Dylan Cease is in a jam. The White Sox are in a tie game. It’s the definition of a high-leverage situation.
Who can Pedro Grifol turn to?
The list of options in a struggling White Sox bullpen is mighty slim.
Plenty of armchair managers think they can solve this puzzle on a nightly basis, but they’re wrong. Grifol has a daily head-scratcher on his hands as his relief corps’ ERA has ballooned to 6.37, the second highest mark in baseball behind only the unthinkably bad A’s, who are bringing up the rear with a 6.70 bullpen ERA. The White Sox’ bullpen also ranks ahead of only the A’s in walks (70) and hits (135), while holding the unfortunate distinction of having the highest opponents’ batting average in the sport, at .274.
A collection of relievers that looked capable of being the best part of this roster has been anything but through the team’s disappointing first 36 games. Joe Kelly, Jimmy Lambert, Reynaldo López and Aaron Bummer all boast ERAs of 6.00 or higher: 6.00, 6.06, 8.16 and 10.80, respectively. José Ruiz and Jake Diekman have already been jettisoned after failing to get the job done. Kendall Graveman’s ERA is settling down a bit, at 4.40, thanks to a three-game scoreless streak; it was 5.56 at the close of April, a month in which he allowed at least a run in five of the 12 appearances he made.
At the moment, none other than Gregory Santos and Keynan Middleton, two pitchers who were not expected to be major contributors to the bullpen this season, have been reliable choices for the White Sox and their first-year manager.
It’s ugly down there, and it got even uglier Monday night.
Let’s not let the starting pitcher, in this case, off the hook, as Cease was scorched by the Royals for seven runs to jack the ERA of last year’s Cy Young runner-up to 5.58 — one of three White Sox starters with a mark at least that high. But in a 4-all game in the sixth inning, the bullpen couldn’t get out of the bases-loaded, nobody-out jam Cease left it with. Bummer came in and gave up a single and a double to bring home all three runners. Then, after two outs and an intentional walk, another base hit plated two more. Bummer was replaced with Lambert, who walked the first guy he faced before giving up a bases-clearing double.
The game went from a tie to an eight-run blowout in a blink.
And did I mention this all happened against the lowly Royals? They came in with just nine wins, the title of the worst team in the AL Central and a runs-per-game average of 3.89. They ran away from the White Sox in a 12-5 laugher.
The White Sox’ bullpen has made an unfortunate habit of nights like Monday. During the team’s 10-game losing streak in late April, leads rarely felt safe. And though the White Sox started May with back-to-back series wins and five victories in seven games, the bullpen hasn’t yet proven it can be relied upon to help dig the South Siders out of the hole they created for themselves.
The solutions, too, aren’t numerous. Grifol, who can’t throw Santos and Middleton every night, is basically stuck trotting these same guys out there because they’re the guys who he’ll need to turn the ship around. He’s not doing it without Graveman, Kelly and López, that’s for sure. He needs them to get right. They won’t get right sitting around doing nothing.
Liam Hendriks and Garrett Crochet continue to progress in their respective rehab assignments, great news for a White Sox team in need of an anchor in the relief corps. That’s what Hendriks is, and aside from his strikeout of cancer being an inspirational story, his comeback to the bullpen is important as hell for just plain baseball reasons. He’s amassed a whopping 75 saves in just two years in a White Sox uniform.
The closer-by-committee approach that Grifol touted in spring training turned out to be, for the most part, a closer-by-López approach, and it hasn’t gone well. While López has looked himself at times, he’s blown up far too often to hold on to the closer’s role, with six homers, seven walks and 13 earned runs allowed in 14.1 innings after he gave up just one homer, 11 walks and 20 earned runs in 65.1 innings last season.
But even once Hendriks and Crochet come back, this isn’t going to be an entirely different cast in the White Sox’ bullpen.
Lambert is perhaps the most likely to go, considering he still has options remaining and would be easy to move back and forth between the major leagues and minor leagues, not to mention that he’s been used a ton; only three players in baseball have made more relief appearances than Lambert’s 18.
The team can probably also bring an unceremonious end to the Alex Colomé reunion tour. Signed to a minor league deal recently, the White Sox’ former closer has pitched in four games and given up runs in two of them, perhaps making him destined to be the guy you never get on the 2023 White Sox roster Sporcle quiz.
Fans might be clamoring for more change, the type of action the front office took in designating Diekman for assignment last week despite his $3.5 million salary. Bummer, the latest target for such calls on social media, makes more. His 2023 salary is $3.75 million, plus he’s due $5.5 million in 2024 on the contract extension the White Sox gave him in 2020.
With Diekman, Leury García and Dallas Keuchel, the White Sox showed they weren’t afraid to swallow a bunch of money to rid themselves of an unproductive player. But that’s a long list of players getting fat paydays to not play.
Bummer’s been with the organization for a long time, a 19th-round White Sox draft pick way back in 2014. I’m not trying to stir up any sentimentality but rather reminding that this team has a history of turning Bummer into an effective relief weapon. He’s the same guy who had a 2.13 ERA in 58 games in 2019 and a 2.36 ERA in 32 games just last season. His results (and health) have been sporadic across his entire career, sure. But the very pitching coaches the team currently employs worked with him to dramatically improve his results from 2021 to 2022. It’s time for a repeat performance on the part of Ethan Katz and Curt Hasler.
The bad news for the White Sox is that Bummer is far from being the one squeaky wheel on this shopping cart. He’s part of a sizable group of arms who have not performed anywhere close to expectations this season.
Relief pitching, Rick Hahn will tell you, is volatile from year to year, and it’s a fool’s errand, perhaps, to expect an entire relief corps to simply replicate past performance. But the White Sox need the guys they invested in — Graveman, Kelly, Bummer — to start pitching to their contracts.
The alternative? Anyone who thinks there’s a bounty of reliable arms down at Triple-A Charlotte hasn’t checked the stats page. Tanner Banks is pitching well and will presumably be making more appearances with the major league club as guys get hurt and taxed throughout the season. Perhaps Nicholas Padilla and Jesse Scholtens get to make more trips to the South Side, too.
But is anyone clamoring for Bummer to be replaced with Sammy Peralta’s 4.24 Triple-A ERA? Ready to cut Kelly loose in favor of Lane Ramsey’s 4.61 Triple-A ERA? How about Declan Cronin’s 5.65 mark in the minors?
Heck, the White Sox just let an offseason trade acquisition go, clearing space on the 40-man roster by DFA’ing minor league hurler Frank German last week. He’s a Red now after a waiver claim. It might not have mattered. Was he really going to be next to get a big league call after posting a 7.15 ERA in nine Triple-A games?
With Grifol only having so many levers to pull and a dearth of reliable options in the minor leagues, it’s on the veterans who are getting the big bucks to pitch well to, you know, pitch well.
Until they start doing so, the White Sox will be stuck with one of the worst bullpens in baseball, something that contributed to the deep hole they’re in now and something that could make it inescapable as the season goes on.