When Liam Hendriks was signed at the beginning of 2021 to a three-year, $54 million deal, I thought that the money could have been better spent elsewhere. Throughout the White Sox history, they haven’t been short on great closers to come out in the ninth inning. One thing they have been short on, however, are division titles and championship trophies. Can a look through the White Sox closers shed some light on the previous success of their strategy to invest heavily in the bullpen?
Before Hendriks, the last big closer deal for the White Sox was David Robertson. Robertson was paid to come in and be the Sox closer in 2015 as the missing piece for that ballclub. While he did have 34 saves in 2015 and 37 saves in 2016, the Sox finished 76-86 in 2015 and 78-84 in 2016. So, maybe he wasn’t the missing piece.
Growing up, I watched, in my opinion, the best relief pitcher in Sox history. Bobby Thigpen played with the Sox from 1986 to 1993. Thigpen owns the Sox franchise record for saves at 201. In 1990, he set, at that time, the Major League record for saves in a season at 57 in 65 appearances. He had a 1.83 ERA with 70 strikeouts in 88.2 innings in 1990, and it was an All-Star season for Thigpen. That year, the Sox finished with a 94-68 record, good enough for 2nd place behind the Bash Brothers and the Oakland Athletics. So all being told, great season, but still no title.
After Thigpen, the White Sox had Roberto Hernandez. Coming up as a starter in 1991, he was converted to a closer, and in 1993 had 38 saves with a 2.29 ERA. In his All-Star season in 1996, he also had 38 saves with a 1.91 ERA. After losing to the Blue Jays in the 1993 ALCS and finishing 2nd in 1996, Hernandez was part of the White Flag Trade which brought the next closer to Chicago.
Keith Foulke would become the full-time Sox closer in 2000 with 34 saves and a 2.97 ERA. The Sox would go on to lose to the juggernaut that was the Seattle Mariners in the ALDS. He would get his World Series title – but it would be in 2004 with the Sox of a different color. After him would come the magic of 2005 – but do you remember how the Sox closed out on the mound that year?
In late 2004, the White Sox claimed a pitcher off waivers to bolster their minor league system, and in December of 2004, the White Sox signed Dustin Hermanson. In 2005, Hermanson would go on to collect 34 saves, taking over for incumbent closer Shingo Takatsu, who struggled with ineffectiveness. After Hermanson started having back issues down the stretch that season, the White Sox had to turn to that 2004 waiver claim that would end up being their saving grace.
Bobby Jenks took over for Hermanson during that 2005 season, and in 32 games would go on to pitch 39 1/3 innings with six saves and, of course, would be on the mound for the final out of the 2005 World Series. Over the next two years, Jenks would go on to amass 81 saves and make the All-Star team in both 2006 and 2007.
Thinking back over the history of White Sox closers is a big part of the reason why the Hendriks contract concerns me. With the exception of Hermanson and, more recently, Robertson, the White Sox have had most of their closers come from their farm system. At one time, the Sox were known for developing pitching: Alex Fernandez, Jack McDowell, Jason Bere, Roberto Hernandez, Wilson Alvarez, Bobby Thigpen, Mark Buehrle, Chris Sale, Bobby Jenks, Greg Hibbard – the list goes on and on. More recently, the Sox developed Addison Reed, a 3rd round pick in 2010, who would save 40 games in 2013. The few “big money” contracts that have been in the mix didn’t seem to bring the White Sox closer to a World Series championship.
So what does this all mean? Could the White Sox have developed a closer for their march to a World Series title during this window? It seems as if the White Sox have had plenty of success finding late-inning relief options without going out and spending valuable resources for the role. Was it the right move to sign a closer to a multi-year deal? These are questions that are worth asking, given the history of the team. The answer to these questions likely won’t come until well after the White Sox’ current contention window is finished and the full history can be reviewed.
All we can do as a fanbase is hope that this will be another way the White Sox will win a World Series title.
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