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White Sox bullpen lacks backups after potential trades

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Injuries have already stretched the team’s relief depth

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

I’m all for Reynaldo Lopez replacing Mike Pelfrey yesterday. Lopez looks ready for a promotion (and he’s already had some MLB success), the service-time thresholds have passed, and he’ll be far more interesting to watch. What else is there?

Well, if you were pnoles on Twitter, you spent the day battling the idea that Lopez would actually help the Sox (gasp!) win games.

This is the tanking’s seedy underbelly to me. It’s one thing to shrug away losses because your Pelfrey and Dylan Coveys serve as fodder to protect the Sox’ Triple-A talent from early exposure, and it’s beneficial to cycle through intriguing out-of-options guys before calling up a Yoan Moncada. But fans lobbying to suppress a player because he’s developed too well and might help the team win ... that strikes me as kind of toxic. If nothing else, think of the children season-ticket holders.

Besides, worrying about Lopez’s effectiveness on a team scale is a waste of time because the bullpen is likely to be awful over the final two months, especially if Rick Hahn can make the trades many expect.

Here’s the original bullpen in order of leverage, compared to what it might be now based on Rick Renteria’s usage:

White Sox bullpen

Start Now
Start Now
David Robertson David Robertson
Nate Jones Tommy Kahnle
Zach Putnam Anthony Swarzak
Jake Petricka Dan Jennings
Dan Jennings Chris Beck?
Michael Ynoa David Holmberg?
Anthony Swarzak Juan Minaya?
Gregory Infante?

The White Sox’ previously vaunted trio of righties is not to be counted on due to repeat lengthy stints on the disabled list. Putnam was lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery, Jones had his ulnar nerve repositioned (a surgery Beck had), and Petricka looks beaten down by a succession of injuries — hip, lat and now elbow.

Thanks to unexpected brilliance from Kahnle and Swarzak, the White Sox were able to compensate for absences early on, but it’s tough for two to continue doing the work of three.

And it’s only going to get worse if the White Sox can find deals to their liking for their good relievers. Swarzak needs to be traded because he’s 31 and a free agent after the season, and the White Sox can re-sign him if they want to bring him back. A high-priced closer is to a rebuilding team what chrome rims are to a Dodge Neon, so Robertson doesn’t need to be here. Kahnle’s been better than both of them, so naturally his name will be floated.

I remain doubtful that the Sox will deal Kahnle. This is the first time he’s been good in the majors, and he’ll enter his first arb year with a minimum of saves to his name over two seasons with Colorado and one with the Sox, so there’s no salary surge. His trade value stands a good chance at being far from the point of diminishing returns, and the White Sox probably don’t to kill Renteria with blown saves.

But even if the White Sox retain Kahnle, this bullpen looks awful.

  • Tommy Kahnle
  • Dan Jennings
  • Chris Beck?
  • David Holmberg?
  • Juan Minaya?
  • Gregory Infante?

This picture looked better before Zack Burdi tore his UCL, but he’s likely to undergo Tommy John surgery and be out of action for most of 2018, if not all of it. With him out of the picture, the candidates are all guys we’ve seen before (Brad Goldberg, Matt Purke, Tyler Danish), or ones who haven’t knocked down the door (Brian Clark).

The one name I haven’t mentioned is Carson Fulmer. He’s spent the entire year as a starter, and I’d expect him to finish the year like that, as he didn’t benefit from the oscillation between levels and roles last year. But he hasn’t exactly thrived by spending the entire year in the Charlotte rotation, either.

  • First month: 5-1, 2.72 ERA, 39.2 IP, 12 BB, 33 K, .235/.301/.396 against
  • Last two: 1-5, 7.90 ERA, 49 IP, 32 BB, 31 K, .291/.397/.508 against

I’d started to believe in Fulmer’s starting potential because he found success in shaping his fastball, but what looked initially like a slump has now defined his season. Not only has he stopped missing bats, but he’s only pitched into the sixth inning twice in his last 11 starts. You usually see more at-bats end in strikeouts when throwing that many pitches.

A bullpen future beckons, and that’s more than a consolation prize if his top two pitches can play up an inning or two at a time. Michael Kopech, Jordan Guerrero and Spencer Adams are going to need starts in Charlotte in the near future, and the Sox are going to need relievers who inspire confidence. The timing comes down to Fulmer’s own confidence, and whether it’d be better letting start the season tailoring his approach for relief, rather than looking for him to bring stability to a desperate situation. That didn’t work out so well the last time.