The White Sox already have the ingredients for a competent 2017 bullpen

Let’s take a cue from the off-the-cuff Hawk Harrelson comment as a prompt for a full article. On a Baseball Prospectus site. This always goes well.

Hawk is outspoken on the value of the bullpen, which can make him seem somewhat sage now near the crest of the run on elite relievers. During Sunday’s rout at the hands of the Royals, Hawk opined that the White Sox might need to offer Chris Sale or Jose Quintana in order to shake loose elite relief help from the trade market.

Hawk very clearly did not say the Sox should offer Sale or Quintana, and his statement opened him up to the criticism that often befalls someone whose credibility is already under fire: purposeful hyperbole is quoted as genuine lunacy.

The message is thus: seeking high relief help could be distressingly costly, and for a team that lacks surplus prospect depth, major league talent, cash reserves, force of will, etc., it could be downright exclusionary. In a rare and unprecedented BP South Side move, let’s accept the Sox apparently severe payroll restrictions as a necessary limitation to doing business rather than a cynical protection of a minimum profit line.

If we didn’t already know, the last few years have hit home that bullpen supremacy is important, elite relievers have huge value, and constructing a relief corps is more demanding than assembling a pack of live arms, throwing them at the wall and rostering the seven that stick. However, the Sox are in a position where it doesn’t behoove them to commit what slim resources they have to bolstering their pen, and they might need to resort to traditional saber-style dumpster diving. Which could be fine, because they’re not starting too poor to begin with.

The Sox bullpen is sixth in the AL in ERA and 10th in FIP, which is not helped by them issuing 20 intentional walks. They have allowed a second-worst in the league 34 percent of inherited runners to score. They have been below-average, perhaps even just outright bad, but not hopelessly awful. They’ve also been little-used, throwing 433.2 innings, and are probably the disaster of James Shields away from throwing the fewest innings in the American League, since no one pushes their starters longer year after year than the White Sox.

So while keeping the bullpen half-stocked with rookies is currently not the greatest of looks, we need to start thinking about the core.

Said core starts with Nate Jones, a legit top-30 reliever in the game. It would be the mark of a better bullpen to have him as a No. 2 guy, and the Sox treat him as a No. 2 guy, but the raw outcome of that arrangement is he’s the one guy Robin has floated around based on leverage, and as a result has been hugely valuable. We might be discussing where Zach Putnam ranks–since he stabilized his walk rate and kept striking out over 26 percent of hitters this season with his heavy splitter–if he had not gone down with ulnar neuritis. Instead it’s relevant to mention that he hasn’t made it through 60 innings since arriving in Chicago, and weighing whether it’s any less risky to count him among the Sox core than David Robertson.

Beyond the big contract and all the blown saves, Robertson looks pretty clearly like someone who would be handed high-leverage innings in 2017, even if it’s not from the top job. His strikeout rate remains exceptional (26.7 percent), even if down from his peak, his home run rate is non-insane despite famously giving up three solo shots in an inning, and he hasn’t lost velocity. Any decline from a reliever at age 31 like Robertson’s walk spike is worrisome, but as Cat Garcia pointed out, he’s had this exact type of down year in the past and recovered, and his decline matched with his contract means the Sox are under water with him anyway and might as well let him pitch his way out.

One of the reasons the Sox are motivated to do something now to compete, is they mortgaged their 2015 draft for the sake of Robertson and Melky Cabrera, and spent much of their early selection on plus stuff, volatile college arms that have left them as flush with immediate relief options such as Zack Burdi, or Carson Fulmer (though he’ll likely spend 2017 dedicated to trying to be a starter) as actual future core pieces. They can at least lean on that strength if Burdi is immediately productive. He’ll be 22 next Spring and has miles to come with his command, but throws extremely hard with electric stuff, and is a lot less worrisome if he’s the fourth-best guy, or fifth-best if Dan Jennings‘ striking out nearly a batter per inning in the second half is reflective of some stabilization.

Jennings will stop looking like someone to carve a spot for if his home run rate ever falls back to the pack, but at this point has given up just 10 in 215.1 major league innings. What he doesn’t offer is any noticeable platoon split, so without any great setup man potential, he doesn’t serve any specific purpose even though he’s pitched well enough down the stretch to deserve a spot. Zach Duke finally solved the Sox LOOGY needs in his second year, and they traded him, and now have to likely find a solution on the free agent market all over again. A Boone Logan reunion would be a nice fit, but trying to patch up Marc Rzepczynski would be less expensive.

The last spot in the pen obviously has a lower bar to clear, even if I remain partial to a healthy Jake Petricka, who at his best throws low-to-mid 90s with heavy sink and boasts a 60+ percent groundball rate. Making him, Chris Beck, Michael Ynoa and Juan Minaya compete for one spot is less troubling than watching them all at once.

The end result is:

Closer: Robertson

Set up: Jones, Putnam

Middle: Burdi, Jennings

LOOGY: Find someone because the prospect depth is not there

Final spot: Mediocre reliever jambalaya

That’s probably not great, or even above-average, but there’s some upside for it at least, and it’s not nearly as sodden with holes as the current look of the Sox bullpen would have many believe. The primary differences here are Burdi and the return of Putnam, which may not seem world-changing, but represent a lot more that the Sox can draw from within to fix this unit than they can with their offense. As is always the case, almost all the Sox resources need to go to scoring more runs.




Lead Image Credit: David Banks // USA Today Sports Images

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