White Sox are remaining calm and confident with their closer committee
The Chicago White Sox, it seems, have taken a see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil approach when it comes to closing games this season.
All-Star Liam Hendricks, who saved 75 games the last two years with the White Sox, announced in early January that he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The White Sox quickly declared its support for Hendriks during his upcoming treatment and recovery and took a no-panic approach to keep his closer seat warm until he returns.
Call it a cool, calm, collected, confident closer by committee solution.
There is a reason, of course, why the White Sox signed Hendriks to a three-year, $54 million deal in January 2021.
So nobody, especially the White Sox, is suggesting his absence from the ninth-inning role is to be taken lightly. Hendriks, after all, led the American League in saves with 38 when the White Sox won the American League Central Division in 2021.
The Chicago White Sox need to figure out their closing situation for 2023.
We are suggesting that the White Sox are taking the right approach by looking to their own roster to replace Hendriks for as long as he is away instead of going outside the organization to add what might be considered a proven closer.
The risk with adding a reliever with a successful track record as a closer is significant. It would likely cost money the team could more wisely use elsewhere and it might disrupt an already fragile roster.
There is also no guarantee that a so-called proven closer will be successful. A closer's shelf life of success, after all, has proven to be a fragile thing from one year to the next.
The White Sox experienced such a decline with Shingo Takatsu from 2004 to 2005. Sergio Santos had 30 saves for the Sox in 2011, was traded, and saved just eight games the rest of his career.
The Sox traded for Billy Koch after the 2002 season off a 44-save season with the Oakland Athletics and 144 over his four-year career. He then gave the Sox 11 saves and a 5.77 earned run average in 55 games in 2003.
No proven closer, first of all, would want to come to Chicago knowing he's just a fill-in solution and would likely not want to slip quietly back into a set-up role once Hendriks returns. The Sox tried putting a proven closer in a set-up role in 2021 with Craig Kimbrel and it didn't come close to working.
The Sox don't have to look elsewhere for a proven closer because they already have one. Kendall Graveman saved 10 games in four months for the Seattle Mariners and six more last year in Chicago when Hendriks needed a breather.
Graveman, who once pitched for Mississippi State as did legendary Sox closer Bobby Thigpen, is certainly not going to be afraid to walk onto the mound in the ninth inning with a lead.
Graveman was lights out with Seattle in the closer role in 2021. He never allowed a run in any of his 10 saves, pitching 10 innings, striking out 11, walking just two, and allowing just four hits.
Seven of his saves were one-run games, including a 3-2 victory over the Sox when he got Jake Lamb to fly out to center and Yermin Mercedes to hit into a double play with Yasmani Grandal (who singled) on first.
Last year in Chicago, Graveman saved a 7-3 win over the Kansas City Royals (going two innings), a 4-1 win over the Cleveland Indians, a 4-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles, a 1-0 and 5-3 win on back-to-back days over the San Francisco Giants and a 5-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers.
The only time he came into the game in the ninth inning and blew a lead and a save was July 27 against the Colorado Rockies when he walked three and gave up a two-run single in a 6-5 loss.
Graveman is not the only option in the ninth inning. Right-handers Reynaldo Lopez, Jose Ruiz, Matt Foster, Joe Kelly, and Jimmy Lambert are available as are left-handers Aaron Bummer, Jake Diekman, and Garrett Crochet when he comes back after missing all of 2022 with an injury.
The 36-year-old Diekman has 15 career saves, Kelly has six, Bummer has five and Foster has two. though none have ever been a full-time closer for a complete season. Six of Diekman's seven saves in 2021 with Oakland, for example, came by May 26.
Ruiz (4.60 ERA in 63 games), Foster (4.40 in 48 games) and Kelly (6.08 in 43 games) struggled throughout most of last season and wouldn't likely be handed the keys to the ninth inning on a regular basis.
Diekman also had his problems in a Sox uniform last year (6.52 in 26 appearances) after being acquired from the Boston Red Sox at the trade deadline. Bummer has had injury issues in recent years while the 27-year-old Lambert seems to be more suited to a long-relief or spot-starter role.
The intriguing option in the Sox bullpen is the 29-year-old Lopez, a veteran right-hander with seven years in the major leagues and 173 appearances (97 starts). Lopez seemed to finally have his breakout year last year with a 6-4 record and 2.76 ERA over 61 games and 65.1 innings.
He gave up just 51 hits and walked just 11 while striking out 63. He also gave up just one home run all year.
Lopez, however, is a failed starter that turned in a 5.38 ERA in 2019 over 33 starts and a 6.49 ERA over eight starts in 2020.
He has yet to save a game in his career and has just nine holds (all last year). He did give up a run n 13 of his 61 appearances last year, allowing two or more seven times. He also had five blown saves. Slightly more than half (31 of 61) of his appearances came in games the Sox lost.
A closer-by-committee situation, as the Sox seem to be undertaking this year until Hendriks returns, always puts the manager, pitching coach, and entire bullpen under pressure.
The Sox, after all, will have a rookie manager (Pedro Grifol) this year and a third-year pitching coach (Ethan Katz) who only knows what it is like to have a bullpen anchored by one of the premier closers (Hendricks) in the major leagues. It also makes fans more than a little nervous, especially when it doesn't seem to be working.
The last time the Sox had a closer-by-committee was in the second half of the 2018 season. Joakim Soria saved 16 games to start the year but was then traded to the Milwaukee Brewers on July 26.
The White Sox, in the second year of their rebuild, were 36-66 with Soria on the roster and finished 26-34 the rest of the way. The Sox had 11 saves by seven different relievers after Soria was traded.
The last time the Sox went an entire season with a closer-by-committee approach was in 2014, between full-time closers Addison Reed (2013) and David Robertson (2015).
The 2014 Sox went 73-89 with six relievers sharing 36 total saves. Jake Petricka had 14 of them with Ronald Belisario getting eight and Zach Putnam and Matt Lindstrom each getting six. Javy Guerra and Scott Downs each got one.
It was a huge mistake in 2014 to not commit to a full-time closer. The Sox traded Reed to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Matt Davidson after the 2013 season and seemingly had 28-year-old Nate Jones ready to step into the ninth-inning role.
But Jones got hurt and was limited to just two games in 2014 and the Sox went with a closer committee.
That team, with Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez, Adam Eaton, Dayan Viciedo, Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, Avisail Garcia, Jose Quintana, John Danks, and Chris Sale, was built to at least compete for a playoff spot but failed miserably.
The 2005 White Sox, which won the World Series, sort of had a closer by committee that was actually more of a closer by necessity approach. Shingo Takatsu had eight saves by May 5. Dustin Hermanson finished the year with 34 saves but got hurt in September.
Bobby Jenks had six saves in the final six weeks while Damaso Marte sprinkled in four saves throughout the year and Cliff Politte also had one. Starter Mark Buehrle even had a save in the World Series.
That seems to be the plan once again in 2023 until Hendriks comes back.