Top 100 prospect lists and publications are usually devoid of true relief pitchers. As a matter of fact, relievers are only rarely listed on organization's top 30 prospect lists. These truths don't mean that relievers aren't important though. With the way major league baseball is being played of late, teams are placing a premium on relief arms. Starters don't go as far into games as they did in the past and clubs are relying more heavily on shorter stints in high-leverage situations throughout games.
Major league relievers are often failed starting pitchers, or at least that's the usual thought process. Some guys can't work through a lineup multiple times while others have trouble developing a true third pitch to become a premium starting option. Yet others are injury risks who are better protected in short appearances. Relievers are often a volatile commodity and their stock changes from year to year. Teams are often reluctant to pay big dollars and multiple years for relievers when their impact fluctuates so greatly year over year. The White Sox have placed a premium on relief pitching the past couple years and even hired a national cross-checker to specifically scout college relief pitching prospects in the lead-up to the 2017 amateur player draft.
White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn spoke ad nauseum about the need to add to his bullpen this off-season. The front office traded away five relievers prior to the 2017 trade deadline and adding some reinforcements to fill the crater left behind was definitely the primary focus this winter. The club traded for veteran relievers Joakim Soria and Luis Avilan back in January. They've also signed righties Jeanmar Gomez and Bruce Rondon along with lefty Xavier Cedeno to minor league deals recently and they will be competing for big league bullpen gigs during spring training. Holdovers like Juan Minaya, Greg Infante and Danny Farquhar will audition as well with the returning Nate Jones for immediate spots in April.
High-leverage relievers aren't typically the focal point of rebuilding teams but it is advantageous to clubs when value can be extracted. Saving games in 2018 won't be as important as developing some young arms to pitch in the majors and putting some veteran reclamation projects in positions to succeed and be traded. Many young relievers will take part in major league spring training with the Sox but it seems as if veterans will get the bulk of the slots, at least initially. The South Siders are not in a position to spend large sums of cash on the major league product in the immediate future but all indications are that they will be wading out into those waters as early as next year. Once the White Sox move to another stage of their plan and start using the open market as a means toward talent procurement it would be nice if they didn't have to spend large capital to add expensive relievers on multi-year deals.
This is where having a prospect pipeline of pitchers can really benefit an organization. The Sox have a multitude of starting pitching prospects and major league teams only employ five open rotation spots. Some of the starting pitching depth will ultimately be traded or used in relief in the future. The Sox have built quite a stable of intriguing relief arms via the draft and trades and it's time to analyze some of those names more thoroughly.
NOTE: Here we will cover eight of the top relievers currently in the system. A future part 2 will cover another wave of lesser-known but still high potential bullpen arms.
Zack Burdi (RHP)
Burdi was the 26th overall pick in the 2016 draft out of Louisville. He's the best relief prospect in the White Sox system and is ranked 14th overall on our pre-season list. The 6'3", 215 pound fire-baller pitched across four levels of the Sox system in 2016. He threw 38 innings and ended up in Charlotte with the Knights in Triple-A to close out his first season in the minors. Burdi struggled with his command at times but his dominating raw stuff showed everyone in the organization that he was on a fast trajectory. Zack compiled 51 strikeouts and walked 20 in those 38 innings. In 2017, it was expected that the big right-hander would be one of the first prospects to get a look in Chicago. That didn't happen due to Burdi tearing the UCL in his right elbow and requiring Tommy John Surgery after his 33rd inning on the season. Zack posted a 2.92 xFIP and averaged 13.8 K/9 and his stuff was as crisp as ever, prior to the injury.
The former Cardinal closer has a fastball that sits in the 95-100 mph range regularly and he hits triple digits with the heater quite often. The fastball has been given an 80-grade by multiple scouts and publications. It has lots of life and shows arm side run when he's at his best. Burdi also possesses a 60-grade slider that he generally throws in the low 90's with good depth. His change-up has seen 55/60 grades universally as well and he throws the pitch with sink when at his best. The big righty still needs to harness his control and command that gets lost when he's offline to the plate. Prior to the injury, he was the best relief pitching prospect in the game and he's still well regarded in the industry as we sit here today. He will spend much of the 2018 season rehabbing from his elbow surgery but still looks like the favorite to be the closer of the next good White Sox team, possibly as early as late 2018 (but 2019 is perhaps more likely).
Here is some video that we took of Burdi's debut in High-A in 2016, hitting 102:
More footage of Burdi courtesy of Fangraphs in 2016:
Thyago Vieira (RHP)
This Brazilian right-hander was acquired by the White Sox in exchange for international bonus pool money in November. The trade with Seattle was dissected by our Robert Young here. The 6'2", 210 pound flame-thrower was signed by the Mariners out of Brazil way back in 2010. He began his career as a starter and struggled to throw strikes consistently while battling numerous injuries. The righty finally started to put it all together after moving to the bullpen full-time in 2014. In 2016, Vieira threw 44.1 innings and struck out 53 hitters with an ERA of 2.84. His performance boosted his prospect stock and he pitched in the Arizona Fall League that year. The 24-year-old wasn't as sharp in 2017 but he did earn his first big league promotion and also represented the World Team in the Futures Game during All-Star Weekend. Thyago threw 54 innings across AA and AAA in the Seattle system in 2017 and compiled 46 strikeouts to go along with 22 walks while posting an ERA of 4.00.
Thyago is ranked 17th overall in the organization on our preseason top 30 list. Vieira is one of the hardest throwers in the minor leagues and he possesses an 80-grade fastball that regularly hits triple digits. He still struggles to repeat his delivery that displays a lot of moving parts similar to a young Fernando Rodney, but he also shows a power curveball to complement the plus-plus offering. The right-hander has an aggressive, fiery style on the mound. Vieira has been invited to big league camp for spring training with the White Sox and he will be given a legitimate opportunity to break camp with the club. He needs to take to instruction and miss more bats but he has the look of a late-inning high-leverage weapon that could be coming out of the Sox bullpen at some point during the 2018 season.
Some video of Vieira from the 2016 AFL:
Vieira catches a hard liner in big league debut in 2017:
Bummer was a 19th round pick out of Nebraska in 2014, but got a bonus more in line with the 10th round. The former Cornhusker has been exclusively used as a reliever in the White Sox system after being primarily a starter in Lincoln. The southpaw had immediate success in 22 innings in his first year in the organization. The 6'3", 200 pounder missed all of the 2015 season and only threw 13 innings in 2016 after recovering from two different elbow surgeries, the latter a Tommy John procedure, and his status was a bit uncertain. The 24-year-old rebounded nicely last season and threw 48 minor league innings across three minor league levels. Aaron posted a 2.27 xFIP and averaged 12 K/9 while pitching at the High-A affiliate in Winston-Salem. The strikeout rate in Birmingham wasn't quite as high but he did manage to sport an xFIP of 3.04. Bummer also had a brief 5 inning stint at Triple-A Charlotte where he posted an xFIP of 2.43 and displayed some pretty dominating stuff from the left side. His success at Charlotte and gaping holes in Chicago allowed him to accumulate 22 innings with the White Sox at the end of the 2017 campaign. He struggled with his command and allowed over 6 BB/9 while only averaging 6 K/9. It was valuable experience for the young lefty, and quite an impressive run.
Bummer is the best left-handed reliever in the White Sox system and landing him in the 19th round appears to be a coup for the scouting department. The lefty is the 28th ranked prospect in the system according to our recently released pre-season list. Mlbpipeline.com gives Bummer a 70 grade on his fastball to go along with a 55-grade slider. They do note his below average control however. His fastball sits in the 95-99 mph range and that is quite unusual for a left-hander. Aaron also possesses a plus slider that is inconsistent at times but registers in the high 80's at its peak. Bummer needs to sharpen his control and harness his plus stuff to stay down in the zone more consistently. He has received an invite to major league spring training and will compete with Cedeno, Avilan, and Jace Fry for a spot in the big league bullpen. He has plenty of options remaining and the Sox may choose to give him a bit more seasoning in AAA to start the year but he could be a late-inning option for the Pale Hose by mid-season 2018.
Bummer striking out Anthony Rizzo for his 1st career punchout
Some footage of Bummer at the University of Nebraska
Jose Ruiz (RHP)
The White Sox claimed Ruiz off of waivers from the Padres in December. The former catcher was signed out of Venezuela by San Diego way back in 2011. He transitioned to the mound in 2016 after posting a .203/.239/.249 batting line in 4.5 minor league seasons. He made one major league appearance in July (despite never pitching above A+) out of the Padres bullpen but struggled during the minor league season. The right-hander threw 49.2 innings for Lake Elsinore in High-A in 2017 but struggled with an ERA above 5. He averaged 8.2 strikeouts per nine and walked over 4 per in his first full season on the mound.
Ruiz is 23 years old and while he's been in minor league baseball for more than 6 years he is new to pitching. He has good life on his fastball that sits in the 94-97 mph range and he also throws a mid-80's slider, according to reports from multiple publications. He displays inconsistent mechanics and struggles with his release point at times but he did have some success in the Venezuelan Winter League this off-season where he posted a 3.94 ERA. White Sox scouts saw enough of the hard throwing right-hander to put in a waiver claim and get a free look at him this spring. He currently owns a spot on the 40-man roster so he will be afforded the opportunity to pitch in major league camp and try to impress the coaching staff with his stuff. He does have minor league options remaining and it wouldn't be surprising to see him in AA Birmingham this season to hone his craft under the supervision of the Sox pitching development program.
Ruiz striking out Yoenis Cespedes in 2017 for 1st career K:
Some footage of Ruiz at Lake Elsinore courtesy of Baseball Census:
Ian Hamilton (RHP)
Hamilton was given a slightly over-slot bonus as an 11th round pick out of Washington State in 2016. The 6'0", 200 pounder struggled as a junior for the Cougars after being inserted into the starting rotation. White Sox Director of Amateur Scouting Nick Hostetler mentioned that Hamilton looked great when he saw him pitching in short stints in the Cape Cod League in the summer prior to his college season. At just 22 years old, Hamilton threw 71.2 innings across two levels in the Sox system last year. Ian struggled in Double-A with the Birmingham Barons where he posted a 5.21 ERA in 19 innings. He had success with the High-A affiliate at Winston-Salem however. In 52.2 innings, he struck out 55 guys while walking 22 and posting a 1.71 ERA.
The right-hander is a slow and deliberate worker on the mound and he's arm heavy in his delivery. He generates a substantial amount of velocity for a smaller guy and he uses a lot of effort. Hamilton should be back in Double-A to start the 2018 season unless he gets into a scrap with teammate and fellow bullpen mate Ryan Burr. Baseball America lists Ian as the #23 prospect in the White Sox system and prospect writer Josh Norris has heaped praise on him this offseason. The reliever is running his fastball up to 99 mph and he pairs it with a low 90's slider according to that write-up, which are both substantial bumps from 2016. He has the look of a back end bullpen option in the big leagues and he could arrive sometime in 2019.
Some of our footage of Hamilton from June 2016:
Some pre-draft video courtesy of the Pac 12 Network in 2016:
The White Sox acquired Ryan Burr from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for international slot money back in August. We detailed the interesting trade here. The 6'4", 225 pound right-hander was a 5th round pick out of Arizona State in 2015. He was highly regarded as the Sun Devils closer and was a top 100 draft prospect at the time. The righty threw 65.1 innings in 2017 mostly with the Diamondbacks organization. He posted a 1.65 ERA in those 65 innings and fanned 88 hitters. Burr compiled a 0.00 ERA in 8.1 innings once he joined the White Sox organization. He struck out 13 batters in that brief sample as well.
The 23-year-old profiles as a back end option in a major league bullpen. He has a 70 grade fastball that regularly reaches the high 90s range and he pairs that plus offering with a slider and change-up. Ryan is a big, strong presence on the mound and he employs an aggressive style of pitching. Like many of his ilk and many of the guys in the Sox system (especially those added recently), he also runs into issues with delivery repetition. With another solid season in the minors, Burr could be on the fast track to the majors in a relief role. The White Sox will have the available spots in their bullpen in the coming years. Ryan will likely get his first taste of Double-A and report to Birmingham to play for the Barons in the Southern League in 2018.
Some footage from Burr in the D'Backs system courtesy of Baseball census:
Some highlights of the All-Time Saves Leader in ASU history courtesy of the PAC-12 Network:
Tyler Johnson RHP
Johnson was a 5th round pick by the White Sox in the 2017 First Year Player Draft. The 6'2", 180 pound hurler was a top 100 draft prospect according to mlbpipeline.com, which makes getting him that late a surprise. He was the closer for the South Carolina Gamecocks in college but has had some history of starting in his past as well. After signing with Chicago, he threw 25.2 innings at Rookie Level Great Falls and Low-A Kannapolis. He struggled with his control but still managed to post a successful 3.86 ERA. The 22-year-old racked up 37 strikeouts which equates to 13 K/9 but registered a WHIP of 1.753 and a total of 19 free passes. He should report to one of the A-ball affiliates to open 2018.
His calling card is his 65-grade fastball (per MLBP) but his slider is plus as well. He struggles to come up with a third pitch and is throwing a presently below average change-up. Tyler's fastball touches 99 mph and usually sits in the 94-97 range. His slider is of the hard variety and generally comes in around 85 mph. There was some talk around the draft that the White Sox would try to stretch Johnson out and take a look at him in a starting role but that doesn't seem likely at this point. He may start out as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues because that's a development path that the organization often opts for. Starting would allow him to rack up innings and give him the opportunity to sharpen up his secondary offerings. Johnson has the upside of a high-leverage reliever and he could profile as a closer in the big leagues. An aggressive development path as a reliever could put him on the trajectory to reach the majors sometime in 2019.
Some footage of Tyler Johnson in Kannapolis courtesy of Baseball Corner:
Prospect Video courtesy of the Prospect Pipeline:
Walsh was a 12th round pick out of Cincinnati by the White Sox in the 2014 draft. The 6'2", 180 pound right-hander saw some struggles initially in the Sox system. He got his bearings in 2016 though when he compiled a 3.54 ERA across three minor league levels. In 2017, the former Bearcat threw 56.1 innings in Double-A and Triple-A over 39 games. He put up an ERA of 3.26 while averaging 10 K/9, surrendering just 40 hits and holding opponents to an average of just .203. He did walk 33 guys however. Walsh was listed as a top 30 prospect in the White Sox system during the pre-season leading up to 2017 according to Baseball America. He was also selected to pitch for the Glendale Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League this past off-season.
The 25-year-old provides plus velocity with some crossfire action from the right-side. His fastball has been rated as a 70-grade pitch with downward plane according to some publications, usually running mid-90's but touching higher. Walsh also has a 79-82 mph curveball that is seen as average. The righty also throws a below-average change-up that he struggles to command frequently. Command and control is a daunting task in general for Walsh. He throws from a high three quarters delivery and displays some whip-action in his pitching motion. He may not have the true closer ceiling that many of the others on this list have but he is pretty close to contributing to a major league bullpen. Walsh was readily available to any club that wanted to carry him as he was eligible to be selected in December's Rule 5 Draft. The White Sox were able to keep him in their system. He will likely begin the season in Charlotte with the Knights of Triple-A in the International League. Walsh could see some time in the major league bullpen later on this summer.
Some of our video of Walsh from this past season:
Walsh footage from the AFL courtesy of BaseballCensus.com:
The White Sox are loaded with pitching prospects in their minor league system and while many will falter or end up in different organizations, some will end up pitching out of a big league bullpen in the future. This piece was meant to give a primer on some of the true minor league relief pitchers in the system rather than pointing out all of the potential options that the White Sox could have in Chicago. Guys like Dylan Cease, Carson Fulmer, Jordan Stephens, and Lincoln Henzman could move to the majors in an expedited fashion with a move to the pen. They will continue to be developed as starters for now though. There are a litany of other future bullpen options in the organization as well and I will briefly describe some of those guys once spring training gets into full swing.
Coming soon - briefer looks at a handful of lesser-known but intriguing relievers from deeper into the farm.
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