Going into the offseason, one of the biggest holes on the Chicago roster was the bullpen. Last year, general manager Rick Hahn traded away closer Addison Reed and did little to add any arms to the ‘pen. The White Sox bullpen ERA was 14th in the American League at 4.38; the only team worse was the Houston Astros.
This year, Hahn put much more of his money and resources into this group by adding former New York Yankees closer David Robertson and lefties Zach Duke and Dan Jennings. Hahn spent a total of $61 million on his bullpen alone this year and in return he should see much better results.
David Robertson (Closer)
Just hours after Hahn acquired Jeff Samardzija via trade, he got his closer in Robertson. In his first year as full-time closer, he converted 39 of his 44 save attempts. Since 2009, the 29-year-old closer has not had an ERA over 3.90.
After taking over for the best of all-time Mariano Rivera, Robertson was one of the top closers in the league this past season. In addition to his 39 saves, his strike out rate of 13.4 per-nine innings was off the charts and FIP of 2.68 was lower than his over 3.08 ERA.
The White Sox have their first set closer in a couple of years, which will provide stability to a unit that lost seven 9th-inning leads last season. Investing a long term contract in a reliever is always risky but Hahn and company couldn’t have selected a much better player to do it with. Robertson was a big cash in for a team like the White Sox and should show dividends early.
Zach Duke (Left Handed Setup)
The 31-year-old lefty is coming off the best season of his 10-year career. Duke refined his mechanics and it paid off for him, posting a 5-1 record, 2.45 ERA, and an even lower 2.14 FIP. The failed starter has been up and down over his career but will look to build off of his “rebirth” type year.
Duke totaled 74 strikeouts in 58.2 innings, while walking just 17 batters. Last year, the south siders had no stable left hander coming out of the pen after Scott Downs failed miserably and was released mid-season. If Duke can somewhat duplicate last year’s success, he’ll be well worth the 3-year/$15 million contract he recently signed.
Jake Petricka (Right Handed Setup)
The biggest winner from the addition of Robertson was Petricka. Misused for most of the year last year, the right-hander was still able to post 14 saves and an impressive 2.96 ERA, given the circumstances. He appeared in 67 games and pitched 73 innings.
Petricka is not an overpowering thrower but he keeps the ball in the park and is highly efficient for a pitcher who only averaged 6.8 strikeouts each nine-innings. At 26-years-old and coming off of his first full season, the arrow is pointing up, especially being in a role where he actually fits.
With another offseason to refine his pitches, look for Petricka to maintain his success and become more of a dominant force as the primary setup piece.
Putnam was another surprise player for the Sox this past season. He had spent 2011-2013 with three separate teams in just 12.2 innings, but really came into his own last year as a product of pitching coach Don Cooper.
Last year, Putnam threw 54.2 innings and put up a 1.98 ERA and a 3.08 FIP. In that time, he tallied 46 strikes and 20 walks, while giving up just 2 home runs and saving 6 games. It’s hard to tell if Putnam will be able to duplicate his success this past season but he should still have success in a more comfortable role.
Jennings is quite possibly the most overlooked acquisition of the offseason. Jennings was added through a trade from the Miami Marlins in the midst of the offseason madness. Much like Putnam, the former Marlin has been a late bloomer going into his third full season at age-27.
Last year in 47 games, Jennings posted a 1.34 ERA, in 40.1 innings. He did give up 45 hits, walk 17 and have a much high FIP of 3.48 but does provide another upgrade in the bullpen and a second left-handed arm in a bullpen that did not have one solid lefty the prior year.
Jennings is still a work in progress but should provide the team with a middle reliever who can be trusted to come in and be successful as a situation lefty (LOOGY).
Battle for Last Two Spots
With the first five spots all but locked in already, there will be a large group competing for the last two spots in the pen. Daniel Webb and Javy Guerra both were on the major league roster last year and did just enough to stay up on a struggling team. This time around, there is going to be some much more competition and some established veterans coming off injuries that will be looking to prolong their time in the majors.
The 25-year-old fireballer turned heads in spring training and broke camp on the 25-man roster. Webb started off well but struggled with his control throughout the season with a staggering (5.6) walks per nine innings mark.
Webb has a lot of talent to work with and did have a respectable 3.99 ERA, but it’s going to take a lot more for him to be there for opening day. The righty needs to cut the walks in half and stay consistent if he plans on taking one of the final spots.
The former Los Angeles Dodger flew under the radar most of the year last year. Guerra carried a 2.91 ERA in 46.1 innings. His FIP of 3.95 tells a bit of a different story but the 29-year-old right-hander has the upper hand going into spring training, but much like Webb, he will need to lower his walk total.
Crain is making his return to Chicago after being traded at the deadline in 2013. Sadly, he has not pitched since that point after sitting out the past year and a half.
In 2013, Crain was having a phenomenal year in which he dominated opposing hitters with a 0.74 ERA in 36.2 innings. Over the past three seasons, he averaged over 10 strikeouts per nine innings. With sitting out last year and coming off a freak injury, there is a lot of question as to what he can still offer but if it’s anything close to his first time in Chicago, Hahn got the best value in the league.
Albers is yet another veteran pitcher coming off a tough injury that has limited his production over a short time. In 2014 he threw 10 innings and only gave up one run while striking out eight and walking three.
The 32-year-old veteran offers yet another veteran low risk option for a bullpen that has been rebuilt. Much like Crain, if he preforms well over the next month, he’ll provide a big boost to an already improved bullpen.
Best of the Rest
One of the potential losers of the last rotation spots could end up landing in the long reliever role or top prospect Carlos Rodon could take the same path as successful lefties Mark Buehrle and Chris Sale and get experience as a reliever. If neither of those options pan out young arms such as Francellis Montas, Michael Ynoa, Nolan Sanburn or Onelki Garcia have outside shots, along side other veterans like Eric Surkamp or Maikel Cleto could have an outside shot of breaking the roster or coming up in a pinch.
Looking at the 2014 opening day group and comparing it to what the front office has assembled going into this year’s spring training, it’s a night and day difference.
Having a proven closer like Robertson should stabilize this unit well but adding Duke and being hopeful that one of the veteran right-handers can come off injuries and be even a former shelf of themselves could do wonders for this team and truly help cover what will need to be around a 17-win turnaround for a playoff opportunity.
With veteran options like Crain and Albers battling with Webb and Guerra and setup man Nate Jones due back around July from Tommy John surgery, the bullpen is bound to improve from top to bottom.
The overall outlook for this 2015 White Sox team is encouraging. Health will be key as usual but this squad should see it’s first winning record in three years as a floor projection.