Chicago White Sox offseason preview: Let the search for a closer begin

This past Tuesday, the news of Sergio Santos being traded hit Chicago White Sox fans hard. He was moved to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for minor-league starter Nestor Molina. Santos had a strong season in his first year as a closer, saving 30 games in 36 chances while posting a 3.55 ERA. The reason the move puzzles many is because the thought process was that White Sox general manager Kenny Williams would be looking to trim payroll and Santos was one of the few valuable pieces with a cap-friendly contract (under team control until 2017). Molina’s minor-league numbers are exceptional (12-3 with a 2.21 ERA between double-A and Class-A last season) but his addition creates a hole in the back end of the pen. Who will close?

Last season, the White Sox got good performances out of Santos, Chris Sale, Jesse Crain, Matt Thornton and Jason Frasor. Will Ohman and Brian Bruney contributed as well. With Santos gone and Sale moving to the rotation next year, that leaves Crain, Thorton and Frasor as the only in-house candidates from last season. So, either one of these guys will get a shot or someone in the farm system will have to step up. Let’s break down the bullpen. Here’s who is in:

RHP Jesse Crain
65.1 IP, 8-3, 2.62 ERA, 1-7 SV, 24 HD, 70 K, 31 BB, .215 BAA, 1.24 WHIP
2011: $4MM
2012: $4.5MM

Outside of maybe Sale, Crain was Chicago’s best pitcher last season. He finish sixth in the AL with 24 holds and got the ball to Santos almost every time he was called upon. He also showed last season he wasn’t a closer. He was one of many men who failed during Ozzie Guillen’s open competition (or desperate plea for an answer) for the job early in the year and has just four saves in eight major-league seasons. Crain should be solid once again next season, as long as he remains in his eighth inning setup role.

LHP Matt Thornton
59.2 IP, 2-5, 3.32 ERA, 3-7 SV, 20 HD, 63 K, 21 BB, .255 BAA (.260 vs LHB), 1.36 WHIP
2011: $3MM
2012: $6MM

Thornton came into last year as the closer, and one month into the season, he looked to be the biggest disappointment on the team. Luckily, he was able to rebound once Guillen realized what he really had in Thornton all along. He is a left-handed specialist who excels at throwing 97-100 mph past hitters in the seventh and eighth innings, not a one-pitch pitcher who shuts the door in the ninth (that guy is in New York). Thornton is just like Crain in the sense that you will get the best out of him in the role he is accustomed to pitching in. Thornton is not your closer next season either. And with $12 million left on his contract for the next two years, he might not be in the bullpen at all by spring training.

RHP Jason Frasor
60.0 IP, 3-3, 3.60 ERA, 0-2 SV, 14 HD, 57 K, 26 BB, .257 BAA, 1.40 WHIP
2011: $3.5MM
2012: $3.75MM

Frasor is an interesting case. He was a solid setup man in Toronto before being traded to Chicago. With the White Sox last season, he pitched in middle and long relief and struggled. What makes things interesting is he had a club option for 2012 for nearly $4 million and Williams picked it up. While that doesn’t sound like much money, it actually is for a guy in mid-long relief. That tells me he might have a bigger role next season, maybe as closer. Frasor did have that role a few times in the past (17-19 saves in ’04, 11-14 in ’09). Considering what else the White Sox have, I say Frasor should be option number one when it comes to saving games.

LHP Will Ohman
53.1 IP, 1-3, 4.22 ERA, 0-1 SV, 3 HD, 54 K, 17 BB, .255 BAA (.234 vs LHB), 1.31 WHIP
2011: $1.5MM
2012: $2.5MM

Of all the guys here, Ohman was probably trusted the least by Guillen last season. He, just like every other White Sox reliever, struggled early but was given the least amount of opportunities to recover. It wasn’t until July that we saw Ohman really at his best. Despite an ERA over four, Ohman did his job, which was getting lefties out. This season, he is sure to be trusted a lot more with Sale no longer pitching in relief.

Potential candidates (all have minor-league deals):

RHP Brian Bruney – Bruney was callled upon early last season when long relief man Tony Pena went down with an injury. In 19.2 innings, Bruney went 1-0 with a 6.86 ERA. He struggled in Pena’s role, and if he is to be part of this bullpen next season, he would have to show he can do that. Odds are unless he dominates in spring training, he will open the season in the minors.

RHP Addison Reed – Reed might be the next Santos for the White Sox. He is a young pitcher who has dominated at the minor-league level (111 K vs 14 BB in 78.1 IP). Being that a strikeout pitcher is what every team wants to have in a closer, Reed is a perfect fit. I can’t see Reed not pitching in the big leagues next season, and if no one steps up, he most certainly will get a shot at finishing games.

RHP Zach Stewart – Stewart is a bullpen candidate by default. Being a starter qualifies him for long relief, and with the guys ahead of him in the rotation, he won’t likely be in the majors unless its in the pen. So, if Bruney doens’t earn a major league spot, Stewart will be a part of the White Sox relief group for sure.

RHP Shane Lindsay – Lindsay is another guy who performed well last season at the minor league level. In 45 appearances at triple-A Charlotte, he posted a 1.98 ERA. His problems is command. It’s not a good sign to see a guy have 51 walks in 63.2 innings. It is the main thing that has kept him in the minors (seven years there), and unless that changes, he is likely to stay there another year.

RHP Gregory Infante – Infante is the last of the minor-league options. He also had a strong year in 2011 between double-A and triple-A. His combined totals included a 2.54 ERA in 63.2 innings. Infante has continued to grow during his time in the minors and could force his way to the majors if that continues. He is likely the last option of all the guys here so the odds are you won’t see him unless they all struggle.

The White Sox bullpen should open 2012 with Frasor as the closer and Crain and Thornton pitching as the primary setup men. Ohman will be the situational lefty in middle relief and either Reed or Bruney could be joining him. Expect Stewart to open the season as the long relief man. With the performance of Brent Lillibridge last season and the need to acquire another reserve middle infielder, I expect the White Sox to only carry six pitchers.

All of this, of course, is pending Williams, who isn’t likely finished when it comes to making moves. Thornton has been the topic of trade talks, and with Santos now playing elsewhere, there really is no reason to assume he is safe. I also expect there to be more talent brought in on minor-league contracts, similar to Bruney and Philip Humber last season. Those additions will effect how the bullpen looks as well but for now, this is what they have to work with.

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