Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa recently confirmed that Garrett Crochet and Michael Kopech will begin the 2021 season in the big league bullpen, while GM Rick Hahn and the rest of the organization has emphatically pushed the idea that both still profile as premium starters in the future.
But let’s face it: 2021 will be a strange year. The 25-year-old Kopech will be on an innings limit after not pitching in games since 2018 and enduring both Tommy John surgery and a 2020 opt-out. Crochet likewise doesn’t have a lofty innings load built up from college due to the shortened season.
These types of roles for the two young arms make sense — major league arms getting major league reps, as opposed to wasting hypothetical bullets in the minor leagues. And adding two young fireballers to a playoff-caliber bullpen increases the depth of the entire pitching staff.
The White Sox had the eighth-best bullpen in baseball in 2020, with a 2.5 fWAR, 3.76 ERA, and 3.98 FIP. The fellas averaged just fewer than 10 strikeouts per nine as well. While the unit was very good with punch outs, five American League clubs were better. That likely won’t be the case this upcoming season, however, as the White Sox have the best bullpen in the league on paper.
Alex Colomé was stellar over two seasons in a closing role for the White Sox. In 2020, the righty posted a 0.81 ERA and saved 12 games. The 32-year-old saved 30 contests in 2019 while posting a 2.80 ERA as well. Colomé is throwing his cutter 70% of the time, and he elicits a plethora of ground balls and soft contact. His strikeout rate is decreasing, though, while his walk rate has increased — and he doesn’t possess the high-octane stuff that the organization values in the bullpen.
Colomé will be throwing high-leverage innings for the rival Twins, and the White Sox will replace the production with free agent addition Liam Hendriks. The 32-year-old Australian has been the best reliever in baseball over the past two seasons. The 6´0´´, 225-pounder posted a 1.78 ERA with a 1.14 FIP and averaged 13 K/9 over his 25 1⁄3 innings. In his last 110 innings pitched Hendriks has been worth 5.2 fWAR, which is tops in baseball for relievers. He led the sport in innings out of the pen in 2019 after throwing 85 total in Oakland. He struck out 13 batters per nine with a 1.87 FIP, and has a pristine Baseball Savant page to boot.
The franchise guaranteed him $54 million, and he’ll anchor their new-look bullpen. Hendriks isn’t the only premium reliever in the bullpen, however.
Righthander Evan Marshall finished in the Top 10 for relievers in 2020 after compiling nearly 1.0 fWAR during the abbreviated campaign. The 30-year-old posted a 2.38 ERA and 2.04 FIP in 22 2⁄3 innings last year. The 6´2´´, 225-pounder increased his changeup and slider usage and averaged nearly 12 K/9 due largely to the alteration. Marshall’s Savant page helps tell the story of his success. He was in the 100th percentile in barrel rate while his xSLG was in the 98th percentile with a xwOBA at 97th due to a 88th percentile strikeout rate.
While Marshall had the best season in 2020, there might be others in the pen who could be even better in 2021. Lefty Aaron Bummer is one of the best relievers in baseball. The 27-year-old southpaw was injured and only threw in nine games in 2020. He posted a 0.96 ERA and averaged nearly 14 strikeouts per nine, however. In 2019, the former 19th-rounder really burst onto the scene, posting a 1.3 fWAR in 67 2⁄3 innings.
Codi Heuer and Matt Foster were both pleasant surprises in 2020. Heuer posted a 1.52 ERA in 21 games, posting a 2.77 FIP while striking out 25 hitters in 23 2⁄3 innings with a WHIP of 0.89. Foster is a former 20th-rounder out of Alabama, completely reworking his changeup to make it a legitimate weapon. In 28 2⁄3 innings, Foster posted a 2.20 ERA and 2.88 FIP while averaging 9.73 K/9 and a 0.87 WHIP.
Two other prominent members of the bullpen could be left on the outside at the start of the season. Jace Fry is currently out after undergoing back surgery. The 27-year-old southpaw posted a 3.66 ERA in 19 2⁄3 innings and averaged almost 11 strikeouts per nine. Fry has averaged a 2.49 FIP against lefties in his career. Jimmy Cordero was a favorite of former manager Ricky Renteria, pitching 26 2⁄3 innings in 2020 over 30 games. Cordero had an ERA of more than six, but a FIP under four. His stuff is too good to strike out as few batters as he does. Cordero is suspended to start the year, but he may be the first man out regardless.
The starting rotation appears mostly set barring health as well. The White Sox top three of Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn and Dallas Keuchel rivals anyone. Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodón are the frontrunners for the final two spots. So this setup likely leaves Reynaldo López in the bullpen as well. López really struggled in 2020, but changes to his delivery have the organization optimistic about his potential swingman role.
Zack Burdi, Jimmy Lambert, Tyler Johnson, José Ruiz and Bernardo Flores Jr. are all members of the 40-man roster; Johnson is the only one who hasn’t pitched in the majors. Lambert and Flores will likely compete in starting roles in Triple-A. Burdi and Johnson could travel with the club on the road, and it’s likely that they’ll see Chicago in some capacity this year. Ruiz’s roster spot should be anything but safe at this point, but he does have good stuff.
In addition to those pitchers, there are eight more hurlers in major league spring training as well. Danny Dopico and Bennett Sousa were both drafted by the White Sox. Emilio Vargas and Tayron Guerrero were both claimed on waivers and successfully outrighted. Ryan Burr and Kodi Medeiros were acquired via trade, and Connor Sadzeck and Jacob Lindgren were signed as free agents. The left-handed depth in the system is pretty shallow, and that gives Sousa, Lindgren and Medeiros a clearer path to Chicago. Most of these guys will pitch in Triple-A, but relievers come out of the woodwork constantly. Burr and Sadzeck are both rehabbing serious injuries, yet could eventually factor into the bullpen mix.
The White Sox are likely to carry 13 pitchers when the season opens in Anaheim on April 1, and 11 spots are basically accounted for already. Crochet and Kopech joining the club pushes the total to 13, and would basically end any sort of perceived spring competition for roster spots.
Innings will be the focus for these young flamethrowers. With limits in place, the White Sox believe that all their innings should be thrown in the big leagues. It was easy to assume that one or both would begin 2021 in the minor leagues to massage the workload, but new pitching coach Ethan Katz has a plan in place to maximize both pitchers while emphasizing the need to be ready in October.
The White Sox bullpen will be really good in 2021. The organization forked over the cash to sign the best high-leverage reliever in the American League — and they already had two of the best on their roster. Hurlers have surfaced in the big leagues after a stint with the development team as well, and the organization has done an adequate job of churning relievers.
Adding two Top 75 prospects to the mix just raises the ceiling of the bullpen for next season. Kopech and Crochet are similar cases, and they’ll provide premium stuff in relief roles initially as a not-so-secret weapon for the club on its quest for an AL Central title.