Depth and dominance: White Sox bullpen off to another hot start

Depth and dominance: White Sox bullpen off to another hot start

As Zach Putnam sees it, the White Sox bullpen is afflicted in the best possible way early this season.

One after the other, White Sox relievers have delivered dominance from a variety of arm angles. Similar to last April, the White Sox bullpen is off to a scorching start with a 1.41 earned-run average through 14 games, third-best in the majors. Over 44 2/3 innings, White Sox relievers have struck out 54 batters.

Though it's hard to imagine any team sustaining this level of production, the White Sox potentially have a deeper pool of relievers to work with to help them avoid their 2016 dropoff. But it's that same depth that also could have opposing general managers flocking to the White Sox in order to remedy their bullpen issues this summer.

"It’s kind of a contagious thing like hitting," Putnam said. "You've got top of the order getting hits and getting on base and the guys just kind of fall in line. That's kind of of how it has gone here. We've got guys that know their role, and they're doing a great job coming in and getting outs and eating up a lot of innings, too. We've had some guys with some pretty heavy workloads and everybody's doing their jobs.

"There's no weak spots, top to bottom."

The White Sox are several months into the franchise's first rebuild in 20 years.

You wouldn't know it by looking at the back end of the bullpen, which is more suited for a team trying to contend.

While closer David Robertson hasn't pitched at an elite level in his first two seasons, he still has converted on 75 of his 89 save opportunities (84 percent) and is off to an excellent start in 2017. Considered readily available on the trade block, Robertson has converted all four save chances this season and struck out 11 batters in 5 2/3 innings.

Nate Jones' success — 112 strikeouts versus 26 walks in 96 innings since returning from Tommy John surgery — also has caught the eye of scouts around the league, many of whom believe he could become a closer if the White Sox were to trade Robertson. Lefty Dan Jennings also is viewed by scouts as a potentially attractive option as he has shown marked improvement in his splits against left-handed hitters in two-plus seasons with the White Sox.

But it's the front end of the group that has given the White Sox a stronger, deeper bullpen so far in 2017.

Less than a year after he had bone chips removed from his right elbow, Putnam, 29, is healthy again and his split-fingered fastball is dancing to the tune of 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings. He's whiffed nine batters in eight scoreless innings.

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Tommy Kahnle — who has 12 strikeouts and one walk in 5 2/3 innings this season — appears to have retained the lessons he learned about command late in 2016. After walking 14 batters and striking out seven in his first 11 1/3 innings with the White Sox, Kahnle has been outstanding. Since Aug. 11, 2016, Kahnle has 30 strikeouts and only seven walks in his 21 2/3 innings with a 0.83 ERA.

And veteran Anthony Swarzak is throwing as hard as he has in his career, his fastball averaging nearly 95 mph. So far Swarzak has six strikeouts and six scoreless frames.

"Good group of arms," Robertson said. "Everybody's getting a lot of opportunities and it seems like a lot of guys have really found their niche.

"You're seeing a whole bunch of different looks. We've got a lot of right-handed arms, power arms, but just different looks. Everybody throws the ball differently. Hitters see it differently.

"That's all it takes in baseball to get guys out."

Putnam said it's a combination of good communication from the coaching staff and the foundation at the back end of the 'pen that has aided the strong start. With Robertson in the ninth and Jones the primary setup man, the rest of the group has a good idea of what its role is.

That has led to plenty of belief in the bullpen.

"It doesn't matter who's trotting out, I think the coaching staff and the team has confidence in whoever comes out of that door," Putnam said. "I think a lot of that too is guys understanding their role and their job and what is expected of them. We're always on call and always ready. But knowing what situations to be extra ready for so that you're not caught off guard is huge."

The bullpen's performance has been critical early as it has allowed the White Sox to work around a poor overall showing by the offense. Despite ranking 13th in the American League in runs scored, the White Sox have played .500 baseball because of their dominant bullpen. And while it could one day be picked apart by opposing GMs, for now the team's relief core has made life easier for manager Rick Renteria.

"It's been really nice," Renteria said. "Obviously those guys have emerged being very effective. Hopefully it continues. It's one of those things as we continue to move forward, we have to continue to play clean baseball and we give ourselves a chance to stay in a ballgame. Anything can happen late, and if we have the guys in the pen — that's been working very, very well for us."

Last-place White Sox ready to trade, but only if the right offer arises

Last-place White Sox ready to trade, but only if the right offer arises

That the White Sox lost their fourth consecutive game doesn’t change the big picture plans of the franchise, which probably — but not definitely — will involve making at least one trade before the end of July.

Before the White Sox lost, 6-5, to the New York Yankees Monday at Guaranteed Rate Field, general manager Rick Hahn met with the media and delivered the same message he’s had since trading away Chris Sale and Adam Eaton in December. The White Sox are open for business, and would like to make a number of moves to further bolster their farm system, but won’t make a trade if they don’t receive what they view to be a fair return.

“Would I be surprised (if we didn’t make a trade)? No, because I try not to be surprised by the dynamics of this market,” Hahn said. “Would I be mildly disappointed? Sure. We are here to try to improve this club.

“We feel we have certain first and desirable players that would help other clubs and may fit better on their competitive windows then they do on ours right now. And we intend to be active each day in trying to further accomplish what we set out to do a year ago at this time.

“But do we have to do it? No. That would be using an artificial spot on the calendar to force decision-making. That would be the last thing we need to do. We need to take a long term view of what we are trying to accomplish.”

Hahn didn’t name names, but Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson could be short-term fixes for contending clubs. Jose Quintana, who will start Tuesday against the Yankees, remains the team’s most valuable trade chip despite a 4.69 ERA that sits over run higher than his career average.

Frazier homered Monday and entered the game hitting .262/.351/.524 since Memorial Day. Cabrera similarly has found success after a slow start, slashing a healthy .324/.375/.482 in his previous 34 games before picking up two hits in four at-bats Monday. And Robertson, who’s been linked to the relief-starved Washington Nationals for months, has 41 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings with 11 saves.

“We want to be able to do as much as we can in our power to get this team to where it needs to be,” Hahn said. “Yes, there’s an element of competitiveness involved in that. There’s an element of patience involved in that. But at the end of the day, we have to — we get paid to be prudent in our decision making. We have to make the right decision.”

In the meantime, the White Sox looked the part of a rebuilding team with the worst record in the American League on Monday. Starter David Holmberg struggled, allowing six runs on five hits and four walks in 5 1/3 innings — but only two of those runs were earned thanks to errors by Holmberg, Frazier and Matt Davidson.

As the Yankees took advantage of those miscues with three runs in both the fourth and sixth innings, Jordan Montgomery retired nine consecutive White Sox batters and went on to cruise with eight strikeouts over seven innings. The White Sox – as they’ve done quite a bit this year – still showed fight late, battling back in the ninth inning.

Tim Anderson ripped a three-run home run in the ninth inning off Yankees left-hander Chasen Shreve to bring the White Sox within two. Joe Girardi quickly turned to Aroldis Chapman, who allowed a run when Jose Abreu doubled home Melky Cabrera. But the tying run was stranded on second when Avisail Garcia grounded out and Frazier flew out to end the game.

White Sox Talk Podcast: Top pick Jake Burger can't wait to someday take a bite out of Chicago; When will Sox trades begin?

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: Top pick Jake Burger can't wait to someday take a bite out of Chicago; When will Sox trades begin?

After taking batting practice for the first time with the White Sox, number-one pick Jake Burger sat down with Chuck Garfien to talk about getting drafted by his favorite team, what it was like getting a phone call from Paul Konerko, why he wants to be a leader like Jonathan Toews, playing on Team USA with Seth Beer and more.  

Then CSN's Dan Hayes joins Garfien to discuss the return of Carlos Rodon, when the White Sox might start making trades, and Rick Renteria's short temper with umpires.   

Listen here to ketchup with top prospect Jake Burger: