Of the very few questions facing the White Sox as 2006 approaches, ranging from handling possible injury problems to forging a bond much like the special one from last year, the bullpen is the only concrete on-field issue. The White Sox certainly don't enter with a weak bullpen, as general manager Ken Williams and Guillen have constructed this team around pitching.
But the current group would be better defined as a melding of new faces, in search of its own identity.
Left-hander Damaso Marte and right-hander Luis Vizcaino are both gone from the end of last season, having moved on to other teams via trade. Dustin Hermanson's frustrating back problem cropped
up again with his first Cactus League appearance, and the right-hander will start 2006 on the disabled list. Hermanson probably won't be able to contribute until June or July, at the earliest, and possibly not at all.
So, what do these changes leave pitching coach Don Cooper to develop?
Right-hander Cliff Politte (2.00 ERA in 68 games) and the left-hander Cotts (1.94 ERA in 69 games) are coming off career seasons, while Bobby Jenks tries not to go from improbable hero to goat in the course of five months as closer. Brandon McCarthy, who would be the second or third starter in most rotations, begins his first full season out of the bullpen, while left-hander Matt Thornton comes over from Seattle with the hope that his oftentimes erratic control will soon match his high level of raw talent.
Then, there's Boone Logan, the 21-year-old left-hander who began Spring Training on the back fields with the rest of the Minor Leaguers. In the course of three weeks, he worked his way onto the Major League roster.
Individually, there are more than a few questions, but there's also an ample helping of potential. How this group performs as a unit, though, is the real goal to be achieved.
"I think guys are starting to figure it out," said White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski of the bullpen. "You need to find roles, accept them and run with it."
"It's not the complete backbone of the team," Jenks added of the bullpen. "But it is pretty crucial to the second half of almost every game."
When a team has a starting rotation comprised of Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez, oftentimes relief is only needed for an inning or two. This quintet not only strives to work six or seven innings per start, but expects to pitch that bare minimum of innings. Yet, even allowing one or two runs over seven innings doesn't automatically guarantee success.
Cooper likes to point to a team's record when a starter takes the mound as a true definition of a pitcher's season. Of course, that team record also involves a bullpen protecting a one-run advantage, or
on the rare occasion the lead disappears in the late innings, it involves the bullpen keeping the game close or manageable.
"It's an attitude we have to uphold," Cotts said. "We just need to throw strikes and keep the game where it's at. You all try to pick up each other and help each other to understand that there will be rough outings here and there, but you have to get back on the mound the next day and throw it over the plate."
"Having that great starting rotation does help," Jenks added. "It's especially true in the second half of the season, the dog days of August. Once you get to those days, having a fresh bullpen is huge."
The starters and relievers worked in perfect harmony last year, with the White Sox winning 21 of Contreras' starts and 20 each for Buehrle, Garland and Garcia. It was a bullpen with clearly defined roles by the end, but
it took a little maneuvering to get there.
This year's group looks to be the same way. Jenks believes his fastball will be up to its 97-98 mph status by April 2, or shortly thereafter, but
he also will have help from Politte and Cotts in the late innings. Logan, Thornton and McCarthy can work at the end or in the middle, depending on the situation, with
the plan for Logan to usually face one or two batters.
If these roles provide the right fit, the White Sox should be in serious contention to repeat. Cooper has very few doubts where this revamped unit is concerned.
"I'm going to be confident with the 11 guys when we leave [Arizona]," Cooper said. "I don't go into a season worrying. We are going to leave with 11 guys and go do battle."
"Our bullpen isn't as important as it will be with other teams, just because we have guys that can stay healthy and take up seven or eight innings per game," McCarthy added. "But not many teams have gone in with a weak bullpen and still gone to the World Series."