Even before Thursday night's dull thud, the White Sox bullpen was already pretty comfortably the third-worst group in the American League. Their 3.92 ERA was third-worst, their adjusted-for-ballpark ERA was third-worst, their adjusted xFIP was third-worst.
One could quibble about how the A's are pitching way above their peripherals, or how the Orioles are doomed to fall back in a major way, but none of these arguments make the Sox not bad. They've gotten better results than Cleveland, but check the standings...Cleveland is not the issue anymore.
TheSox also have the most blown saves in the AL, as well as the lowest save percentage. That's not a great measure of pure pitching quality, but if you were under the impression that you've seen the White Sox blow an unreasonable amount of games, it's because you have.
The bullpen was largely left to rookies and organizational filler at the start of the season, because relievers--especially non-elite guys--are short-term assets, and it's not worth it to spend up on those guys during a non-contending year. Since it's mid-July and the Sox playoff odds are still over 70%, it might be time to adjust that approach.
But the problems of the pen can't just be pinned on the Brian Omogrosso's and Leyson Septimo's of the world. The White Sox lack anything resembling a great, shutdown reliever, because none of the three players they pegged for that role have delivered.
Matt Thornton is making due with a diminishing skillset. He can't overpower hitters with his heat like he used to, and his efforts to incorporate a slider are going pretty well considering it's a 35 year-old pitcher trying to develop an off-speed pitch. He's pitched better than his 3.86 ERA and recent spate of three-run homers indicate, but his swinging-strike rate is at a career-low after already taking a huge hit last year.
Addison Reed is having much more of a typical rookie adjustment period than was expected when he burned through five levels last season. His slider hasn't been consistent, is totally absentee at the moment, and he's a diminished commodity without the pitch he dominated the world with last season--and in Spring Training.
The only reliever who was really blowing away expectations--besides Nate Jones and his massive workload--was Jesse Crain, who has had great results (2.38 ERA), but hasn't been around to share them with the team.
In Year 3 of Crain's plan to throw his slider all of the time, he had struck out 28 batters in 22.2 IP, and was having more of the curious batted ball luck that marked his past two seasons (.259 BABIP).
It's hard to associate positive memories with Crain, since in his last ten games he lost the Greinke-Sale pitcher's duel, gave up the winning run in the Sale-Kershaw game, and blew leads on back-to-back days against Seattle, but he's an above-average arm to add to a situation sorely lacking in solutions.
The need for his help is reflected in the rushed nature of his return. Crain is skipping a rehab outing in order to return by the weekend, and as Mark Gonzales reported, he "admitted in June that he tried to return too soon this Spring from the first of two oblique strains." From the outside, and not knowing how Crain feels ("fine", he insists), it sounds like a lesson isn't getting ignored with this approach.
If a hurried Jesse Crain seems like something less than a cure-all for a leaky pen, it's because it isn't. But it's the last, best bullet the Sox have in-house until the Sox take the logical but not-yet-significantly-rumored-about step to augment and invest in their bullpen in response to their positive start. Even if Crain's shoulder is perfectly fine, the Sox would do well not to place the weight of the season on it.