When Rick Hahn talks about work to be done for 2015, the bullpen has managed to work its way to near the top of the list.
The White Sox general manager headed into the 2014 season optimistic about his current relief corps. There were unknowns after the December trade of closer Addison Reed, but Hahn and the front office felt comfortable it had supplied manager Robin Ventura a solid arsenal of live arms.
Injuries to two key relievers, however, have knocked the White Sox bullpen out of whack and sent the unit on a season-long roller coaster ride, one that may have hit its peak on Sunday when relievers allowed 15 runs in a 13-run loss to the Minnesota Twins.
But one advantage Hahn has when designing next season’s roster is he already knows he won’t have Jones, who is expected to miss 12-to-18 months after he had reconstructive elbow surgery last Tuesday. And as Ventura has found out, the loss of Jones has been a significant obstacle to overcome for the White Sox, who entered Monday tied for second-most in the majors with 29 losses in games they’ve led.
“Nate is a different breed,” Ventura said. “He throws hard. He has put in some big innings for us in big spots in different years. I don’t know if you can necessarily point at somebody and say, ‘You’re going to be the Nate guy.’ You’re missing a big piece when a power arm like Nate’s is not available in your bullpen.”
Hahn was right -- the White Sox entered spring training with a nice collection of bullpen arms.
Matt Lindstrom and Ronald Belisario had great track records and Daniel Webb has a very live arm, including a fastball that touches 97 mph. Along with Jones, who led the American League in late-and-close innings in 2013, the trio provided Ventura a solid foundation upon which to build.
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But Jones -- who has averaged 9.26 strikeouts per nine innings for his career --- with his 100-mph fastball and lethal slider, was the only pure strikeout guy in the bunch.
And he hasn’t been around at all.
Jones missed much of spring training and all but the first three games of the regular season with a back injury, one that required surgery in May. Then during his rehab last month, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament.
That left the White Sox with a bunch of sinkerball relievers, who mostly pitch to contact.
The White Sox have tried to pick up the pieces ever since and found some nice arms along the way. Zach Putnam has provided consistency in big spots, Jacob Petricka has shown signs of dependability in the late innings and Javy Guerra has a big arm that has produced 28 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings.
Even though they have used 16 pitchers AND Leury Garcia in relief, the White Sox had been handling themselves OK until Lindstrom suffered an injury to the tendon in his left ankle that has kept him out for nearly three months.
Since then, White Sox relievers have a 4.81 ERA and blown saves in 12 of 30 tries.
Their current woes have been made more difficult without Putnam, who has a 2.35 ERA in 38 1/3 innings this season and went on the DL on July 24.
“Any time you start moving guys around, it can get a little iffy if one guy has the hot hand, but he’s not getting in there quite as much because you can’t get to him,” Ventura said. “It looks different, so hopefully we can get back to that point where everybody slides back into where they were. There was a nice little stretch where Putnam got it, he had a nice run.”
Putnam, who will pitch at Triple-A Charlotte on Tuesday, could be back on Friday. Lindstrom is sure to be back soon too.
But no matter whom they move forward with in 2015 -- Lindstrom will be a free agent this offseason -- the White Sox need to find a power arm to replace Jones.
As they have found out this season, life without one is difficult.
“You always want a strikeout guy,” Ventura said.