If the White Sox, in general, are taking a "World Series or bust" approach to their 2021 season, then the relief corps is translating that way of thinking to its own expectations.
"I think anything short of elite would be a disappointment," relief pitcher Evan Marshall said last week, asked how good he thinks the White Sox bullpen can be this season.
Indeed, it does seem the White Sox are set up to boast one of the best bullpens in baseball this year. That area was a particular strength during the 2020 season, and the group has only improved, chiefly with the import of All-Star closer Liam Hendriks, who has been the best ninth-inning man in the game the past two seasons.
"I think we're in the conversation as one of the better bullpens in baseball right now," Hendriks said last week. "Talking with some of the guys, their mindsets, the way they go about doing their business, the way they kind of can mature in this game, I think it's undoubted that at some point, this team will boast one of the best bullpens in baseball.
"I think this is a group of guys that can go out there and do something special."
The White Sox are also expected to get a full season out of the electrifying Garrett Crochet, who blew big league hitters away in his brief call-up at the end of last season. Another fireballer, Michael Kopech, seems to be ticketed to at least start the season pitching out of the bullpen. The White Sox see both as long-term starters. In the short term, though? They make a fearsome 'pen a lot scarier.
Of course, the holdovers are the ones providing the bulk of the reason for the big expectations. Marshall, Aaron Bummer, Codi Heuer and Matt Foster all performed at high levels last season. Marshall's very good 2.38 ERA was the highest of the bunch. Foster was at 2.20, while Heuer and Bummer were both south of 2.00, at 1.52 and 0.96, respectively.
"You look at the quality of arms there, we just have depth," Marshall said. "Somebody needs a day off, you're not dropping off having somebody fill in. We can sort of pick up for each other, and there's no lag, no issues.
"We have an abundance of quality arms, and we're in a position that a lot of teams rarely are in. But the ones that win the World Series usually are. ... So we like where we're at, everybody looks good. The group as a whole is sort of shining right now."
The eyes will continue to be on Hendriks, the $54 million man Marshall called "a monster." He's already generating buzz at camp, yelling on the mound and rushing off it to track down foul pop ups in batting practice. He's bringing the same kind of energy and attitude to the White Sox that he threw at them in the playoffs last year, when he struck out eight of the 14 batters he faced in helping to bring an abrupt end to the South Siders' ascendant 2020 campaign.
During that Wild Card Series in Oakland, the White Sox were blown away by Hendriks' performance. Well, Hendriks, too, looked across the field and marveled at just how much talent the opposing bullpen possessed.
Now he's a part of it.
"He’s got the ball in his hand, and he’s going to win. He’s got that 'I’m better than you' vibe," Bummer said Wednesday. "He wants to take the ball 82 times a year, so I think he’s a guy that the rest of the bullpen as young guys, that’s something we should all strive to do. We should want the ball 82 times, we should want to compete the way that he competes.
"If we’re all doing that, I think that the bullpen is going to really shine at the back end of games."
An elite closer can mean so much to a team chasing a championship. The White Sox had a good one the last two years in Alex Colomé, but as good as he was, Hendriks is still an impressive upgrade.
Thing is, there's reason to be confident in much more than just what's happening in the ninth inning.
Crochet dazzled with a 101-mile-an-hour fastball after arriving in the big leagues with zero professional experience last September. Marshall called him "Randy Johnson-esque." That could turn into Andrew Miller-esque by season's end, if the White Sox seeming plan to use Crochet as a multi-inning super weapon comes to fruition.
Before the White Sox inked Hendriks, and with Colomé on this winter's free-agent market, as well, much of the discussion of which internal arm would be the best closer candidate focused on 24-year-old Heuer, not the more established Bummer. Then Bummer served as Heuer's hype man Wednesday, calling him "an extreme high-leverage arm that has All-Star, closer, that type of potential."
Kopech is a bit of a mystery, having gone the last two years without pitching and having always worked as a starter. Bummer said Kopech revealed a little concern at how he'd be able to adjust to a bullpen role, the reliever assuring the new guy he'd figure it out quickly. Indeed, if last year's Cactus League display of triple-digit fire was a preview of what to expect from repeated one-inning doses of Kopech, then look out.
And that's before even mentioning what could stack up behind them, just off the 26-man roster, familiar names like Zack Burdi and Tyler Johnson. Plus, Jace Fry is slated to return to the major league 'pen in May, after he recovers from offseason back surgery.
It's a lot. And that's really good news for the White Sox.
"I look out from (No.) 8 down in our bullpen, and I fully believe that all eight of us will be able to give us high leverage innings," Bummer said. "Whether or not we need a break, or somebody needs a day off, we won’t be taking our foot off the gas by using someone else. Adding Garrett, adding Michael, Liam, just keeps adding fuel to the fire."
Allow the kid to sum up the relief corps more succinctly:
"I think it can be the best," Crochet said.