CHICAGO -- Bullpens are fickle beasts that shine one year, regress the next and flourish again down the road, often without any rhyme or reason.
It can also be the area of highest turnover on a team as combinations are adjusted, injuries take their toll and youth is required to mesh seamlessly with proven veterans and journeymen.
As the second half of this season begins, consider the Chicago White Sox in dire need of finding the correct combination.
Nobody expected the White Sox to have one of the better bullpens in the league -- and that was when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in February and all were believed to be in good health. Closer Addison Reed had just been traded and there was no obvious candidate to replace him.
Blame general manager Rick Hahn all you want for the perceived bullpen oversight, but it seemed pretty clear that to get better in other areas, the bullpen was going to be one of the areas of sacrifice. It isn't easy to rebuild an entire roster in one offseason.
Not only were the White Sox saving about $1.5 million in this year’s Opening Day bullpen, compared to last year, but then the plan to fill the closer role on the fly took a big hit when both Matt Lindstrom and Nate Jones went down in spring training with injuries.
Jones still isn’t back after having surgery on his back and Lindstrom has been out since mid-May after surgery on his ankle. Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam have been great finds to help stabilize things, but the ninth-inning role remains one of the team’s most vexing issues.
For the bullpen to settle into a comfort zone the rest of the season, someone will need to emerge as closer. Lindstrom could be back in August, but he will still need time to sharpen his pitching arsenal, so expecting him to jump right back into the closer role might be a bit much to ask.
One trade-market target the White Sox could zero in on is a young, hard-throwing left-hander who can pitch in relief. It might be a pitcher who won’t blossom for another year, so this year’s problems won’t be solved, but a future need would be filled.
There still could be hard times ahead for the White Sox’s bullpen, but things could potentially stabilize once Lindstrom and Jones return.
Other areas to watch in the second half:
Is there room to improve?: There aren’t many aspects to Jose Abreu's game that need a lot of improvement, but one might be his tendency to try too hard in RBI situations. Where the rookie was once offering at sweeping breaking balls in an effort to deliver an RBI, he is settling into better strike-zone recognition in clutch situations, with more improvement in that area expected to come. While not Gold Glove-caliber, Abreu’s defense has been solid. He probably won’t be able to do much about his limited range, but with his work ethic, expect him to improve in other areas.
The end of an era?: A steady six-year run as an everyday White Sox infielder could be coming to a close for Gordon Beckham. The former first-round draft pick, who has been the starting second baseman since 2010, could end up getting dealt by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The Georgia product, who never did reach the peak potential that was projected for him, is making $4.2 million this season and would be in for a raise next year in his final season of arbitration-eligibility. Expediting the end of his White Sox days are a number of hot second-base prospects in Marcus Semien, Carlos Sanchez, and especially Micah Johnson, who would come cheaper and fit into the young core the team is trying to put together.
A pair of options at third: Conor Gillaspie has made huge strides this season to the tune of a .326 batting average, which would be sixth best in the American League if he had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting race. But the White Sox also paid a pretty price this winter for Triple-A third baseman Matt Davidson, who was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Reed. At the all-star break, Davidson was tied for the International League lead with 17 home runs. Would the White Sox make Gillaspie or Davidson available at the trade deadline to package in a deal, or is there a plan to keep both players and perhaps spring a position change on one of them? Or maybe the White Sox wait to solve the third-base riddle in the offseason.
A Cy of relief: After finishing sixth in the Cy Young Award chase in 2012 and fifth last year, could Sale be headed further up the list this year? Despite missing a month with a strained muscle in his pitching arm, the left-hander has been dominating, posting an 8-1 record and a 2.08 ERA, not to mention a 0.842 WHIP. Sale hasn’t been as much of a no-hit threat as he was when he first came off the disabled list, but that doesn’t mean hitters are any closer to figuring him out. During the rare times Sale does struggle, it’s more what he did wrong as opposed to offenses figuring him out.
Bon voyage to the captain: One of the greatest offensive players in White Sox history is 2½ months away from taking off his uniform for the last time. Konerko’s production as a bench player this year has been minimal, as expected, but for the fans who truly appreciated what he did for the franchise, the cheers are only getting louder. Expect more curtain calls as the season progresses, and a run on tickets for that Sept 25-28 series against the Kansas City Royals, the final four home games of the season.