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The White Sox bullpen is going to be scary-good soon

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Jace Fry and Thyago Vieira are just the start of a younger, more talented pen

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
Thyago White Sox: Vieira is the first of several high-powered relievers to arrive in Chicago.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 season has been yet another frustrating one for the Chicago White Sox at the major league level, and it’s because of pitching more than anything else. The starters, the relievers, the swingmen — they’ve all been bad.

Let’s focus on the bullpen. Here’s how they rank among major league teams in some surface-level statistics:

ERA: 4.67 (24th)
Strand Rate: 69.7% (27th)
Walk Rate: 10.6% (26th)
Win Probability Added: -2.98 (dead last)

That’s ugly. Not only has the Sox bullpen performed poorly this year, but it’s done so at some of the worst possible times.

I’m sure that you, esteemed reader, know that the goal of a rebuild is to be bad now and good later. Well I’m here to tell you that, at least in this one facet of the game, there is good on the horizon. The excruciating experience of watching this bullpen won’t be excruciating for long. In fact, there’s a solid chance that the pen is about to become the first part of the team you could call a strength.

The 2019 White Sox bullpen is going to be scary. Several quality relievers have already shown themselves, and there are a whole lot more on the way.

Jace Fry: Death to Lefties

If you’ve been watching the White Sox from a distance this year, you’ve probably seen Fry now and then, but you may not know just how good he is. According to FanGraphs, Fry is the team’s most valuable remaining reliever (0.9 WAR since being called up on May 4). His sterling 2.49 FIP is belied by an unattractive 4.67 ERA, but the real story is his effectiveness in neutralizing left-handed hitters. He’s held lefties to a slash line of .098/.191/.131, making him the second-best lefty specialist in baseball, behind only Josh Hader. He’s not awful against right-handers either, although they hit him close to league average (.239/.329/.385).

Thyago Vieira: Wild Thing

Vieira was just called up to the majors, on July 27. He’s struggled to limit walks in the past, but in Charlotte he walked just three hitters after June 1, allowing him an opportunity to prove himself in the majors. Vieira is the fireballer the Sox have been missing since the Bruce Rondón experiment came to a merciful end. In Vieira’s first four appearances, he’s already uncorked three fastballs at 99.6 mph or more.

Vieira doesn’t just throw fire either — he also shows it on the mound. Watching him celebrate after locking down his first major league save on Saturday made me feel something that I’ve been missing as a Sox fan for a while now.

Ian Hamilton: Next Man Up

Eloy Jiménez and Michael Kopech aren’t the only Knights trying to bust down the door: Hamilton has been getting better as the season goes on. In 14 games with Charlotte, he’s had 12 scoreless appearances, struck out more than a batter per inning, and cut his Double-A walk rate in half. Hamilton has a sinking fastball that sits mid-90s and a slider and changeup, and he’s exhibited good control and peripherals throughout the minors.

Zack Burdi: True Relief Prospect

And let’s not forget about the player the Sox drafted with their compensation pick for Jeff Samardzija in 2016. Burdi probably could have pitched in the majors last year, but he bided his time in Triple-A, striking out 51 batters in 33⅓ innings before tearing his UCL in July.

Now, just over a year after Tommy John surgery, Burdi is rehabbing in the Arizona League and ramping up toward a return. The hope is that he’ll recover the triple-digit fastball and wipe-out slider that landed him at #10 on the preseason composite prospects list despite being a reliever and a Tommy John victim. If he’s successful, he could find himself in Chicago next month.

Carson Fulmer: The Convert

Who could’ve predicted that Fulmer would fail as a starter? Well, a lot of us, but alas. Even after being optioned to the minors, Fulmer continued to struggle in a starting role, and the Sox sent him to the bullpen after the All-Star break. He’s made nine appearances since, and he’s still issuing too many walks (eight in 11 innings), but working in relief will allow Fulmer to limit his arsenal to his best pitches and play up his max-effort delivery. Give him time to adjust to short stints and he could be an effective power reliever in the majors.

The Big Picture

At some point in early 2019, the White Sox bullpen could look something like this:

Zack Burdi
Jace Fry
Ian Hamilton
Thyago Vieira
Luis Avilán
Carson Fulmer
Nate Jones

That’s a huge difference from the ragtag collection of players that’s been taking the mound this year. Rondón is gone, as are Chris Volstad and Chris Beck, and Gregory Infante is back in the minors.

And there’s so much depth throughout the system that should a few players get injured or prove ineffective, there will plenty of others who could step in. That includes:

  • Failed starters (Tyler Danish, maybe Dylan Covey)
  • Holdovers (Aaron Bummer, Danny Farquhar, Xavier Cedeño, Jeanmar Gómez, Juan Minaya)
  • Newcomers (José Ruiz, Caleb Frare, the next Anthony Swarzak/Joakim Soria)
  • Potential quick risers (Tyler Johnson, Ryan Burr, Bennett Sousa)

There’s so much quantity that it’s going to be hard not to find some quality somewhere. But the best part about the relief corps the White Sox are building is that it’s young and cost-controlled. Of the five players I profiled above, Fulmer is the oldest, and he’s just 24. If just a couple of these young players approach their potential, they’ll become the back end of a formidable bullpen on the next several competitive White Sox teams.