A number of new additions are on board for the area of the Chicago White Sox's roster that arguably needed the most attention this offseason.
The biggest addition was made in the bullpen’s highest profile role as closer David Robertson was signed as a free agent for four years and $46 million. The signing bucked somewhat of a trend for the club, which has been able to develop its own closers for the past decade, from Bobby Jenks to Sergio Santos to Addison Reed.
Following Reed’s departure after the 2013 season, though, there was no longer a clear-cut successor for the job, which prompted the front office to chase the biggest closer prize on the open market.
Make no mistake, though, spending big on a reliever is always risky, even with somebody who has proven himself like Robertson did in New York last season. Bullpens are typically the most volatile areas of the roster, and even if Robertson pitches well for the next four seasons, he still will need help from other members of the relief corps.
While Robertson’s presence crystallizes the decision-making process for manager Robin Ventura and pitching coach Don Cooper, the team’s brain trust still must decide who will be called on to pitch the innings leading to Robertson’s final act.
If the White Sox can’t find a suitable setup man, Robertson won’t end up with as many save opportunities as the team would like.
Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam clearly were being asked to do more than they were ready for last season, but both right-handers accounted for themselves nicely in the closer’s hot seat. Petricka finished the season with a team-high 14 saves. Putnam had six.
That points both toward the setup role, along with newcomer Zach Duke, but there remains the possibility that all three would be miscast in that role, too. After the White Sox's shaky season from the left side last season, Duke came aboard for three years and $15 million, while Dan Jennings was obtained in a trade with the Miami Marlins.
There are other intriguing options, including former White Sox reliever Jesse Crain, who is a year and a half removed from biceps surgery. He signed in January on a minor league deal. Another reliever returning from injury is right-hander Matt Albers, whom the White Sox brought aboard with another minor league deal.
And then there is Nate Jones, who could be back by July after undergoing Tommy John surgery last season.
While the White Sox clearly have shuffled the bullpen deck, the only question that remains is whether they added enough, or if their recovering relievers will be ready to help in time.
Outlook: The White Sox’s bullpen will be better in 2015, but that’s a given since the 2014 version was so bad. The bullpen’s 4.38 ERA only topped the Astros (4.80) in the AL. Petricka looks to be the leading candidate for the setup role, with Duke reprising the old Matt Thornton role as the late-inning lefty. Robertson has only one season of experience in the closer’s seat, but the fact that he saved 39 games last season as Mariano Rivera’s replacement in the Bronx would show what he’s made of. The White Sox won’t rush Albers, who is coming off shoulders issues, but as a ground-ball pitcher, the club will be curious to see how his stuff plays at U.S. Cellular Field. Carlos Rodon will be considered for a bullpen role, but because he’s so close to being major league ready as a starter, there is a better chance the club leaves the left-hander stretched out as a starter at Triple-A.