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Projecting the 2023 White Sox bullpen usage

by Tim Moran

There was a lot of dysfunction within the 2022 White Sox, but one of the most frustrating traits of the team was its mediocre—and costly—bullpen. What was supposed to be a strong point for the squad turned out to be a liability far too often, and each blown lead stung a bit extra given that the relief staff sported the fourth-highest payroll in Major League Baseball.

But 2023 is a new year, and in a microcosm of the whole team, the sheer talent compiled in the bullpen offers some hope for a turnaround. There are 10 or so viable names for relief consideration, and a maximum of eight roster spots for those competitors, however. With a couple of injuries to consider as well, Pedro Grifol and co. have some tough decisions on how to order and handle the group. Now after the 2-3 start to the year, we have a bit of insight into the usage moving forward.

The Core

Kendall Graveman, Reynaldo Lopez, Aaron Bummer, Joe Kelly, Jake Diekman

While each of the first three relievers on the list has gotten on Sox fans’ nerves plenty of times, they all posted solid numbers last year. Lopez was surprisingly lights out, Bummer rebounded late in the season after a turbulent stretch post-injury, and Graveman was above-average.

These were the only three pitchers enlisted to see out a nail-biting Opening Night win, and accordingly seem to make up the top tier of the bullpen. The dynamic between Bummer, Lopez, Graveman, and a closer spot that’s not entirely locked down is intriguing, to say the least.

Considering injuries and experience, Graveman (65.0 IP, 3.18 ERA, 3.39 SIERA in 2022) is probably the most reliable. But he’s been pegged as the “eighth inning guy” the last two years of his career and finished 2022 with worse statistics than the other two options. Sure enough, Graveman has made appearances in close ballgames in the seventh and eighth innings to date. Despite getting tacked with three earned runs on Friday, he should safely occupy that space until Hendriks and Crochet return. At that point, he may find himself in a struggle for late-inning work.

Lopez (65.1 IP, 2.76 ERA, 3.02 SIERA) and Bummer (26.2 IP, 2.36 ERA, 2.73 SIERA) certainly don’t present as obvious closer choices either, though. Bummer has dealt with numerous injuries in the past few seasons, ranging from a couple of weeks to a couple of months in length. But when dialed in he is spectacular and has managed a 2.59 ERA over the last four campaigns, backed up by equally impressive peripherals. Given this track record, I assumed that Bummer would be given the closer nod to start the year.

So far, though, it hasn’t been the case. Lopez, lacking the experience of Bummer, found himself using 101 mph fastballs to close out Thursday’s match for his first career save, although Yordan Alvarez blasted a solo bomb first. Then on Sunday, Grifol trotted out Lopez once more, and he secured the 6-3 victory despite surrendering two runs and giving many Sox fans a scare.

Case in point, Lopez has started as the closer but hasn’t given much reason for confidence in two showings. While Grifol often preaches patience, he very well could try out Bummer at closer here soon. Bummer has appeared twice, both in very tight situations against the heart of the Houston order (allowing one inherited runner to score in 1.2 IP), underscoring Grifol’s trust in him. Considering also how thin the pen is on southpaws, Grifol could situationally utilize Bummer for ninth innings if any project to feature two or three favorable lefty matchups.

As for the other two relievers, it’s easy to only look at overall statistics and question why they might have a central role. But the fact is experience, handedness, and cap hit are important factors for determining who gets a shot to start the season. Thus, Jake Diekman and Joe Kelly are temporarily safe as main options.

Diekman (57.2 IP, 4.99 ERA, 3.93 SIERA) struggled last season, but benefits from his lefty status, 11 years of experience, and $3.5 million cap hit. That left-handedness is especially beneficial right now while Garrett Crochet works his way back to game action.

Fans may be especially ready for Crochet after Diekman surrendered a crucial three-run double to Yordan Alvarez in Friday night’s contest. More outings like that should warrant consideration of a Tanner Banks call-up, but more on that later. For now, though, Diekman is clearly the option for when Grifol wants a left-hander and Aaron Bummer is resting. Without any other lefties in the pen, Diekman is situated to see both low and high-leverage opportunities.

Joe Kelly (37.0 IP, 6.08 ERA, 3.18 SIERA) disappointed in his first year on the south side, although his peripherals indicated he got extremely unlucky. Following an encouraging Spring Training, Grifol enlisted him to maintain a tied score in Saturday’s sixth and seventh innings. He started with three easy outs, then allowed two singles, exited, and Jose Ruiz let one run score. Although that outing wasn’t perfect, it illustrates his current assignment as largely the bridge guy in close games.

Whatever the case, there’s a clear split into the above groups of three and two. Kelly and Diekman will have to earn high-leverage opportunities while potentially battling for those honors with the next group on this list.

The Depth

Jose Ruiz, Jimmy Lambert, Gregory Santos

A taxed bullpen will certainly bring one of these three into high-leverage action every few games or so, but largely this trio will pitch when stakes are relatively low.

Jose Ruiz (60.2 IP, 4.60 ERA, 3.87 SIERA) has been with the South Siders the longest and can hang his hat on some impressive 2020-2021 numbers, despite notoriously bad high-leverage pitching. His intimidating fastball will always set him apart, but he just can’t be trusted in meaningful moments. Thus, it’s fair to expect Ruiz to dominate medium-low-leverage innings, as he’s trusted more than Santos. But while this was true in Friday’s game, Ruiz was tasked Saturday with holding a 3-3 tie in a ducks-on-the-pond, two-outs situation. He failed, and it will be noteworthy how Grifol treats Ruiz moving forward.

Next, Jimmy Lambert (47.0 IP, 3.26 ERA, 4.29 SIERA) is almost a right-handed mirror of Tanner Banks with his long relief ability and adequate production, both traits he can hold over Ruiz and Santos. Regression in his home run or fly ball rate could spell trouble in 2023, but management currently trusts him to eat innings. Lambert recorded one out to end the Astros’ sixth inning Friday, and two to begin the sixth Saturday, the start of what should be many fifth and sixth-inning appearances.

Then there’s Gregory Santos (33.0 IP, 4.91 ERA, 5.60 xFIP in Triple-A). Perhaps the biggest roster shock of 2023, Santos has earned his way to Chicago with a blistering spring resumé, hurling 9.1 innings of 1.93 ERA, two-walk baseball. He fires a 100-mph+ fastball to go with a tight slider but needs to keep his command in order. It’s a great opportunity for the 23-year-old to earn a long-term spot despite tough competition. So far he looks set to pitch during the least stressful action, with one earned run in 1.2 innings, but resting arms could always force him into the spotlight.

Ruiz and Santos feel like they are competing for medium-low-leverage spots over just low-leverage. Lambert and Diekman, meanwhile, occupy different roles but have to set themselves apart as they worry about Banks and/or a healthy Crochet.

The Reinforcements

Tanner Banks, Matt Foster, Garrett Crochet, Liam Hendriks

Rocking the lowest 2022 ERA of the bunch and offering a lefty presence, Tanner Banks (53.0 IP, 3.06 ERA, 3.55 SIERA in 2022) has a very compelling argument to be in the majors, yet he is pitching in Triple-A at the moment. If Diekman were to falter too much, he would easily be the first replacement in line. Alternatively, he could force his way to the majors by just being great regardless of handedness. With such extensive big league work last season, any of these relievers struggling in Chicago could find themselves on Banks-watch.

Since March 20, Matt Foster (45.0 IP, 4.40 ERA, 3.99 SIERA) has been sidelined with a forearm strain, and the timeline is unknown. But it might have been an uphill battle to remain in Chicago anyway, given his dismal 2021 campaign and poor 2022 output. Foster has flashed arguably the highest ceiling of the group before with his 2020 run but has the worst recent numbers on the whole. Expect not to see him wearing the black and white any time soon, as he needs to recover and beat out a major leaguer to do so.

Looking to the injured list, Scott Merkin of MLB.com offered some insight into Garrett Crochet’s recovery a few weeks ago, as the young southpaw targets a May return to the bigs. Liam Hendriks (57.2 IP, 2.81 ERA, 2.14 SIERA), diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January, is certainly more of a question mark, but according to Lance Lynn and Rick Hahn, is aiming for a first-half return.

It will be interesting to see which pitchers get chopped upon the return of these two key pieces, but each one on the fence will at least get a month or more to prove themselves. Barring other unforeseen injuries, I’d say Diekman’s prospects get dim after Crochet enters the fray, and one member of the Ruiz/Santos duo survives Hendriks’ reinstatement.

Grifol’s Tendencies

It’s way too early to proclaim truths about Pedro Grifol’s bullpen management style, so let’s keep this to some brief observations. First, he seems flexible and trusting—just one reliever, Graveman, was used three times, and the back end of the pen was enlisted in sticky situations on multiple occasions. Take all of these with a big grain of salt!

Second, it’s possible that he’s overly willing to defer to handedness logic. Yordan Alvarez is equally productive against righties and lefties, and yet Jake Diekman came in to face Alvarez instead of Kelly. But who knows, perhaps Grifol just trusted Diekman more regardless.

Third, he might have reservations about playing his best guys while his team is down. The South Siders wound up scoring a run Saturday night to lose 6-4, and the game would have continued had Ruiz and Santos not combined to yield two runs in the eighth inning, inflating the 4-3 lead. Bummer and Lopez were easily available at the time.

However Grifol handles things, the most important thing for the White Sox bullpen is to stay healthy and competitive. Please!

Make sure to check out our bullpen discussion from our latest podcast!

Follow us @SoxOn35th for more throughout the season!

Featured Image: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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