Although snow might be piled high on the grounds of Guaranteed Rate Field, baseball season is right around the corner. As pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report this Wednesday, White Sox manager Rick Renteria will not have a clear-cut closer heading into spring training.
That’s a change for the second-year skipper. At this time last year, David Robertson was his clear closer, and the veteran did not disappoint. Robertson started the season with his best stretch as a White Sox, going 13-for-14 in save opportunities before being traded to the New York Yankees.
Since then, the Sox have gone with the closer-by-committee route. On the brink of spring training, here are five candidates to close games out for the Sox in 2018:
#5: Thyago Vieira - Age: 24 - 2017 Stats: 2-4, 4.00 ERA, 54 IP, 46 SO (Triple-A)
Without a doubt the biggest underdog for the closer’s role is Thyago Vieira. Acquired from the Mariners back on November 16th, he was shipped out as part of a late attempt by the Mariners to open up international slot bonus money to try and sign Shohei Ohtani, who ultimately chose the Angels.
One of a handful of players to come out of Brazil to play in the majors, Vieira possesses a consistent triple-digit fastball. His average velocity is clocked at 99.21, which is exactly six mph faster than the average fastball thrown in the majors.
What’s even more impressive is the lack of hard contact hitters produce on his fastball. Vieira’s average exit velocity is around 77 mph, while the MLB average is a touch over 87.
However, Vieira’s lack of secondary pitches, and having made only one prior MLB appearance, should put a big dent in Vieira’s chances to lock up the closer job.
Renteria will most likely look for someone with prior closing experience who will offer a consistent veteran presence in the back of the bullpen. Vieira’s overall skill set will definitely open up eyes during spring training, but he will need to be lights-out if he hopes to break camp with the Sox.
#4: Bruce Rondon - Age 27 - 2017 Stats: 1-3, 10.91 ERA, 15.2 IP, 22 SO (Detroit Tigers)
Once upon a time, Bruce Rondon was penciled in as the longtime closer for the division rival Detroit Tigers.
In the midst of the Tigers contending for division titles year-in and year-out, they seemed to be in constant and dire need of bullpen help. When Rondon was called up halfway through the 2013 season, he was seen as a godsend in Motown, turning in a solid rookie campaign despite command issues inside and outside the strike zone.
Rondon’s wildness only snowballed from there. Even after enjoying a great bounce-back season in 2016, he completely unraveled again in 2017. His inability to adjust to the pressure of the closer’s role in Detroit is something he will need to adjust to heading into spring training if he hopes to man the post in Chicago.
Rondon, like Vieira, is known for an explosive, triple-digit fastball. Although he does battle command issues, when Rondon is on, it is not an enjoyable at-bat for the opposing hitter. Illustrative of his struggles in 2017, Rondon’s .328 batting average against (BAA) last season was the worst of his career.
Spending the past four seasons in the AL Central will benefit Rondon in spring training tilts against the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians, as he is familiar with most of the hitters within the division. His disadvantage comes in not being a part of the 40-man roster, so he’ll have to battle his way past other favorites to earn a spot in the Sox bullpen.
#3: Jeanmar Gomez - Age 30 - 2017 Stats: 3-2, 7.25 ERA, 22.1 IP, 21 SO (Philadelphia Phillies)
Much like Rondon, Jeanmar Gomez experienced a career year in 2016. If you ignore the 4.85 ERA, he finished his first season as a closer with 37 saves, for a below average Philadelphia Phillies team.
First hitting the majors as a spot starter with the Cleveland Indians, Gomez is one of many relievers who settled into the pen after failing in the rotation. He had three straight seasons (2013-15) where his ERA out of the bullpen did not touch any higher than 3.35.
Gomez throws a heavy sinker that helps him produce ground balls at a very high rate. That could come in handy in a lot of ways, as Guaranteed Rate Field has become one of the best hitter-friendly ballparks in baseball.
The downside of Gomez’s game is that he relies too much on contact to produce outs. Let’s face it, having a strikeout pitch is extremely beneficial to any closer. Even in Gomez’s only year as a closer, he struck out just 47 batters over 68.2 innings.
Without a wipeout pitch, Gomez would be consistently challenging the White Sox defense as closer. As with Vieira and Rondon, Gomez will have to earn his spot on the club—but his prior closing experience gives him an edge.
#2: Juan Minaya - Age: 27 - 2017 Stats: 3-2, 4.53 ERA, 43.2 IP, 51 SO (White Sox)
For the second half of last year, Juan Minaya took over the closer’s role for the Sox. Nobody really knew where he came from. He made a few appearances for the White Sox in 2016, but has otherwise been a minor league journeyman.
With Nate Jones injured and Tommy Kahnle and Anthony Swarzak traded, Renteria was forced into a version of Russian Roulette with his pen, and he managed to survive. Minaya converted nine-of-10 save opportunities, and displayed a solid fastball in the mid to upper 90’s, with a tight, breaking slider. Minaya also recorded an impressive 10.5 K/9 rating, bodes well if he is the closer moving forward.
In many ways, Minaya was the only bullpen bright spot for the Sox down the stretch, going six-for-six in save chances in September. So it would seem like the obvious choice to slate Minaya in as the Opening Day closer.
There are two potential problems with that scenario. First, there’s at least one reliever in the pen, Joakim Soria, who more capable of handling the role and making Minaya’s inexperience more glaring. Second, Minaya’s overall numbers from last year were rough; for a majority of the season, Minaya got shelled coming out of the bullpen.
He still finished with a 4.53 ERA, after a strong September. Renteria praised him for his efforts at the end of the season, but will it be enough to earn himself a spot as the Sox’s closer this season?
#1: Joakim Soria - Age: 33 - 2017 Stats: 4-3, 3.70 ERA, 56 IP, 64 SO (Kansas City Royals)
In the great words of longtime White Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, Joakim Soria at one point was a “Sox Killer.” Now, Soria is the leading candidate for the White Sox closer job.
Soria broke into the league back in 2007 with the Kansas City Royals, and instantly became one of the game’s best closers. He saved 40-plus games twice, and is a two-time All-Star.
Injuries began to derail Soria’s career, forcing him to miss the entire 2012 season after Tommy John surgery. His velocity never recovered, but Soria has been an effective closer with the Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers, and Pittsburgh Pirates over the course of the past several seasons. He returned home to Kansas City and found decent success in 2016 and 2017 as a middle relief man.
Soria’s stuff may not be as electric as it was, but he can still get the job done at the back end of the bullpen. He is currently tied with Aroldis Chapman for seventh among active saves leaders, with 204.
Soria’s acquisition in January probably brought Renteria some, er, relief; barring injury, Soria provides a great veteran presence to what should be a young and inexperienced White Sox bullpen.
As the rebuilding process now moves into its second full season, the White Sox are much more likely to be involved in close games. It could provide a very nice comeback story if Soria can take advantage of that by reclaiming his status as a lock-down closer and revitalizing his career on the South Side.
Rob Hill (realrob2005) is a current SB Nation contributor for the White Sox and the Oklahoma City Thunder. He is also the only member on the SSS staff to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.