around in the second half, and even though the White Sox made a big trade-deadline splash in landing Craig Kimbrel, it was Bummer who remained the team's most reliable setup man as the season reached October. He figures to continue in that role in 2022, good news for the White Sox' bullpen.

Craig Kimbrel: F

The Kimbrel deal was a flop, unfortunate considering what a win it looked like for the White Sox on deadline day. Prior to switching sides in the Crosstown rivalry, Kimbrel had allowed basically nothing in earning yet another All-Star selection. And even though the price was high — Rick Hahn gave up Nick Madrigal, injured but still the second baseman of the present and future — he seemed to be exactly what this team needed to dominate in October.

Not so much, with Kimbrel giving up runs on a far too regular basis and mistakes like wild pitches and two-out hits costing the White Sox wins on numerous occasions. It was Kimbrel who gave up the game-breaking hits in Game 2 of the American League Division Series in Houston. It was a failed experiment, trying to wedge the potential Hall-of-Fame closer into a setup role, and it would not be surprising to see the White Sox move on from him this winter.

Ryan Tepera: A-

Tepera, on the other hand, was the reliever acquired from the Chicago Cubs who performed to expectations. He kept on doing what made him so successful in a middle-relief/setup role on the North Side, before and after he missed some time with a cut finger. Tepera pitched wonderfully in Game 3 of the ALDS, the one night things went right for the White Sox in that playoff series.

Tepera, of course, also riled up the Houston Astros for Game 4 of the same series, commenting on "sketchy stuff" and somewhat provoking a 10-1 beatdown. But Tepera's work on the mound was good enough that the White Sox should definitely considering bringing him back as a free-agent this winter.

 

Michael Kopech: B+

For much of the season, Kopech was wonderful, showing why the hype was so big before Tommy John surgery and back-to-back missed seasons. The White Sox reacclimated him following all that missed time by throwing him, sometimes sparingly, out of the bullpen, and for the most part, he gave every reason to believe that a successful transition to the rotation is plenty possible.

Of course, it wasn't all brilliance, and Kopech allowed runs at a far more concerning clip after the trade deadline, including his surrendering of a half dozen of them in a couple playoff appearances. But generally, he looked like one of the team's most effective pitching weapons, and it's assumed he'll be trying to replicate that as a starter in 2022.

Evan Marshall: C

Marshall was supposed to be a big part of the uber-talented back end of the White Sox bullpen, saying in spring training that the unit achieving anything less than elite status would be a disappointment. Unfortunately for Marshall, he was only able to be part of things for part of the season, an arm injury knocking him out in the middle of the summer. He didn't get a chance to do what Bummer did and bounce back from a subpar first half.

Marshall, now, is slated for Tommy John surgery, out of the picture for 2022.

Garrett Crochet: B

The fireballer flew under the radar a bit after he showed up without the 101-mile-an-hour heat he had at the end of the 2020 campaign. The White Sox chalked it up to the youngster learning how to pitch instead of just throw, and he pitched with a good deal of success, getting more and more work as the season reached the finish line.

What Crochet's future holds, though, is a question mark, as the White Sox have designs on him as a starting pitcher in the long term. When that transition starts, though, will be of much interest, what with Hahn's front office potentially needing to restock the bullpen this winter.

Reynaldo López: A-

Good for López, who followed up a stinker of a 2019 season and a short-lived 2020 campaign with growth into a valuable bullpen/depth piece. He got his eyesight corrected, and it made a world of a difference. Able to see what signs the catcher was putting down, he looked far more like the guy who was the White Sox' best starter in 2018.

And succeeding in a long-relief role while providing oft-needed starting-pitching depth is a good way to assure big league work. The White Sox certainly figure to require his services in that sort of role next season.

José Ruiz: C

Ruiz might not have won over a ton of White Sox fans, who typically have little patience for the last man in the bullpen, no matter who he is. But he was frequently called upon by Tony La Russa and found success plenty of times. Does it make him a featured player come 2022? Maybe not. But it means those same White Sox fans might not have seen the last of Ruiz.

 

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