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The White Sox bullpen is overmatched

As is often the case in free agency, the White Sox look like they are paying for David Robertson‘s prime in New York, and getting his last, declining years of useful production in return. The stuff is still closer-worthy and uniquely untouchable despite his love for living up in the zone with low-90s heat, but it’s no longer ‘best in the league,’ level which doesn’t pair well with his control problems coming back with a vengeance and a loss of feel for his knuckle curve. 35 strikeouts in 30.2 innings with a near 50 percent groundball rate is good. 18 walks is not.

Nate Jones has also been solid, but not great. His command has never been good, but since he sits 97 mph with a high-80s slider, he has found some degree of comfort with the idea of filling the zone (seven walks in 33.1 innings) and letting his stuff figure things out for him. Unfortunately, his leaning off of his slider (dropped his usage by over a third) has drawn his strikeout rate below a batter an inning.

Those are their best guys.

Save for Zach Duke, who has really crystallized into a lefty specialist (1.07 FIP vs. lefties, 4.62 vs. righties) and thus has a unique role on the club, the Sox don’t have anyone else they can trust with even medium leverage work. Zach Putnam arguably had the best peripherals of anyone in the pen, then he dug into the rubber Monday night, walked all three batters he faced, then promptly went on the disabled list with ulnar neuritis in his elbow.

Three days without clarification on the severity of Putnam’s injury has not lent any confidence that it’s simple inflammation prompting an ailment typically associated with numbness in the hand. Putnam was the clear winner of the seventh inning role, but now that he’s down, the way in which his competitors have fallen to the wayside is a bigger issue.

Jake Petricka had an awful start to the year, so it didn’t set off alarm bells when he went down with hip issues, but he was supposed to be someone who got enough ground balls to sop up some later innings that didn’t require Jones or Robertson. Tommy Kahnle was always a lottery ticket, but now that he’s shown no sign of being anything useful, along with Jacob Turner basically disappearing after getting $1.5 million guaranteed, and the Sox having none of their tiny depth moves bearing fruit when they desperately need one.

Lefty Dan Jennings somehow has a shiny 1.95 ERA despite losing two miles on his fastball and a 19/17 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Matt Albers hasn’t even been major league quality since his scoreless streak died, and is only still getting opportunities because of the taxi station that has opened up elsewhere.

Neither Chris Beck, Matt Purke nor Michael Ynoa were even particularly dominant in Triple-A when they got called up. Beck has struggled to miss bats as a starter, and neither Purke nor Ynoa showed their control was major league ready in the minors. So naturally Ynoa was brought in to protect a one-run lead in the eighth Wednesday night, Beck faced the heart of the Red Sox order with a two-run lead in seventh Thursday and stayed in even when the first three batters reached and fourth nearly clocked a grand slam, and Purke took the loss in the 10th.

Robin Ventura’s tendency to over-test what should be his last resorts aside, he’s down to the point of trying rookies because at least they have not proven themselves bad and unfit yet. Ynoa at least looks like he should get guys out easily, which probably is how he got signed to a huge bonus out of the Dominican Republic in the first place: he’s massive, throws mid-90s out of six-foot, seven-inch frame and can give an impression of someone who looks overwhelming. This type of reasoning is good for talking yourself into being confident on a single-inning basis, but is less charming when it’s being thrown around for plotting the roster for the second half of the season.

With another year or terrible Sox offense settling in, it’s hard to imagine a club that stacks more high-leverage innings on its prime relievers. Any Sox winning streak doubles as a brutal stretch of labor for Jones and Robertson, and even being in a position to win in all the games of a four-game set becomes a grueling war of attrition/Russian roulette by the third night.

There is an obvious conclusion here that the Sox need a reliever or two. Every team worth anything, save for those teams who need nothing because their seasons are meaningless, needs mid-season relief help. But the Sox, whose deficit in the division is approaching the point where it might be more expedient to check the Wild Card standings first (3.5 back, by the way), are particularly in need. They simply cannot afford to spurn actual hot streaks from their offense and rotation by turning over high-leverage innings to organizational depth, and still expect to climb over the stack of half-contenders piled between them and ending a seven-year playoff drought, and yanno, saving some people’s jobs.

But this burning, immediate need is coupled with the burning, immediate need already apparent from J.B. Shuck getting regular plate appearances, Avisail Garcia somehow having his worst offensive season to date, and the inevitable acknowledgement that the catching platoon has both not delivered the offense hoped for and been even worse defensively than originally feared.

All of this is a lot to deal with right now, especially since it’s been allowed to fester for so long, that reshaping the Sox roster by the deadline seems as reasonable as hoping Beck can pitch out of a bases loaded, no one out jam against the best offense in the league: it’s unrealistic and foolhardy, even if you understand that it’s a necessity.

 

Lead Image Credit: Kamil Kezaczynski // USA Today Sports Images