The Aaron Bummer trade eliminated the last remaining trace of the White Sox’s grand bullpen plans.
Only two of the eight relievers the White Sox broke camp with were destined to hit the open market, as Jake Diekman and Reynaldo López were free agents after the season. The Sox had right of first refusal for everybody else. For one reason or another, by one method or another, the White Sox have spent the last four months refusing.
The White Sox designated José Ruiz for assignment a week into the season. The White Sox traded Kendall Graveman halfway into his deal, and dealt Joe Kelly before they had to decide on a $9.5 million club option (the Dodgers declined it). They bought out Liam Hendriks due to Tommy John surgery, and now Bummer is in Atlanta in a monster swap of depreciated assets.
Jimmy Lambert and Gregory Santos are the only members of the Opening Day bullpen left, and while Garrett Crochet should be around to help from the onset this time, none of them are particularly proven to hold up over a six-month haul.
This is fine — welcome, even — if the White Sox have no grander ambition for the 2024 season. The White Sox limited their ability to solve problems with the rotation or lineup because they overinvested in Hawk Harrelson’s “battle of the bullpens” strategy, not realizing that Kansas City’s 2014-15 plan only worked because Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland all worked for relatively cheap. The Sox can’t paint themselves into a corner in the same way, so a full-season or multi-year commitment to reliever auditions is one way to rewire themselves to avoid that urge.
Besides, if the contract Reynaldo López just signed with the Braves is any indication, the price of decent relievers continues to rise.
López will be reunited with Bummer in the Atlanta bullpen, as he signed a three-year, $30 million deal. If that sounds steep, the structure of the deal agrees with you a little bit.
- 2024: $4M
- 2025: $11M
- 2016: $11M
- 2017: $8M club option ($4M buyout)
That said, I don’t entirely buy Kiley McDaniel’s framing:
There’s some protection, but there’s also some risk. As we saw with Mike Clevinger’s chunky buyout, the combination of an $11 million salary and a $4 million obligation afterward makes him considerably harder to move in a scenario where López is merely OK, whereas a straight three-year, $30 million obligation lowers that hurdle.
And while a $30 million commitment seems steep for a guy who only made $3.63 million in his final year of arbitration, it’s appropriate when you consider that he’s been an effective, durable reliever with some high-leverage capability since making the transition from the rotation two years. Graveman got three years and $24 million with a similar track record.
Pedro Grifol’s early management of López probably clouds the picture. Grifol frequently had López facing the toughest part of the order over any of the final three innings, which you usually don’t see before October. He wasn’t good enough to face the toughest assignment game after game, but most relievers would probably be in the same boat, because even highly paid closers don’t see that kind of consistent opponent quality (the average amount of batters faced in an MLB game was 37.8 in 2023, which means that the ninth inning often opens up with the bottom of the order).
From the middle of May through the end of season, when López was seen more as a guy instead of The Man, he looked like one of the better relievers in baseball. He allowed a 1.63 ERA and a 3.03 FIP, with 59 strikeouts against 57 baserunners over 49⅔ innings, and he finished the year with a scoreless September. That’s good enough to earn a Graveman-like contract, and $30 million is the new $24 million.
If the price of setup guys continues to rise in step with inflation, then Getz needs to prepare for those prices as he builds the next contender-grade White Sox bullpen. The idea will be to require only one reliever contract with that kind of heft, because an expensive bullpen doesn’t work if its construction prevented a fully formed rotation or lineup.