GLENDALE, Ariz. — A strong hint of cow manure wafted over the back fields at Camelback Ranch on Friday, prompting a White Sox executive to ask head groundskeeper Roger Bossard: "What's that smell?"
Fortunately, the scent was coming from a farm a couple of miles to the east, not from the mounds where Sox relievers were throwing.
General manager Rick Hahn did his best to eliminate the bullpen odor that permeated U.S. Cellular Field in 2014 when he brought in in quality closer David Robertson and left-handed setup man Zach Duke to give manager Robin Ventura a fighting chance in the late innings of close games.
It's hard to describe just how foul the Sox bullpen was last year when veterans Ronald Belisario (5.56 ERA), Matt Lindstrom (5.03) and Scott Downs (4.97) posted numbers among the worst in the majors. Sox relievers blew 21 of 57 save attempts and averaged 4.51 walks per nine innings in 2014, worst in the majors. Their 4.38 bullpen ERA was third worst in the majors, just ahead of the Tigers' 4.29.
Hahn pulled the plug on Downs last summer and did likewise with Belisario and Lindstrom after the season, signing Robertson and Duke to join youngsters Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam at the back end of the bullpen.
It may not be as dominant as the Royals' combo of Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland. But it should be much improved over the ulcer-creating crew from last year and provide Ventura with much-needed depth.
"There are options there that have proven effective late in games," Hahn said. "(That should) make us stronger and benefit some of the kids who got development time last year and now will be used a little bit earlier."
The old Sox philosophy of developing their own closers, including Bobby Jenks, Sergio Santos and Addison Reed, has been junked with the addition of Robertson, whose nickname is "Houdini." An understudy to all-time great Mariano Rivera, Robertson took over as Yankees closer last year and saved 39 of 44 opportunities, posting a 1.057 WHIP and averaging 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
The Sox will sink or swim with Robertson through 2018 with his four-year, $46 million deal. He's a perfectionist, a trait very evident when talking to him.
"I look back, and I still remember all the games I blew," Robertson said. "Those are the games I want back. You're not always going to be good out there, but always try to be better. I just expect myself to do well. I don't deal with mediocrity. I don't want to be that guy who just is OK. I want to be one of the best."
Robertson was allowed to leave the Yankees without much of a fight because rookie Dellin Betances posted a 1.40 ERA to give them a younger, cheaper option. And Betances doesn't win the job this spring, veteran Andrew Miller will take over. Either way, Robertson should be motivated to prove the Yankees wrong for letting him get away.
"It's not my problem anymore," he said. "I play for the Chicago White Sox. I don't really worry about anything New York does from this point on. Had a great time playing there. Enjoyed it. Loved the organization, but I'm not a part of it anymore. No hard feelings."
Having a lockdown closer theoretically makes life easier for Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana, one of the best starting threesomes in the game. Samardzija knows the pain of watching a bullpen fritter away well-pitched games, having earned a Ph.D. in frustration on the North Side.
Samardzija won only two of his 17 starts for the Cubs last year despite a 2.83 ERA. His National League peers still voted him onto the All-Star team though he didn't get to participate after being dealt to the A's and he proved he was among the game's best pitchers.
"Win-loss (record) is one thing, but you know if 80 percent of the games you went out there with a lead or game tied you did your job regardless the outcome," he said. "That will be different this year with guys like Robertston and 'Dukey' back there. That's what you want.
"In our situation it makes it nice and easy where we have to go six or seven innings and anything after that is a plus. With those guys, to get the ball to them late in the game with a lead, I like our chances."
While Samardzija figures to cash in as a free agent this offseason, a stronger bullpen gives the Sox a better chance of keeping him.
Success always smells sweeter, no matter where you are.