The offseason for the Chicago White Sox has been all about lowering payroll. Outside of giving John Danks a contract extension, the Southsiders have done nothing but subtract talent in hopes of getting younger and building for the future. The list of guys no longer here include pitchers Mark Buehrle, Sergio Santos and Jason Frasor, and hitters Carlos Quentin and Juan Pierre. Even replacing long-time manager, Ozzie Guillen with Robin Ventura was in essence a financial move at heart. And with no real managerial experience to speak of, Ventura will have his work cut out for him this season.
One of the biggest problems at the beginning of last season was the lack of a closer. Guillen saw Matt Thornton as the team’s best pitcher and therefore tagged him as the man for the job. While Thornton had the numbers and the big fastball you want out of a closer, the reality is he was nothing more than a left-handed specialist. As a result, he blew four saves and picked up three losses in his first 12 appearances. After about a month and a half of struggles, Santos was given a shot at the job and proved to be the best option, and Thornton eventually recovered when placed back in his setup role.
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The loss of Santos has Ventura and the White Sox right back to square one. While there are still quality arms left in the bullpen, only one showed the ability to close last season and that was Chris Sale. However, the plan has continued to be Sale taking a spot in the starting rotation. With Buerhle leaving with Guillen for Miami, now is the perfect time for Sale to step in and fill that void, even if it weakens the bullpen.
There were mixed reviews on Sale coming out of college. No one questioned his stuff, which included a fastball that could reach the upper 90s, a change-up that maybe he didn’t use enough and a wipeout slurve that dominates opposing lefties. And even more impressive is his command of all three pitches. But his 6′-6″ skinny frame and whiplash, three-quarters delivery concerned many when it came to him holding up over time. Sale has been a dominant reliever thus far (career 2.58 ERA and opponents hitting .199 against him) but he has never made a start even at the minor-league level. His final year in college at Florida Golf Coast, he went 11-0 with a 2.01 ERA, 146 stikeouts and just 12 walks in 103 innings. Those numbers are similar to another future standout by the name of Stephen Strasburg, and I don’t hear anyone questioning his future as starter.
Could Sale be a successful closer? Sure. But if he becomes a reliable closer, are you really getting the most you can out of him? Not at all. The White Sox drafted him 13th overall in 2010 to start, and just because he showed how great of a reliever he can be, that doesn’t mean the plan should change. He has the upside to outperform every starter on the team and deserves a chance to do so. It is obvious that his innings will have to be limited to avoid him wearing down (like Texas and Alexi Ogando this past season). Because of that, it is likely that Sale finishes next season in the bullpen but the White Sox would be making a mistake to open the year with him in the pen.
As for the closers role, both Thornton and Jesse Crain showed last season they were not the men for the job. But there is, however, another in-house candidate who has the stuff to potentially get it done. Addison Reed was the White Sox third-round pick in 2010 and dominated the minors at every level in 2011. In 78.1 innings, Reed posted a 1.26 ERA with 111 strikeouts and 14 walks. He also kept the ball in the park, allowing just three home runs during that span. All of that is what you can possibly want out of a closer. So, don’t waste any time and games changing around roles. Give Reed the job on opening day, and let your players know who will be doing what immediately. And don’t make the same mistake Guillen made.