While most of the focus during the 2015-16 offseason was on where all the premier free agent outfielders would land, one of the other trends that continued during the offseason was teams loading up their bullpen.
The highlight, of course, was the Yankees adding Aroldis Chapman to a bullpen that already featured Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, but there were plenty of other arms on the move.
Craig Kimbrel went from San Diego to Boston, and Carson Smith joined him from Seattle. Oakland spent money on Ryan Madson, the Tigers acquired Francisco Rodriguez, the Orioles kept Darren O’Day, Washington brought in a host of guys headed by Shawn Kelley, Houston traded for Ken Giles, you get the idea.
The White Sox mostly stood pat when it came to their bullpen, with the lone exception coming in the form of a minor trade that brought Tommy Kahnle from Colorado. And there’s a good chance Kahnle doesn’t break camp with the 25-man roster.
The reason why is understandable. The White Sox made their big splash during the previous offseason, inking former Yankees closer David Robertson to a four-year, $46M contract that also cost them a draft pick.
Robertson was part of an overhauled White Sox bullpen in 2015. He joined Zach Duke, Dan Jennings and Matt Albers as bullpen pieces who were expected to help the team improve on a dreadful 2014 season in which the bullpen walked everyone under the sun, ranking dead last in the league in BB/9 at 4.06, 25th in the league in K/9 at 7.91, and 26th in the league in ERA at 4.03. By just about every statistical measure, the White Sox had a horrible bullpen in 2014, which played a big part in their 73-89 finish.
And while the 2015 White Sox were only slightly improved, finishing 76-86, the bullpen did get better, jumping to 16th in ERA and 13th in K/9 (they were still 21st in BB/9).
The point of this post isn’t to dwell on 2015 and what went wrong and didn’t go wrong, however. It’s to look at what we can expect in 2016 out of essentially the exact same bullpen we saw a year ago.
Bullpens are unpredictable, and outside of a handful of truly elite arms, it’s difficult to project exactly what a team will get out of their bullpen on a yearly basis. But when you look at the performance of the White Sox bullpen in 2015, coupled with the track records of the same group of guys who will be relied upon in 2016, there’s reason to believe the unit will be a strength.
Robertson, the team’s closer, had virtually identical stats in 2015 as he did in years past with New York, with one exception: His 3.41 ERA was his highest since 2010. In fact, his BB/9 actually dropped to a career-low and the only number that saw any significant loss was his ground ball percentage, which went from 47 percent to 38 percent. And even with that, he allowed as many home runs (seven) as he did in 2014. So despite the ERA rise, he remains a productive pitcher at 31 with no signs of slowing down.
Duke, on the other hand, was a bit of a letdown. After a career year in Milwaukee that saw him post a 2.45 ERA in 58.7 IP, his ERA rose almost a full run and he actually pitched much worse than that, posting a career-high BB/9 and allowing as many home runs (nine), as he had in the previous two years combined. It was probably unfair to expect Duke to perform like he did in 2014, in hindsight. After all, this is a pitcher with a 4.41 ERA and 5.14 DRA in more than 1,200 career innings (granted a majority of them came early in his career when he was starting). But even with his perceived struggles in 2015, he wasn’t a net negative to the team, just maybe not the high-leverage reliever they had hoped for.
Which is OK, because when it comes to the bullpen, the White Sox have strength in numbers. While Albers, Jennings, Zach Putnam and Jake Petricka all have their faults as relievers, in those four, Duke and Robertson, the White Sox have six relievers who should be, over the course of 162 games, a net positive. Group them alongside Nate Jones, a one-time future closer who missed almost the entire 2014-15 seasons and could wind up being the best of the bunch, and Robin Ventura has options. They might not be the flamethrowers of the Yankees or Royals, but if Ventura can manage to their strengths (yes, that’s a big IF, but hey, he’s actually above-average in that department, per DMAR), instead of attempting the more traditional “seventh inning guy, eighth inning guy, closer” strategy that can get you in trouble if you DON’T have those lights-out relievers, the White Sox bullpen could be better than people expect.