It is rare to see a team demote a player to start the season that was one of their best the year before. That may be the case when Opening Day arrives for the Chicago White Sox and reliever Zach Putnam.
It is no secret how bad the White Sox bullpen was in 2014. The one guy who seemed to succeed in every role he was used in was Putnam.
The right-hander finished 5-3 with a 1.98 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and was six of seven in save opportunities. He also held opponents to a .205 batting average and allowed just two home runs in 54.2 innings.
So far this spring, Putnam has given up eight runs in 4.2 innings (15.43 ERA) and allowed four home runs in the five games he has pitched.
The White Sox are loaded with right-handed relief options and will have some tough decisions to make on who gets opens the season in the majors.
The White Sox also return Putnam, Jake Petricka, Daniel Webb, Nate Jones, Javy Guerra and Maikel Cleto. Guerra and Cleto are out of minor league options, so they could be claimed by others teams if not on the Opening Day roster.
It is safe to assume David Robertson, Zach Duke, Dan Jennings and Petricka will take up four of the likely seven bullpen spots for the White Sox. Albers (2.84 ERA) and Guerra (2.45 ERA) have both enjoyed strong springs and would be nearly impossible to keep out of the pen.
That leaves one spot up for grabs that coming into the season was no doubt set to be Putnam’s. Now because of his spring struggles, the White Sox must figure out which direction is the best to go in.
I will go out on a limb here and eliminate Crain (has not pitched in spring), Jones (injured till June/July), Penny (best as a starter), Carroll (also preferred starter despite strong relief numbers in ’14) and Webb (struggles with command and minors option available). All that remains is Cleto as Putnam’s main competition for the final spot.
Apr 24, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Maikel Cleto (39) pitches against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Cleto is well-known for his ability to strike guys out (9.8 K/9 in 2014). The reason he has never stuck in a major league bullpen is walks (7.1 BB/9). If he doesn’t make the team, he is sure to be claimed by another team because of his swing and miss stuff.
The question is whether the White Sox value him enough to take that risk. His spring numbers thus far in 7.1 innings are a 4.91 ERA, nine strikeouts and opponents are hitting .222 against him.
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It is easy to say that Putnam deserves the chance to be in the majors purely off of his 2014 season. But like Webb, the White Sox still have a minor league option available on Putnam.
It makes some baseball sense to start him in the minors in order to let him get on track and then evaluate what to do with him later in the season. In the meantime though, Cleto can remain with the team pitching low leverage innings in the majors.
The only potential issue with that for Putnam is that he isn’t the only reliever in the team’s future plans. Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper has made it known that Crain is being brought along slowly with the intention of having him ready at some point to help the major league club.
And then there is Jones.
The young flamethrower has not contributed to the team in two years because of numerous injuries. Before the injuries, he was growing into one of the most imposing relievers in all of baseball. Now, the White Sox can only hope when he is fully healed, that he returns to form.
If both of those players are healthy, where does Putnam fit?
The worse thing that could have happened for him was that he have such an abysmal spring training. These last two weeks he must show major improvement or else he doesn’t get a spot in the pen to start the season. If that happens, his only way on the major league roster in ’15 is to hope someone else struggles or gets hurt.
What a difference a year can make.