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Column: Revamped White Sox bullpen hasn’t been as dominant as expected. What happened?

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The Chicago White Sox didn’t need another closer at the trade deadline, having all but clinched the American League Central and already possessing one of the best in the game in Liam Hendriks.

But general manager Rick Hahn took a calculated risk to acquire a Hall of Fame-caliber closer for the stretch run and postseason, when the strongest bullpens have a distinct advantage.

The idea of teaming Craig Kimbrel with Hendriks for the final two innings of a playoff game was too delicious to pass up, even if the price included rookie second baseman Nick Madrigal, a first-round pick who was under team control for the next five years.

On paper, the trade gave the Sox the most dominant late-inning trio in the game in Hendriks, Kimbrel and Michael Kopech, a future starter working out of the pen to protect his arm two years after elbow reconstruction surgery. If Aaron Bummer could return to form, if Kimbrel’s former Cubs teammate Ryan Tepera continued to excel and if rookie Garrett Crochet matured with experience, the possibilities were endless for manager Tony La Russa, the godfather of modern bullpen strategy.

Everyone would get enough rest. Kimbrel would spell Hendriks in the closer role. And La Russa could prevent wear and tear on starters Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Carlos Rodón, Dallas Keuchel and Dylan Cease, keeping them strong for October when it’s World Series or bust.

When I proposed a deal for Kimbrel back on July 10, I called him a “perfect fit” for the Sox.

So what happened?

Why do the Sox rank 16th in relief pitching since July 31 with a 4.09 ERA and six blown saves in 16 opportunities?

The Sox bullpen led the majors entering Monday with a 29.6% strikeout percentage since the arrival of Kimbrel from the Cubs at the trade deadline and ranked sixth in opponents’ average (.219) and WHIP (1.18). It’s still a fearsome unit and one La Russa wouldn’t trade for any other come October.

But the mistakes they’ve made have been costly. We saw that again Sunday when Kimbrel, pitching in his third straight game, gave up a game-tying, ninth-inning run to the Boston Red Sox on a double Luis Robert misplayed, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly — his third blown save with the Sox. The night before Kimbrel allowed the go-ahead run in the eighth on a double, wild pitch and sacrifice fly.

Kimbrel was booed off the mound Sunday by the antsy crowd of 36,178 at Sox Park, suggesting the bloom is off the rose for the reliever who enters to a Guns N’ Roses theme song. Leury García saved the day with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth. La Russa was later forced to address Kimbrel’s outing, repeating he is a “Hall of Fame candidate” and that he is “thrilled to have him.”

Upon Kimbrel’s arrival, La Russa promised there would be no “quarterback controversy,” a preemptive warning to anyone who wondered if Kimbrel would replace Hendriks as the regular closer. But the notion Kimbrel would be given ninth-inning save opportunities to rest Hendriks didn’t really pan out until Sunday.

Hendriks limped off the mound after an appearance Friday, but the Sox haven’t made an issue of it and Hendriks hasn’t spoken since. Either way, Kimbrel probably could’ve used a day off Sunday after throwing 40 pitches in back-to-back appearances.

The only time Kimbrel made appearances on three straight days with the Cubs this season was June 11-13 against the St. Louis Cardinals when he threw nine and three pitches, respectively, in the first two games of that stretch.

But La Russa felt he was the best option, and closing is what Kimbrel has done for a living his entire career.

Kimbrel won’t make any excuses for his 5.82 ERA with the Sox. He said in an interview Saturday he feels comfortable in whatever role he’s needed in based on the matchups and Hendriks’ availability. On Friday, he and Hendriks combined to shut down the Red Sox in a 4-3 win, just the way the Sox envisioned it. They’ll be counted on to repeat that often in October.

“We’re just getting ready for the playoffs,” Kimbrel said. “Once the playoffs come, games can be won or lost in the sixth or seventh inning. We don’t want to do too many games like that, obviously because we don’t want to put the workload on everybody this early.

“But if we can win games like (Friday) in the sixth or seventh inning, to where it lines up ... based on pitching matchups, those kinds of things trickle out and play along, and it’s part of the game. If we can play ball like that, we’ll be all right.”

With 372 career saves, Kimbrel is on target to make the Hall of Fame, as La Russa pointed out. He’s ninth on the all-time list at 33 years old and still in his prime. Had he been dealt to a team that needed a closer — like the Houston Astros — he likely would’ve already surpassed Joe Nathan (377) and be closing in on Dennis Eckersley (390) for seventh place.

Kimbrel has a shot at finishing third all-time ahead of Lee Smith (478) but well behind Mariano Rivera (652) and Trevor Hoffman (601), who probably are uncatchable. But here’s the catch: The Sox hold his 2022 option for $16 million, and a vesting option based on games finished is moot now that he’s basically a setup man.

The Sox already are paying Hendriks closer money for the next two years: a combined $27.7 million with a $15 million option in 2024. Having two closers for the stretch run and postseason is unique. Paying two relievers closer money for an entire season would be crazy.

If the Sox pick up the option and keep Kimbrel in ‘22, his chances of reaching 478 saves are greatly diminished, though he still could merit a Hall of Fame nod when all is said and done. The Sox also might pick up the option and try to trade him, though the number of interested teams would be relatively small unless the Sox paid some of the contract.

Or the Sox could simply exercise the $1 million buyout, which would mean they dealt two promising talents — Madrigal and reliever Codi Heuer— in an effort to go for it all in ‘21.

It makes perfect sense that Kimbrel would prefer getting back to closing again in 2022, though it’s not in his hands. He declined to discuss his preference, knowing the task at hand is the only thing that matters right now.

“Let’s worry about doing what we need to do this year,” he said. “There’s all kinds of stuff they’re going to be talking about this offseason. Let’s just worry about this season, and once we get there, we can talk about it.”

The Cubs gave up top shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres to acquire New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman in 2016. Though the cost was high, few fans minded when Chapman returned to New York as a free agent after helping the Cubs win a World Series.

If Kimbrel can do likewise with the Sox, the cost will have been worth it — no matter what happens down the road.


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