The Chicago White Sox have reloaded rather than rebuilt their team this off-season, which has put them in a position to make a strong playoff push for 2015. On paper, they have strengthened their former weaknesses at starting pitching, closer, and left field. Jeff Samardzija provides them with that illusive number two starter that they have struggled finding to pair up with their legitimate ace, Chris Sale. David Robertson is firmly cemented as their closer, making their bullpen as a whole at least competent enough to compete with the rest of the American League Central. Melky Cabrera‘s past issues with performance enhancing drugs appear to be behind him as he brings his 2014 .351 on-base percentage with him to a team that sorely needed better plate discipline. But are there any potential pitfalls for the White Sox that could derail a potential special season?
The most pressing issue remains with just how much the bullpen has improved from last season’s lackluster results. Gone are the least productive members of the bullpen, namely Ronald Belisario, Matt Lindstrom, and Scott Downs. According to Baseball-Reference.com, all three pitchers combined for a woeful -2.5 WAR. Their replacements, David Robertson and Zach Duke, will carry into next season a combined 2.4 WAR from last season. Their addition along with the dishonorable discharge of the three-headed monster mentioned above should have a substantial effect on what was referred to as one of the worst bullpens in baseball. But as we have seen in the past, the White Sox currently sport a top heavy relief core with at best a manageable bottom.
That so-called “bottom” is comprised of a group of castoffs consisting of Eric Surkamp and Daniel Webb, with Maikel Cleto and Nate Jones lurking in the minor league shadows. Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn have fallen in love with late inning flame throwers, which explains their regular indulgences with waiver claims for hard-throwing, location resistant pitchers. The members of this group mentioned above would appear to have attained this unfortunate distinction, with Cleto being the worst culprit of them all. In a shorter sample size, Cleto actually had worse control than Belisario. Such poor control is what led Belisario to head toward the front of the pink-slip line. But what about Cleto? What excuse is made for his continuing presence on this team? Other than Sale, no one on the team who pitched at least 29 innings last year had a higher strikeout per nine innings ratio than Cleto.
What this group tends to carry with them other than a blazing fastball is very poor control over their secondary pitches. Webb had a very impressive 7.71 strikeout per nine innings ratio while maintaining a decent 3.99 ERA in 2014. However, he compiled a bloated 1.49 WHIP during that same period. If he does not significantly improve his control next season, his strikeout and ERA totals will simply not be sustainable. He threw 67.2 innings last year, which was good for the second most innings pitched for White Sox bullpen pitchers. Clearly, Robin Ventura depended on him for much of the season, which helps to explain the team’s poor win total. This is one potential problem for the team as there have been no other right-handed middle relief additions excluding the closer position. With the budget stretched beyond its limit, any significant improvements will have to come from within the organization as any waiver pickup will likely result in more pitchers with control issues. Quality relief pitchers are at a premium, so no team is letting any decent talent go without a price to match. As for those in-house options?
The answer is difficult to reach as there is not much to discuss. Nate Jones and Eric Surkamp would be potential, cheap reinforcements, but they do come with risks. Both pitchers combined to throw less than 25 innings last year, with Jones not recording a single out in 2014. They are young and have potential, but for a team that is well positioned for a World Series run, potential is just not good enough. Erik Johnson, who is a starting pitching prospect, was hit hard last year. He could be tried out again in the pen to help him work on his control issues, but that does not resolve the issue of Robin Ventura having limited options next year. Rick Hahn and Kenny Williams will learn the hard way that one off-season splurge has not resolved all of this teams glaring issues. The team will be competitive, but there will be a time in 2015 when an addition to the bullpen will need to be made for the Southsiders to play October baseball. In July, it will be hard to find many fans still bragging about the additions made in the off-season. At that point, they will be asking, “what have you done for me lately?” How far this team can go will depend on how management answers that question.
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