Scott Downs completes a White Sox bullpen with a vision

Portly old man groundball secrets. // Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

If Scott Downs was a long-tenured reliever with the White Sox, and they allowed him to walk in free agency before this season, it’d be all too easy to roll out the A.J. Pierzynski defense.

Scott Downs is a 38 year-old reliever who while serviceable, has no real role on a rebuilding 2014 White Sox team. Is Scott Downs going to be on the next White Sox team that makes the playoffs? Isn’t it time to see what the other young arms in the organization can do? Do you really think Scott Downs is the difference between losing 99 games and making the playoffs? Conversations about players who can’t singlehandedly turn a 99-loss team into a playoff team are illegal in Cook County.

Now that the White Sox have agreed to terms with Scott Downs on a one-year, $4 million contract with a workload-related vesting option would repeat those figures in 2015, the argument can easily be reversed.

What’s there to lose here? The White Sox bullpen either needs two left-handers or Robin Ventura has to be fired, and the former is the more light-hearted option. Charlie Leesman has not exactly earned a major league roster spot, and a steady presence like Downs makes getting through this season go a lot more smoothly for everyone. It’s not illegal to have good veteran players on the roster during the rebuild, and so long as the deal for Downs is fair, he can be flipped at the trade deadline.

For an offseason that’s seen them blatantly push toward acquiring pre-arbitration talent and trade away their still cost-controlled closer for obviously needed offense, the White Sox have been surprisingly purposeful in their relief acquisitions. Signing Ronald Belisario, as was officially sealed on Thursday, and Downs are not just ample additions to a bullpen that could easily access some live arms from its farm, they’re entries No. 2 and No. 3 in what can now be considered a trend started by Matt Lindstrom.

‘Power arms’ used to be as typical of an association with the pitching projects the Sox would acquire as ‘Coop’ll fix ‘em.’ But while Lindstrom threw gas, he wasn’t the bat-missing machine that just needed to be pointed toward the plate of years past. He was appealing because his adaptation of a hard sinker was turning him into groundball maven, which meshed well with a park where fly balls turn into runs. With the Sox in 2013, Lindstrom posted a 3.12 ERA across a career-high in appearances while generating groundballs on a career-high 55.6% of the batted balls he allowed.

Belisario and Downs take the trend to a new level: neither can even hope to boast the strikeout stuff of Lindstrom, but both have career groundball rates over 58%. With Belisario in Chavez Ravine and Downs splitting time between Anaheim and Atlanta, it’s been years since either were regularly playing in parks where “not giving up tons of home runs” seemed like a particularly neat trick. As a result, Downs cannot find a guaranteed second contrat year in an offseason where fellow lefty Boone Logan found three, and Belisario is coming off being non-tendered.

It’s not a foolproof bet. These two pitchers are more suited for the U.S. Cellular Field than they are undoubtedly brilliant, and Lindstrom was more effective in theory in 2013 than in practice. A sharp defense could make sure his groundball ways limit damage, but the 2013 White Sox defense, on the other hand, saw 19 of Lindstrom’s 50 inherited runners to score, obscuring the level to which Rick Hahn’s experiment with him was an obvious success.

Something approaching tolerable infield play could make the raves come a little more easily, but also blow the cover on a smart way of assembling White Sox bullpens going forward. But it even if it does get pricey, it should still be right.

 

 

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan

Topics: Chicago White Sox, Ronald Belisario, Scott Downs

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  • Pedemegonz

    The pitching pick ups over the off season of old guys and guys coming off bad arms makes some sense. If the Sox suck for another year there should be market for cheap pitchers in August that would bring prospects (ie Peavey, Crain and Thornton last year). But please no more savaging of the young pitching (Reed and Santiago).
    Its time to do the really important stuff and deal the three stooges (Dunn, De Aza, and Ramirez). Addition by subtraction ala the Red Sox before they screw up the new kids.

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