At long last, we've reached the end of this three-part investigation of the AL Central contenders. Up for discussion this time are the respective bullpens. To ruin the surprise, I think it's pretty clear the White Sox have the best 'pen around. And perhaps most central to that bestness is Chris Sale. As long as he's in the same zip code as the 2010 version that tore apart opposing batters to the tune of a 1.93 ERA, there isn't an ALC competitor that can match the Sox for depth and health. By "zip code" let's say a sub-4 ERA. And if he's anywhere near the community projection, Kenny's club should enjoy a substantial advantage at the end of games.
Though "substantial" comes with qualification. The thing about bullpens is they're not usually huge difference makers, especially among the best teams. The best bullpen over the last three seasons accumulated 18 wins. The best rotation managed 56. The difference between the best and worst pen is usually about 6 wins, a little less than half the difference in the rotation and less still compared to the position players. Reason being: there are a lot of different guys who can throw really hard 20 pitches at a time. There are far fewer possible starters, so the cost of digging up some guy from AAA to replace your injured reliever just isn't as big a deal. Point in fact, those replacements tend to manage an ERA in the 4.40 range. That's more or less what the average starter can give you. Again: there are a ton of different guys who can bring the heat for 20 pitches.
Oh yeah, that best bullpen I mentioned, the one over the last three seasons? Your Chicago White Sox. All hail Don Cooper.
Anyway, so the way to look at bullpens is to ignore the giant pile of nobodies at the back of every pen and focus on the stars. Everybody has a bunch of arms who may or may not pan out and on average will give you a 4.40 ERA. The really great ones will give you actual separation from that number. And it's important that they do, since at most even the stars will get 70 or so innings to do their work. Even if you take into account that they work the most critical situations over the course of the game, 70 innings just isn't that much.
In this group, there are two at the top: Joe Nathan and Matt Thornton. Nathan would be far and away the best, but he spent 2010 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Even though reports are encouraging, TJ usually saps some performance in the short term. Typically, velocity comes back just fine but command suffers. But that will likely be enough to bring Nathan at least down to Thornton's established performance level of the past three seasons. Indeed, the projection systems expect him to fall even farther than that:
Notice there's only three guys listed. I included everyone ZiPS thought would be better than average. The Twins lost Jon Rauch, Brian Fuentes, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain after their 2010 season came to a close and decided they'd replace them with a bunch of whodats. I'm not saying it can't work, but I've definitely seen this fail. Maybe you remember 2007? Bobby Jenks and Matt Thornton were good. Ryan Bukvich was not.
The difference in the Twins approach is they're going to give it a go with soft-throwers like Glen Perkins and Jeff Manship. The idea presumably is that they've already got sufficient command having graduated like all Twin pitching prospects from their Command and Control School of the Pitching Arts. Add a tick or two on the fastball and you've got a solid bullpen guy. I like the logic, but I doubt we'll see a star emerge from this bunch. Expect average unless Joe Nathan has a miracle recovery.
The Tigers have decided upon the exact opposite approach. They want heat and nothing but. To the core of Jose Valverde, Ryan Perry and Joel Zumaya, the Tigers added yet another right hander who can break 94 in Joaquin Benoit. Incidentally, these are all guys ZiPS thinks highly of:
Though Marcel likes them even more. Personally, I'm skeptical. For one, Zumaya is already dealing with injury issues. Again. He's like Sidd Finch, or an electron. By the time you hear he's back, he's already gone. The best of the rest is probably Benoit, who came back from Tommy John to have an electric 2010 where he struck out nearly 7 times the number of batters he walked. He's been good, but never that good before. So maybe Valverde is the pick there instead.
After that, there's Ryan Perry, who warrants skepticism. He only has two seasons under his belt and while his ERA has been good, the underlying numbers are just okay. If he puts it all together, the Tigers could be very good back there. I'm not sure what kind of rep the Tigers' pitching coach has, but the recent results aren't exactly eye-popping. If the Twins have 2 really solid arms, let's say the Tigers will take 4 to get 3.
While I'm fairly skeptical of what Will Ohman brings to the table, he is an established LOOGY. Which is nice. On top of that, there are two lefties and two righties, each of whom regularly breaks 94. Similar to the Tigers in philosophy, yes, but the Sox execute much better. Once again, it's Don Cooper and Herm Schneider who prove to be the difference. Easy Heat has elevated himself (with Coop's help) into the relief elite and garnered a nice contract extension as a reward for his dedicated service. I have to say I'm ecstatic that he'll stay on the South Side. I love watching him pitch. Everyone knows what's coming. Nobody can do anything about it.*
The others have various non-health** question marks. Crain has the fewest, as he's been doing this for a while. Though not like he did it last season, one in which he threw a crap ton of sliders. Or so fangraphs says anyway. He's also working on a splitter. The fastball/slider combo is death to right handed batters, but he could use a better combo for lefties. If the splitter works out, he could certainly out-perform his established level.
I've already covered both Santos and Sale in utterly thorough depth. I like the both of them, especially in the long term and at least as much as the lesser of the good options the Tigers and Twins are throwing out there. But whether or not the White Sox are able to open up a salient on the Bullpenular Front depends primarily on them. I expect them both to manage 4.00 ERA or better. But 3.50 is asking a lot. In which case, I think the Sox will maintain their bullpen edge, but it wouldn't be all that much if Herm didn't all but assure our talent stays a lot healthier than theirs. Between that and a small talent edge, I see the Sox 1-2 wins better than their rivals.
*In the alternate reality where Jim Thome never stopped playing for the White Sox. Of all possible alternate realities, it's not bad. Worth vacationing in for a bit, anyway.
**All pitchers have health question marks. Nature of the business.