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."

White Sox prospect Luis Basabe adjusts to new organization, playing without his twin

White Sox prospect Luis Basabe adjusts to new organization, playing without his twin

Luis Alexander Basabe’s roommate received a phone call on the road on July 9 in which he learned he had been traded by the Boston Red Sox. What would be a strange experience for most teammates was even more difficult for Basabe and his.

The player traded was his identical twin brother, Luis Alejandro Basabe.

“I was like, ‘Man, I don’t believe that,’ ” Luis Alexander Basabe said.

Nearly five months later, Luis Alexander received a similar call from the Red Sox to inform him he was included in a four-player package headed to the White Sox in exchange for five-time All-Star Chris Sale. Having already experienced the trade of a brother he describes as younger (by five minutes), shorter and weaker, Basabe wasn’t rattled.

While he later found that acclimating to a new organization was "weird" at first, Basabe said he already feels at home with the White Sox. The center fielder currently has a 10-game hitting streak and is slashing .260/.351/.400 with four stolen bases in 58 plate appearances for Single-A Winston-Salem.

“So far everything has been very good,” Basabe said. “When (my trade) first happened it didn’t feel weird or anything because it was in the offseason.

“I felt a little more comfortable because I had been through it with my brother. But I know it’s a business and no matter where I go I’ve got to do my job and play the way I do.

“ ‘Yeah, that’s all right. I don’t care because I’m here with a chance.’ ”

Plentiful opportunity is potentially there with the White Sox.

The No. 8-ranked prospect in the organization, according to MLBPipeline.com and Baseball America, Basabe, 20, has all the tools needed to be a top-notch defensive outfielder. His speed and arm are both graded at 60 on the 20-80 scout scale and his fielding rates at 55. Basabe’s manager thinks he has everything necessary to play a critical spot.

“He’s a true center fielder to me,” Winston-Salem manager Willie Harris said. “Speed, arm. It’s still a little early to tell if he’s going to hit. Who knows? But from the defensive side of the game, he knows what’s going on. He’s going to learn as he goes on and he’s going to be very, very good.”

Everything may come down to whether or not the switch-hitting Basabe performs at the plate. His hit tool grades at 45, according to MLB Pipeline, which is more in line with the bat of a fourth outfielder.

But so far the White Sox are optimistic Basabe can make the proper adjustment.

“He’s got a sweet swing,” White Sox hitting coordinator Mike Gellinger said. “He’s got a timing thing to handle. But he’ll get it and it should be very helpful.”

The biggest help will be repetitions. Basabe spent almost the entire 2016 season at Single-A Greenville in the South Atlantic League. Only at the end of the season was he promoted to Advanced-A Salem in the Carolina League, the same league he’s in now.

“He’s got a little bit of everything,” player development director Chris Getz said. “He can run, he has the ability to hit and he’s aggressive on the bases.

“He’s still only 20 and he’s had some success. But we feel the more at-bats he gets he’s going to be successful.”

Despite that young age, Basabe, whom his parents call “Chande”, and his twin, “Jandro”, have already learned about the harsh realities of baseball. They had just arrived at the ballpark to play the Lexington Legends that night when Greenville manager Darren Fenster summoned Luis Alejandro to his office with the news of his trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He would be assigned to Single-A Kane County.

“It was at 2 p.m. and the manager called my brother outside to come talk to him,” Luis Alexander said. “And then he told me ‘They traded me.’ ‘Really?’

“But then, (you learn) it really was a business and he got more chance over there.”

How Jose Quintana's silent leadership resonated with Michael Kopech

How Jose Quintana's silent leadership resonated with Michael Kopech

He absorbed a ton of information in spring camp, but perhaps it’s what Michael Kopech observed watching Jose Quintana that could help most.

For five weeks in big league camp, the extremely motivated White Sox pitching prospect gleaned every piece of information he could from more experienced teammates.

Kopech and veteran starting pitcher James Shields discussed pitch sequencing and the importance of the changeup. Infielder Tyler Saladino talked with the No. 14-ranked prospect in baseball about visualizing success. Catcher Geo Soto told Kopech pretty much everything about life in the majors.

But even though he didn’t say much, Quintana’s practice sessions may have provided the most valuable lesson of all. The key takeaway, Kopech said, is how Quintana performs every action with a purpose. The young pitcher knows how critical the example Quintana provided is to his development and wants to implement a similar approach.

“(Pitching coach Don Cooper) likes to call it focused practice,” Kopech said. “For me that’s one thing I haven’t done well, is get locked in. You have to be locked in all the time. That’s something that came from Coop and all the big leaguers I was around. Quintana is a great guy to watch when it comes to stuff like that.

“That’s a guy that is a definition of a silent leader. He doesn’t talk about much. He goes and gets his work in and you can just watch him and know that’s the way the game should be played.”

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Kopech took a nice step forward in his development on Tuesday night when he pitched a season-high six scoreless innings for Double-A Birmingham. He struck out eight and allowed a hit while walking four and lowered his ERA to 2.50. The Texas native had only compiled 12 innings in his previous three outings because of “hit-and-miss” fastball command that led to 10 walks.

Along with perfecting his fastball command, one of the keys to Kopech reaching the majors is an increase in workload. Kopech — the 33rd overall pick of the 2014 draft — has never pitched more than 78 2/3 combined innings he produced last season. The White Sox would love for Kopech to reach the 180-inning mark by 2019.

“He doesn’t have a lot of innings under his belt,” player development director Chris Getz said. “He hasn’t been able to have that build up so that’s something we’re going to make sure he can focus on. We’re going to make sure he’s in the right spot so we can do that properly.”

In order for Kopech to eventually hit that mark, he’d need to pitch between 110-130 innings this season and then throw around 160 innings in 2018. But to reach those figures, Kopech must first pitch deeper into games.

Through his first three starts, Kopech worked on a strict pitch count that varied based on performance. If he was on, he could throw as many as 85 pitches. But if he ran into command issues, Kopech might only throw 75.

On Tuesday, Kopech pitched well enough to throw 95 pitches (65 strikes) against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. He thinks the key to consistency in games is directly tied to his effort in between. It’s yet another area where Kopech — who reads self-help books, is into Cryotherapy and salt baths and eats meals on the road pre-prepared by his nutritionist — strives to improve.

“From Day 1 to Day 4, you need to be just as focused as Day 5,” Kopech said. “I can’t stress that enough. If my bullpen tomorrow I lose a little focus, then I know I need to get right back into it to prepare for my next start. That’s something that’s going to have to kick in sooner than later.”

Birmingham manager Julio Vinas likes how Kopech has handled himself early in the season. Vinas thinks Kopech has the proper mindset and tools to be a special pitcher.

‘He’s got the right mentality and now it’s executing and it’s going to be there,” Vinas said.

He may have been there this spring, but Kopech preferred to not be seen or heard by his veteran teammates. Kopech couldn’t do anything about the onslaught of attention the media paid to him after he came over with Yoan Moncada in the Chris Sale trade. But he could control the rest of his time around teammates. Little by little, he’d engage the veterans without drawing too much attention.

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“I just didn’t want to make it about me,” Kopech said. “It was my first big league camp and a lot of those guys are getting ready for a big league season and I’m competing for a job that’s not necessarily on a big league roster right away. I was just trying to take care of my business. All ears, not really any talk and take away as much as I could without pissing anybody off, really.

“I got the chance to face some good hitters and take away a lot of knowledge from older guys and I think that’s the best I could do to prepare for the season.”

But Kopech agrees the best preparation came from watching Quintana, who Cooper always lauds for his practice effort. Kopech hopes to be able to emulate how the 2016 All-Star pitcher handles himself soon enough.

Kopech thought he focused well from the second through the fourth inning in an April 20 start at Tennessee. But he wasn’t as pleased with his effort in the first and fifth innings.

“That’s the way I want to lock in when I’m on the mound,” Kopech said of Quintana. “I haven’t been doing that, but it’s something I’m going to work on going forward.

“I have to remind myself to stay locked in even though I’m doing what I always do because I need to have the same focus (in practice) I do when I’m pitching on the mound.”