Minor key: The last bullpen spot

Eighth spot to lose: Improbably, a combination of factors give Carson Fulmer the inside track on the final White Sox bullpen spot. (@Carson_Fulmer)


For some pitchers, a relief role is the path to glory and riches. For others, it’s a last stand, a last-ditch attempt to cling to the majors. The Chicago White Sox feature both extremes in their Cactus League bullpen at present, and all manner of pitchers in-between.

The former was taken care of this past weekend. Aaron Bummer’s job security wasn’t in question this spring, but the organization assured so in a big way after announcing a long-term pact with the lefty reliever on Saturday.

The White Sox are loathe to go through the arbitration process with their players, but this contract is a big win for the team beyond dodging that process with Bummer. The 26-year-old was selected in the 19th round of the 2014 draft out of Nebraska and underwent Tommy John surgery as a minor leaguer. After posting a 2.13 ERA with a 72% ground ball rate in 67 ⅔ innings in 2019, boasting a 1.3 fWAR powered by an elite sinker, Bummer has arrived as a fixture in the Pale Hose bullpen going forward.

Bullpens are fickle, and deals like this one are uncommon as a result. But the deal guarantees a payout of only $16 million, and the decision-makers likely see that as a pittance in the face of four years of arbitration under super two status for a pitcher like Bummer, who’s seen as a major spoke in the wheel. Regression could obviously occur, but Bummer’s current status and future promise is a massive scouting win for the organization, which should rightfully celebrate his arrival as a dependable big league reliever.


Judgment Day: Carson Fulmer

Carson Fulmer was the third-ranked player in the 2015  draft according to MLB Pipeline. In Doug Laumann’s final year at the helm, the White Sox used the eighth overall pick in an otherwise poor class on the righthander from Vanderbilt. Many observers praised the organization for selecting another quick-moving pitcher and nabbing the “best college starter” in the class.

Pipeline lauded Fulmer for his competitiveness and placed a 70-grade on his fastball with a 60-grade curveball. The 6´0´´ righty threw his fastball in the 93-97 mph range and had been named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. Fulmer displayed an electric arm, with a power breaking ball. Carson lacked prototypical size and possessed a tough-to-repeat, highly unorthodox delivery. Many evaluators questioned his command and control, wondering if he would end up in the bullpen down the road.

Fulmer didn’t throw enough strikes in college, and he hasn’t thrown enough strikes as a professional, either. Now hanging onto a roster spot tenuously, at risk of changing organizations, Fulmer’s future hinges on his ability to throw strikes this spring. The 26-year-old posted a 6.26 ERA in 27 big league innings last year, and that was after reworking his delivery in the offseason. He did average 13.5 K/9 with the Charlotte Knights with a 3.24 FIP — but also walked more than five hitters per nine as well.

Fulmer is the likely favorite to earn the eighth and final spot in the White Sox’s bullpen this spring. He’s out of options, and while losing him wouldn’t seem drastic, his draft status likely affords him one last shot in Chicago. He had a horrendous debut (two walks, two Ks, HBP, getting yanked mid-inning) in Sunday’s White Sox spring training opener, but Cactus League stats are a poor way to determine roster decisions; paying attention to how Fulmer looks and feels may end up being more appropriate. Fulmer’s cloudy future should be an interesting storyline to monitor, though, on a pitching staff lacking drama.


Easy decisions

With a 26-man roster taking effect in 2020, the White Sox will begin the season with eight relievers. Roster churn will bring a lot of new faces through Chicago during the course of the years, but the group likely to open the season won’t feature many surprises. The southpaw-hungry pen gives 26-year-old Jace Fry an easy spot, along with Bummer. Fry is a former third-rounder looking to bounce back in 2020, and controlling his walks will play a significant part in that quest.

Alex Colomé and Kelvin Herrera are back for another spin at the back end of the 2020 bullpen. They are both slated to make real money this year and will likely see high-leverage innings early in the season. Colomé is looking to keep thwarting his ugly peripherals, while Herrera just needs to remain healthy. Steve Cishek was signed as a free agent this offseason, and he should serve as quite an insurance policy for Rick Renteria.

Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero will likely receive spots as well. Marshall threw 50 ⅓ innings in 2019 and posted a 2.49 ERA. His walk rate increased, but he didn’t allow homers and kept the ball on the ground for the most part. The organization will pay the 29-year-old $1.1 million in 2020. Cordero was claimed off of waivers during the 2019 campaign and threw 37 ⅓ innings for the White Sox in 2019. The 6´4´´, 220-pounder throws very hard but doesn’t strike out many hitters. The sleeveless man posted a 2.89 ERA and is also out of minor league options, giving him an edge for  the big league roster.


Competition at camp

The White Sox released an extensive list of non-roster invites to spring training that included veteran journeymen along with pitching prospects from their own system. Zack Burdi, Matt Foster, Ian Hamilton and José Ruiz are members of the 40-man roster and the likeliest competition for the final spot on the big league roster. Ruiz has big-time power stuff, and threw 40 innings in Chicago in 2019. He’s not the front-runner for a spot breaking camp, but he’s definitely an option. The 25-year-old posted a 5.36 ERA in the majors.

Burdi was a first round pick in 2016 and is looking to finally crack into the bigs. The fireballer is healthy for the first time in awhile and could join the White Sox at some point during the 2020 season. Hamilton looked like a serious option at this time last year, but battled a facial fracture and injuries sustained in a car collision in 2019. Foster was a 20th round pick in 2016 and was added to the 40-man this offseason after posting a 3.76 ERA in Charlotte last year.

Kodi Medeiros, Drew Anderson, Bryan Mitchell, Jacob Lindgren, Caleb Frare, Brady Lail and Tayron Guerrero are some other arms who have an outside shot at a roster spot. Southpaws Medeiros, Lindgren and Frare have the benefit of being lefties, in somewhat high demand in the White Sox system. Mitchell, Anderson and Lail all have big league experience, and while they are more likely to pitch for the Knights than the White Sox, they still qualify as options. Guerrero throws extremely hard, but his peripherals leave much to be desired and is no longer a member of the 40-man.


Outside help?

Fulmer has the inside track at a roster spot due to his draft pedigree and option status, but he’s far from a lock. An outside addition via trade or waiver claim should also be considered a possibility in filling that final spot. The White Sox have added non-roster players to the roster prior to Opening Day in the past, and while it could happen again, its unlikely due to the names currently in the mix.

Fulmer’s grip on the final spot is shaky, and there’s a solid chance that his next big league game will be thrown in a different uniform. The ideal situation for the franchise would be someone like Hamilton or Burdi taking the reins and claiming a major league spot.

Who will be the eighth member of the White Sox’s bullpen to start the year? Internally, Ruiz appears to have the best shot at filling that role. From outside the organization, it’s anyone’s guess. The front office has an entire month to sort it out, and this whole exercise may seem futile once we get to March 26.

The biggest surprise would be to have a spring devoid of bullpen surprises.

 

Penned in: A look at the 2020 bullpen options on the South Side

Top target: Will Harris is on the short list for several teams, as a veteran, trusted bullpen hand. (@Astros)


Ken Williams and Rick Hahn have been lauded of late for their successful offseason shopping spree in an attempt to turn the Chicago White Sox into a contender in 2020. They’ve accomplished their stated goals in acquiring two starting pitchers, a designated hitter, help in right field and one of the best catchers in baseball.

While there’s been some chatter about the need to further upgrade their outfield mix, it seems as if the bullpen might be the next area of focus.

Possible targets

The best remaining relief option on the free agent market currently is Houston Astros righthander Will Harris. The 35-year-old Harris posted a 1.50 ERA in Houston last year despite a FIP of 3.15. In 60 innings pitched, the 6´4´´, 240-pounder averaged 9.30 K/9 and 2.10 BB/9. Harris is likely looking for a multi-year commitment, and his Baseball Savant page really tells the story of his success.

Harris only falls in the 25th percentile in terms of fastball velocity. He doesn’t throw that hard, but he is impeccable in every other way. His fastball spin rate falls in the 96th percentile in baseball and the curveball spin rate is in the 86th percentile. The righty ranks highly in xWOBA (89th percentile), xSLG (81st percentile) and hard-hit rate (84th percentile). Harris hasn’t been linked to any particular teams yet in free agency.

Steve Cishek is another veteran right hander whose fastball velocity is only in the 18th percentile range. He doesn’t possess a high-octane fastball but he’s in the 77th percentile in fastball spin rate. The 33-year-old sidearmer pitched 64 innings with the Cubs last year and posted a 2.95 ERA. His FIP wasn’t as good (4.54), but he held righties to a .583 OPS on the season. The 6´6´´, 215-pounder averaged just more than 8 K/9 and falls in the 99th percentile in both hard hit rate and exit velocity.

Cishek knows how to get people out, and he’s made a career of doing so. Similarly to Harris, Cishek is likely holding out for a multiyear pact from a club. He hasn’t been linked to any team specifically, but he would fit nicely as a piece in the White Sox’s evolving bullpen.

Two other names on the market who could be potential options are Daniel Hudson and Craig Stammen.

Hudson was a fifth round pick of the White Sox way back in 2008, and made his major league debut with the club before being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The righthander has had an extensive history of arm troubles but is still just 32. The 6´3´´, 225-pounder posted a 2.47 ERA with a FIP of 3.97 last year. He pitched 73 innings with the Blue Jays and Nationals and completed high-leverage stints on a World Series winner. Hudson has some familiarity with catcher Yasmani Grandal from their days in Los Angeles together with the Dodgers.

According to Jon Morosi of the MLB network, the White Sox have shown interest in righthander Craig Stammen. The 35-year-old was a bit overused in the first half of last year, and some of his numbers reflect that. The 6´4´´, 230-pound reliever posted a 3.29 ERA with a 4.12 FIP, but pitched the majority of his games at the arm-friendly PETCO Park in San Diego. He averaged around 8 K/9 and 1.65 BB/9 over 82 innings last season. Stammen has great command, and surrenders lots of soft contact. In 2018, the big righty posted a 2.73 ERA and accumulated 2.2 fWAR in 79 innings.

The White Sox could also look to the trade market to acquire relief help if necessary. Three of the bigger names out there are Ken Giles of the Blue Jays, Mychal Givens of the Orioles and Ian Kennedy of the Royals. But Giles and Kennedy both have just one season of team control remaining — and Kennedy comes with a significant salary cost of $16.5 million.

Kansas City’s closer was superb in relief last season, though. In 63 ⅓ innings, Kennedy posted a 3.41 ERA with a 2.99 FIP. The converted starter has found a role in relief that works for him and while he’s expensive, he could really help a contender. Kennedy also averaged 10.37 K/9 and just 2.42 BB/9 on the season as well.

Giles, on the other hand, should cost a pretty significant prospect return, and it’s unclear whether Toronto is still open to making a deal before the season. The 29-year-old posted a 1.87 ERA with a 2.27 FIP for the Blue Jays last season. The 6´3´´, 210-pound righty averaged a whopping 14 K/9 with 2.89 BB/9 as well. He threw 53 innings and would be a huge upgrade for the White Sox. Givens is in a similar spot on a bad AL East club, but the Orioles would definitely trade him under the right circumstances. The 29-year-old posted a 4.57 ERA with a 3.62 xFIP in 63 innings for the Orioles in 2019. He also averaged 12.3 K/9 on the year and his stuff is still a factor.

Current Mix

The White Sox bullpen fared decently in 2019 and finished the season in the middle of the pack of the American League in most statistical categories. Arb-eligible Alex Colomé and Evan Marshall don’t have their 2020 salary figures yet, but they seem likely to return to the club. They’ll be joined by righthander Kelvin Herrera and southpaws Aaron Bummer and Jace Fry.

Colomé is expected to earn around $10 million in his final season of arbitration. The 30-year-old righty posted a 2.80 ERA last year, but his peripherals weren’t kind and he’s likely in for some regression. Colomé’s strikeout rate was down as he averaged 8.11 K/9 and 3.39 BB/9. In 61 innings, he posted a 4.08 FIP with a 45% ground ball rate, and his stuff deteriorated some over the course of the season; his Baseball Savant page illustrates that some trouble could be on the horizon.

Given his overall performance in 2019 Colomé will return as the closer in 2020, but his numbers indicate that an upgrade might be essential. He finished in the 30th percentile in fastball velocity and 23rd percentile in fastball spin rate. Colomé’s strikeout rate falls in the 45th percentile, while his hard-hit rate was in the 12th percentile range. He still gets outs, but he was also in the 2nd percentile in exit velocity last year — a huge concern going forward.

Under contract for $8.5 million next year is 29-year-old righthander Kelvin Herrera, and he’ll be counted on in some capacity as well. The 5´10´´, 200-pounder struggled last year working his way back from a lower leg injury, posting an ERA of 6.14 with a 4.58 FIP. He did throw 51 ⅓ innings and averaged 9.29 K/9, but also 4.03 BB/9. Herrera has a long track record of success, and was clearly battling last year. He should be better in 2020 based on his late season results, but counting on him as an integral part of the bullpen mix might be foolish.

Former 19th-rounder Aaron Bummer had his breakout campaign in 2019 with the White Sox. The 26-year-old southpaw posted a 2.13 ERA with a 3.41 FIP and compiled 1.3 fWAR on the season. The 6´3´´, 200-pound lefty averaged 8 K/9 while displaying a stellar 72.1% ground ball rate in almost 68 innings pitched. Bummer was very good vs righties last year, but was death on lefthanders (.178/.213/.233).

Jace Fry was a third round pick of the White Sox out of Oregon State in 2016. He’s strictly a reliever now after undergoing two Tommy John surgeries, and he struggled in 2019 after a breakout season the year prior. The 26-year-old has elite spin on his fastball but posted a 4.75 ERA with a 4.41 xFIP in 2019. The southpaw averaged 11.13 K/9 but also 7.04 BB/9 in 55 innings with the Sox last year. Left-handed pitching is an organizational weakness at the moment, and Fry should lock up a spot on the 2020 squad fairly easily.

Evan Marshall was a bit of a revelation last season. The 29-year-old righthander posted just a 4.30 FIP but his statcast data was very positive as well. The 6´2´´, 225-pounder posted a 2.49 ERA and averaged 7.28 K/9 in 2019. Marshall threw 50 ⅔ innings and should be a lock to return once pitchers and catchers report. Marshall is projected to earn just more than $1 million in arbitration. Marshall falls in the 81st percentile in curveball spin, 78th percentile in fastball spin, 90th percentile in exit velocity and 89th percentile in hard-hit rate.

Internal Options

Non-roster invitees to spring training haven’t been announced yet, but the organization has gotten lucky finding contributors from that pile in recent years. Looking at the 40-man roster, Zack Burdi, Jimmy Cordero, Dylan Covey, Matt Foster, Carson Fulmer, Tayron Guerrero, Ian Hamilton, Kodi Medeiros, and José Ruiz will be given an opportunity to make the 2020 club.

Cordero pitched well last year after being claimed on waivers in June. The 28-year-old righty throws really hard (95th percentile in fastball velocity). The 6´4´´, 222-pounder posted a 2.89 ERA with a 3.69 xFIP in 2019. Cordero was very solid to close out the year and he threw almost 38 innings down the stretch. He has a solid shot to pitch for the 2020 club, but he’s out of options at present.

Another hard thrower and recent addition that is also out of options is former Marlins flamethrower Guerrero. Guerrero was claimed off of waivers earlier this offseason, and he’ll have an opportunity this spring as well. The 28-year-old falls in the 100th percentile in fastball velocity but he posted a 6.26 ERA last year. He was hit hard and often, and averaged 7.04 BB/9 with Miami.

Fulmer was the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 draft. Things haven’t gone well since for the former Commodore. The 26-year-old righthander posted a 6.26 ERA with a 6.29 FIP with the White Sox last year. He averaged 8.23 K/9, but 6.59 BB/9 as well. Carson threw 34 innings with the Charlotte Knights as well and averaged 13.5 K/9, 5.5 BB/9 and a 3.24 FIP. Fulmer’s spin rates are elite (88th percentile in curveball spin and 91st percentile in fastball spin) but his command is too erratic to put them to use consistently. Fulmer is also out of options, and could find himself on another team soon.

Covey, like Fulmer, has gotten lots of chances and the White Sox just can’t decide what role is best for him. He could be outrighted off of the roster once further additions are made and offer depth in Triple-A. Kodi Medeiros is a young lefty who will be given an opportunity in spring training. The first-rounder has failed as a starter, but met some success after transitioning to the bullpen last season.

Ruiz is another young, hard thrower who is short on experience but long on stuff. He was given a pretty decent-sized leash last year and likely gets an opportunity again. Ruiz possesses minor league options and could help to fill out the Knights bullpen to start the season. Foster was protected in advance of December’s Rule 5 draft, and he’ll be in the mix as well. The 24-year-old threw 55 innings for the Knights and posted a 3.76 ERA while averaging more than 10 K/9.

There will be many options for the 2020 Chicago White Sox to use out of the bullpen. Any of Reynaldo López, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodón could pitch some meaningful relief innings at some point, however unlikely that seems. Chances are, the South Side decision makers will make a couple of additions to the bullpen before the start of the season to enhance their chances of holding leads and winning games. Some prospects could shine and force their way into the mix as well.

The higher-leverage options in the bullpen appear to be set until upgrades can be made, possibly not until the summer. The best outcome for this club, though, would be getting serious help from within. Burdi and Hamilton are hard-throwing righties coming back from injuries in 2018. If either pitcher can round themselves into form, they could be mainstays in Chicago for a long time. After them, Tyler Johnson and Codi Heuer are fairly recent draft picks who could be knocking on the door to a bullpen audition as well.