02/17/08 6:31 PM ET
White Sox bullpen seeks redemption
Relievers' key to success is to put last year's woes behind them
By Scott Merkin / MLB.com
It raised Ozzie Guillen's blood pressure and gave him more than a few sleepless nights. It presented the White Sox manager and pitching coach Don Cooper with more television time, both local and national, than they ever desired. It even increased general manager Ken Williams' frequent flyer miles at one point.
At last check, the White Sox bullpen shortcomings were not tied to the writers' strike recently disrupting the television industry, Britney Spears' litany of personal problems or Paris Hilton's latest box office bomb.
Instead of belaboring the obvious any further, in that the bullpen was a contributing factor to an overall major disappointment in 2007, the returning White Sox relievers would like to put last year's debacle in the rearview mirror. It's a sort of out of sight, out of mind approach for a White Sox relief crew with its worst collective ERA since 1957.
As Spring Training 2008 moves into its first full week with the pitchers and catchers, the focus lies on the present potential among these hurlers and not trying to describe once again why 2007 became such a problem for those relievers who struggled.
"How would I describe it? Baseball," said Cooper, when asked to talk about his feelings concerning last year's bullpen woes. "It was just bad years for a number of guys."
"The best thing about it is it's over and we can go from here," White Sox reliever Mike MacDougal added. "I had an off year, but it's behind me."
MacDougal probably best defines last year's late-inning horror show, in regard to his high level of ability combined with his inexplicable poor on-field results. The right-hander often has been talked about as having some of the best stuff among relievers in the entire American League, yet he allowed 50 hits and walked 33 in 42 1/3 innings for Guillen's fourth-place finishers.
A trickle-down effect followed MacDougal's problems, with other relievers being forced into unplanned roles to cover for the projected setup man. MacDougal battled through right shoulder inflammation that sent him to the disabled list from July 6 to Aug. 2, including a rehab assignment with Triple-A Charlotte, but upon Saturday's arrival in Tucson, he declared himself 100 percent healthy and ready to go.
Feeling that he was "too thin and not as strong as I need to be," MacDougal also put on 10 pounds of muscle through offseason work with a personal trainer. Those changes already have caught Guillen's eye, with the manager praising MacDougal following Sunday's bullpen session.
In breaking down his particular relief role for 2008, MacDougal doesn't seem too picky. He also doesn't seem upset about losing his setup role to the free agent additions of Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel.
"When Ozzie puts me in the game, I pitch," MacDougal said. "Other than that, I have no idea."
"MacDougal will be ready from the sixth inning through the ninth, depending on the score," Cooper continued. "My hope is we get him untracked to get him back to what we know he can do, and be consistent and have another strong interchangeable part for late in the game."
"I wish he could talk to a hitter and ask him, because I don't think he believes what we told him," added Guillen of MacDougal's great stuff. "I don't think he believes what he has. I see a couple players in the American League and I ask them about him, and they don't really want to face him."
Bullpen redemption won't be saved for MacDougal alone. The White Sox have high hopes for southpaw Matt Thornton, whose ERA rose from 3.33 in 2006 to 4.79 in 2007, as well as the continued development of left-handed specialist Boone Logan. Ehren Wasserman was the only reliever other than 40-save closer Bobby Jenks to make a truly positive impression out of the 17 men who worked at least one game out of the bullpen, and the right-hander with a funky sidearm delivery will battle Nick Masset and three or four other candidates for the seventh and final bullpen slot.
Masset broke camp in 2007 full of promise and optimism, much like the rest of the bullpen, but finished with a 7.09 ERA. In keeping with the theme of "Don't look back," Masset tried to find the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud.
"That was a really good learning experience, preparing myself every day to pitch," said Masset, who was primarily a starter in the Texas system before coming to the White Sox via a trade. "I had long stretches of consecutive days off, and I never knew when I was going to throw. Now, I know what to do to prepare, just in case."
Guillen feels the same way as a manager, after watching the 2007 bullpen's trials and tribulations. He remembers sending Cooper to the mound during a July 21 contest at Fenway Park, after watching four relievers combine to throw 88 pitches over two innings. Guillen quipped how he wanted the viewers from this FOX national broadcast to know who was in charge of the pitchers.
He recalls the arrival of Williams in Cleveland on July 17, after five relievers almost gave away a nine-run lead in an eventual 11-10 victory the night before. To Williams' complete credit, he traveled to Jacobs Field to face the media inquiries after another relief implosion.
And Guillen also will remember an unofficial record he set during an Aug. 21 contest against the Royals. Beginning with the last batter in the seventh inning and running through the first batter in the ninth, Guillen used six different pitchers to face six hitters. That maneuver actually worked, with the White Sox winning the game.
"I wanted to get kicked out of the game to make sure I didn't have to go back out," said Guillen with a laugh, concerning his numerous pitching changes in 2007. "Everyone is going to judge you and give you a compliment when you call the bullpen and make the right move.
"Last year, I didn't make that many good moves. It was tough to figure out who was going to be the guy. When everything goes wrong, that's when you see how much you really know about the game, how much you like the game and how much you appreciate the game."
Maybe the placement of Linebrink and Dotel in front of Jenks won't make Guillen's job as tough to figure out in 2008. Maybe last year really was a case of bad seasons coming together for a number of pitchers.
Whatever the line of logic, the White Sox believe this returning relief crew can become a playoff boon as opposed to Guillen's recurring 2007 nightmare.
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.