I’ve spent some time recently assessing the uncertainty within the White Sox bullpen heading into the 2020 season. This is a group with few pieces that one can reasonably expect certain levels of performance. This tremendously volatile group has the opportunity to greatly impact the success or failure of the 2020 club. With a few bright players outperforming their projections to the upside, the team can find itself in a better position to contend. I’ll touch few pieces on the Major League roster that have the potential to bounce back in the near future, but what about players at the minor league levels?
There are a number of internal options on the farm that had their 2019 seasons sidetracked by either injury, poor performance, or both. These options all represent opportunities for the club to improve a current weak spot on the roster and do so without having to give up talent. There is still tremendous risk with each of these players, however. I’ve long been an advocate of trying to grow your bullpen internally, and the likes of Zack Burdi, Tyler Johnson, Dane Dunning, and even Jose Ruiz (yes, that Jose Ruiz) are the types of arms that can be viable pensmen in Chicago.
Burdi was the 26th overall pick of the Sox (for reasons I still don’t understand) in the 2016 draft. The idea of using a first-round pick, particularly one that was gained due to the departure of a Major Leauge free agent (Jeff Samardzija) on a reliever is one I’m not keen on if we’re being honest. However, Burdi appeared to be on a fast track to Chicago until he was the first pitcher of the rebuild bitten by the Tommy John monster in late 2017. Burdi’s recovery has been marred by reported losses in velocity, knee problems, and ineffectiveness. Last season in 22.2 IP, Burdi registered a 6.75 ERA. He was still able to log 11.9 K/9, but that was accompanied by 5.6 BB/9 and 2.0 HR/9 in the offensively suppressing Southern League. Burdi’s inability to limit walks throughout his minor league career has been a red flag, but until last season he was able to pitch over that with raw power. If he can reclaim that power and limit the free passes, he could be on the early flight to Chicago in the 2020 season.
Ian Hamilton was the first reliever to make it to the show in late 2018. His initial cup of coffee didn’t go particularly well, as the super bouncy ball proved to be an issue for the reliever. His 2.25 HR/9 rate in his first 8 IP proved to be a harbinger of things to come in 2019. When Hamilton was on the mound, he continued to have issues keeping the ball in the park down at BB&T Ballpark in uptown Charlotte. He still possesses overpowering stuff with a fastball ranging from 96-99 MPH and a hard, biting slider. He used those to sustain a 6.67 K/BB ratio in 2019, which would definitely be a welcomed sight at the back end of a big-league bullpen. Hamilton’s 2019 season was derailed by numerous injuries, however (this is an emerging theme). He missed time in Spring Training and early in the AAA season due to shoulder soreness. 2019 came to an untimely end for Hamilton in June when a foul ball was lined into the dugout, striking him in the face. The end result was several broken bones in his face and a season he hoped to forget. Hamilton’s ability to pound the strike zone with a power arsenal is ideal for a modern reliever, so if his health issues are behind him, he should find his way back to Chicago in 2020.
Tyler Johnson’s 2019 season didn’t begin until mid-June due to elbow issues sustained during Spring Training. Once he got back on the mound, Johnson built off his strong 2018 season. Johnson is another power reliever that pumps lots of strikes with a prototypical four-seam fastball/slider combination. Johnson was able to make it up to AA Birmingham by the end of the 2019 season, his third affiliate of the year. He closed the year with 12.4 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in 31.1 IP. Johnson’s pitchability makes him a prime candidate to continue his quick ascension should he stay healthy. He could find himself helping the big league bullpen in the second half if needed.
Dane Dunning hasn’t thrown a pitch for a Sox affiliate since June of 2018, as he was the latest Tommy John casualty in Spring Training of 2019. Dunning came to the Sox in the infamous Adam Eaton deal and was tabbed as a player that could rise through the system quickly due to his strike-throwing ability. Dunning appears to be on track to see affiliate action again by June, according to comments this past weekend at SoxFest. Should he be fully healthy and able to pick up where he left off in AA during the 2018 season, Dunning could be added to the bullpen for the stretch run in what is hopefully a meaningful September.
Jose Ruiz is the final candidate among the Sox young reliever crop that could make a difference in 2020. I know the initial returns on Ruiz’s 40 IP in 2019 were not positive (5.63 ERA, 7.88 K/9, 5.40 BB/9), but Ruiz is a pitcher with a hard 96-98 MPH fastball and a slider that he’s used to dominate the upper minors by missing bats with consistency. Ruiz would hardly be the first reliever to struggle in his first extended look in the majors, so it is incumbent upon him to adjust his pitch mix and command to maximize his raw ability.
Right now, the 2020 White Sox bullpen has some question marks. With all those question marks comes the opportunity for young, unproven talent to establish themselves as bullpen mainstays. This team is fortunate that it has several intriguing internal options that could help the club this upcoming season. Health and the development of consistency will be crucial for the candidates mentioned above (thanks Captain Obvious), but I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least one member of this group I’ve outlined turn into a viable, effective Major League reliever in 2020.