Flame-throwing 'pen ready to awe in '07
White Sox will rely on rare collection of plus-arm relievers
TUCSON, Ariz. -- The five primary relievers assembled by White Sox general manager Ken Williams for the 2007 season share a common trait rarely witnessed together in the same bullpen.It's an amalgamation of immense collective ability that took three years of shrewd maneuvering by Williams to bring about, a relief crew now entrusted to manager Ozzie Guillen and pitching coach Don Cooper to develop, refine and quickly put into daily workable order. It's an intermingling of arms featuring electric stuff that can morph a contender into a champion if the individual roles become one solid unit. These are the sort of pitchers that even legends could be made of, with a nickname such as "The Nasty Boys" immediately coming to mind. How about "Speed to Burn" or "The Fast and the Furious" for this newly assembled White Sox relief corps, with all due respect paid to the popular movie of the same name? When five pitchers each possessing fastballs ranging from 95-100 mph work for the same team, both the possibilities for greatness and the pure entertainment value truly are limitless. As a strong sign of the level-headed approach standing behind these blazing fastballs in hand, the White Sox relievers readily and eagerly acknowledge their unique situation but refuse to get caught up in the hype just one week into Spring Training. "I don't think there has ever been a group like this before," said Andrew Sisco, the 6-foot-10, 270-pound left-handed member of this flame-throwing bullpen. "But it's really going to be interesting to see what happens. The game of baseball is weird that way and not easy to predict." "It will be fun to watch who makes the bullpen and then see everyone coming out of the bullpen throwing 95-plus," added the 6-foot-3, 275-pound Bobby Jenks. "It should make it tough for other hitters." Jenks' 41 saves from the 2006 season make him the leader of this special unit, although the 25-year-old begins just his second full season in the Majors. The tone but still burly closer will be joined by left-hander Matt Thornton and right-hander Mike MacDougal, setup men holdovers from the 2006 campaign. Sisco came to the White Sox through an offseason trade with the Royals. Right-hander David Aardsma, who is slight of build like MacDougal, moved from the North Side to the South Side in exchange for Neal Cotts. Using some clever trick pitch to shut down opposing hitters in key late-inning situations won't be part of this quintet's repertoire. With the game on the line, fans at U.S. Cellular Field should grow accustomed to seeing legitimate readings of 98, 99 and even 100 on the speed gun located as part of the U.S. Cellular Field scoreboard in right.
"I'm going to be the slowest guy in the pen," said Aardsma with a smile, although his slowest still checks in at 95 or 96 mph. "It's definitely amazing, as long as you are not out there trying to one-up each other.""We always had good arms in the bullpen, but we didn't have guys who could throw it like that," added catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who will handle these hard-throwers, along with backup backstop Toby Hall. "This is a special opportunity, but it all comes down to throwing strikes and being able to control their stuff." Fastballs consistently reaching the high 90s hold the equivalent of a tape-measure home run in the fans' eyes. When Jenks made his Major League debut on July 6, 2005 against Tampa Bay, the audible gasps in the U.S. Cellular crowd could be heard shortly after the sound of fastball colliding with catcher's mitt. This sort of speed and movement also provides a decided functional edge to the pitchers. Aardsma pointed to a situation facing St. Louis' Albert Pujols last year, where being good just isn't good enough against arguably the game's most complete hitter. It's the sort of game-on-the-line moment that requires a hard-thrower to reach back for a little extra and try to blow away a dangerous hitter. Thornton also explained how more room for error exists as a reliever after establishing in the count with a first-pitch fastball at 97 mph. Being able to challenge even the best of hitters at 2-1 or 3-0 also becomes a viable choice because a particular pitcher's stuff is that dominant. But cut through this hair-raising, fan-jostling aspect of the Jenks' 98 mph fastball or Thornton's 97 mph offering from the left side, and two basic intangibles ultimately will separate this group from becoming a franchise footnote or an immovable force. These talented pitchers have to locate a second pitch along with the fastball, and above all else, have to be able to throw strikes consistently. In the long run, raw speed does not define power pitching. "To me, it's the ability and knowledge that you can throw a pitch where you want to when you want to, regardless of whether you throw 75 mph or 105 mph," said Cooper of his plus-arm bullpen. "I like guys with good, physical, live arms, especially in the bullpen. But now they have to do the little things to take care of their part of the game." "I hope they don't get in a battle for the highest gun reading," Williams added. "That's when they will lose all the gains they have started to make and the ability to command the strike zone. They all have good enough stuff that if they throw the ball over the plate, they definitely are going to have their share of success." Nick Masset, brought over from Texas as part of the Brandon McCarthy trade, was thought to be the leading candidate for the final White Sox bullpen spot going into camp. His presence would have given the South Siders six relievers possessing a fastball in the 95-100 mph range. But Masset now appears to be in the running for the fifth starter's slot, with Charlie Haeger also a possibility for the rotation and the bullpen. Haeger's knuckleball and his fastball in the 70s breaks from the new bullpen blueprint, but his job description features more middle relief work. In the case of Aardsma, Sisco, Thornton, MacDougal and Jenks, the White Sox have five closers to work four innings behind a very steady rotation. "Closer's stuff usually is hard, going right after guys, with not too many pitches," Aardsma said. "It seems like we have a bunch of guys who are capable of doing that here." "It's one of those things where it's sort of a fun competition, like when one starter goes deep and then the next starter has to match him," Thornton added. "But we have to remember we are just competing against the hitter, not against each other." With the untapped potential for greatness in this bullpen, the question arises as to why more teams don't assemble five or six hard-throwers as the White Sox have done. With a wry smile, Williams presented the perfect answer. "It's not easy," said Williams, illustrating the uniqueness of the new White Sox bullpen power supply.
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.