Anemic bullpen did bear some fruit

CHICAGO -- A disappointing season can have some advantages too, even when it comes to the 2014 Chicago White Sox bullpen.

Considered one of the most disappointing parts of last season, when the White Sox went 73-89 and finished 17 games back in the division, the bullpen had the second worst ERA in the American League at 4.38 and its 21 blown saves were nine more than the Royals and Mariners, who tied for the lead in that category.

But with Nate Jones out for the season with a back and then elbow issue, and Matt Lindstrom unable to close for most of the year, other pitchers were asked to step up and fill the void. Sure, having so many relievers working outside of their typical roles is what led to the struggles, but two pitchers were still able to prove their value moving forward.

Both Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam performed well in a closer-by-committee situation and both will be highly regarded once spring training starts. Free-agent acquisition David Robertson will be the closer, of course, but Petricka and Putnam are solidly in the set-up man mix.

“They were forced to grow,” pitching coach Don Cooper said. “We didn’t know who was pitching the ninth, and then we have injuries to Lindstrom, to Jones. The good news is other guys get opportunities for that and both those guys, I think, handled their opportunities as well as we would have hoped to where now, hey, we can expect a little bit from them.”

Petricka impressed with a 2.96 ERA over 73 innings (67 appearances) and his 14 saves led the club. In that sense, as a rare positive performer from the bullpen it has been hard to hear all the bullpen criticism.

To his credit, though, Petricka isn’t asking those critics to lay off, the analysis of the bullpen’s performance has gotten him to look at himself.

“Yeah, (criticism hurts) a little bit, but at the same time we realized we could have improved,” Petricka said from SoxFest this weekend. “There was a lot that I could have done to make us better. That’s just every year where you have something to work on and you can’t turn away from what you have to work on.

There are the losses he took in six games, and even though he isn’t known as a strikeout pitcher, his 6.7 strikeout-per-nine-inning rate could use some improvement. Those areas, along with the chance to have a second consecutive positive season, have him yearning for spring training to arrive.

“Let’s back that up with another real good year and as far as I’m concerned as a coach, you’re ready to have the career you dreamed about,” Cooper said about both Petricka and Putnam. “Everybody dreams about playing in the big leagues and they got here and they’re doing it. But their dream wasn’t to do it for a year and see you later. Their dream was to have long-term success. That’s my dream as well.”

Selfishly, Petricka hopes to get more closing chances in 2015, but he isn’t complaining about the addition of closer David Robertson, not to mention new left-handers Dan Jennings and Zach Duke.

“Oh yeah, it’s always fun to compete for that kind of job, but a guy like (Robertson), you can’t go wrong,” Petricka said. “I’m just going to do the best I can in the role I am this year and just be ready. You never know what can happen, and sometimes those earlier innings are just as important.”

There is always the battle for the set-up role to look forward to, and with the season he produced in 2014 he has the confidence to make the job his.

“That was a very exciting time,” he said about pitching well in 2014. “You never want the injuries (of teammates), but they’re going to happen whatever team you’re on so you just have to take the opportunity to make the most of it and I feel I did a good job of that. It was just a big confidence-building year. No matter what role I went out there, I held my own and coming into this year knowing my role will be important, it will help a lot.”