State of the System: Relief Pitching

Positional Overview:
The current White Sox bullpen is viewed as one of the biggest weakness of the team in 2014. That’s perhaps not a surprise after the Sox dealt least year’s reliable closer, Addison Reed, while not bringing in anyone of note to replace him. I believe the Sox made Matt Lindstrom the closer to start the year in the hope that he’ll be able to pitch reasonably well, rack up some saves and become a valuable trading chip at the trade deadline, which I think is a great plan for a rebuilding team. The White Sox always seem to be deep in relief prospects in the Minors, and there are a number of prospects that could play a big part in the 2014 bullpen.

If Lindstrom fails, who’s next in line for saves?
If Matt Lindstrom struggles to convert saves and the Sox feel the need to remove him from the closer role, there are a number of options to take his place, many of who are young guys. Nate Jones’ 2.64 FIP, 2.77 xFIP and 2.0 WAR made him the 8th most valuable relief pitcher in baseball last year, and so many (myself included) had been expecting him to open the year as closer. He’s the most talented arm in the ‘pen, and the likely long-term closer for the Sox. Daniel Webb has the stuff to fill the role, and showed improved control at times in 2013. His heavy sinking fastball could be a good fit in The Cell, too. Jake Petricka impressed last year with much improved strikeout rates, though control still needs work (a recurring theme). Maikel Cleto throws hard, really hard. His average fastball velocity is 97 mph over his MLB career. Unfortunately his control and secondary offering do not match up to the fastball, so he’s not an option at this point. Donnie Veal is another that can rack up the K’s, but doesn’t have the control or consistency to close.

The White Sox bullpen will likely frustrate in 2014, with flashes of brilliance offset by erratic performances and a lack of control. There are a number of talented arms at, or close to, the MLB level and if given time to grow and develop, this could become an area of strength for the Sox in the near future.

Top Prospect:
Daniel Webb- Always a highly thought of arm, Daniel Webb flew through the system in 2013 as he finally figured things out. His fastball sits mid 90’s with good sink and is real weapon, with plus-plus potential. His slider shows good potential also. Should be an impact reliever for the Sox with closer upside.

Best of the Rest:
Brad Goldberg- Goldberg has moved to the rotation to start the ’14 season but his long-term role is still likely to be from the ‘pen. Goldberg exploded onto the scene with some eye-popping numbers in his pro debut after being a somewhat unknown on draft day. Best pitch is his plus fastball that was mid 90’s out of the bullpen.

Kyle Hansen- Hansen was one of my big sleeper picks entering the 2014 season, and so I was very disappointed to find out that the Sox have moved him to the ‘pen. He was excellent last year, showing a good combination of control (2.51 BB/9) and strikeout ability (9.59 K/9) and I would have liked to see him given a shot to stick in the rotation. His stuff must project better out of the bullpen and perhaps the Sox think he can move quickly in this role.

Nestor Molina- Molina has been a big disappointment (to put it mildly) since being acquired in the Sergio Santos trade back in late 2011. He made a big splash in 2011 showing a devastating combination of strikeouts (10.22 K/9) and impeccable control (1.10 BB/9). As a result, we ranked him as our #1 prospect entering the 2012 season. Since then the strikeouts have disappeared and the control worsened. His repertoire is perhaps no more than average, and it clearly has not played in the higher Minors. It’s difficult to see him as more than a middle reliever at this point.

Francellis Montas- Montas is another that could end up starting, but the bullpen is his most likely home. He throws a few different secondary pitches, but none of them project to be more than average (if that) at this point. The fastball is his main weapon with mid-to-high 90’s velocity and lots of sink. It’s a plus-plus pitch that gives him closer potential. Control and command still needs a lot of work.

Jefferson Olacio- Olacio has moved to the ‘pen to open the ’14 season after seeing his K/9 drop to a poor 5.86 while starting with Kannapolis in 2013. He’s a big guy at 6’7” and brings great heat from the left side with a fastball that touches the high 90’s. One report from his season debut suggests Olacio’s slider is much improved, with Nathan Stoltz now labeling it as a “plus” offering, to go along with a “decent” change. This gives him a dynamic 1-2 punch that project to give him closer upside, or a three-pitch mix that could still work in the rotation, if the Sox choose to move him back into that role. At 20, he is still very young, and it will be interesting to watch how he develops this year.

Jake Petricka- Was successful in his transition back to the bullpen last year. His strikeout rates were very good (9.38 K/9 in AA, 9.98 K/9 in AAA), but he combined the strikeouts with a high walk rate (4.12 BB/9 in AA, 4.11 BB/9 in AAA). Petricka is another with closer upside, but the lack of control could prevent him from reaching his ceiling.

Keep an Eye on:
Michael Blanke- Blanke is expected to transition from catcher to pitcher this year, and while it is highly unlikely that he will ever amount to anything in this new role, you never know who the next Sergio Santos is going to be.

Interesting Side Note…
Of the top 60 qualified relief pitchers in baseball last year by WAR, only 6 had a BB/9 above 4.00. These 6 pitchers and their K/9 rates are as follows: Aroldis Chapman (15.83 K/9, 4.10 BB/9), Steve Delabar (12.58 K/9, 4.45 BB/9), Fernando Rodney (11.07 K/9, 4.86 BB/9), Charlie Furbush (11.08 K/9, 4.02 BB/9), Rex Brothers (10.16 K/9, 4.81 BB/9) and Oliver Perez (12.57 K/9, 4.42 BB/9). This shows just how good your stuff needs to be in order to live with poor control. If Jake Petricka wants to join this group as a successful Major League relief pitcher, then he will either need to increase his strikeout rates, or decrease his walk rates while making the jump from the high Minors to MLB.

Comments

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  • what about cody winiarski? he seems to have some good upside and has been solid since his return from rib surgery.

  • In reply to mattcav:

    Thanks for commenting. Yes, Winiarski is definitely another name in the mix. I probably should have included him in this post but just overlooked him. Great strikeout rate last year (11.48 K/9) and BA named him best reliever in Carolina League. Matt wrote about him in more detail recently here: http://www.chicagonow.com/future-sox/2014/02/white-sox-prospects-to-watch-outside-the-top-25-pitchers/

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