In his final spring training start before joining the Chicago White Sox‘ rotation, prospect Erik Johnson picked up his first spring win against the Seattle Mariners and pitched six innings, giving up three runs and three walks while striking out four. The offense backed up Johnson’s efforts, scoring five runs in the second inning and tacking on two more in the seventh. But after Donnie Veal came into the game in the bottom of the seventh inning in relief of Johnson, he nearly let the win slip away as the Mariners scored three runs off of him in 1.1 innings.
This isn’t a new problem for the White Sox this spring, with starters throwing gems only to have the bullpen falter in the final innings, turning potential wins into neutral no-decisions. Last Sunday against the San Diego Padres, Chris Beck threw five innings of five-hit, one-run ball, and he was in line for a win until the bottom of the ninth inning when the Padres tagged Dylan Axelrod for the tying run. Two days later, Jose Quintana faced a similar fate against the Colorado Rockies. After struggling for most of March, Quintana pitched his best spring outing to date, throwing five shutout innings and surrendering one hit as the White Sox’ offense gave him a five-run cushion. In relief, Daniel Webb and Matt Lindstrom gave up one run apiece before the Rockies tied the game with three runs off of Scott Downs, only one of which was earned because of Marcus Semien’s miscue at shortstop.
Bullpen blowups didn’t happen more than usual in 2013. Last season, the White Sox’ relief corps blew 20 saves, right at the American League average (ranked ninth) and one above the major league average. But so far this spring, the team’s pitching staff has blown ten out of 16 total save opportunities, all in just 25 games. A weak bullpen can potentially be offset by an overpowering offense, but the White Sox are ranked 11th out of 15 teams in the AL in runs scored this spring. That’s at least a slight improvement from last year when the team finished dead last in the AL with 598 runs scored.
Count Johnson fortunate today that Zach Putnam took over for Veal and closed out the game, giving up one hit in his 1.2 innings on the mound to preserve the win and earn the save. The bullpen is by far the biggest and most glaring question mark that remains for the White Sox before the season officially begins. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most important pieces of the winning puzzle and one area that no team can afford to bungle.