At first glance, the White Sox's signing of -- hey hey hey -- Matt Albers looks like the usual kind of "why not" minor league deal. The 32-year-old received an invitation to spring training with $1.5 million salary if he makes the club, but a shoulder injury limited him to just 10 April innings last year, so expectations of any impact should be tempered.
But reports indicate the Sox had some competition for Albers' services. He has spent the last few weeks building an interactive resume, according to the Houston Chronicle -- he had an MRI that was said to come back clean, he hit 91 in front of 12 teams during a session in Houston, and the Sox were one of five teams to offer him a deal.
Assessing the mutual interest, it's easy to make sense of it from the White Sox's side. After showing nothing of note through most of his 20s, Albers finally figured out how to get results from his sinker, posting a 2.63 ERA, a ground-ball rate over 55 percent, and allowing just 113 hits (11 homers ) over 133 innings since the start of the 2012 season.
He basically fits Rick Hahn's vision of last year's bullpen, and Albers signed a deal comparable with the one the White Sox's most 2013 reliever found with the Rays. Unlike Ronald Belisario, who signed a minor league deal worth potentially $1.8 million with the Rays, Albers has a better idea of where his sinker is supposed to end up. Show us, Baseball Savant heat maps!
The catch is that Albers went on the DL in late April with shoulder stiffness/tendinitis, and he missed the rest of the 2014 season. An injury that looked relatively harmless at first turned the rest of his season into a series of setbacks. The Astros declined what looked like a modest $3 million option after the year, and it was an easy choice for them.
Albers and Jesse Crain were supposed to be a big part of Houston's bullpen last year, and their inability to throw more than 10 innings between them sunk that unit. That's a credible reality check, although Albers' lack of surgery is a major point in his favor that Crain lacked. Now the next step is to see if he can get back to sitting at 92-93 mph, rather than topping out 91. If he can't put it together for one reason or another, well, then he's Mitchell Boggs. No harm done.
On Albers' side, he had to have his own reasons to pick the Sox if they stood out among four other teams. A couple of high-profile signings and a couple of 2013 successes have made the White Sox bullpen less of a cattle call this time around, but there are still ways in.
Here's a stab at the bullpen hierarchy entering spring training:
Fixtures: David Robertson and Zach Duke. They're owed a combined $61 million.
Earned it: Zach Putnam and Jake Petricka. The only real bright spots of last year's experiment.
Second lefty: Dan Jennings. He seems to be the guy, although Eric Surkamp is out of options as well and has a better LOOGY arsenal at the moment.
Barring spring injuries, that's five spots that are closed to a guy like Albers, which means he's fighting for the last two with the likes of Javy Guerra, Maikel Cleto and Daniel Webb at the onset (even if you believe in Crain, he's not supposed to be 100 percent until April). If the team prioritizes the out-of-options guys, Guerra and Cleto have the inside track, with Guerra carrying the added edge of being under contract for $937,500.
Still, should Albers find himself on the outside looking in at the end of March, Charlotte's not a bad place to be. Three of the seven spots in the bullpen appear to be non-givens, so it may only take a good week or three in Triple-A to become the next man up. That's how last year's best bullpen stories arrived on the scene, anyway:
- 04/04/14: White Sox placed RHP Nate Jones on the 15-day disabled list; recalled RHP Jake Petricka from Charlotte Knights.
- 04/17/14: White Sox designated LHP Donnie Veal for assignment; selected the contract of RHP Zach Putnam from Charlotte Knights.