Much about the White Sox bullpen is more stable than it has been in years. They have a closer in place, they have a set of reliable set-up men, and they have respectable depth in the minors should they need it. However, with six viable starters for five slots, the Sox also have the option of moving Hector Santiago or Jose Quintana into the bullpen for this season.
Both will join the White Sox rotation soon enough, but if Santiago is the odd man out, he’ll likely stay with the major league club in a set-up role. This is unlikely to affect either of the Matts – Thorton and Lindstrom – but it could move Nate Jones from his set-up job back down to lower leverage middle relief.
The White Sox bullpen was right about league average last season, but with another year of experience for players like Addison Reed and the addition of Lindstrom, there’s a very real possibility that they’ll be a top-10 bullpen this season.
Though he didn’t get the call right away, by early May he had grabbed the reins and racked up 29 saves. It was always something of a foregone conclusion that Reed would end up as the closer and perhaps the larger surprise was how long it took Robin Ventura to trust him. He only missed out on six save chances, which isn’t a horrifically large amount, but he won’t have to worry about that this year as he enters the season as the first choice at the end of games.
The 62 games Reed appeared in last season were by far a career high, even counting his days at San Diego State, and it showed as he struggled mightily in the second half of the season. After a decent first half in which he struck out 25 percent of the hitters he faced and posted an adequate 1.23 WHIP, Reed started giving up home runs and stopped striking people out, which is an ill-advised combination. He still struck out 19 percent of the hitters he faced, but he allowed five home runs in 24 innings, where he had allowed just one in the 31 innings he pitched prior to the All-Star game.
Reed did start generating a lot more groundballs in the second half, which is always going to be a positive development given his home park. He also dropped his walk rate from 9.2 percent to 5.6 percent, something that will help him immensely if he can bring his strikeout rate back up while keeping those walks low. There’s a lot to like about Reed already and there’s a very real probability that he’ll be better this season than he was last year as he adjusts to a tough home park and the grind of the major league season, both of which helped spell his demise – such that it was – last year.
Prior to 2011, it was a foregone conclusion as to which White Sox’s pitcher would rack up the most holds. Thorton was one of the best high-leverage relievers in the baseball, but age is starting to catch up with him. His strikeout rate has fallen from 34 percent in 2010 to 20 percent last season and his performance in high-leverage situations is no longer as sharp as it once was. He’ll get his chances again this season, but given the Sox’s other options, I can’t see Ventura giving him a long leash as the designated eighth inning arm if his decline continues this season.
If there’s any truth to the belief that some pitchers just can’t hack it as a closer despite being an otherwise capable pitcher, Lindstrom might be the poster child. After two rough seasons closing – one for the Marlins, the other for the Astros – Lindstrom has improved greatly in non-closing roles over the last two seasons. His groundball tendencies are going to make him a great high-leverage option for the White Sox and I could see him getting 55-60 appearances without too much trouble. He might be the best source of holds in this bullpen, even with Thornton’s pedigree and Jones’ promise. Honestly, the only reason I can’t see him being a major source of holds this year is if Reed absolutely loses it during April and Lindstrom becomes the closer, but that seems unlikely at this juncture.
There’s a lot to like about Jones: Like Lindstrom, he has both a solid groundball rate and a decent strikeout rate, but he’s six years younger and under team control for far longer. It’s not hard to get excited about a potential Jones/Reed back end of the bullpen for the next four or five years, but for that to happen, they’ll need to find out if he can actually handle being the next Thornton. If the Sox stay tight with the Tigers all year, I could see Lindstrom and Thornton monopolizing the holds, but if the Tigers pull away early, Jones should start to see more of the late-game situation as the team decides whether or not he can thrive in that role.
On another team, Crain would be up a category as a set-up man, but the Sox simply don’t need him in that role. His 31 percent strikeout rate last season was really impressive, but he walks nearly 12 percent of the hitters he faces, which means those strikeouts are often requisite instead of a nice bonus. In incredibly deep leagues, I could see Crain having value because of those strikeouts, but he’s far down the line of succession for saves and reliever wins are terribly random, so if he doesn’t continue to strike out about a third of the hitters he’ll face, what value he has is gone.
Rate stats and value stats for relievers are often a bit of a grab bag. One bad outing can shoot an otherwise pristine ERA and WHIP into the stratosphere; conversely, a run of good performances can make a reliever look far better than he actually is. Veal finished last season with an ERA- of 32, the second best mark of any pitcher who threw 10 or more innings. Veal’s a fine reliever, but I’m quite sure he’s not the second best pitcher in baseball.
While he was adequate last year, Omogrosso is really just a placeholder here, this could just as easily be Leyson Septimo. They have a number of pitchers who could be starters if needed and will face a choice as to whether they keep them stretched out in Triple-A or if they’ll keep them in the major league bullpen for long relief or an emergency start. If Santiago does come down to the bullpen from the rotation, Omogrosso could still keep his job, but he becomes the pivot between a longer bullpen and a deeper bench and that’s a dangerous place to be.