Somewhere lower down the line of priorities from filling out a 2017 White Sox starting rotation is filling out the White Sox 2017 Opening Day bullpen. While the Sox rotation is tasked with providing a line between several near-ready prospects and the majors–and also with being good enough to keep games from becoming chaotic, four-hour quagmires–the bullpen doesn’t face quite so large an obligation, and there’s not as much of a shortage of options.
The Sox certainly won’t have an easy time if they cut the head of their relief corps off and trade David Robertson and Nate Jones, but there’s really no shortage of spare arms to give opportunities to out of the pen, partially because they tried out nearly all of these people already last season. Even if the Sox dealt Robertson and Jones, they could break camp with a seven-man bullpen composed entirely of pitchers with major league experience.
Zach Putnam – If healthy again–and that’s a big if considering he’s hit the disabled list each of the last two seasons and throwing endless splitters is not conducive to staying off of it–he has the numbers of a late-inning guy. He’s posted a 2.82 ERA in 130.2 innings with the White Sox, and struck out 26 percent of hitters in that time. Non-stop high-leverage work could expose his shortcomings and the limits of his approach, but he’s not just a viable late-inning reliever if he holds up, he’s a trade piece.
Dan Jennings – He’s a viable major league reliever who started striking out a batter per inning in the second half of 2016. He lacks real advantage against lefties and probably can’t get more than a song at the deadline if he has a good 2017, but he’ll help keep games under four hours and the Sox are light on proven professionals with his experience.
Michael Ynoa – His 4.43 DRA was nearly a run and a half worse than the 3.00 ERA he held down over 30 major league innings in 2016, as his control was poor and he six-feet, seven-inches of downward plane cannot alone account for his good fortune to avoid allowing a single home run. His arm is still lively and his stuff misses bats, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him struggle and split time between the majors and Triple-A, either.
Tommy Kahnle – Given that he didn’t make the 2016 Opening Day Roster after being traded for Yency Almonte, and his fourth appearance of the year was coming in for the end of the May 28 bullpen meltdown, most could be forgiven for being unaware that Kahnle shoved for the month of September. He struck out 11 in 10.1 innings with a 0.87 ERA and allowed just nine baserunners over the final month. His control gets him into as much trouble as Ynoa’s does, but Kahnle sits in the upper-90s with ease and that kind of potential is what the Sox should spend time giving a chance to.
Jake Petricka – When he’s right, he throws a big, low-to-mid 90’s heavy sinker that looks like it should keep him employed into his mid-30s (66 percent career groundball rate). But he struggled mightily for eight innings in 2016 before going down for the year with a hip injury, so how he looks going forward is anyone’s guess. He lacks standout skills if his sinker doesn’t come back with full force.
Chris Beck – Moving him from a starter in Triple-A to a major league bullpen did increase his strikeout rate and his fastball sat 95 mph, but he mostly got hit very hard and a 117 cFIP suggests it wasn’t much of a fluke. Robin Ventura gave him a lot of chances and as a former second round pick he stands to get more opportunities from the organization, but he could definitely find himself as part of the churn at the back of the pen throughout the year.
Juan Minaya – Was one of the best arms in Triple-A by the end of the year but did not show much in his big league audition. He has solid velocity and an OK slider but not a ton of upside.
Zack Burdi – So here’s where the fun begins. The 2016 first round pick is only beginning to get a firm idea on where his stuff is going, but it’s top of the scale late-inning material once he shakes out his command. Triple-A hitters couldn’t touch him even as he was issuing 11 free passes in 16 innings last Summer, and an ideal 2017 sees him start stealing high-leverage innings from Putnam and others after a midseason call-up. A more modest 2017 sees him walking the park frequently but still showing more potential to be part of the next Sox contender than the rest of the crop.
Dylan Covey – He’s not Burdi, but he’s unknown at the major league level and there is some potential, and the Rule 5 status means he will get a real shot to break camp with the big club. Covey has barely pitched above High-A but his star turn in the Arizona Fall League will give him a chance to make a big jump. As the esteemed Melissa Lockard of 2080 Baseball reports, Covey is a sinker-baller who could touch low-90s as a starter and generate groundballs with his split-change, and the Sox should see if the stuff plays up out of the pen.
Giovanni Soto – The Sox quietly acquired the other Gio Soto in baseball off waivers last month. The 25-year-old has made all of 10 major league outs, and we’re reaching a large number of relievers now with gulp-inducing walk numbers that I have tried to describe lightly as “he might struggle with control,” but Soto is a lefty in a relief corps very light on them, especially since Jennings is not a typical specialist.
Will Lamb – To that end, Lamb was the primary left-hander all of last year in Charlotte’s bullpen and he just stayed in Chicago despite the Rule 5 Draft. FutureSox had been diligently noting him as the top LOOGY candidate in the minors over the last year. Standing against him is that he’s not on the 40-man roster and would need very strict monitoring for handedness: he had a .946/.527 platoon split in Triple-A last season. You can probably guess which side was righties and which was lefties
Brian Clark – With a promising start to 2017, the 23-year-old could jump over Soto and Lamb. The left-hander fills up the zone unfailingly and generates grounders in absence of impressive swing-and-miss stuff, which Future Sox notes is a product of a sinker with a high arm slot, but takes him out of traditional LOOGY territory as well.
Tyler Danish – He too, has major league experience after a surprising promotion last year, and his low three-quarters arm slot and lack of an average changeup has always suggested his future is in relief. But with the new name of the game of White Sox business being patience and trying to max out their prospects’ potential, rushing the 22-year-old Danish into a major league relief role rather than letting him start some more seems a little unnecessary.
Brad Goldberg – His absence from even the most thorough White Sox prospect lists and lack of good peripherals are conspicuous, but he is on the 40-man roster and avoided runs last year in Triple-A. The 26-year-old righty is hanging around and could get a handful of innings along the way.
Robinson Lever – He throws hard with few other standout skills and has bumped his head at Double-A in each of the past two years. Let no one say this list is not thorough. He has not been promising but he’s at a level where a strong stretch will get him a look.
Nolan Sanburn – There was more excitement for him and his stuff when he first came over from Oakland for Adam Dunn near the end of 2014, but Sanburn has dealt with shoulder problems that have sapped the electricity from his fastball-curveball combination. He held his own during a heavy relief workload this past season in Double-A Birmingham, but was far from dominant. He doesn’t stand out from the pack right now, but like many others, will be one breakthrough away from a shot at a promotion.
Thad Lowry – He’s been an unspectacular sinker/slider guy for the last few years, but the Sox have been working him nigh-exclusively as a starter. The suddenly crowded crop of starter prospects in the upper minors could push him to a switch soon, though.
Reynaldo Lopez, Carson Fulmer and Michael Kopech could all definitely be relievers down the road, but the Sox forgoing their starter potential in a season like this one will probably require a first half disaster. Given the struggle to form up his mechanics that’s already taken place with him in the organization, Fulmer would be the most likely to suffer this unlikely fate.
This certainly does not project to be a good unit. If Robertson and Jones leave, Putnam–a guy who throws low-90s with tons of splitters–will be their best high-leverage reliever and a kid who was pitching in college last year and has walked 20 in 38 professional innings will be the best bid to unseat him. However, there are plenty of options to churn through at least, which is what a rebuilding pen needs.
The Sox aren’t likely to make any real competitive bids to rehab a reliever outside the organization, and Daniel Hudson getting two years, $11 million really makes it hard to figure how far to slide down on the market to find cheap lottery tickets. We mentioned Rubby De La Rosa as a post-hype recovery option as a starter, but the essential issue with him a starter is that he probably only has a reliever arsenal, and that just might be too obvious for everyone for him to be left over for the Sox.
Shawn Tolleson was a closer before back problems hampered an awful 2016 campaign, David Hernandez still gets big whiff numbers even if he’s a couple years removed from his last standout year, Santiago Casilla will be 37 in July but still struck out over 27 percent of opposing hitters last season. J.P. Howell could still be a capable lefty who would appreciate a significant role and opportunity to boost his value. Gavin Floyd has absolutely not been able to stay healthy the last four years, but a reunion is a tempting idea.
Anyone with half of a good reason for a reclamation and coming in at $4 million per year or less would be a fun signing. A veteran that could help stabilize a group of mostly nervous rookies could be a big lift, though a fading vet who will raise hell if they don’t get closer treatment and workload would be less of one.
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