There are a lot of things to take away from Bobby Jenks' six years on the South Side, as I mentioned his eulogy earlier this month. But there's one lesson that the Sox should have learned from Jenks long ago -- like, anywhere from three to five seasons back -- that seems to bite them time and time again, and 2010 was no exception.
You have to go back to Jenks in 2005 to find the last time the Sox had anything resembling a capable reliever waiting in the wings in the upper minors, ready to help when needed at midsummer. Perhaps by coincidence, it's the only time the Sox have had a less hittable bullpen in the second half of the season, compared to the first. OK, the Sox also accomplished the feat in 2007, but that's because they couldn't be worse in the first half if they tried.
Jenks' breakthrough was David Wilder's best contribution to the Sox (and he's milked all the goodwill out of it since). When Kenny Williams wanted to add bullpen help, Wilder said there was no need to trade, because the organization had an ace up its sleeve. I don't know if anybody would imagine that Jenks would be able to pick up where a healthy Dustin Hermanson left off, but at the very least, he was a medium-leverage guy who would be able to pick up the late-inning slack if Neal Cotts or Cliff Politte had to assume the closer duties.
One would think the Sox could, at some point over the following five years, develop a few other legitimate relievers to step in and provide any kind of help. I'm not necessarily talking about somebody who can handle the final three outs on a routine basis -- even getting through the sixth inning would constitute relief.
One would be wrong.
There's a healthy list of in-house or cost-free pitchers the Sox have auditioned for midsummer help: Sean Tracey, Dewon Day, Ehren Wassermann, Lance Broadway, Heath Phillips, Adam Russell, Aaron Poreda, D.J. Carrasco, Esteban Loaiza, Carlos Torres, Randy Williams, Wes Whisler, Jhonny Nunez, Lucas Harrell, Erick Threets, Gregory Infante, Chris Sale.
From that list, the number of pitchers who stuck around for one season or more: Carrasco, and he's a terrific example of what the Sox have lacked in most years.
Scott Linebrink's injury and subsequent collapse could have submarined the Sox in 2008. Before his shoulder started bothering him in July, Linebrink had allowed just 27 baserunners in 34 innings, and had a sterling 1.32 ERA to show for it.
With no Linebrink, Ozzie Guillen had only Jenks and Octavio Dotel as reliable right-handed options. And not long after Linebrink hit the DL, Jenks joined him with pain in his non-throwing scapula.
Carrasco wasn't as dynamic as either, but Guillen could give him the ball -- for the two weeks the Sox lacked two top righties, and for the rest of the season. He gave the Sox 38 2/3 innings after joining the club on July 11, 2008, and all were needed as the Sox edged the Twins by one game.
Sadly, Carrasco has no peers in the "Hey, Where'd This Guy Come From?" department, because the scrap heap isn't a place for safe bets. All the other help has come at a cost - trades that are even-up at best (Mike MacDougal, David Riske, Tony Pena, Horacio Ramirez), or the development of Sale. It wouldn't be smart to use the first round of the draft to fill out the bullpen.
(And the Sox don't have a first-round pick next year, anyway.)
Most of the blame falls on Wilder and Duane Shaffer -- Wilder for torching what barely resembled a Latin American scouting system, and Shaffer for stocking up on soft-tossers in the draft. If you ever need a reminder of why Shaffer was fired, look no further than his final draft in 2006. Out of the 50 players selected by the Sox, only 22nd-round pick Kanekoa Texeira has cracked a major-league roster.
But Doug Laumann and Buddy Bell need to start stepping it up too, and Williams needs to let it happen.
Laumann has stumbled in attempts to create cheap bullpen options. Upper-round relief prospects like Drew O'Neil and Leroy Hunt have flopped, and Kyle Bellamy hit a wall in Birmingham last season. Aaron Poreda might not have been long for Chicago either, but at least he helped get Jake Peavy (for whatever that's worth).
There is a next wave in place, though, headlined by Gregory Infante. He could start the season in Chicago, but he walked nine batters over six innings in winter ball, so I wouldn't bank on him. Some time in Charlotte would do him good. Charles Leesman also could get a look in the bullpen when summer rolls around, depending on what happens with Sale, and Nathan Jones has a big fastball-curve combo that seems destined for better results.
Behind them are Addison Reed and Jacob Petricka, but they don't register on the 2011 big-league radar.
This bunch isn't particularly encouraging, and yet they're the best potential relievers the Sox have rounded up in a long time. You could even throw 2005 into the mix, because if Jenks didn't pan out, Jeff Bajenaru was the next-best option.
It all underscores how badly the Sox have to gamble on good health and maintenance, and it's a big reason why they've struggled to maintain true year-in, year-out competitiveness. The Sox may be "All In" in 2011, but they've been that way with the bullpen every year since Jenks surfaced.