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How do you spell relief? On the cusp of the 2019 White Sox bullpen

This second in the series details the relievers who are nibbling at the majors

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Chicago White Sox
Fabulous firepower: Among a lot of good candidates, Ian Hamilton is the shooting star of the next wave of White Sox relievers.
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Before this offseason, the Chicago White Sox were loaded with high-ceiling, but not-ready-for-prime- time pitchers, like Ian Hamilton, Zack Burdi, Ryan Burr, and Thyago Vieira. With several recent additions via trade and free agency, the White Sox now have several veterans to add to this list. By my count, there are 21 pitchers who have the potential to pitch this year in a White Sox uniform:

  • The incumbents: Manny Bañuelos, Alex Colomé, Dylan Covey, Jace Fry, Kelvin Herrera, Nate Jones, Juan Minaya were profiled on Sunday.
  • On the cusp: Aaron Bummer, Ryan Burr, Caleb Frare, Ian Hamilton, José Ruiz, Jordan Stephens, Thyago Vieira
  • Longshots: Zack Burdi, Randall Delgado, Carson Fulmer, Jacob Lindgren, Evan Marshall, Zach Thompson, Colton Turner

This may even be on the light side, as I’m not including guys like Matt Foster, Tyler Johnson, and Hunter Schryver, who will likely begin the season with Birmingham. Obviously, not all 21 of these guys will make it to the big show this year; shoot, with this deep a group, some may get traded before the season even starts.

Today, let’s take a look at the second tier of White Sox relievers, some of whom will start the season in Charlotte, with others having a good chance to break camp with the White Sox.

Ages are as of April 1, 2019.

Aaron Bummer (25): In Bummer’s rookie campaign in 2017, he held hitters to a .178 OBA while posting a 4.50 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 16.5 BB%, 18.7 K% over 22 innings. His overall numbers changed dramatically last year: 4.26 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, .301 OBA, 6.9 BB%, and 24.3 K%. While he got lucky in 2017 given his 6.16 FIP, he actually was quite unlucky last year with a 2.40 FIP over 31 23 innings. On the positive side, Bummer’s HR/9 improved last year, from 1.6 to 0.3. As a southpaw who can reach the mid-90s with his fastball, Bummer is still very intriguing. He definitely profiles as a LOOGY: lefties slashed .245/.286/.302, while righties fared much better at .338/.391/.425 in 2018. Bummer has two options remaining, which may factor into where he’ll begin the 2019 season.

Ryan Burr (24): Burr had a terrific minor league campaign last year, pitching effectively for both Birmingham and Charlotte. However, he got rocked to the tune of a 7.45 ERA and 1.86 WHIP after his late-season promotion to the White Sox with six walks, six strikeouts and three homers in just fewer than 10 innings of work. Of course, it’s difficult to determine exactly how good Burr can be in the majors with such a tiny sample size. According to MLB Pipeline, “There’s nothing subtle about Burr, who attacks hitters with a 94-96 mph fastball that has been clocked as high as 99. He works from a high arm slot that creates downhill plane and armside run that add to the difficulty of catching up to his heater. He backs up his fastball with a solid low-80s slider with depth.” Burr’s fastball and slider were graded as 65 and 55 respectively, while his control was given a 45. While it’s possible he could begin 2019 with Chicago, it’s more likely that Burr will return to Charlotte due to the offseason signings. Burr has three options remaining, so ticket him for Charlotte.

Caleb Frare (25): Acquired for international bonus pool money from the Yankees last year, Frare dominated minor league ball last year in 57 13 innings — compiling a 0.78 ERA and 0.94 WHIP while allowing 32 hits (.162 OBA), 22 walks (9.8 BB%) and 77 strikeouts (34.2 K%). Righties fared just as poorly against Frare’s offerings in the minors as had righties. He struggled in his 11 outings (seven innings) with the White Sox late last year, to the tune of a 5.14 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. His four-seam fastball averaged nearly 94 mph with the Sox according to Baseball Savant, with his slider averaging 86.3. Because he does have three options left, there’s a possibility he returns to Charlotte to begin next year. However, based on his age, minor league results, and left-handedness, Frare deserves the shot to begin the season instead on the major league roster.

Ian Hamilton (23): Hamilton enjoyed a fantastic 2018 minor league season, split between Birmingham and Charlotte with equally even results. Combined with both squads, he posted a 1.74 ERA and 1.05 WHIP and 22 saves in 51 23 innings by surrendering 38 hits (.204 OBA) and 16 walks (7.8%) while fanning 62 batters (30.1%). But Hamilton struggled a bit in his first stint with the White Sox: In 10 outings totaling just eight innings, he posted a 4.50 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, as he relinquished six hits (two of them homers) with two walks and five strikeouts. Hamilton ranks 16th among White Sox prospects according to MLB Pipeline, which currently makes him the highest-ranking relief prospect in the system, and he’s given a 70-grade fastball with a 55 slider. His fastball consistently runs mid-90s, but has peaked at 99. Odds are good, despite the recent additions, that Hamilton will begin the season with the White Sox.

Jose Ruiz (24): Ruiz was claimed in December 2017 from the San Diego Padres (who placed him on waivers to clear a 40-man roster spot). Ruiz is a converted catcher, and last year was just his third season of pitching. Assuming he’ll only continue to improve, it seems Ruiz has a solid career ahead of him. Last year with Winston-Salem and Birmingham, he combined to produce a 3.07 ERA and 1.07 WHIP with 16 saves over 58 23 innings; during that time, he surrendered just 39 hits (.188 OBA) and 24 walks (10.1%) while fanning 77 (32.5%). In six games with the Sox encompassing just 4 13 innings, he posted a 4.15 ERA and 1.85 WHIP by allowing five hits and three walks while striking out six. According to MLB Pipeline (which ranks Ruiz 24th among Sox prospects), his fastball sits at 94-97 mph with a peak of 99; he also features an above-average mid-80s slider. Ruiz does have two options remaining.

Jordan Stephens (26): Stephens will likely be a competitor for the fifth starter spot with Manny Bañuelos and Dylan Covey, barring any additional acquisitions. By being placed on the 40-man roster, the White Sox regard him more highly than his Charlotte teammates, Jordan Guerrero and Spencer Adams. Stephens started last season well with Birmingham, but struggled in 21 starts with Charlotte with a 4.71 ERA and 1.46 WHIP over 107 innings, allowing 114 hits (.271 OBA) and 42 walks (8.9%) while fanning 99 (20.9%). According to MLB Pipeline, which ranks Stephens 20th among White Sox prospects, “Stephens has one plus pitch, an upper-70s curveball with good depth. He sets it up with a fastball a low-90s fastball that plays up a bit because he hides it and locates it well.” Lefties in AAA ball hit .296 against Stephens last year (compared to .242 versus righties) due to a fringy changeup and cutter. Another concern is that Stephens’ ground out/fly out rate was just 0.55; that must improve if he expects any kind of success in Guaranteed Rate Field. Because of his relatively small size and health concerns, Stephens may be better suited as a reliever in the long run. Unless he vastly outpitches Bañuelos and Covey in spring training, Stephens should begin the season with Charlotte, with an opportunity for promotion if all goes well. He has three options remaining.

Thyago Vieira (25): Vieira, acquired from the Mariners on November 2017 for international bonus pool money, may actually have the best fastball of any White Sox reliever, from the majors on down. That fastball, which peaks at triple digits and averaged 97.5 mph last year according to Baseball Savant, is actually graded 80 by MLB Pipeline. He does have a hard curveball, which is actually more of a slider, was graded at 55. However, despite the power stuff, Vieira’s results were rather middling last year. With Charlotte, he posted a 5.05 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in 41 innings, as he allowed 40 hits (.252 OBA) and 24 walks (12.7%) while fanning 50 (26.5%). Unsurprisingly, he fared worse with the White Sox in 17 23 innings, where he compiled a 7.13 ERA and 1.70 WHIP by surrendering 21 hits (.292 OBA) and nine walks (9.6%) while striking out 15 (17.6%). Vieira has only two effective pitches, and if his curve/slider isn’t being thrown for strikes, experienced hitters can tee off any fastball no matter the speed. Vieira does have one option remaining, and it’s likely he’ll begin next season with Charlotte and stay there until his control and command sufficiently improve.

You might think that this group of pitchers really reads like last year’s White Sox bullpen — that’s because it sort of was. Six of the seven pitchers above saw action on the South Side in 2018. That most of these guys are now ticketed for Charlotte instead of an automatic, return engagement with the White Sox speaks to the improvements made to the bullpen this offseason, with the additions of Kelvin Herrera, Alex Colomé and Manny Bañuelos. It’s not easy sailing for this group in terms of even their Charlotte status, however, as above list doesn’t even include pitchers like Tyler Johnson, Matt Foster, Mike Morrison, and Hunter Schryver who likely will begin the season in Birmingham and will be itching to see action for the Knights and White Sox.

While some of these “on the cusp” guys may be traded, released, or even demoted to Birmingham to begin the season, chances are that most will see some shine in Chicago at some point in 2019. After all, the bullpen, even more than the starting rotation and outfield, is without doubt the team’s strongest position of organizational depth.