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White Sox Decision Review: Bullpen

Improvements to the relief corps were possible, but not in a meaningful way

Jason Miller

Perhaps Hawk Harrelson should retire his theory that a team's offense is only as good as its bullpen, on account of it being extremely insulting to the most stressed-out group of relievers in baseball.

The combination of the league's worst offense and a strong starting pitching staff put the bullpen on the spot more often than not, and a mistake-prone defense didn't help matters. Lesser bullpens would have cracked under the pressure, but the Sox's bullpen held together remarkably well considering the strain.

Continuity probably helped. While the Sox lost bullpen coach to Juan Nieves to Boston, Bobby Thigpen's crew pretty much picked up where it left off.

Rick Hahn didn't force matters. He only had to fill one spot -- a veteran right-handed reliever -- and he did so in a way that left the natural order unchanged.

The bullpen at the end of 2012:
  • Addison Reed
  • Nate Jones
  • Jesse Crain
  • Matt Thornton
  • Brett Myers
  • Donnie Veal
  • Hector Santiago
Other pitchers in the immediate picture
  • Brian Omogrosso
  • Leyson Septimo
What the White Sox did:
  • Let Brett Myers go without much effort
  • Signed Matt Lindstrom to a one-year, $2.3 million contract for 2013 with a $4 million club option for 2014 ($500,000 buyout)
Pure hindsight says:
  • Let Myers go.
  • Sign Koji Uehara ($4.25 million) OR Jamey Wright (minor-league deal) to replace Myers
  • Sign Manny Parra to a one-year, $1 million contract
Was the pure hindsight vision possible?

Yes and no. Uehara was a free agent who didn't have any special designs on going to the Red Sox, nor did the Red Sox really need him, at least in the offseason. They signed him to a one-year contract to lock in a seventh-inning guy. As it turned out, he went on to have one of the great reliever seasons in recent memory. He struck out 101 batters to nine walks over 74 innings and allowed a .400 OPS, turning a reasonable deal into one of the year's best bargains.

Then again, Uehara cost nearly $2 million more on 2013's books compared to Lindstrom, so a $4 million reliever might have been out of the question. Jamey Wright was the only free agent who made markedly less than Lindstrom while providing a similar value, and the Rays signed him to a minor-league deal in late January. The Rays became Wright's 10th team in 17 major-league seasons, so that was a lucky strike. Perhaps in an alternate universe, another team is wondering why it missed out on Ramon Troncoso.

Parra signed even later with the Reds (Feb. 2), and coming off an unremarkable transition to the bullpen with Milwaukee in 2012, he turned into an effective reliever for Cincinnati. This would have been difficult to justify at the time, though, because the Sox already had two lefties behind Thornton who deserved a bullpen job to open the season.

How did the actual moves work out?

Fine. Lindstrom's signing looked perfectly cromulent at the time, and he ended up coming through. He endured a couple of rocky stretches and never quite solidified himself as a high-leverage option, but he exceeded expectations in terms of health. He set a career high with 76 appearances, the most by any Sox reliever since Kelly Wunsch made 83 appearances in 2000. Lindstrom might've been able to hit at least 80 if the Sox didn't need to give some of his September innings to the likes of Jake Petricka and Daniel Webb in September.

One might look at Uehara's numbers and sigh, but other bigger signings worked out way worse. Lindstrom certainly gave the Sox more than Myers gave the Indians for $7 million (8.02 ERA over 21 innings). Then again, Myers was signed as a starter. What about the other right-handed relievers?

  • Brandon League: -1.4 bWAR in first year of a three-year, $22.5 million deal
  • Mike Adams: 25 innings in first year of a two-year, $12 million contract
  • Shawn Camp: 7.04 ERA over 23 innings for $1.3 million
  • Ryan Madson: Numerous setbacks after Tommy John surgery, never pitched (one-year, $3.5 million)
  • Octavio Dotel: Allowed seven runs over four innings for $3.5 million

Given the volatility of relievers in general, it's hard to complain about what Lindstrom contributed, even if he didn't excel to the point of making his 2014 option an easy "yes."

It would've been nice to have better left-handed insurance against the risks inherent in Thornton (age) and Veal (regression), although I suppose that was Santiago's first purpose before he had to take Jake Peavy's spot in the rotation in May. The Sox didn't have much in the high minors from the left side. An injury removed Septimo from the race in spring training, and David Purcey had to convince people he could throw strikes -- and he still hasn't done so in the majors.

Still, before the deadline trades sent Thornton and Crain to the AL East, the White Sox had a sound bullpen with run-of-the-mill flaws. It just could've used more low-leverage situations to even out the workload and expectations. All those close games took their toll on Crain, and even Reed to a lesser extent. Thornton had to assume the LOOGY work on top of the his full-inning duties. Jones' slow start also became a bigger problem than it should've been, because his innings were important, too.

FanGraphs gives the White Sox bullpen a cumulative WAR of 5.8, the third-best in baseball. That's probably an overstatement -- Jones is considered the team's best reliever for his 2.64 FIP, not his 4.15 ERA -- but it does suggest that the relievers were good enough. Aside from the difficulty finding support for Thornton, the Sox didn't have to deal with revolving doors and dead weight like many other teams do. Give the Tigers the first-half White Sox bullpen, and they might have wrapped up the division weeks earlier.

Fortunately for Hahn, Jones and Reed took ownership of their roles in 2012, and didn't lose them in 2013. That certainly cut down on the number of decisions necessary, and he mostly left well enough alone.

He won't have that luxury this offseason. Without Crain and Thornton anchoring the bullpen, the Sox will have to place untested trust in either young guys (Webb, Petricka, Simon Castro, perhaps Andre Rienzo) or free agents to fill out some important innings. There are a lot of ways he can go, and thus a lot of ways to go wrong.

Recent 2013 White Sox season in review posts: