Minor key: The last bullpen spot
Eighth spot to lose: Improbably, a combination of factors give Carson Fulmer the inside track on the final White Sox bullpen spot. (@Carson_Fulmer)
For some pitchers, a relief role is the path to glory and riches. For others, it's a last stand, a last-ditch attempt to cling to the majors. The Chicago White Sox feature both extremes in their Cactus League bullpen at present, and all manner of pitchers in-between.
The former was taken care of this past weekend. Aaron Bummer's job security wasn't in question this spring, but the organization assured so in a big way after announcing a long-term pact with the lefty reliever on Saturday.
The White Sox are loathe to go through the arbitration process with their players, but this contract is a big win for the team beyond dodging that process with Bummer. The 26-year-old was selected in the 19th round of the 2014 draft out of Nebraska and underwent Tommy John surgery as a minor leaguer. After posting a 2.13 ERA with a 72% ground ball rate in 67 ⅔ innings in 2019, boasting a 1.3 fWAR powered by an elite sinker, Bummer has arrived as a fixture in the Pale Hose bullpen going forward.
Bullpens are fickle, and deals like this one are uncommon as a result. But the deal guarantees a payout of only $16 million, and the decision-makers likely see that as a pittance in the face of four years of arbitration under super two status for a pitcher like Bummer, who's seen as a major spoke in the wheel. Regression could obviously occur, but Bummer's current status and future promise is a massive scouting win for the organization, which should rightfully celebrate his arrival as a dependable big league reliever.
Judgment Day: Carson Fulmer
Carson Fulmer was the third-ranked player in the 2015 draft according to MLB Pipeline. In Doug Laumann's final year at the helm, the White Sox used the eighth overall pick in an otherwise poor class on the righthander from Vanderbilt. Many observers praised the organization for selecting another quick-moving pitcher and nabbing the "best college starter" in the class.
Pipeline lauded Fulmer for his competitiveness and placed a 70-grade on his fastball with a 60-grade curveball. The 6´0´´ righty threw his fastball in the 93-97 mph range and had been named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. Fulmer displayed an electric arm, with a power breaking ball. Carson lacked prototypical size and possessed a tough-to-repeat, highly unorthodox delivery. Many evaluators questioned his command and control, wondering if he would end up in the bullpen down the road.
Fulmer didn't throw enough strikes in college, and he hasn't thrown enough strikes as a professional, either. Now hanging onto a roster spot tenuously, at risk of changing organizations, Fulmer's future hinges on his ability to throw strikes this spring. The 26-year-old posted a 6.26 ERA in 27 big league innings last year, and that was after reworking his delivery in the offseason. He did average 13.5 K/9 with the Charlotte Knights with a 3.24 FIP — but also walked more than five hitters per nine as well.
Fulmer is the likely favorite to earn the eighth and final spot in the White Sox's bullpen this spring. He's out of options, and while losing him wouldn't seem drastic, his draft status likely affords him one last shot in Chicago. He had a horrendous debut (two walks, two Ks, HBP, getting yanked mid-inning) in Sunday's White Sox spring training opener, but Cactus League stats are a poor way to determine roster decisions; paying attention to how Fulmer looks and feels may end up being more appropriate. Fulmer's cloudy future should be an interesting storyline to monitor, though, on a pitching staff lacking drama.
With a 26-man roster taking effect in 2020, the White Sox will begin the season with eight relievers. Roster churn will bring a lot of new faces through Chicago during the course of the years, but the group likely to open the season won't feature many surprises. The southpaw-hungry pen gives 26-year-old Jace Fry an easy spot, along with Bummer. Fry is a former third-rounder looking to bounce back in 2020, and controlling his walks will play a significant part in that quest.
Alex Colomé and Kelvin Herrera are back for another spin at the back end of the 2020 bullpen. They are both slated to make real money this year and will likely see high-leverage innings early in the season. Colomé is looking to keep thwarting his ugly peripherals, while Herrera just needs to remain healthy. Steve Cishek was signed as a free agent this offseason, and he should serve as quite an insurance policy for Rick Renteria.
Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero will likely receive spots as well. Marshall threw 50 ⅓ innings in 2019 and posted a 2.49 ERA. His walk rate increased, but he didn't allow homers and kept the ball on the ground for the most part. The organization will pay the 29-year-old $1.1 million in 2020. Cordero was claimed off of waivers during the 2019 campaign and threw 37 ⅓ innings for the White Sox in 2019. The 6´4´´, 220-pounder throws very hard but doesn't strike out many hitters. The sleeveless man posted a 2.89 ERA and is also out of minor league options, giving him an edge for the big league roster.
Competition at camp
The White Sox released an extensive list of non-roster invites to spring training that included veteran journeymen along with pitching prospects from their own system. Zack Burdi, Matt Foster, Ian Hamilton and José Ruiz are members of the 40-man roster and the likeliest competition for the final spot on the big league roster. Ruiz has big-time power stuff, and threw 40 innings in Chicago in 2019. He's not the front-runner for a spot breaking camp, but he's definitely an option. The 25-year-old posted a 5.36 ERA in the majors.
Burdi was a first round pick in 2016 and is looking to finally crack into the bigs. The fireballer is healthy for the first time in awhile and could join the White Sox at some point during the 2020 season. Hamilton looked like a serious option at this time last year, but battled a facial fracture and injuries sustained in a car collision in 2019. Foster was a 20th round pick in 2016 and was added to the 40-man this offseason after posting a 3.76 ERA in Charlotte last year.
Kodi Medeiros, Drew Anderson, Bryan Mitchell, Jacob Lindgren, Caleb Frare, Brady Lail and Tayron Guerrero are some other arms who have an outside shot at a roster spot. Southpaws Medeiros, Lindgren and Frare have the benefit of being lefties, in somewhat high demand in the White Sox system. Mitchell, Anderson and Lail all have big league experience, and while they are more likely to pitch for the Knights than the White Sox, they still qualify as options. Guerrero throws extremely hard, but his peripherals leave much to be desired and is no longer a member of the 40-man.
Fulmer has the inside track at a roster spot due to his draft pedigree and option status, but he's far from a lock. An outside addition via trade or waiver claim should also be considered a possibility in filling that final spot. The White Sox have added non-roster players to the roster prior to Opening Day in the past, and while it could happen again, its unlikely due to the names currently in the mix.
Fulmer's grip on the final spot is shaky, and there's a solid chance that his next big league game will be thrown in a different uniform. The ideal situation for the franchise would be someone like Hamilton or Burdi taking the reins and claiming a major league spot.
Who will be the eighth member of the White Sox's bullpen to start the year? Internally, Ruiz appears to have the best shot at filling that role. From outside the organization, it's anyone's guess. The front office has an entire month to sort it out, and this whole exercise may seem futile once we get to March 26.
The biggest surprise would be to have a spring devoid of bullpen surprises.