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White Sox seem set on closer by committee during Liam Hendriks’ absence from bullpen

Vinnie Duber Avatar
February 18, 2023

PHOENIX – The most interesting position battle in White Sox camp might have no winner.

Though only a few days into spring training, first-year manager Pedro Grifol seems intent on heading into the season without a closer, at least without a designated ninth-inning man while Liam Hendriks’ status remains a mystery as he undergoes treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I’m not anticipating that now,” Grifol said Friday, asked for the third straight day whether one person will be tabbed to take over the ninth in Hendriks’ absence. “Every conversation I’ve had with (pitching coach Ethan Katz and bullpen coach Curt Hasler) on how we’re going to run that, … we’re just right now talking about leveraging guys and attacking pockets.”

You might wonder what the new South Side skipper has against pockets. Maybe it’s decades of donning baseball pants, which only have one pocket in the back.

But terrible jokes aside, Grifol has advocated for a strategy of using his top relievers in the highest leverage situations, regardless of whether they come in the ninth, eighth, seventh or sixth innings. “Attacking pockets” means throwing your best arms at the opposition’s best bats and mapping out things based on that rather than inning.

Certainly there’s something to be said for having the ability to dominate the ninth. Past White Sox managers and plenty of players have said that the last three outs of a ballgame are the hardest to get, and Hendriks has obviously shown that he has that intangible skill to be able to get those outs under pressure.

But it’s unknown when Hendriks will be able to pitch next. His teammates have spent the spring trumpeting his attitude as he’s gone through his cancer fight, and the All-Star closer is present at Camelback Ranch, doing what workouts the staff and his body will let him. Everyone’s thoughts are with him, of course, and having his big personality around camp has been a plus.

“I talk to Liam a lot,” Joe Kelly said Thursday. “We were playing catch multiple times, and when he came out and told the world what happened, he went to chemo and three days later we played catch again. … He’s one of those guys that can do that kind of thing. He can switch (off) what troubles he has off the field when he gets on the field, and that’s very hard to do.

“I was taken aback (when I first heard about his diagnosis), but I saw him on the field a couple of days later. That shows to me that he’s not just sitting on it. For me, my humor is kind of dark, … so when Liam comes back it’s easy to talk crap a little bit and he’s a guy who can take it and it picks him up a little bit. … It’s a serious thing and it’s a horrible thing, but for Liam and our relationship, it’s one of those things.

“I think he seems great. He has his days where he will probably tell you he’s tired or that he doesn’t feel good, but he’s the same Liam to me.”

It’s great to hear that’s the case. But Rick Hahn’s welcome-to-camp media session reaffirmed the team’s stance that there will be no update on Hendriks’ status until closer to Opening Day, leading to talk of what the White Sox’ bullpen looks like until he returns.

“You’re not going to be able to replace a two-time Reliever of the Year award-winner, right?” Kelly said. “But we’re not looking to replace. We’re looking to pull together more as a unit.”

And that seems to be the way it will play out.

Even without Hendriks, the team’s top relief arm, the White Sox do have an awful lot of weapons in the ‘pen. Kelly and Kendall Graveman were handed multi-year free-agent deals last offseason and bring a ton of experience as back-end guys. Reynaldo López and Jimmy Lambert mostly flourished as surprise late-inning arms last season. And Jake Diekman and Aaron Bummer have their own track records as effective relief options. That’s without mentioning Garrett Crochet, who is expected back from his recovery from Tommy John surgery in roughly the middle of May.

That’s a pretty stacked relief corps, even with the likes of Kelly and Diekman coming off tough 2022 campaigns, individually. Even with Kelly shouting out Graveman as a former closer who’s pitched at an All-Star level – he racked up 10 saves and posted a 0.82 ERA with the Mariners in 2021 – and Hahn shouting out López as due for a big year, Grifol seems set on mixing and matching as he pleases, saves be damned.

And that’s just fine with this group.

“I was talking to Pedro,” Graveman said Thursday. “He shared with us that we’re just going to go get outs when the best spot for us to go get outs is. I told Pedro I couldn’t care any less about a stat. I want to win baseball games. I’m too old and too long in my career to worry about a stat. For me to rack up saves or holds, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to get this team to the playoffs. You have that feeling after last year, that we’re going to move in that direction just to win baseball games.

“At the end of the day, whenever Pedro tells me to go pitch, I told him to his face, I’ll go pitch. We’ll try to hold it down the best we can until we get one of the best in the league back out there with us.”

And so the battle to fill in as the White Sox’ closer while Hendriks is out is no real battle at all. Go back to second base and right field, roster-watchers, because the ninth inning belongs to no one in particular.

Hendriks possesses the same “put me in whenever you want” attitude, though his ability to dominate the ninth on a regular basis has dictated his own deployment in his two seasons on the South Side. Whether or not Grifol differing from Tony La Russa would affect when Hendriks pitches remains to be seen and doesn’t figure to be seen in the early portions of the season, at the very least.

But Grifol is adamant about that approach in the earliest days of his first camp as a big league manager.

“I’m going to put the best pitchers on the mound that we feel are the best in that particular situation,” Grifol said. “(Graveman) understands what winning is about. … (I told him), ‘You understand what it’s about and that you have to be versatile.’ We have to leverage guys and attack pockets, and he’s all in.

“I haven’t spoken to too many others about that, but just in my short time here, I’m not going to see any issues with these guys being versatile in whatever we need to win a baseball game.”

Hendriks was the one who spoke the most about the White Sox having a sort of attitude problem last season, helping contribute to the massively disappointing .500 finish without a playoff berth. Well, this is the right attitude to have from the outset of camp, perhaps a signal that things have been adjusted over the winter.

Considering the options Grifol has at his disposal to get from the starting pitcher to the end of the game, the White Sox’ bullpen looks like a strength, even without Hendriks. Starting the season without an All-Star closer would seem a pretty significant blow to a relief unit’s capabilities. But Kelly, for one, isn’t backing down from predicting big things.

“We’re losing Liam for a little bit, but we’re adding another piece (in Crochet) we didn’t have last year,” he said. “If everyone stays healthy and just does average of what they can do, we’re going to have easily a top-three ‘pen in the league, for sure.”

Pockets beware.

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