White Sox’ bullpen shaping up as one of baseball’s best

The addition of Liam Hendriks to the back end of a group of young power arms raises the bar for Sox relievers.

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White Sox left-hander Aaron Bummer has high expectations for himself and his teammates.

White Sox left-hander Aaron Bummer has high expectations for himself and his teammates.

John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The bar has been raised for the White Sox’ bullpen. It’s up there.

Just how high up there? Somewhere between very good and great, at least on paper.

Last season, it was very good. This season, it could be great.

Health obviously will be a key, and knowing the variance relievers are prone to from year to year is a potential stick in the eye. But looking at the arms in the Sox’ bullpen is supremely fascinating.

It starts at the end with closer Liam Hendriks, the American League reliever of the year.

It continues with eighth- and seventh-inning setup men Aaron Bummer, one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball; veteran right-hander Evan Marshall; and upper-90s-throwing right-hander Codi Heuer, who earned ‘‘potential closer’’ stripes with a 1.52 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings last season.

Throw in command maven and multi-innings option Matt Foster, who was 6-1 with a 2.20 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings in his first season in 2020, and you have the guts of a pen that generally ranked in the top fourth of big-league bullpens in 2020. And that was before Hendriks replaced Alex Colome as the closer.

Granted, a 60-game season against an AL and NL Central Division schedule doesn’t build a case-closed projection, but it’s substantial enough.

And when the Sox throw 21-year-old left-hander Garrett Crochet, their first-round pick in 2020 who looked unhittable in five late-September appearances, and 24-year-old right-hander Michael Kopech, another electric arm with huge upside, into the group . . . whoa. Both are projected as long-term starters, the Sox say, but they will find their way in the bullpen in 2021, perhaps as soon as Opening Day.

Crochet featured 101 to 102 mph velocity and a nasty slider. Kopech, who hasn’t pitched since August 2018 because of Tommy John surgery and then opting out of the 2020 season, has a 100 mph fastball and a hard slider in his holster, too.

Can you say double-barrel action warming up in the Sox’ bullpen? Veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy certainly had those two in mind when he called the staff a ‘‘Lamborghini pitching staff.’’

And if left-hander Carlos Rodon beats out right-hander Reynaldo Lopez for the fifth-starter spot, Lopez would transition to a long-relief, multi-inning role. That would add another power arm to the bullpen.

Throw it all together, and the Sox have a bullpen FanGraphs ranks second (tied with the Mets) only to that of the Yankees in the majors.

If starters Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn and Dylan Cease get into the sixth or seventh inning, the Sox should be in good shape.

‘‘For a bullpen to really excel, they should be really working off a starting rotation that consistently gets into the last part of the game because it’s a long season,’’ manager Tony La Russa said. ‘‘If you have that as a given, there are a lot of weapons.

‘‘And I’ll just jump ahead. . . . There are a lot of really impressive arms here beyond the guys who are getting a lot of attention. The answer is we have the chance to have an outstanding bullpen.’’

Waiting in the wings are 2017 first-round pick Zack Burdi, Jimmy Lambert and Tyler Johnson, all power arms. There’s also experienced lefty Jace Fry, who is scheduled to return in May after recovering from back surgery.

So there is some depth.

‘‘I look out from eight [pitchers] down in our bullpen, and I fully believe all eight of us will be able to give high-leverage innings whether or not we need a break or somebody needs a day off,’’ Bummer said. ‘‘We won’t be taking our foot off the gas by using someone else.’’

Gas, indeed.

‘‘Garrett had never pitched in the bullpen before, and he goes out and was able to dominate,’’ Bummer said. ‘‘And so I fully expect Michael and Garrett to continue doing those things, just continue to give us leverage innings.’’

And keep the bar held high.

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