White Sox bullpen turnover will give late innings a different look

Leon Halip

Departure of three trusted relievers gives Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom opportunity to take on more responsibility

While the White Sox have drawn plenty of attention by turning over four of their nine lineup spots, the transformation taking place in the bullpen is quite stark itself.

The entire roster's reconstruction began in the bullpen, when Rick Hahn traded Matt Thornton to the Red Sox on July 12. He then dealt Jesse Crain to the Rays a fortnight later. While the Sox shed their chief setup men, they still had their closer ... until they swapped Addison Reed for Matt Davidson in a trade with the Diamondbacks on Dec.16.

Their absences sets the stage for big changes for Nate Jones and Matt Lindstrom, even if one or both are passed over for the closer role. Hahn did add a couple veterans in Ronald Belisario and Scott Downs, but they're not going to stop the incumbent righties from jumping anywhere from one to three rungs up the leverage ladder if they take care of business.

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Jones' career could be in for the biggest jolt. He entered the 2013 season as the bullpen's fourth right-handed reliever, and a step in the right direction move him to the top of the list just one year later.

"It's weird to think about, "Jones said, when I asked how it felt to be on the side of the bullpen with more experience. "I'm going into just my third year. A couple guys on the team are going to be new, a couple guys are going to be veterans, but first year with us. It's going to be different."

Though he doesn't know what's in store for him yet, Jones said he takes the transition as a vote of confidence.

"No matter what role I fall in, I think it is a compliment."

Likewise, Lindstrom is finally in a position to get settled into high-leverage work. After playing for five teams over four years, he may no longer be looked at as a stopgap.

"I've come to teams where I've had to earn the manager's trust," Lindstrom said. "They've usually had set roles, and I'm just a guy coming in there to fit in somehow. This next year will be a little bit different, especially knowing that Robin can trust me."

Moreover, Lindstrom stands apart as the only reliever on the roster with major-league closing experience. He has recorded 45 saves over his seven-year career, including 15 for the Marlins in 2009 and 23 for the Astros in 2010. He said he would be up for closing again, but his request for next season is a little less specific.

"I think it'll sort itself out in spring training, but I'd like to say I'm ready to take on another challenge," Lindstrom said. "Maybe get my own inning, whether it'd be the eighth or ninth, or seventh.

"I felt like the appearances I made last year, I came out of the bullpen and usually had guys on base. I never really got to experience using my leg kick. I had to slide-step all the time, and for me, I don't warm up like that."

"Usually" is a bit of a stretch, because he entered with the bases empty more than half the time (40 of 76 appearances). In his defense, he inherited more runners in 2013 (50) than he did over the previous two years combined (48), so he dealt with far more traffic than usual. Underscoring his discomfort, the slide step wasn't even that effective, as opponents stole 10 bases in 10 attempts. He probably feels the need to vary his timing to the plate because his pickoff move has a really long arm action, but the result looks like a compromise that solves neither issue.

Problem is, Jones has struggled with runners in scoring position himself over his first two seasons, with opponents hitting .311/.382/.494 against him in such situations. In a perfect world, they'd each have their own innings. If something's gotta give, maybe it's Lindstrom's slide step.

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How Robin Ventura will use them is difficult to figure out from his first two years. The Sox played in a ridiculous amount of close games thanks to the combination of the league's worst offense and a pitching staff that still gave it a chance most nights. The lack of low-leverage situations in either direction forced Ventura to lean heavily on the upper branches of his Trust Tree.

The result: Ventura used relievers on consecutive days a league-leading 133 times (the average manager did it 92 times) -- and it could've been more.

  • Reed: 23 times, including six saves in six days.
  • Lindstrom: 23 times
  • Jones: 20 times

Not on this list: Jesse Crain, who was on pace for 29 appearances on zero days' rest (14 over the first 78 team games). He ended up giving his shoulder to the cause.

In all of baseball, there were 24 right-handed relievers who pitched on back-to-back days at least 20 times. The Sox had three of them, and they may have reached four if Crain could have pitched until the deadline.

This wasn't characteristic of Ventura's first season, so I'm inclined to chalk it up to unusual circumstances. However, if the Sox can't somehow return to a more normal distribution of game situations for the bullpen, both Jones and Lindstrom said they're ready for another heavy workload.

"I love being part of more games," Jones said. "If they need me, whew, I'm running out there, I'm gonna give 'em my best."

"I love that part of it. We prepare physically and mentally for that all year, so I don't believe it's too taxing."

Lindstrom, who worked a career-high 76 games after missing time the previous three years with isolated injuries, said Don Cooper and Herm Schneider's staff are great at getting him ready for games, and he's learned not to overexert himself afterward.

"Sometimes I get excited by having a good outing, and I go in the weight room and go crazy, and in the next day, I'd kind of be sore and definitely feel it out on the mound," Lindstrom said. "I thought I was smarter than that last year."

"It was nice to prove to myself and prove to my teammates and the manager that I could go a full season without getting hurt."

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But it's possible that Ventura could spread the high-leverage work around to younger, less proven relievers in what Hahn called a "baptism by fire." It is a transition season, after all.

"We have some guys in [Daniel] Webb and [Jake] Petricka, who, while young from a major-league standpoint, have been pitching for a little while, and if the opportunity arises to use them in high-leverage situations, we're going to learn more about them more quickly," Hahn said.

The presence of Lindstrom and Jones, as well as Belisario and Downs, will allow rookie relievers to ease into a role, but the Sox may benefit from the occasional short-term pain for long-term gain.

"Trying to look at pieces that fit over an extended period, at some point you're going to have to test those pieces," Hahn said. "I'd like to see them tested, and I think they're going to have that chance."

Hahn said the Sox are looking at "maybe two" open bullpen spots heading into spring training. If a handful of references from decision-makers over the weekend are any indication, Webb appears to have the inside track for one of them. Both Hahn and Don Cooper said he could be a dark horse for the closer role.

Considering this will be Webb's first spring with the big boys, the Sox would probably want to see him as long as possible before thrusting that title on him. That means it could be the Mystery Closer situation until Opening Day all over again.

The general manager is comfortable letting the process run its course. In fact, Hahn said he doesn't mind waiting into April ... or later.

"I'm fine if [Ventura] goes and doesn't ever name a closer and just uses the right guy to get the most important outs when the situations arise," Hahn said. "We've talked about that for a couple years and perhaps that's ultimately where we wind up."

"I do feel that between Jones, Webb, Belisario, and Lindy's done it before, we do have some options if we want to go with a true closer type, and somebody seizes that job. But a lot of times, the most important outs in the happen in the seventh or eighth inning, and it's not necessarily the anointed closer doing the dirty work then."

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