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White Sox slow Gregory Santos’ usage with closer, bullpen questions looming for 2024

Vinnie Duber Avatar
September 19, 2023

Before Christopher Morel blasted a Gregory Santos pitch into the Wrigley Field bleachers, Gregory Santos was undoubtedly one of the brightest spots during this miserable White Sox season.

Acquired in an offseason trade with the Giants, Santos carried a 2.60 ERA into that Crosstown game, turning in one stellar effort after another as a surprise arm out of the South Side bullpen.

After the White Sox traded away much of the back end of their relief corps at the deadline and Liam Hendriks went down with Tommy John surgery, throwing the All-Star closer’s 2024 season into question, Santos was given a turn as the ninth-inning man. It looked like the White Sox might have been onto something, and some of the short supply of confidence surrounding this team had to do with Santos assuming the closer’s role for 2024.

But since that blown save against the Cubs — and including that night — Santos’ ERA has been gargantuan, at 7.36. He’s blown three save chances, including balking in the winning run of a game against the Royals, and he gave up four runs in his most recent outing against the Twins.

Suddenly, it’s well worth wondering whether Chris Getz needs to add finding a new closer to his already mile-long to-do list if he’s going to turn the White Sox into a contender in one offseason.

Meanwhile, on the Santos front, the White Sox are taking a different approach, and certainly it’s been noticeable that Santos hasn’t been used as much at season’s end. Veteran relief arm Bryan Shaw has been the source of Twitter jokes, as he’s seemingly deployed every night. But the guy who until last month seemed to have the inside track to the 2024 closer’s job has been slowed down. That’s been intentional, with Pedro Grifol explaining that the workload — heavy to the point where Santos has made more appearances than any other White Sox pitcher this season — has caught up to the young right-hander a bit.

“I’m not going to try to use him that much,” Grifol said over the weekend. “He says he feels good every day. ‘I want to pitch, I want to pitch.’ But he’s pitched a lot, and he’s pitched a lot well over what he’s pitched in the past and he’s done it at (the major league) level. We’re definitely going to protect him down the stretch here, for sure.

“Part of finding out what guys can really do is having them go through a little bit of adversity, even though it hurts and it’s painful to lose a game in the ninth inning. … But you learn a lot about people and players, and it seems to me like he’s got a real short-term memory when it comes to that stuff, like he did in Wrigley. That was a big game. That’s a game we had in the bag, 3-0 in the eighth inning, 3-1 going into the ninth, and he walked off that field and a couple days later he (recorded the final four outs of a win) in Colorado.

“That was pretty impressive, just to watch a young kid — really this is his first full year in the big leagues — to watch him grow as much as he’s grown this year. To do that late in the year, it’s been pretty impressive.”

As Getz charts a course for this offseason, pitching is of the utmost priority. Specifically, it’s starting pitching the White Sox are in dire need of, with only Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech projected as part of the 2024 rotation while this season’s auditioning arms, Touki Toussaint and Jesse Scholtens, have been short on consistency.

But the bullpen, too, is looming as a critical need, one that needs to be addressed in a significant way if the White Sox are going to compete for the AL Central crown next season. Outside of Santos, who has stumbled down the stretch, there are few slam-dunk candidates for back-end spots. Aaron Bummer is under a long-term contract, but he’s had a woeful campaign, taking a 6.87 ERA into Tuesday’s game. Garrett Crochet could be due back from injury rehab soon for an outing or two before the season concludes, but he’ll head into next year with little more than 10 innings pitched in 2023 and a question of whether his future lies as a starter or a reliever. Given the White Sox need both, it’s difficult to say where he’d be best utilized.

Young arms like Declan Cronin and Lane Ramsey have been used since the deadline deals sent veterans — some of whom, from a contract standpoint, could have returned for 2024 — like Kendall Graveman, Joe Kelly, Reynaldo López and Keynan Middleton to other teams. But they haven’t exactly dazzled in their limited action.

So who’s going to pitch out of the bullpen next year? Another thing for Getz to figure out in the coming months.

A big part of that, though, is finding someone to pitch the ninth inning. The White Sox have a club option on Hendriks, though the guy who when healthy is arguably the game’s best closer is expected to miss much if not all of next season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Hendriks is due the same amount of money whether the White Sox pick up the option or not, a unique element of his free-agent deal, so it’s a reasonable wonder whether they’ll keep him around. Hendriks, unsurprisingly, has his sights on making a rapid return, and after watching him get back on a major league mound following a battle with cancer earlier this year, it would seem silly to doubt him.

But even if the White Sox decide to hang onto Hendriks, that’s several months and the bulk of a season in which they’ll need a different person closing out games. In a return to spring training, Grifol voiced an opinion that having a single closer is not necessary as long as there are a lot of guys trusted in late-inning situations to call on.

“I just think we would have to target leverage guys,” the manager said of how the team could approach the search for late-inning arms this offseason. “I’m not big on just having ‘a’ closer, unless you have a Liam Hendriks, and then you treat him as such. … I just like adding and finding leverage guys, as opposed to labeling guys: ‘We’re going to acquire this closer.’ Unless you’re talking about a guy who’s done it for a long, long time.

“(With the closer-by-committee approach coming out the spring), I was happy with the options I had at any time. Obviously, that’s one area where we haven’t had the success that I had hoped for. I don’t know exact numbers, but I know we’ve given up a ton of save opportunities this year and we’ve lost a lot of one-run games and we’ve lost a lot of games we’ve been leading in.

“So that’s an area where we really, really have to focus on this offseason and iron out, because I think seasons are made in those areas: one-run games, games that you’re leading, being able to close those games out. Regardless of what inning it is, you’ve got to preserve the lead.”

Coming out of the spring, that seemed a reasonable strategy. Hendriks was planning a swift return, and the back end was stocked with accomplished veterans and tantalizing arms. Graveman, Kelly and López looked to be as solid a closer by committee as could be asked for. It didn’t really work out that way, though the bullpen went through both its ups and downs leading up to that deadline deconstruction.

Heading into 2024, however, it’s nearly impossible to have that same confidence in the collection of arms the White Sox currently have, and it would seem that without a heavy amount of imports, there will be a lot of pressure on young arms from within the organization to assume important roles. Veteran and more veteran players like Bummer, Crochet and Santos will all carry significant questions about what they can deliver into next season, as well.

One or more arms will undoubtedly step up, as that’s how bullpens tend to shake out in any season, something Grifol emphasized. Just look at what out-of-nowhere guys like Santos and Middleton were able to do this year for the White Sox. Of course, as Rick Hahn was always quick to point out, relief pitching tends to be rather volatile, as well, and the White Sox experienced plenty of that this year, too, be it with Bummer’s struggles, López’s early season troubles in the closer’s role or Jimmy Lambert going from a successful late-inning arm in 2022 to someone who spent a lot of time in the minor leagues in 2023.

Still, Grifol is confident in things falling into place.

“I think the cool thing about a bullpen is that it can come from anywhere,” he said. “You might have a starter in the minor leagues that all of a sudden has a really good spring training and you feel he’s got the stuff, but you don’t want to push him to start in the big leagues yet, you might want to preserve innings or you don’t want to give him that task of 30 starts. You start him off in the bullpen, and all of a sudden you’ve got a big-time dude out there.

“Or it can come from a non-roster invite, like Middleton. Or it can come from a trade, like Santos, where you identify a big arm. (Jordan) Leasure — in that trade we made, (to go along) with (Nick) Nastrini, from the Dodgers — he’s throwing upper 90s, 97, 98, 99 with command. He could end up being one of those guys. Who knows?

“The good thing about a bullpen is they just show up. It just happens. I remember Liam starting for us in Kansas City. And then the next thing you know, he’s in the bullpen in Oakland and he’s having a great season in middle leverage to a little bit later leverage. And the next thing you know, he’s one of the premier closers in the game. That’s the cool thing about building a bullpen, you have so many different avenues that you can use and resources you can use to fill it out. It’s kind of neat.”

Neat or not, it would seem to be something that Getz is going to want to address in several ways this winter. And with Santos’ star fading toward the end of this lost season, it’s a question whether one of those ways is bringing in a proven closer.

As the White Sox have witnessed with Hendriks, that is a really, really good way to protect the kinds of late leads that slipped away far too often this season.

“You look back at this year,” Yasmani Grandal said last month, “especially at the beginning towards now, if there was a seven-inning rule, we’d be in first place. That’s why we’ve lost a lot of games late. And I think back, losing Liam, for us, was huge. I think it kind of shows. It shows what he meant to this team, especially at the end of a game.”

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